Madeleine Schröder of Afromaxx about the Kilimanjaro
Not only does Afromaxx owner Madeleine Schröder organize tours and the ascent of the Kilimanjaro but she has also been on top of Africa’s highest mountain herself several times. In an interview, she tells us everything about the fascination of this massif and how she felt on her first climb.
Why do you think the Kilimanjaro is so fascinating?
The view from the summit is just gigantic. The Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding massif in Africa. Different from the Alps you don’t have any mountains surrounding you. You overlook the wide plains, the clouds are underneath you. That is just very impressive.
You cross a different vegetation area every day. At the beginning, you walk through rain forest. Then you hike over the mountain’s crest and through valleys and all of a sudden, you are surrounded by dry stone desert. This is unique at the Kili – you are travelling for about 6 or 7 days and every day the landscape changes.
Can you summarize the different routes? What is your favorite route?
There are five routes at the Kilimanjaro altogether. The most difficult one is the Umbwe route, which should only be climbed by professional mountain climbers. It is very steep and you gain many altitude meters in a short period of time.
I think, the most beautiful one is the Lemosho route, because you can see the entire Kilimanjaro massif. You walk from the outer West through the rainforest and the Shira-Plateau. And then the route merges with the Machame route. Both are very diverse.
The Marangu route is supposed to be the easiest route, according to literature, but I don’t share that opinion. In the night before the summit climb you are walking about an hour longer than via the Machame or Lemosho route. The Marangu route is the only one with huts and partly running water. All other routes are mere camping tours.
The Rongai route is described as the one starting in Kenya. But that is not quite true since each route starts in Tanzania. But it is facing Kenya. I think on this route the Mawenzi Tarn Camp is very beautiful. There is a tiny lake with the Mawenzi in the background.
How can you describe a normal day during the climb?
Around 7 am you are woken up and crawl out of your sleeping bag. You get a bowl with water to wash your face and brush your teeth. Then you change into the clothes you brought for the stage and fill your day bag. You put the rest of the equipment back into your bags and leave them in front of your tent. In the breakfast tent there will be coffee, egg and bread waiting for you. After that, the guide will start walking with you. The porter-team packs the tents away and everything else, while you are already climbing further up.
Depending on the group the next hours can be full of conversation or not. Around midday you will have a lunch break but nevertheless, in between, you should always make sure drink sufficiently, so you end up with three liters of water a day. When you reach the camp, you sign in a book of the national park. Afterwards, you prepare for the next day in your tent – most of the time the Porter have already arrived and set up the tents. Around 7 pm there is dinner which the team has prepared and then you go to bed.
Please tell us about your first climb?
I walked the Machame route for the first time with two friends, Sabine and Sebastian, and my friend Agnes here from Moshi. We were a great group and knew that this could be fun together.
The first two days were nice. The weather was good. I really liked being outdoors. And the team was fabulous. You could really see that they enjoyed walking their boss up the Kili.
The one thing that was always present throughout the entire seven days was this weird feeling of tension – are you going to make it or not. Even when you tried to persuade yourself that you should take it easy. You want to make it to the top. On the third day, I didn’t feel so well. I was tired of climbing a mountain. In the Barranco camp, I had a terrible headache. It wasn’t good but I was never at the point to say I will go back. I was sure, I continue walking.
We walked really slowly into the last camp. You felt the altitude and the exhaustion. Everyone fought for themselves. Agnes, for example, was very agile, she talked a lot. I was only quiet. At the evening meeting the guide explained to us what to expect in the last night of the summit climb and how we should prepare ourselves. We felt really uneasy.
At midnight, we were woken up and started walking right away. This night is so unreal. It is dark, you cannot see anything, you do not know which way you walk. You just follow the guides – Jackson at front and Faustin in the back. They were both singing during this night. And Jackson said, ‘just watch my feet, watch how I walk’. To see his rhythym and how he found his footing in this sandy ground, really helped me a lot.
After two or three hours, Sabine walked back. I felt well, I was really motivated, but you nevertheless question why you are doing this. To walk at night, in the dark and in the freezing cold. At some point the pace was too high for Agnes and so she continued on her own behind us. I walked on with Sebastian.
Our first flicker of hope came with the rising sun. The last part over choss and sand is very intense and steep. At Stella Point we knew it that the summit was pretty close. We drank some tea and rested for a short period of time. There we saw two guides with a climber in their middle at the crater edge. They kind of dragged him down. I really thought nothing of it, but when they came closer the man collapsed – he was around 50 or 62. And then he died there.
We could not believe it. You are not really yourself at this altitude anymore. It was so unreal that this guy had just died right in front of us. In this moment, Sebastian and I looked at each other and we both knew that we could not go any further. My knees were shaking. And even today, I cannot find the right words. A littler later, Agnes arrived. She is a doctor but she could not do anything anymore. So we went back together.
It felt like a warning to us mountain climbers. Still today, I speak with my guides at trainings and also talk to the climbers that the minute you feel the altitude sickness, you have to climb down. At almost 19.700 feet there is no helicopter coming to save you. You cannot let it get as far as it did on that day.
Did you climb it again?
Yes. I still had this feeling, that I have to walk up to the summit. And so I went via the Lemosho route. This time with a guest, Wolfgang, an older guy, business man. That was a great tour. The last time I climbed with my boyfriend Fred via the Rongai route. Just last weekend though we both said that we have to go up again some time soon.
Has something like the incident on your first climb ever happened at Afromaxx?
I really knock on woods now. Nothing happened so far and I hope it stays like that. We have people with a cold, breathing problems or nosebleed that have to go back. Normally, the descent to a lower height is enough for the body to regenerate. The realization and the correct response to the altitude sickness is essential.
Many realize that they have problems in the middle of the tour. Then they talk with our guides and also with us via phone. We see if they can make it to the next camp. If the symptoms are not improving at the same height though, you should climb back. You can reach Moshi from almost any camp within a day.
What advice do you give your guests to take along? What tips do you have for them?
To train I would recommend a few multi-day hikes. Concerning the mental preparation, you have to realize, that you are going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, a real mountain.
I think, in the end, it is the combination of equipment, motivation and personal attitude towards the tour – they define the success. I can have the best equipment but nonetheless, will not make it all the way to the top, because my head is not in the game.