A few years ago, photographer and avid hiker Brad Wolfe set out on what would be one of his most cherished journeys in his life. He boarded the long flight to Tanzania with one goal in mind: to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa. Being an experienced hiker, he was ready for the challenge and with help from his local guides and porters he managed a safe and successful summit.
Brad took a moment to share some photos and memories from his once-in-a-lifetime experience. Check out the adventure in his words below.
I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro during the first week of 2015 with an organized tour group called G Adventures. Our group consisted of three paying customers, (myself and two Australians) two guides and eleven porters.
The porters did most of the work. They carried bags, cooked hot meals, and were in charge of pitching tents and breaking down campsites. It might seem a little excessive to have had so much help, but these men depended on guided trips like ours for income and were much better acclimated to the climate and altitude than foreigners. It was a nice arrangement because it gave me the ability to carry a camera with some heavier lenses and freed up time to take more pictures.
We were on a route called Lomosho, which is scheduled to take 8 days. On day one, we stopped after only three hours of hiking which prompted me to ask how long we would hike per day. Our lead guide responded that it would only be two to four hours. So I convinced the group to skip a couple of camps that were close together, cutting the total days from eight to six. Everyone was happy to do it and I am glad we did because it worked out nicely. Not too much hiking in one day, but not too short either. Since we were all relatively good hikers, it made for a much better pace. Altitude sickness is common, and luckily I didn’t have any issues acclimatizing but many people suffered from headaches, nausea, sleepless nights, and other issues. I like to hike fast and was glad that the head guide, Cha Cha, let me split off with the other guide so I could hike at my desired pace. Most days were easy for me and I usually arrived at the next campsite first. By first I mean before any porters, tourists, etc.
The weather was relatively nice in the mornings but it could turn quickly and usually rained every day. The temperature change could be drastic, when it was sunny it was very hot and in the rain it ended up getting quite cold.
The camp sites were crowded with many people from all around the world (and of course hundreds of porters). The “toilets” were just a small hole in the floor and your best bet to find one clean enough to be usable was to go to a shack with a missing door or one that was leaning over.
Our highest camp was at 15,000 feet in elevation and the summit peaked at 19,300, so on summit day most groups leave at midnight. Because I walk fast, my guide suggested we start at 2:00 AM with his projection being that we would reach the top around 6:30 for the sunrise. When I started, I could already see headlamps half way up the mountain. About 45 minutes in I had already caught up to one of the 40 some groups attempting to summit. Since the idea is to walk at a steady, slow pace (to reduce suffering from altitude problems), passing the groups was not as easy as it should have been. Most people refused to step aside when we wanted to get by, so we would have to cut the trail to scurry in front. This meant I would start breathing heavier, and at 17,000+ feet it is a challenge to return to a normal breathing pattern.
My guide and I had caught and passed all the groups except for 2 when his competitive nature kicked in he started to repeatedly say “We need to be first to the summit”. I kept replying that it didn’t matter, as long as we made it but he didn’t like that response. At one point, he said, “You are the best hiker on the mountain, you should finish first”. And with that, our “race” began; however, it was like watching two snails race. Still walking very slowly to avoid altitude issues, we ended up successful and managed to catch the remaining groups about 20 minutes shy of the summit.
It had snowed about two feet the night before our summit attempt and according to our guides, it hadn’t snowed there in about four years. This caught a lot of people off guard and at least ten porters were suffering from snow blindness because they didn’t have proper sunglasses. I lent my sunglasses to a porter until I could safely pass him off to some people sent up in search for missing porters.
Despite these challenges, I arrived at the summit by 5:25, about an hour before sunrise. Our 3 hour and 25-minute summit climb was the second fastest my guide had ever done in his 200+ attempts.
We celebrated with some pictures and greeted the next two groups, which arrived about 20 minutes later. I stayed up there for 30 minutes or so, but it was too cold to wait for sunrise so we began to head down.
20 minutes into our descent we ran into the two Australians and they requested I go back up with them. Having plenty of time to spare, I went and celebrated the summit again, this time together as a group. It was well worth it because by then the sun had risen and it was beautiful. I was able to take more photos and the rare snow made for some amazing images.
About 150 of the 200+ climbers reached the summit that day but some of them took 12+ hours and suffered some major altitude problems. Altitude sickness is unpredictable, so I feel very fortunate that I didn’t have any issues. Both of the Australians suffered from some minor altitude problems (mostly headaches and nausea) but they powered through and did an amazing job considering this was their first summit of a peak above 9,000 ft.
Unfortunately, after summiting we had to return to the bottom in the same day. This made for an extremely difficult day. After the 2 a.m. and the summit, we returned from 19,000 feet back to our campsite, ate breakfast, then hiked down to 6000 ft. It took me a little over an hour to descend from the peak to base camp (15,000 ft) and then we left base camp again around 10:30, making it down to the bottom by 3:15. The Australians arrived at 6. My knees and feet were aching in pain for at least 3 hours too long and I can honestly say that hiking down 13,000 ft is more difficult than hiking up. That was a long and difficult downhill.
Overall my experience on the mountain was amazing and offered some stunning. Kilimanjaro was beautiful, especially with snowfall and I felt very fortunate to have an accommodating guide, great new Australian friends, and amazing porters.