Lemosho Route: A personal chronicle of Mount Kilimanjaro

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by Bob Holdsworth

Lemosho Route

Lemosho is the longest of the routes up Kilimanjaro and is best for anyone with an appetite for a quieter trail and a more remote atmosphere. The rolling Shira Plateau is one of the principal features of the trail as it allows for a more moderate process of acclimatization. This route is a good one to consider because the longer climbing time makes for a greater chance of reaching the summit with fewer problems. The Lemosho trailhead is situated west of the other routes. At day 4, it merges with Machame and follows the same course to the summit and descent on the Mweka Route. It takes about 3 hours to drive from Moshi to the official trailhead.

Londorossi Gate to Big Tree

We start at 9:15 from the hotel in Moshi. Kilimanjaro is visible from the outside deck from the hotel. Hard to believe we will be at the top in 7 days. It takes a little time to collect gear and organize what stays at the hotel and what goes up the mountain. After a 3 hour ride, we arrive at the Londorossi Gate and sign in. Very interesting drive as we pass through dry, arid plains, then black soil, rich farming areas, and finally arrive at the edge of the forest. As we wait to sign in, I watch the porters divvy up the gear. Each pack is weighed to make sure the porters don‚ carry more than allowed. It is tightly regulated due to issues of porters being taken advantage of by unscrupulous outfitters. Our tour company has a great reputation

We drive to the Lemosho Trailhead after checking in at the gate. The road is a one lane track and deeply rutted. Because it rained yesterday, there are a lot of puddles. The driver throws it in 4-wheel and we make it through easily. The road is so narrow that the vegetation brushes both sides for the Land Rover. As we drive, you see more clear cut of the forest for farming. Parts have been re-forested but the majority is being used as farmland. The soil is rich, so I understand why. But the forest maintains the micro-climate around the mountain. By cutting the forest, the climate is changed – less rainfall and therefore shrinking glaciers.

We arrive at the trailhead, have a quick lunch while the porters load up and head off Рat last. The hike is relatively easy starting at 6,900 feet goimg to 8,695 feet in 6km (3.6± miles). The forest is incredibly thick and lush. Wildflowers, shrubs, and vines line the trail.

As we walk, an amazing story unfolds – the trail has been used by elephants in the last 24 hours. There was a rain yesterday and you can see the footprints. On one slope, you can see where the elephant slid downhill on the mud for about 20 feet. That is amazing! Then we see elephant poop (scared the you know what out) and beaten down bushes off the trail and into the forest. We walk on and 20 minutes later another area where the elephant slid 25 feet before he (or she) stopped. I guess after the second slide, this one had enough. But thanks for leaving a pile to mark it!

We start hiking at 1:15 and arrive at 3:45 PM. It is a beautiful camp set in a grove of trees with you guessed it – a Big Tree in the center of the camping area. The porters have the tents ready by the time we arrive and we get to relax before dinner. Tea is served at 5:00 – how civilized! It’s getting cooler. In Moshi, it was t-shirts in the evening. At 8,700 feet, it’s a couple of layers and a jacket. You can see your breath. A couple of bowls of soup and some carbs make it warmer – early to bed as I’m sure I’ll be up at 6:00 AM with the sun plus it’s a big day tomorrow.

Big Tree to Shira One

After a great nights sleep, I get out of the tent and one of the porters has hot tea ready. A quick breakfast and we are on the trail at 8:30. Our lead guide is Joshua. He is very slight of stature but has led hundreds of trips up the mountain. He seems very kind and soft spoken but with a great sense of humor. That will be an advantage to keep motivation going as we get higher. He teaches us a little chagga, the local dialect. My favorite is “Poa comchesi com ndizi” (not correct spelling). It means “cool like a crazy banana”. The normal greeting while on the trail is “jambo”. However, I try my new phrase with each passing group of porters and get a hearty laugh. I should check the meaning when I get back as I may be playing a joke on myself!

The porters are incredibly hard working. They wake up before us, they get everything ready – all the meals, camp tear down and setup, carry the packs, the food, cooking supplies plus their gear, food, and tents. All of that for $15-25 per day depending on their seniority. The cook and the Assistant Guides are on the high end while the guys who lug it up are on the lower end. The amazing thing is they tear down after we finish breakfast, pass us on the trail, and camp is setup when we arrive.

The hike is much more strenuous than the first day. The elevation gain is 2700+ feet as we climb and descend two large ridges. What is amazing is the change in the climate zones. We camped last night in the trees and continued in the morning in dense forest. Technically, it is a cloud forest. There is rainfall, but most of the moisture is the mist from the clouds. The trees and moss are thick. This goes for a few miles and transitions quickly into what looks like the high desert – low scrub trees, but lots of flower from the recent rains. We are walking very slowly or as the porters say poley, poley – slowly, slowly. Joshua sets a very slow pace almost step by step. It’s a great pace to help acclimatize as we are headed to 11,900. Finally, we crest to a campsite on the plateau. The Shira Plateau is a vast caldera from an earlier eruption. And you now get a view of Kilimanjaro. When we arrive, it’s cloudy. We take a short hike to explore lava tubes near camp and then crash for a nap.

After dinner, the clouds lift and we get our first glimpse of Kilimanjaro (below). It is imposing. It is colder tonight. The porters sing to us after dinner so the night ends on a high note (bad pun, sorry).

Shira One Camp to Shira Two Camp

I wake up in the middle of the night and head outside. The clouds have cleared and every star in the sky is visible. You can see the Milky Way stretch across the sky. After the obligatory bathroom break, I search for the Southern Cross. It is not visible in the Northern Hemisphere so I have a goal to find it. I made a drawing and supposedly to find the Southern Cross – Look in the Milky Way – face South – there are two bright stars on the horizon (Centauri and Alpha Centauri) – they point up to Southern Cross, lying on left side. Not tonight as it is cold.

I wake up at 6:30 and the tent is covered with frost along with frost on the ground. The view of Kilimanjaro is astounding – we are on the western slope. I see the glaciers and the Western Breech route. Damn it’s cold – finally the sun breaks through and with a cup hot tea, warmth returns.

After breakfast, we head out for a leisurely walk to Shira Two or Huts as it is sometimes called via the Cathedral Route. Pretty easy walk (flat) across a desert like landscape. The ascent through the “heather” is interesting as the growth from the roots reaches out 12 feet from the base of the plant. Along the way, we find plenty of animal scat. Peter points out leopard shit as he picks it apart and shows us the bones from a small animal. Reminds me of the opening line from the Hemingway story.

The ascent to the cathedral is steep which makes this a good training day. Quick break at the top and then walk down to Shira Huts. There are several huts to rent with bunks, but our porters have it all setup for us. It’s great – we arrive in camp and the tents are set and your heavy pack sitting next to it. From here on out, it will be steep. We are at 12,600 but next stop is Barranco at 13,071 feet via the Lava Tower at 15,230. I like the plan as we climb high and sleep low. I have been sleeping great and my breathing is not labored at all. I recall feeling it during previous trips to this altitude so maybe the conditioning plus poley poley are working. We will be met at our next camp by new porters with more food for the remaining four days. As you see from the route, we are taking a long walk across the mountain from West to East

Shira Two Camp to Barranco Hut

Another great night’s sleep – no headaches at all or shortness of breath. I believe the combination of poley poley, our acclimatization program, and my training, have all come together to get me to this point. Today is a big day as we climb to 15,000+ feet. While today’s hike is only a gain of 2,600 feet, it is steep and the highest elevation I have hiked. Our route begins with a slow steady climb. Joshua does a great job with the pacing. The views are fantastic as you can see the whole Shira Crater, Mt Mero, and the African plains. On the other side, Kilimanjaro looms larger. You can now pick out cliffs, glaciers, and scree fields. I can see why the summit day is hard as the last three thousand feet seem to rise straight up.

The picture is Mt Mero (15,000 feet). After a clear start, we are in a white out for most of the morning. Finally, we see the Lava Tower. Geologically, it is of the core of the volcano. The exterior has eroded leaving a 300-400 ft large tower. The hike to the Lava Tower is strenuous. However we make it by 1:15 PM and take a well deserved lunch break. This is the spot where the trail heads up to the Western Breach. The hike down from Lava Tower is spectacular as we head through a canyon. There are glacier streams cutting through the top soil. Alpine meadows dot the landscape until we break through the clouds and we are in the Moorland climate zone. It is filled with 15- 20 foot lobelias and the unique Giant Senecios (pronounced Senecas). It easy descent and Barranco Camp comes into view. At the same time, I see the Great Barranco Wall – the first part of tomorrow’s
hike. It rises 800 feet in 6/10 of a mile – pretty much a steep, switch back climb. That’s tomorrow, so I am going to enjoy having hiked to 15,000+ feet and still feel great.

Arriving at camp, it is comforting as the porters have set tea, cookies and popcorn – our regular afternoon refreshment. I seriously need a bath as I smell and am dirty – but not for four more days. I get my gear ready for tomorrow. Surprisingly, the clouds lift at 5 and we get a close up of the western side. The pictures will tell this story, but it is impressive. Someone has built a Zen statue that frames perfectly in the setting sun against Mt Meru. A peaceful scene in a harsh landscape.

Barranco Hut to Karanga Valley

Beautiful morning as we start up the Barranco Wall. It’s not a technical climb but you need your hands to balance. It takes about 90 minutes of steady walking and finally the crest. The extra day to acclimatize has been helpful as has the slow and steady pace. After a short break, it is a leisurely stroll across the plateau. The walk across the desert slope is very interesting. It looks like the American Southwest except for no cactus. I decide to walk by myself and enjoy the quiet and peacefulness. There is steep section down into a valley and then a tough scramble to the top. Karanga is right at the base of the mountain and gives a great view. The weather clears in the afternoon and I have someone snap a few pictures (the one on the cover and Day 6).

The picture above is the easy section after ascending the Barranco Wall. The following picture shows the last section down and then up to Karanga. For us, this is a “rest” day as it is a short day. Same for tomorrow. However, the porters continue to work after setting up camp as water for Barufu must be brought from the Karanga Valley – 2 miles up! You can really see the peak up close now. The anticipation is building and I am so ready.

Karanga Valley to Barufu Hut

Wake up feeling refreshed as I sleep from 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM. I don’t get that at home! We head off for our short hike to Barufu. It is a steady, steep hike to 15k feet. Very slow pace –
it takes us three hours to go 2+ miles. I know I mention this a lot but that is much slower than my normal pace at home. But this is at 13,000+ ft and there is less oxygen. The landscape is barren except for broken shale (or slate) rocks and evidence of glaciation. We get in and get settled. The last 30 minutes of the hike, it was snowing, then it cleared and now 30 minutes later you hear thunder. The good news is it has cleared every night and stayed clear in the morning until at least 9:30 AM. If all goes well, we will be back at Barufu by that time tomorrow. I feel good and will summit tonight!

Barufu Camp to Summit to Mweka Camp

After an early dinner (carbo loading), I get about 3 hours sleep. The porters come to wake you at 11:30 to come to the mess tent. I grab a hot tea and a snack as 12:00 AM arrives and we head out in groups of 3 based on our anticipated pace. You can see the line of head lamps ascend out of the camp. The going is slow because of the number of people heading to the summit. With just your headlamp on, it’s hard to see anything except the three feet in front of you. We continue for about 2 hours and stop for a bathroom and snack break. We continue up a set of switchbacks that go on forever! The great news is I finally see the Southern Cross and Alpha Centauri to get a bearing on which way is South.

We come across a number of people who have collapsed off the trail. Whether it is because of too high too fast or lack of training to get ready, it is a tough way to end your trip. Dawn is coming as red bands appear on the horizon. Lo and behold Stella Point is in view. This is big accomplishment as we are at 18,871 feet – only 460 feet more in elevation. It has taken us not quite 6 hours to get here. My legs are throbbing but sighting the top provides encouragement. We break for a couple of minutes and then strike off to the summit. It’s a 45 minutes walk, but I catch a second wind. I want to be on the top of Africa by 7:00 AM when it’s 12:00 AM on the East Coast. A lot of people gave me good wishes and moral support as they descend
from the summit. Finally, the sign is in sight – I did it in 30 minutes. I am there. I can’t describe the sense of satisfaction, relief and pride I feel. I worked hard and did it!

The others make it by 7:00 AM and we get in line for pictures by the sign. The peak is now called Uhuru Peak which means freedom in Swahili. It was renamed when Tanzania gained its independence from Britain. You can see a number of glaciers and a landscape that looks like it could double for the moon. After 25 minutes, we head down as the wind chill puts it somewhere around 0O – 10OF. The initial walk back to Stella Point is easy. After that, we head down a scree field, which is unbelievably hard. Your quads take a beating while your toes get jammed into the front of your shoes. It is torturous. If the uphill beat your hamstrings and glutes, the downhill makes your quads and knees scream. I’m not sure what is harder. After 2 1/2 hours, we finally make it back to camp and collapse.

The porters who stayed in camp are incredibly encouraging and supportive at our success. Without them, this would be impossible. We get a much needed break and rest. It’s hard to sleep because of the excitement. Plus our day is not done as we have another 7.5 km or about 5 miles down to Mweka Hut to a cozy elevation of 10,138 ft. We leave at 1:00 PM and spend 3 1/2 hours on a very slow descent. Some people are faster and bless them for it. I crawl into the tent a little after 5PM after a cold Kilimanjaro and shut it down for the day.

Mweka Hut to Mweka Gate

I wake up at 6:00 feeling refreshed. The campsite sits on the edge of the forest layer so we are packed in with most of the previous day’s climbers. I catch another morning sunrise to watch
Kilimanjaro. I’m ready for a shower and real food. I haven’t mentioned much on meals. Overall, pretty good considering everything had to be carried. Breakfast is usually a fried egg, pancakes, toast and fruit. The local pineapples and mangos are delicious and in season. Lunch varies – sometimes it was a trail lunch – a sandwich, fried chicken, banana and a fruit juice. Other day’s when we get into camp in the early afternoon there is soup – usually vegetable with plenty of spices. Dinner is always soup, a starch and a casserole with meat. I ate hearty because of the workload. But, I may have gained weight. After breakfast, I repack everything and watch as camp starts the breakdown. The porters are just as anxious as we are to be out.
For them, it means payday and for me a return to the US. My knees and quads are still very sore – this would clearly be a rest day from the gym, however we have 6.2 miles and 4,700 feet in elevation to lose. The trail is fairly easy. We are descending through the lush cloud forest again and notice the variety of plants and trees. There is heavy moss on the trees, orchids growing out of the moss, lots of ferns, and monkeys sitting in the trees. It’s incredibly beautiful and peaceful in the morning sun. The journey ends as we hit the gate at just about 12:00 PM sharp.

A total distance traveled of 70 km or 42 miles. There is a huge crowd of people – porters sorting gear, vans loading, hikers signing in a grabbing a warm beer (I’ll wait). Plus an assortment of kids wanting to clean your boots for a dollar, others selling t-shirts and others hawking other souvenirs. I let a kid buff my boots to get the dust of for $1.50. We sit in the courtyard and get our certificates from our guides. At this point, it is time to hand out tips and to give any spare gear you don’t want. Each person has to decide for themselves but a general rule is 7-10% of the cost of your trip. Our group decided to create a group tip pool of $50 per person because of the great service and care we received from beginning to end. In addition to a group tip, you may give extra to specific porters.

That night after two showers, under a flowering Jacaranda tree with mango trees on the edge of the lawn, we drink and eat great Indian food and re-live our adventure. It’s a beautiful night to sit out under the stars with people who you have shared an amazing journey. Easy to fall asleep, especially after 3 Tuskers.

General Observations – the day after

I wake up early the next morning and head out to the balcony to watch sunrise on Kilimanjaro. The mountain looks so different now after getting to the top. Ridge lines and other noticeable terrain features are clearer. Instead of seeing this mysterious and foreboding mountain, I see it for its beauty and its power. This comes with a very healthy respect of what it takes to have the opportunity to stand on top. That instant of gratification and feeling of accomplishment is fleeting, yet oh so real. It almost seems surreal that I was standing UP THERE. I am proud of the achievement symbolized by getting to the top, yet the struggle and effort is the real reward. I overcame fears and pain. Fear of failure, fear of dying, and fear of not living up to expectations all played in my mind. Taking the risk, choosing the level I would challenge myself physically and mentally, and accepting the pain in my limbs and lungs are the real rewards. I chose to risk and not limit my actions because of those fears. A valuable lesson to learn (again).