Top 10 tips for Climbing Kilimanjaro
I decided to climb Mt Kilimanjaro with South Africa Adventures last year December and I can say without a doubt that it was not only the hardest thing I have ever done… but was also the most rewarding and fulfilling thing I have ever done!!! Like most trekkers I’m sure, especially the ‘wet behind the ears, couch potato type ‘ like me, the pre climb anxiety consumed me. I was seriously contemplating my chances of successfully summiting the highest mountain in Africa. Had I bitten off more than I can chew? Did I have the right climbing equipment? Did I pack enough hiking socks? Should I have taken altitude sickness tablets? Does my mommy like me? Aaaaaah!!!! It’s incredible how your mind can wind you up into a frantic state of panic before a climb. The good news is that I did summit Kilimanjaro despite my worries. And I have to say, the top of the mountain did not come easy!! But that is what made the sense accomplishment so much more rewarding.
I came back with a perspective on myself and life that no other experience could have taught me. My Kilimanjaro trip planner assigned to me by South Africa Adventures before the climb was right- A little pain and suffering is good for the soul. A few days after getting back from my trip, the owner of South Africa Adventures came to visit me to see how I had enjoyed the trip. I think he must have liked what I said and twisted my arm after a few glasses of wine to write a blog describing what I think are the top 10 tips for climbing Kilimanjaro. So here you are. I hope they help. Oh, and by the way, apparently you can only refer to the mountain as ‘Kili’ once you have stood on the summit. Before then you have to refer to it as ‘Kilimanjaro’. Apparently this is a mountaineering code of ethics thing that cost me a few extra sit ups in my pre climb training sessions with my South Africa Adventures trainer.
1. Make sure you choose the right route that suites your needs
So like most avid Kilimanjaro summiteers my journey started with the question of what route should I take? I had absolutely no idea what is the best route that would suite my specific needs. There are 7 routes in total: The Marangu, Machame, Lemosho, Rongai, Umbwe, Shira and the Northern Route. Each of these routes varies in duration, distance, topography, difficulty, and cost-A lot of information for my already swamped mind. What next? What is the best tip when organizing a Kilimanjaro climb? Ask the experts!!! I was lucky enough to find South Africa Adventures and was assigned a trip planner who gave me a breakdown as well as the pros and cons on each of the routes. My main concerns was firstly how was my body going to adapt to the altitude and I wanted a route that wasn’t too crowded. After much discussion with my trip planner I decided to take the 8-day Lemosho Route based on the fact that it is probably one of the most scenic routes, has fewer hikers and allowed for adequate acclimatization.
2.Invest in Good Quality hiking gear
Wow!!! I never knew Kilimanjaro could get so cold. I mean it’s situated near the equator in the middle of Africa. I mean how cold can it get hey? Well take it from me….it gets cold. You need to make sure that you buy the correct equipment. I have bad circulation and my hands always get cold. “Rather spend a little bit more on good quality gloves that risk frostbite” was the advice I got from my South Africa Adventures mountaineering expert assigned to me. A lot of retailers cater for ‘weekend warriors’ and the advice you get form the instore sales assistants can be somewhat dubious and commission driven. ( I mean what do I need 4 pairs of hiking pants for? And no I don’t think I need that expensive compass in case I get lost) Now I’m not having a go at the retailers but most of the sales assistants haven’t even climbed in their local mountains let alone Kilimanjaro. And they want to tell me what clothing I need. Yeah right. As I mentioned before….ask the experts. Which I did. I was not only supplied with a detailed list of the equipment needed but was accompanied by my own ‘mountain man’ on a shopping spree to help me with. “It’s all about eliminating any undue worry and preparing for the worst case scenario” was the advice I got from my guide. And he was right. I am up against my biggest challenge ever. And I did not want extra things to worry about on Kilimanjaro. Knowing that I had the correct equipment before I left for the trip and knowing I was equipped for the ‘worst case scenario’ put my mind at rest. This is a tip that was to come in handy as we were caught in a blizzard close to the summit. Luckily I had the correct equipment. “Kili” wasn’t going to beat me from throwing cold weather at me.
3. Choose your tour (leader) carefully
Make sure that you do your research on the group you are going with. The tour leader should have many years experience especially when climbing Kilimanjaro. Stick with a reputable tour company like South Africa Adventures.
4.Training for Kilimanjaro
Me, a coach potato?….No ways!! I sometimes go for a walk and run on dutifully do my 30 minutes exercise 4 times a week as recommended by health practitioners the world over. I must be ready for climbing Kilimanjaro. Wrong!!! Trekking up the highest mountain in Africa is a physical challenge, so training for the climb is very important. The first words that my South Africa Adventures guide said to me on our first training session as I was just about to vomit from his evil training session was “rather bleed on the training field than the battle field” As I eyed him out with dagger in my eyes, I became to realize that he was right. Yes I could probably make the summit but at what cost? Fatigue compounds. And the average day on Kilimanjaro sees us hiking from between 6-7 hours. And let me tell you something…..that last summit night is hectic!!!! You are going to need your energy reserves to make it. If it was not for the training advice given to me by my trip planner I doubt I would have made the summit. And of course, there is the mental aspect of the climb. But I do believe that the more pain and suffering you inflict on yourself in the training sessions the stronger you get mentally. These sessions become reference points on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro and remind you that you CAN get through hard times.
5.Effects of Altitude: Knowledge is power
One of my major concerns was how altitude was going to affect me. How do I know if I am going to get it? How do I prevent it? What medication is available? There is so much information yet again on the internet and a lot of opposing opinions especially from a medication point of view. A wave of my magic wand and Voilà……my South Africa Adventures mountaineering expert magically appears. These guys have been involved in mountaineering for over 20 years and have been through all kinds of scenarios. Basically there are 2 main concerns at altitude: Pulmonary and Cerebral Edema. The ‘traditional’ medication for the pulmonary edema has been Diamox which apparently prevents your lungs from filling up with plasma but has many side effects. The other alternative is Viagra which keeps your arteries rigid thus allowing oxygen to move into the lungs which happens through osmosis by the way. Of course I knew that!! Not. Anyway, we decided to go drug free with Viagra, oxygen and a Gammow Bag on standby in case something happened. Our guide on the climb made us feel a lot more comfortable as he conducted medicals 3 times a day checking our oxygen saturation levels, blood pressure, and pulse (and even listened to our lungs with a stethoscope.) Everything was recorded and we were benchmarked against the requirements set for certain altitudes. I realized that things can change rapidly on a mountain but at least the guide could perhaps foresee any altitude related issues and make an informed decision on our safety.
6.No need for a heavy day pack
As mentioned earlier, fatigue compounds. And at altitude an extra 2 kilograms can feel like 10. Your day pack doesn’t need much. All you need is 2 liters of water, a few snacks. And by a few I mean it. You don’t have to worry about going hungry as you are given 3 meals a day on the mountain. And of course you never know what the mountain is going to throw at you. It may be nice and sunny in the morning but could turn into a blizzard by mid-morning. So you would need to ensure you have the sufficient clothing like jackets and gloves to cater for the worst case scenario. The porters will be miles ahead of you with your bag taking with it the option to fetch gear. All in all, I’d say my backpack weighed about 5 kg.
7.Drink and be Merry
I know a lot of hikers decide on the whiskey route: Machame, but when I refer to drink, I am not referring to the alcohol. Save that for the celebrations. At altitude, your body dehydrates way quicker than at sea level. The air is dry and does not contain much moisture. The norm is to consume up to 5 liters of fluid a day. And that does not mean go and hammer back 2 liters in the morning before the start of the hike. You need to pace yourself. I would stop every 30 minutes and have reward myself with 250ml. The 30 minute target was also good for my mental goals. It gave me something to strive for. I would end the day with a good rehydrate solution in my water for recovery purposes. There is a saying in mountaineering: You can drink a headache away. Most headaches are not altitude related but can be due to dehydration. So before you go into a full blown panic…make sure you are drinking. And of course…..prevention is better than cure were the wise words of wisdom imbedded in my mind by our guide. Treating severe dehydration is not only dangerous but means sharp pointy needles being shoved into my veins with saline solution. No ways!!! I’d rather make sure I drink my water thank you very much.
8.Pole, Pole: Slowly,slowly
It’s time to swallow your pride and ego and forget that Kilimanjaro is a competition to see who gets to the top first. Your body has these weird things called red blood cells that are responsible for trapping and distributing oxygen around your body. As you ascend into the thinning air, the oxygen available obviously become less. Your body is such an incredible thing. It recognizes this. And what does it do without you even knowing about it? It starts producing extra red blood cells. What do you need to do? GO SLOWLY!!!! Your body isn’t a marvel superhero that can just transform in seconds. Nope, it needs time to produce the red blood cells.
9.Consciously scan your body
When last did you consciously scan your body? My tip for climbing Kilimanjaro? Make it a habit. You need to be constantly aware of everything. Am I thirsty? How are my headache levels? What is that weird feeling in my left knee? Is my pee clear? It may seem like a strange thing but again, you are not at altitude but on a big ass mountain where the line between life and death can be pretty thin. And swallow your pride and ego. Leave it under a rock at the base of the mountain. You can fetch it after you have summited. You need to disclose everything to your guide in the daily medical checkups. He needs to know. A cough that you think is not a problem ( and may well not be at sea level) can be multiplied with disastrous results at altitude
The last tip I want to share with you is to simply to have fun . Don’t go there with any expectations. Go to the mountain with a clear mind. Don’t fill your mind with other peoples experiences form what you have read and heard. Everyone is different and experienced things from different perspectives.
Have any questions or comments about these tips? Or have you climbed Kilimanjaro and want to add more tips? Share them in the comments section below!