Day 1 – Machame Gate (5,380ft) to Machame Camp (9,350ft)
Day 1 of the climb started with a weigh in to ensure we were within weight limits for our porter bag and daypacks, then a bus ride to the Machame Gate (pronounced mah-cha-may.) There are a number of routes to use climbing Kilimanjaro, and we had chosen (or rather had chosen for us) Machame, also known as the Whiskey Route.
A longer and tougher route than some of the others, it has the advantage of some spectacular vistas and a better opportunity to acclimatize to the altitude. Though it can be done in 6 days, we added two days in camp at Shira and Barranco camps to better acclimatize to the altitude. Some of the other routes have huts or cabins for sleeping, but Machame has no such facilities, so it’s tents only.
Once at the gate, we first saw our porters and most of our guides, though we had met our three lead guides in Moshi the day before. We signed in at the parks commission office, then pecked at a boxed lunch while the guides did the paperwork.
Departing from Machame Gate, we were on a smooth, unpaved road, though that would soon change. Right out of the gate, so to speak, I saw the truth of what we’d been told so often over the months of training. Pole-Pole (Shwahili for Slowly, Slowly) was the order of the day. A slow, deliberate pace – maddening at times – was necessary to keep us acclimatizing gradually to the altitude, which would reduce the risk and severity of altitude sickness as we climbed higher.
Climbing though the rain forest, 7 hours of hiking on the lower slope of the mountain brought us to Machame camp, where we started to get a sense of what eating and sleeping over the next 10 days would entail. At this altitude the terrain is changing and the tree cover is thinning as we transition from the rain forest to the moorlands above.
As we climbed, our porters started to pass us in what would become a familiar routine. The porters would place one of our duffel bags – a little over 30 lbs – and some camp gear on their heads and pass us on the trail. We would arrive in camp to find everything set up. Watching the porters, I was glad that our lead Shawn had so strictly enforced the weight limit on our gear.
We developed a routine of calling out “Car!” on the trail as they approached from the rear to warn the climbers ahead to move to the side and make room for them to pass. A ritual familiar to any Canadian child playing street hockey, it took some explaining to the Tanzanian porters and guides.
This first night we would start to become familiar with the pee bottle routine, which is a reality in these situations. Rather than dressing and climbing out of the tents in the cold once or twice each night a large Nalgene bottle, dedicated for the purpose, is pressed into service. As long as there’s something unique attached to it so you can tell it apart from your water bottle in the dark, it’s very effective. Given the volumes of water we were drinking to stay hydrated, 5-7 litres a day, it was a necessity.