Mt. Kilimanjaro & Prouty Mountaineering – Shira and Lava Towers Camps on the Machame Trail

Mt. Kilimanjaro & Prouty Mountaineering – Shira and Lava Towers Camps on the Machame Trail

Shira Camp and Lava Towers Camp

8 miles, 3750 meters & 6 miles 4505 meters 582 mb pressure

The Prouty Mountaineering Program
(the first Prouty Challenge Event benefitting Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center)

December 16, 2012

Wes Chapman

Alpine Glow at Shira Camp

The hike from Machame Camp to Shira ascends from 10,000 feet to 12,205 over rough volcanic terrain – principally welded ash flows – and transits the alpine heather zone into the moorland. This was our first day hiking at altitude, and we all felt it – despite the wonders of Diamox. The flora is something directly out of Dr. Seuss – like the top heavy Senecio Kilimanjari. It was clear that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The moorland is typically shrouded in mist throughout the day, and the weather only added to the strangeness of the place.

Brad with a Senecio Kilimanjari

Porters on the rugged trail to Shira Camp

Food – a special consideration at altitude

The hike took around 5 hours, and we arrived to a hot meal in a cool and desolate alpine environment. Food is a critical element to a successful climb, and the lead guide, Kapanya, took proper alpine nutrition very seriously. Climbers burn a lot of calories, around 500 – 800 per hour (not altitude adjusted), and most people lose 8-10 pounds when climbing this Hill.


Kapanya really focused on Kelly’s nutritional needs, which ultimately became a standing joke enjoyed by one and all at the meals. Kelly is a dedicated and successful long distance athlete, and felt that she had a pretty good handle on her nutritional needs. Kapanya, on the other hand, is an old school alpine veteran, and likes his climbers very well fed. The net result was that she was encouraged to eat more than most of the guys – she surely did not suffer from a caloric deficit.

Kelly enjoying a second serving

Food and eating are funny things – they are really primal functions that tie people together in emotions dictated by both instinct and custom. We ate a lot on this trip, and ate very different meals than the 42 staff that supported our climb. If these guys were either hungry or resentful about the food we could have confronted a fairly ugly situation, and Kapanya was masterful in navigating those difficult waters. East Africa Voyages feeds everybody really well, so the volume was not the issue, and Kapanya made sure that he ate the polenta with the staff at most meals, as well as eating with us.

Inside the cook tent

Unlimited Polenta

Sunset on Kilimanjaro through the clouds at Shira Camp

The weather on Kilimanjaro in the months of December and January is in flux between the rainy and dry seasons – the days start clear, and the weather blows in each afternoon. This makes morning photography doubly important – by the afternoon you are shooting pictures in the bottom of a can of grey paint.

Mt. Meru at daybreak from Shira Camp

Dawn broke clear and cold, but with summit clouds foreboding a bit of weather. We headed up to the Lava Towers Camp. This is a short day – only 4-5 hours, but Lava Towers is fairly high – 15,257 ft. – and we expected some issues with altitude sickness, and a fairly chilly evening.

The trail crossed multiple beds of former glaciers on the way – smooth and fairly bare, with small lateral moraines along the sides. It was very clear that these were as much snow fields as real ice glaciers, and never more than 50 feet thick. The combination of higher temperatures and lower rainfall proved fatal very quickly.

Vacant glacial bed

As the moorland grades into alpine desert only a few grasses and sedges mix with the lichen. Some of the lichen grow spectacularly on the mineral rich volcanic terrain. There was a surprising amount of apparent wind (aeolian) erosion of the softer layers of volcanic rock, resulting in some fairly interesting top heavy formations.

Aeolian erosion and lichen on a mixed volcanic formation

We were the only people at Lava Towers, which afforded a dead still night, and spectacular sunrise over the Hill. The night was quite cold, and the ground froze hard by morning. By this point all that could take Diamox were doing so to combat the potential altitude sickness. Unfortunately, Diamox is also a powerful diuretic, necessitating a lot of water – both filtered and treated with iodine – and chilly nocturnal bathroom breaks.

Multiple summit clouds – contra-indication for weather

The next two days we head to Barafu Camp, and climb the Barrranco Wall – not much of a wall really, but enough to get the blood pumping at 15,000 feet.

Adios from Lava Towers Camp

Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    December 21, 2012

    Great blog. We are all looking forward to further blogs.San Diego will be quite a change.


  2. Avatar
    February 02, 2014

    Fantastic blog and photos. Just getting and opportunity to catch up!! What a climb!!