Summiting Kilimanjaro

There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going. – The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway

A capstone of the MBA at Georgetown is the Global Business Experience – a semester-long course consulting project for an international company. We work for a few months from DC, spend a week in country with the company, and finish the semester with an extensive paper on the project and experience.

The trip is an opportunity to travel extensively because the airfare is a required part of graduation. We chose to spend the week before Global in Tanzania, hiking the highest peak on the continent: Kilimanjaro.

The Plan

Our time constraint of making it back to the airport in a week for our global project meant picking the Marangu Route. It is the fastest route, but not the easiest or most likely to succeed because there is little time to acclimatize ahead of the summit. The success rate on this route is just shy of fifty percent.

In the Google map below is the Marangu Route. We enter at the point marked A, the Marangu Gate. From there, we hike to point B, the Mandara Huts. The next day, we’ll hike to point C, the Horombo Huts, where we’ll stay the next day for a day hike to acclimate to the altitude. From Horombo we hike to the Kibo Huts, the final point before summiting the next night to point E, Uhuru Peak.

Day zero: Travel

We flew out of Dulles, near DC, on Friday afternoon. Troy and I had the same flight schedule and Nick, Norm, and Stephen had the a separate one. Between the five of us, we only checked one bag, which I thought was impressive but the suitcase was massive.

Troy and I flew into Zurich, about a seven hour flight. It was the first time in years that I had been served a full meal on a plane. On the flight I watched The Accountant. It was the first movie I can recall that had a man with a mental disability as the admirable lead character.

From Zurich we flew to Nairobi and slept most of the flight. Once we landed in Africa we exited the back left of the plane which I didn’t understand because there were jetways available. We found the rest of the group who landed just after we did and together boarded the last leg of the journey on a four-seat-wide propellor plane that took us the 50 minute journey from Kenya to Tanzania.

Once we landed, we gathered the luggage which surprisingly had made it through all the transfers and found our pick-up shuttle. The truly last leg of the trip was the 50 minute drive through the quiet night in an extended Toyota Land Cruiser. It was a typical African safari SUV and we fit inside without even putting luggage on top.

After passing dozens of small towns, some working gas stations and many broken ones, we arrived at Mountain Inn, close to our entry point to Kilimanjaro, Marangu Gate. Although it was nearly 1:00 am the staff graciously made us some food and we sat in the empty open-air restaurant listening to the familiar sounds of the night made by unfamiliar birds and bugs and frogs before turning in.

Day one: Mountain Inn

We had a day to adjust to the timezone and elevation before we started the climb at the small inn near Moshi, Tanzania. We spent the day mostly getting our gear organized and relaxing in the open air restaurant. The grounds were beautifully maintained and lush–a stark contrast to the surrounding area. The inn was owned by Indian immigrants and we were quickly impressed by the quality of the delicious food. This was a trend throughout Africa, especially on the eastern side of South Africa.

Day two: Sunday – Marangu Gate to Mandara hut

Distance: 4.3 miles | Elevation change: 2821 ft

At the hotel we loaded the rented gear into the duffel bags, packed our daypacks, and loaded into a long van that would take us the kms from the inn to the gate. We also met our guides who would see us at our best and worst over the next week and push us to the top of the mountain. John, the head guide, was a mid-40s man with a broad smile and, we would learn on the trek, children just entering University in Dar Es Salaam. Jonathan, clearly being groomed to be a head guide soon, was in his mid-30s and had a quiet demeanor. He’d stop frequently along the trail to point out fauna and wildlife. Samuel, was the third guide who seemed to be the least comfortable speaking English and often hiked quietly 15m ahead of us. There were many other porters and a cook but they were entirely out of our sight and group, hiking on their own each day.

At the Marangu Gate we waited for a bit of paperwork to be finished, the last great unconquered obstacle of man. A few hours later, we set off onto the trail which began in a lush rainforest, the first of Kilimanjaro’s climate zones. The rainforest would continue until about 10,000 ft elevation.

From left to right: Stephen, Norm, Chris, Nick, and Troy.

After a few hours of hiking, we stopped for lunch along a trailside creek. This was our first taste of the food we’d be eating for the next week. Included in lunch were two half sandwiches, one with butter and one with cucumber, a small orange, a lean chicken wing, a small banana, and a few pieces of potato. The hike ended an hour or two after when we came to the Mandara Huts.

View out into the lower elevations from the Mandara Huts.

We quickly settled in, had dinner and called it a pretty early night.

Day three: Monday – Mandara hut to Horombo hut

Distance: 6.8 miles | Elevation change: 2821 ft

As the sun came up the next morning, I was struck by the the morning clouds and the view into the lower lands but it was nothing compared to later in the trip. The hike continued into the beautiful rainforest.

Rainforest just outside the Mandara huts.

After only a few hours the landscape begins to change from this lush green to low alpine, mostly brush and some high altitude trees.

Mawenzi peak in the distance. L to R: Stephen, Norm, Troy, Chris, Nick.
Uhuru Peak on the left and Mawenzi Peak on the right.

On the trail, we’d play the movie game. I was terrible at it. Someone starts by saying the name of an actor. The next person has to say a movie that actor was in. The third person has to say another actor that was in that movie and the process repeats. It’s an ideal game for an odd number as the players rotate actor and movie each cycle. When that got boring we talked politics, women, and anything that allowed us to speak in short sentences between belabored breaths.

We arrived at the Horombo huts after the long hike tired and ready to eat and sleep.

Day four: Tuesday – Stay at Horombo hut

Distance: 3.1 miles | Elevation change: 0 ft

Today was an extra day we had planned for acclimatization. The early morning was stunning over the clouds below.

A panoramic view down from the Horombo huts.

Without a long hike in store, we slept in this morning and took our time at breakfast–a welcome break–before setting out on a few hour hike to Zebra Rock. The brief hike led us along a path that provided stunning views of Mawenzi along the way.

Mawenzi, hidden behind the clouds.
Zebra rock on a day hike during our acclimation day.

With the hike behind us, we settled in for a slow afternoon in the meal hall and played poker using trail mix as our chips.

Day five: Wednesday – Horombo hut to Kibo hut

Distance: 7.4 miles | Elevation change: 3215 ft

Today was another long hike as we proceeded up the mountain from the Horombo huts to Kibo, the final base from which we would summit the next night. Unlike the previous days, we hiked through high alpine zone and saw little vegetation and no wildlife save a few birds here and there.

As we hiked between the two peaks toward Uhuru, we had beautiful unfettered views of Mawenzi.
Panoramic view from an outcrop near the Kibo huts, facing Mawenzi.

We arrived at the huts and settled in for an early night. None of us were at 100% given the altitude and length of the hike that day. Unlike the other huts, which were individual and more private, Kibo was more like a barracks – a long hall with large rooms on each side with 10-12 beds in each one. As we were unpacking, three girls who just summited joined our room and quickly fell asleep. Their expressions and recounts of the experience were daunting but they all made it to the top so we felt both intimidated and comforted. We ate a bit and drifted off to a light sleep.

Day six: Thursday – Kibo hut to Gilman’s Point to Uhuru Peak to Horombo hut

Distance: 13 miles | Elevation change: 3,911 ft

We awoke full of adrenaline and energy at 10:45 pm to get dressed, pack our gear, eat, and depart at midnight. We dressed for the freezing but dry weather donning multiple layers of socks, undershirts, thick gloves and balaclavas under beanies. Since we were coming back to Kibo after the summit we packed only light daypacks for the night ahead and left the rest of the gear.

As we stepped out into the night, I took a moment to look up at the stars. Stretched out in front of me, unimpaired by light pollution or clouds was the most vast and stunning stretch of stars I had ever seen. It was an immensely contrasting feeling to feel both so capable that you’ve climbed the highest peak on the African continent and so small in context of the night sky.

We set out on the trail, climbing switchback after switchback, our headlamps illuminating the ground in front of us and not much else. Ahead of us up the mountain we could see strings of other group’s and their headlamps, an encouragement and reminder of the long way ahead. Our guides somehow began singing through the more difficult parts and we slowly passed the hours alternating between their voices and the quiet crunch of the rocks beneath.

We finished the switchbacks (or so we thought) and arrived at the last few hundred meters of more steep rock that we scrambled over. A few hours of that and we pulled ourselves over the last part and in front of us was Gillman’s Point, the first place that qualifies as the summit, but not the true summit. Kilimanjaro’s top is mostly flat, sloping upwards nearly a mile from Gillman’s Point to Uhuru Peak, the true highest point on the mountain. We walked with stunning scenery passing us – the remnants of a volcano long quieted.

The stunning view on the right side of our ascent.
The path ahead to Uhuru Peak on the summit.

On top of Kilimanjaro it was so cold that our Nalgenes and Camelbaks froze over and we had to wait for the sun to come out before we were able to drink again. Nearing the summit, a girl briskly walked by us on her way down and said, “You’re close! Ten minutes!” We took this encouragement to heart for the next twenty minutes until realizing she had undersold the rest of the hike and we still had another twenty minutes to go.

Finally, as the sun came up, we reached the peak, looking out to the horizon over an entire landscape of clouds that stretched before us with nothing obstructing our view except the sun’s bright reflection off the glacier.

In front of the famous Uhuru Peak sign. L to R: Stephen, Nick, Chris, Norm, Troy

We celebrated briefly at the summit, but in the early morning cold didn’t stay long before heading back. Under the aspiration of summiting, none of us were mentally prepared for the difficulty of the climb down. Not only the walk from the summit back to Gillman’s Point, but the grueling downhill gravel slide of the switchbacks. One of the girls in our hut had said it was like skiing and, in wide-eyed state we discounted the truth of that. Once we got to the switchbacks, we saw what had been invisible in the dark – an alluvial fan next to the path up. With bouts of high energy, one could truly ski down the fine rocks and make it down quite quickly. This was immensely taxing and was difficult to keep up for long so most of the trip down was a slow walk.

Once we made it back to the Kibo huts, we slept for a few hours and then pressed on to the Horombo huts. At this point the group was exhausted and moved relatively slowly. It took us a few hours to walk the rest of the distance down and once we arrived we quickly settled in and slept.

Day seven: Friday – Horombo hut to Marangu Gate

Distance: 7.4 miles | Elevation change: 2821 ft

Our final day was the long hike from Horombo to Marangu Gate, where we’d be picked up and driven back to the hotel. After the summit, a long night of sleep, and in increasingly oxygen-rich air, our spirits lifted and we moved quickly down the mountain, retracing our steps.

From the Marangu Gate we drove back to Mountain Inn and relished the hot showers – our first in a week. We reconnected with friends and family on the hotel’s wifi and spent the afternoon in the outdoor restaurant drifting between sleep, cold beer, and hot food. There’s no relaxation quite like that after summiting Kilimanjaro.

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Chris Cottrell

Chris Cottrell

Hi, I’m Chris, an MBA student at Georgetown. I write about business school, tech, and startups. Find me on Twitter.

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