Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya

The story of climbing Africa’s top two peaks through the lens of an enthusiastic mountain climber.

Mount Kilimanjaro: Every Man’s Everest
Located on the present-day border of Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 m/19,341 ft) with its three cones, "Kibo", "Mawenzi" and "Shira", is a dormant volcano. It is world’s tallest free-standing mountain, tallest mountain in continental Africa, one of the largest volcanoes in the world and the smallest of the  seven highest summits. Kilimanjaro features several topographies including rainforest, moorlands, alpine desert and the snow-capped summit itself.
The key reasons for the popularity of Kilimanjaro are its accessibility and the fact that it can be climbed without any technical equipment. This has earned it the label of “Every man’s Mount Everest”.
Although divergent explanations of word Kilimanjaro exist, however, the closest in Swahili language is "mountain of greatness" or "mountain of caravans". In either case, emphasis on magnanimity of the mountain is evident.
In popular culture, Mount Kilimanjaro was popularized by a short story of Ernest Hemingway, published in 1936, titled “The Snows of Kilimanjaro". The story, which later became a movie, is regarded as one of the masterpieces of American literature. Today, the most frequent hikers to Mount Kilimanjaro are Americans, which can be attributed to the legacy of Hemingway’s classic short story.

Climbing Kilimanjaro
One of the key decisions for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is choosing the route. There are six ascending and one descending route. The choice depends upon acclimatization level, budget, weather, personal preference and difficulty level. The most popular Marangu Route, also called Coca Cola Route, is easy, yet the success rate is low. Our choice was Machame Route (called Whiskey route) due to its higher success rate, which is comparatively tougher, but scenic. Our team was comprised of two porters, one cook and 31-year-old chief guide, Abel, who claimed to have climbed Kilimanjaro for about 200 times.
Day 1: Machame Gate (1800m) to Camp-I (2835m) 
On the first day, after completing last minute shopping, we reached Machame Gate for the formal check-in. There were more than hundred hikers in the arena with almost triple the number of porters and associated staff. The 6 hours/11 kilometers hike started at about 12:30 pm. We walked through thick rain forest on a winding trail up a ridge. The most frequent words encountered on our way up were cheerful Jambo (Hello), a cautionary Poley Poley (go slowly) and the all-time favorite Hakuna Matata (No problem/all is well).

Day 2: Camp-I (2835m) to Camp-II Shera Cave (3750m) 
On the second day of the hike, we left the glades of rainforest to continue on the ascending path into the moorland. The gradient got steeper with crossing of a valley and walking along a steep rocky ridge that offered stunning views of Mount Meru, second highest mountain of Tanzania. The 6 hours and 5 kilometers long route finally took us into Shera plateau and our campsite. Here astride a magic rock, herds of hikers gathered to catch mobile phone signals and many of them were lucky to talk to their loved ones. 
Day 3: Camp-II (3750m) to Lava Tower (4600m) to Camp-III (3900m)
This was one of the toughest day as it took us to the Lava Tower (4600m) in 6 hours, covering a distance of 10 kilometers. Thereafter, we continued to descend further, finally reaching Camp-III (3900m). The Barranco Camp was in a closed valley with one side dominated by an intimidating structure called Barranco Wall. 
Day 4: Camp-III Barranco (3900m) to Camp-IV Barafu (4673m) 
Crossing the imposing Barranco Wall is surely one of the highlights of Kilimanjaro. A rigorous hike with a large number of people on a narrow steep ascending trail makes things complicated. After this, the route is headed down through the Karanga Valley which is the last water stop and is aptly named Barafu (snow in Sawahili) Camp. In Barafu Camp, tents were pitched on a narrow stony ridge. We made it there in about eight hours, covering 10 kilometers. The summit from here is 1214 meters high.
Summit Night: From Barafu Camp (4673m) to Stella Point (5756m) to Uhuru Peak (5895m)
The summit attempt started at midnight. The eight hour climb up to Stella point proved to be most challenging part. The long-awaited sunrise came as a symbol of hope that we were inching towards the top. This is the only point in the whole climb where you see silhouettes of people abandoning the attempt and descending. At Stella point, you get the first glimpse of Uhuru Peak which is almost 150 meters and about 90 minutes walk onto the volcanic rim.
Day 5: Uhuru Peak (5895m) to Barafu Camp (4673m) 
Reaching Uhuru peak is truly a lifetime experience. On the top, which is considerably spacious, one can walk around and see Mount Meru, Kibo crater, ice walls, and glaciers. After pitching the green flag and taking pictures, we started descending. This was the beginning of a grueling eight hours descent and due to our late summit attempt, we were forced to spend the night at Camp-IV. When we reached Barafu Camp, it was almost eighteen hours of hiking on Mount Kilimanjaro.  
Day 6: Barafu Camp (4673m) to Mweka Gate (1640 m) 
The sixth day started with a sense of achievement and satisfaction. What laid ahead was 17.5 kilometers of descent which took almost 12 hours to complete. On reaching Mweka Gate, we received our official certificates. From Mweka Gate, we continue down towards Moshi for getting a long overdue shower followed by a sumptuous dinner. Preferring to remain vegetarian throughout the track, barbecue chicken never tasted so good. 
From the Shadows of Kilimanjaro to the Shades of Mount Kenya 
Moving by road from Moshi, near Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to Nanyuki – base town of Mount Kenya – was an exciting journey. It started on the day of my 40th birthday at about 6am. After almost three hours, the bus reached Namanga border crossing with the words, “Welcome to Kenya” on clear display. On the completion of immigration formalities, we mounted on the bus for the next half of our journey once again. In Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, our tour operator received and dispatched us on another bus for Nanyuki about 200 kilometers away. After almost 15 hours, we reached from the shadows of Kilimanjaro to the shades of Mount Kenya.
Mount Kenya
Mount Kenya is located near the equatorial town of Nanyuki, around 200 kilometers northeast of Nairobi. It is the highest in Kenya and the second-highest in Africa, after Kilimanjaro. The highest peaks of Mount Kenya are Batian (5,199m/17,057 ft), Nelion (5,188 m/17,021 ft) and Pt Lenana (4,985m/16,355 ft). The first two require technical equipment while the third one can be reached as such. The peaks of Mount Kenya have been named after Maasai chieftains. Mount Kenya is the source of the name of Republic of Kenya which is linked to the Kikuyu, which mean "God's resting place" or “Mountain of Whiteness". Several ethnic groups that live around Mount Kenya believe the mountain to be sacred and build their houses facing the mountain. There are eight routes to climb Mount Kenya, out of which Chogoria, Naro Moru and Sirimon are the most popular. Mount Kenya National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. 
Day 1: Sirimon Gate (2650m) to Old Moses Camp (3300m) 
Our first day hike started around noon after our tour operator, Mr. Robert, dropped us at the Sirimon Gate. Having a quick lunch and completing the formalities, the hike started slowly. The track comprised of about 10 kilometers of paved road which took us to Camp-1 called the Old Moses Camp, at 3300m in 4 hours. The camp was named after a nearby shrine and thus had some religious connotation. Unlike Kilimanjaro, the night was spent in dormitory style wooden huts with bunk beds and mattresses. 
Day 2: Old Moses Camp (3300m) to Shiptons Camp (4200m) 
The second day proved to be much more rigorous and started with a steep hike, whereas we crossed almost three valleys one after another. Three prominent peaks of Mount Kenya came in clear sight after hiking for around five hours. The remaining three hours comprised of a gradual slope and through the moorland amidst trees and vegetation. We reached Camp-2 called Shipton’s Camp (4200m) in 8 hours, covering 11 kilometers. From the camp, the views of Mount Kenya can be seen in clear sight while sipping hot chocolate.
Summit Night: From Shiptons Camp (4200m) to Point Lenana (4985m) 
The hike for the summit started at around 0230 a.m. With our head lamps on, we slowly ascended the mountain in darkness. The steep slope made ascent difficult which was further exacerbated by the freezing temperature. After a hike of about four hours, the sun finally showed up, making everything glow in a golden mystical light. Reaching point Lenana took another two hours. On Lenana Peak, the Kenyan flag as well as the Holy Bible was displayed in a steel box labeled as “Up the mountain Bible”.
The peak offered majestic views of Mount Kenya and its surroundings. Owing to the gushing winds, it was problematic to pitch the green flag, however, it was done after considerable effort. The freezing hands cautioned about the possibility of frostbite and thus it became important to descend as fast as possible. 
Day 3: Point Lenana (4985m) to Sirimon Gate (2650m) 
It took almost three hours to descend and reach back to the Shiptons Camp. At about 1130 hours, we started our journey down and reached Old Moses Camp in six hours. Here, our tour operator was kind enough to bring a hot lunch and took us to Nanyuki town. After clearing other formalities, we bid farewell to our team and departed for Nairobi. Hence, concluding our climb to Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya back to back.
Mount Kilimanjaro Vs. Mount Kenya  
One of the most frequently asked questions is “How do Africa’s top two peaks compare?” Practically, these two mountains are divergent experiences. Mount Kilimanjaro exposes one to different climatic zones from rainforest to snowcap, whereas Mount Kenya is mostly green. Peaks of Mount Kenya become visible after one and half day of hiking. In the case of Mount Kilimanjaro, one sees Uhuru Peak on the sixth day. On the summit, Mount Kilimanjaro is flat and spacious while Mount Kenya is narrow. We encountered freezing winds at the top of Mount Kenya, whereas on Mount Kilimanjaro, it was all quiet and calm. The summit night climb is tough in both cases, however, for Kilimanjaro it is nerve-racking. Mount Kilimanjaro has intimidating obstacles like Barranco Wall and Lava Tower while Mount Kenya is speckled with valley after valley. In either case, once you turn your back on the summit morning, you are bound to be presented with memorable panoramas of sunrise.

Finally, we always need to respect the mountains because it’s not the mountains but ourselves that we conquer. If a climber doesn’t return as a more humble person, he has not climbed it well.

The writer is a computer engineer and mountain enthusiast.
E-mail: [email protected]

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