With one of Mount Kilimanjaro’s dry seasons falling over our birthdays, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro became our 2018 birthday trip. We chose the Rongai route as it was said to be a less popular route and we were hoping to avoid the crowds (as much as possible during one of the busier times of year)…spoiler alert: it was a great decision!

Rongai Route: Day 1

Choosing the Rongai route means that you have the farthest drive from Moshi. First, you head to the Marangu gate to register and then continue your drive to the Rongai gate. You start close to the Kenyan border, so close in fact when I turned on my phone before we started hiking my phone actually thought we were in Kenya! Once we arrived at the Rongai gate, food, supplies, and packs were distributed between all of our porters. They quickly started their ascent to our first camp as we followed behind at a slower pace with our guide and assistant guide. I’m already pretty chilly and it’s only the first day, at the lowest altitude. What have I gotten myself into?!

Luckily, from a hiking perspective, the first day was short and sweet. About two hours after starting we reached our first camp for the night. Each day we reach camp and are given freshly popped popcorn and hot water for tea, followed by delicious dinners that always prove to be more food than we can eat.

Camp 1: 1st Caves Camp (2,600 meters / 8,530 feet)

Rongai Route: Day 2

After an early wake-up and some breakfast, we headed out for a longer day of hiking. After a cool and misty start on the first day, I was prepared for more gloom on day two — which was full of blue skies and sunshine. The black long-sleeved Smartwool shirt I’m wearing is a bit of overkill but hey, at least I’m protecting [most] of my skin from the brutal sun! On the way to our second camp we stopped at Second Caves Camp for lunch before continuing on to Kikelawa Cave. While a much longer day of hiking, the ascent was gradual and not tough.

Camp 2: Kikelewa Cave (3,600 meters / 11,811 feet)

Rongai Route: Day 3

Today the hike is a bit shorter, but there is a bit more climbing. To be honest, with the slow pace that you go, I didn’t find this day challenging. Each day the habitat is changing, and today it becomes more volcanic. Camp is at the base of the Mawenzi Peak, which we found pretty cool and the shape reminded us of Mt. Whitney). After a couple of hours rest at camp, we took a short walk a bit higher to help acclimatize — heading up to about 14,700 feet (my personal best for about 36 hours!).

Camp 3: Mawenzi Tarn (4,330 meters / 14,206 feet)

Rongai Route: Day 4

Today is Toby’s birthday, so we woke up and I surprised him with cards from friends and family back home. I’m looking forward to more surprises in the evening, but for now, we make our way across the saddle from Mawenzi Tarn to Kibo Hut. We don’t gain much altitude but the wind is pretty brutal. We stop for a quick break along the way but wait until we get to camp to have lunch.

Kibo Hut is the first camp we meet up with other hikers who have been on the Marangu Route – the only route with huts. Due to the wind, our tents are set up sheltered by large boulders and we don’t come across other hikers until we making our summit push.

Once at camp we rest and relax, have an early dinner, and, my favorite part of the day, everyone sings ‘Happy Birthday’ in English and Swahili to Toby and shares cake that was made at 15,200 feet!

After birthday celebrations we discuss the upcoming summit push and head to bed — we’ll be waking up in just a few hours to start getting ready and head to Uhuru Peak!!

Camp 4: Kibo Hut (4,700 meters / 15,419 feet)

Rongai Route: Day 5

Technically when we wake up, it’s still Day 4! At about 11pm we start getting dressed, have some biscuits and tea, get warm water in our camelbacks and Nalgene bottles and get ready to head out right around midnight.

It is SO dark. The stars are gorgeous. You might not be spending time to look up while you’re making your way to the summit, but make sure to check out the stars while during your trip – it’s pretty incredible.

It’s also SO cold. I immediately put my ski mittens on over my thinner gloves. I keep my buff over my nose and mouth the entire climb while my nose runs the entire time. I have hand warmers in my shoes and in my mittens. I’m wearing five layers on top and four layers on the bottom. My fingers hurt from time to time, but otherwise, I feel that I’ve made good decisions with what I’ve chosen to wear for the summit push.

It’s SO long. It’s dark. It’s cold. We are on a sparsely populated route and even when there are headlamps in above us, there is still no telling how much farther we have to go until we reach Gilman’s Point at 18,865 feet. The scree switchbacks seem endless. I’m too cold to look at my phone or my watch. We just keep walking. And walking.

Breaks are infrequent and when we have them, I feel colder immediately. Probably about halfway up my camelback hose freezes. My Clifblocks are getting harder to chew. I continue telling myself that I’m a badass because honestly, I don’t know when this is ever going to end.

Then FINALLY, as the night sky slowly starts to fade to light we can see we have almost made it to Gilman’s Point and arrive for a gorgeous sunrise.

Being that we are almost at 19,000 feet I am breathing heavier than normal, I am cold, and I am overcome with joy that we have reached Gilman’s Point – I feel like I’m hyperventilating while giving Toby a hug. We take a few photos, drink some water, and continue on to Uhuru Peak.

To me personally, the climb from Gilman’s Point to Uhuru Peak is a piece of cake. While it reminds me a bit of climbing from Trail Crest to the summit of Mount Whitney, I find it much easier. Perhaps part of it has to do with bright blue skies and sunshine, I’m not sure. We climb through snow and ice and around 8am finally reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. WE DID IT!!

Of course, everyone knows that climbing up the mountain is only half the battle. Now we have to turn around and get back to Kibo Hut, and then even further down, to Horombo Hut. We pretty quickly make our way back to Gilman’s Point, have a snack, and then ski step straight down the scree – a bit of a killer on the thighs and knees but a quicker route than using the switchbacks. The Marangu Route huts start to come into view but at this point it seems like we’ll never get there and now I’m starting to get hot. When we’ve made it down the majority of the switchbacks a few of our porters come into view with a jug of mango juice — perhaps the best mango juice I’ve ever tasted in my life! I gladly hand over my backpack to one and quickly we are back at camp for an hour rest and lunch before heading down to Horombo Hut.

The hike down to Horombo Hut is about 9 miles and gradual again, with clouds and fog continuing to roll in. We head to bed pretty early, excited about the prospect of showering the next day.

Camp 5: Horombo Hut (3720 meters / 12,204 feet)

Rongai Route: Day 6

It’s our last day! We have breakfast and then give out tips to our guides and porters and they sing songs to celebrate us reaching the summit. Then it’s go time! We hike down quickly to Mandara Hut where we have an early lunch. And then we’re off again, hiking down to the Marangu gate. By mid-afternoon we’ve reached the end of the road, receive our gold certificates, and have a much deserved Kilimanjaro beer with our guides. We then make the shorter drive back to Moshi where we finally get our showers and a little bit of R&R before we start our 4-day safari the next day.

Marangu Gate (1,980 meters / 6,496 feet)

Stay tuned for tips we’d like to share, the gear we wore and brought, and our 4-day safari after our climb!