18,700 ft, 5700 metres. The highest camp on Kilimanjaro. The highest camp in Africa. A camp situated in what is commonly called the “extreme altitude” zone. A camp that is one of the most beautiful and spectacular – and dangerous – that most people will ever see.
Amongst the black volcanic rocks tower enormous glaciers, ever moving, ever retreating, glistening in the sunshine. The sound of huge cracks as a massive wall of ice adjusts it’s position ever so slightly. The chances are, you’ll see no one else here. Nothing growing, no animal life. The thin mountain air and sub-zero temperatures are inhospitable to life of any sort.
To get here, you have to scale the highest mountain in Africa, and then descend from it’s rim into the crater, at the centre. As you explore an area as familiar as walking on the moon, sometimes a faint whiff of sulphur can be detected, as the central Ash Pit belches out it’s gases. A reminder that Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano.
Standing above the clouds, looking down on the world, all the comforts of home stripped away, most problems seem trivial. Up here it’s about survival. Staying warm, adapting to the altitude, and enjoying the majesty of this great mountain.
Camping in the Crater
A night at Crater Camp is something you will remember for the rest of your life. Hopefully for all the right reasons. It’s tough here. As the sun sets, it’s a stark reminder that we are sleeping only meters from a huge freezing glacier.
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With only a tent, our clothes and sleeping bag as protection. An emergency up here can lead to tragedy. With the rocks of the crater rim towering above us, we feel very small. Very insignificant. But very alive.
I felt almost ‘high’ from the effects of hypoxia, taking in this incredible scenery. Exploring the glaciers, walking on the crisp volcanic earth and watching the sun set over the Western Breach.
Sleeping in Crater Camp, an offering not made by most operators on Kilimanjaro, requires that you are very well acclimatized. This won’t happen on the shorter routes. For climbers showing effects of altitude sickness on the ascent to the summit, sleeping at this height can be catastrophic.
Headaches and nausea are standard procedure for your night in this camp. Sleeping is tricky, jolting awake from the lack of available oxygen for normal breathing.
It’s exhilarating. It’s not for the faint of heart. And it’s not for anyone who feels unwell at the crater rim.
Here’s a cute video that gives a good idea of what it’s like in the crater:
Try to visit the the Ash Pit, a perfectly formed volcanic cone. If you can stomach the smell of rotten eggs. Fumaroles blowing out malodorous fumes from the centre of the mountain, standing atop, looking down into the now dormant, volcano.
How do I get there?
Crater Camp can be accessed either by scaling the Western Breach, or hiking from Barafu Camp to Stella Point. If coming from the Western Breach, I would recommended making the extra hike to Summit before sleeping in the crater, rather than leaving it until the following morning.
The few extra meters up to the summit can help with the “walk high, sleep low” acclimatization protocol. It also means that the summit has been scaled and early the next morning, descent is all that’s needed.
Coming from Barafu, mostly trekkers do a daytime push to the summit, arriving after lunch, before spending the night in Crater Camp Kilimanjaro. For me, spending a night in the Crater was more important than the summit (well, not quite, but almost).
Acclimatization is Key
A good operator – even if a night in the crater is scheduled in the itinerary – will check each climber’s condition at the Summit before making a final decision as to who will sleep there. Many climbers who reach the Summit decide they do not want to take the risk of sleeping so high.
Evacuation from the crater is very difficult. It’s approximately a mile trek to get back to Stella Point, up the crater rim. There are no helicopters here. You should be given the option to descend back to Barafu after a successful Summit.
Unless you’ve come the Western Breach. Some, extremely hardy people have been able to scale the Western Breach, reach the summit and descend to Barafu camp in one day. And if you are strong (mad!) enough to do that, you are probably strong enough to sleep in the crater!
Don’t be fooled that it’s just clients that can get into trouble up here. On my last trek, out of the 14 climbers in our group, only two of us slept in the Crater. That night, one of our porters got very ill and had to descend immediately.
It’s imperative to have a guide who is well-versed in high altitude first response. Who knows how to treat an emergency. A Portable Altitude Chamber (gamow bag), as well as oxygen canisters are highly recommended.
In 2005, a friend and I climbed the Western Breach. Having been perfectly well acclimatized at Arrow Glacier camp, my friend became very ill about 200m from the crater rim. Vomiting, diarrhea, extreme nausea and headache.
Thankfully, (since there is no way down, from that point) we had a very experienced and well-educated guide. He was qualified to treat her symptoms and she spent the night in the Crater safely. He monitored her condition carefully overnight.
It is imperative that you have a guide whom you can trust. A guide who is educated in high altitude first-response.
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So, if you are not scared off already (you shouldn’t be – it’s an amazing experience!), how do you go about sleeping in the crater? Firstly, find an operator who offers it – and make sure they have exceptional guides.
Then take the longest route you possibly can up the mountain. This allows adequate time for acclimatization. It’s expensive to sleep in the crater, so don’t try to save pennies by thinking you’ll be all right on a shorter route. If there’s an extra acclimatization day up for grabs, take it!
It’s likely you will have the crater all to yourself. You, and your little camp. It’s a real mountain wilderness experience at a very high altitude!
Best Routes for a night at Crater Camp
The longest route possible! Typically, it is the Lemosho Route that climbers use, which has a good acclimatization schedule. For the very “tough”, try the Umbwe Route, but add extra days. Some operators on the Machame Route will offer a night at Crater.