FROM NOT EVEN A DREAM TO SIGNING UP
Some 30,000 people climb Mt. Kilimanjaro every year. People of all ages, widely different physical make-up and degree of fitness. Which is comforting to know in the pre-climb decision-making phase. When you’re asking yourself if you too, can do it. If you too, have what it takes to join the small crowd of people who reach the roof of Africa every year, raising both hands in triumph in front of the iconic wooden Uhuru Peak sign and looking down upon the clouds, from 19,300 feet. It is good to know that kids as young as 7 (legal age is 10), and more seasoned climbers in their mid 80’s – as well as hundreds of physically challenged individuals – make it all the way to the top, all the time. It can get a little daunting too such as when a well-meaning individual sent me a link to a video about a successful Kili summit attempt by a person who had neither feet nor hands. The implication being that it should be a cinch for an able-bodied individual like me. Thanks pal.
Looking back, my Kilimanjaro climb ambitions were hardly ever in the ‘burning desire’ category. To be sure, I had seen the mountain several times over the last 15 years or so, mostly partially shrouded in clouds. A few times flying over it en route from Johannesburg or Zanzibar to Nairobi and then again from both the Tanzania and Kenya sides, on photographic safaris. Kilimanjaro was something I wanted to get in a photograph with some elephants or giraffes between me and it. Not something I had any desire to tackle with boots and poles.
This all changed when my friend Clemson Smith-Muniz first brought up the topic a few years ago. I was somewhat intrigued, but not having done any climbing or even serious hiking, at that stage, I thought about it for a day or so and then moved on to something else. The seed was planted though. When Clemson brought it up again a couple of years later, looking for assistance to put the trip together, I thought why not and pretty much invited myself along. It was a spur of the moment decision, the kind of thing you wake up to a few days later shaking your head. You’re a runner, not a mountain climber or even a hiker. You don’t even own walking sticks or ‘serious’ boots. Kilimanjaro? Really?
Having made a rash decision to get on board, I did follow it up with a sensible move which was to get in touch with Steve Turner and his team at Origins Safaris, for advice on the best route, time of year, planning, equipment, training and selecting a competent local outfitter, who’d be responsible for our well-being and safety, and would hopefully get us to the top.
Having worked with Origins for many years, I was not surprised when I received impeccable advice and answers to all my questions as to where, how, when and with whom. We settled on the Machame Route (with an extra day to acclimate), in the month of February (least wet) and with Summits as our local operator.
TRAINING AND PREPARATION
In retrospect, the most important thing I got right in the lead-up to climbing Kilimanjaro, was to work with our Kenya destination management company, Origins Safaris. Their training and preparation hints and guidelines, their detailed equipment list and medical preparation hints and cautionary advice, were invaluable. My personal list of things to do to give yourself the best possible chance for summiting Kili has seven items:
Select a longer route or add a day
Over the years it has become clear that the success rate for a Kilimanjaro ascent is significantly higher on the longer routes like Lemosho (eight days) and either Machame or Rongai with one additional night added for acclimating, making them seven days each. Working with a good operator and with some solid preparation the success rate for these treks is high with most climbers making the summit or at least Stella Point. By contrast a much smaller percentage of the climbers on the Marangu route (5 days) reach Uhuru peak. A five-day climb is not long enough for proper altitude acclimatization, with the result that many climbers are affected by altitude sickness or simply turn around because of exhaustion.
Do some hiking or climbing before you go
This may seem self-evident but climbing Kilimanjaro is physically and mentally challenging. While technical mountaineering skills and equipment are not required for the ‘regular’ routes, the sheer duration of the climb, the near daily increase in altitude and the many hours of hiking day after day will take their toll on the unprepared or poorly prepared climber. Depending on the route, you may even walk steeply down into and up out of glacial valleys. My advice is to find some hills or slopes, strap on a weighted backpack (don’t make it too heavy at first), grab your walking sticks and start hiking an hour or so, perhaps four times a week. Make it longer on weekends, and gradually increase the duration and weight. Carry at least two containers of water and stay hydrated; if you are going to use a bladder system, start using it now.
In addition, plan on doing at least one medium-high climb, such as a 14,000’ peak in Colorado or elsewhere. It’s great preparation and should give you a fair indication of your state of readiness. In my own case I really struggled on the last few hours of a Wheeler Peak ascent (13,167 feet) in New Mexico, about 5 months before my planned Kili climb. Without the help of Clemson – who helped me with my heavier pack – I likely would not have made it. In the end the Wheeler Peak experience was a major wake-up call. I immediately sketched out a training program and started hiking up and down the Buffalo Bayou levee walls with a heavy pack the very next week. It worked.
Select and take the right gear
A Kilimanjaro ascent is challenging enough not to have inferior equipment or the lack of an essential piece of gear complicate things. A good operator will supply you with a detailed list – be sure to read it well before the trip starts. A proper Kilimanjaro kit can’t be thrown together the day before! It starts with the right kit bag (waterproof), a light day pack, layered clothing, a quality water-proof jacket and pants and most importantly – a good pair of water-proof boots. Our group found out the hard way – having to endure a tropical downpour of epic proportions on the first day – just how important a good pair of boots is. Two climbers in our group got their boots wet and that creates a potentially serious issue for the entire rest of the trek, with heat and sunshine (to dry the boots out) being scarce commodities.
Among the items not generally mentioned in packing lists but which I personally found most useful, are a cheap plastic poncho (it will keep you dry in even the worst tropical downpour) and a rechargeable Luci Light, to provide some light inside your tent. At higher altitudes you’ll be spending many hours inside a small dark tent and having some light helps to dispel the gloom and makes it a little bit more livable. Also having light (other than a headlamp) is useful to read by or to find things and to get dressed in the mornings. I found that the Luci Light received a sufficient charge to keep it going for the duration of the trip, despite the general lack of sunshine.
Stay hydrated and properly fed
Hiking for 4 hours plus pretty much every day, and as many as 16 hours on summit day makes heavy demands on one’s body. To keep your strength up you absolutely have to stay properly hydrated and well fed by drinking liquids (mostly water) throughout the day and consuming nourishing food regularly. A good quality operator like we had will serve you some nice, palatable foods at breakfast, lunch & dinner. They will also provide a steady supply of purified water – and snacks like candy bars and nuts to consume along the way. Even so it is a good idea to bring a few of your own favorite snack bars along to keep in your day-pack. I personally did not eat as many as I thought I would, but people’s mileage varies. As for hydration, a bladder system usually works well except that the tube is subject to freezing up in really cold weather. So be sure to have it well insulated or take some water in a couple of Nalgene bottles as well.
Maintain a positive attitude
Staying positive when fatigue sets in – as it inevitably will – is crucial on Kilimanjaro. When the conditions turn sour, or you’re suffering from blisters, a lack of sleep, diarrhea or nausea, feeling down and starting to doubt your own ability is understandable and even predictable. This is where perseverance plays a key role. It is easier said than done but simply putting one foot in front of the other and not dwelling on how many more hours you have left on the day, is the best strategy. It is all about dealing with the next 20 meters and not worrying about what tomorrow will bring. Your guides and porters as well as your fellow climbers will help to cheer you up and having them around to talk about what to wear the next day, seeking advice for issues you may be experiencing and to share a few stories and jokes, is invaluable.
Take your time
On Kilimanjaro – as in any high altitude environment – taking it slowly and literally step by step is definitely the way to go. It is one of the first things your guide will talk about – ‘pole pole’ or ‘slowly slowly’ in Swahili – and you will hear the phrase repeated constantly. There is no shame in falling behind a bit on a day on which you may just not be able to keep up. Better to take your time on the way up rather than burning an excess of energy and running out of steam a day too soon. You may be surprised about how slow the initial walking is; even along flat terrain and on slopes where you’d ordinarily speed things up quite a bit. Not on Kili: every ounce of energy is going to be called on when summit day comes around, so save it for then.
Have a game plan for Summit Day
Summit Day is when you’ll be tested to the limit, so my advice is to have at least a mental game plan for the day. Here are a few of the most important things to think about and plan for:
- Make sure to dress properly: do what you can to keep your fingers and toes warm, take good care of your feet (sock selection, lubricant), stay hydrated.
- Even more importantly, plan for an extra-long day which may run from around midnight to well into the next afternoon. Keep something in reserve.
- There are no brownie points for carrying your own pack on this day so ask an assistant guide or porter to help you with it. It may make the difference between summiting or not.
- Be ready to shift down into a mental low gear – call it mountain 4-wheel drive – for the several hours on the last, steep ascent up to Stella Point. By then it will be an effort to lift up your leg for each ledge and rock. Knowing this in advance will not make it easier but the fewer surprises the better.
- Remember to conserve a little energy and enthusiasm for the way down. You’ve got maybe 5 hours to go after reaching the summit…
THE DAYS BEFORE THE TREK STARTS
If you can fit it in, spend a few days in Kenya or Tanzania on safari before you tackle Kilimanjaro. It will help you to deal with the jet lag of course, and if you live at sea level, you’ll be acclimating to an altitude of 3,500 to 6,000 feet or so, if you include the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.
Prior to our Feb. 2017 Kilimanjaro climb, we did just that, spending several days in the Southern and Central Serengeti prior to flying back to Kilimanjaro. The day before the trek we met with head guide Daniel Kilango (200+ Kili summits under his belt!) and Leila of Summits for a detailed briefing, which entailed going over the day to day program and route and covering the ‘golden rules’ of the mountain (go slow is #1). Daniel did an individual gear check and I was happy to receive a ‘well-prepared’ rating. Among the items which he specifically asked about were Nalgene bottles because a Camelbak may freeze up on the last day.
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