I’ve been putting off this post for a while now. On some level, it’s the ever present self-doubt whether I’d have something new to tell you guys, but mostly it’s a big-ass project to try and fit all that information into one manageable post. On the other hand, I saw a few other accounts about this trek, which were the exact opposite of my experience on so many levels that it finally became apparent that I should tell another side of it. Here goes.
I will spare you the details about how we chose to actually do this, I’ll just tell you it was on a whim one drunken evening. 🙂 Our willingness to go, however, was still unwavering the next few days so I started the research and we bought our tickets to Tanzania a month later.
Mt Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world lies just south of the Kenyan border and is one of the most popular hikes in the world. One reason being that you don’t need any special climbing skills to scale it.
No special skills does not mean no skills at all, but the fact the people between the ages of 7 and 87 have successfully done it only goes to show that a skill you definitely need is patience and determination. Here are the main things you need to prepare (for) in order to succeed in this challenge (plus some context 😉 ):
Positive thinking and trust in yourself (and others).
I don’t mean to downplay this or pretend to be stronger than I am, but there was never a doubt in my mind that we will reach the summit. It’s important that you have that resolve in you but at the same time to be aware that just wanting it might not be enough. There surely will be at least a couple challenging moments during your climb, and what is important in those moments is to remind yourself that you are strong and that in life you have to push yourself a little bit further, get out of your comfort zone. Mostly you should have the good sense to take a step back, take a break when needed, recuperate, and then press on with a clear mind and focus.
A Good Team
As you would learn from any other account about this climb, the mantra on Kilimanjaro is “pole, pole” – [‘po-le ‘po-le] not [pəʊl pəʊl] – which is Swahili for “slowly, slowly”. You’ll be hearing this from everyone in Tanzania – from your mountain guides to the salesperson at the souvenir shop. Basically, there is no rush in Africa, so take your time.
Sometimes though, just taking your time is not enough. Which is where the second most heard phrase on our climb comes into play – Hakuna matata! Most of you will instantly recognise it from the Lion King movies (Yep, that whole story takes place in Tanzania. Whaaat! 🙂 ) and some of you might even remember the meaning, namely, be positive. Hiking for days on end is a challenging task, even when you stay at your usual altitude. When you’re going up towards thinner and thinner air, it could be grueling.
This is when you need to get back to that resolve you have forged and say “I will not give up; I will, instead, admit I’m having a hard time and get stronger through humility”. A mouthful, I know, but not everything in life has to be short and easy and convenient.
Which brings me back to the point that there were no worries in our little group (of five) at any time before 5000m. Granted, we are all reasonably fit – each of us trains at least two different things regularly, and the one who was less active made up for it by hiking steep treks in order to prepare – but we also know fitter people than us who didn’t manage to reach Uhuru, thus overconfidence was considered a vice outside of group pep talks. What we trusted most in was the expertise of our guides. We rarely tried to walk faster than the pace they were setting for us and never rushed to get to the next camp, even if we were taking a longer break than needed.
My first fried bananas. Delicious! 🙂
Pole, pole, we would get from camp to lunch to next camp right on time for a hot lunch (on some days) or hot water for washing up and tea/coffee and some snacks waiting for us.
This is the place to say that the team we had – thanks to Kandoo Adventures – was excellent.
When I started the research, I was advised by a couple of people not to go for the cheapest option. Mostly because of theft stories – those stories involved people stranded on an unknown mountain with little if any equipment. So we opted for a company that offered a higher price but also had a good amount of excellent reviews online. Do your research, you won’t regret it.
We were definitely happy with our bunch of people. Our main guides, Richard and Deo, were very positive, had a good sense of humour, and generally took great care of us. Our third guide, unfortunately, had to go back down around the 4th day due to AMS (aka altitude sickness). He had spent too much time up at the crater the week before and it got to him. It only goes to show that even the most trained body could cave under extreme circumstances.
The porters also seemed to be mostly in good humour despite the heavy load they were schlepping uphill. We had little actual contact with them, mainly because we were starting at different times and were hiking at radically different paces. We’d start right after breakfast, which the chef and his team had prepared for us while we were waking up and packing up our stuff for the porters to carry. The rest of the group would stay behind to pack up our tents, including the dining tent we had all to ourselves during meals and down time, the kitchen tent, the portable toilet, their own equipment, and they would then take us over somewhere en route, get to the next camping spot long enough before us to set up so that when we get there, there’s already a camp there with tea and coffee waiting for us. How amazing are these guys?!!
Close to 8 am, everyone is hard at work packing up. Simba Camp (2671m)
Our “dining room/lounge”. Very posh compared to our expectations.
The whole team @ Mawenzi Tarn Hut (4302m)
Picking you travelling partners is also something that you should choose with some care. Spending 6 or 7 days with someone practically 24/7 can be straining. There’s a good amount of stories out there of couples fighting when they reach high altitudes, friendships threatening to fall apart, etc., etc. Fortunately, we had very good weather and we were all in good shape so there was little opportunity for animosity to settle in. Also, we were really well fed all the time, hence hunger wasn’t an issue.
Luckily, the few times the weather was not great, we were already in the camp.
Keeping your energy up is important. If you get a good team with a good chef, like we did, you will not be lacking food. We had brought so much snacks – energy bars, chocolate&fruit bars, nuts, berries, etc. – we brought half of it back. And we were full all the time. There were soups (excellent to keep you hydrated without forcing yourself to drink tasteless water), there was rice, pasta, potatoes, veggies and meat (separately, because we had a vegetarian in the group), and there was even cake in the end! How they managed to bake a cake in a tent, I’ll never know, but it was awesome!! :))
Another sign that we were acclimatising well was the fact that we did not lose appetite at all. Not until we reached the ridge anyway, by which point no one was even remotely thinking about food. I’m saying it’s a good sign because we were told on every other meal that we should eat well to have energy because any day now, with the rising altitude, we’re probably going to lose appetite. At least that’s what happens to most people. We were making jokes about it, but it might have proven crucial as there was little chance for snack-breaks on summit night. Some of the guys said they’d managed to eat on the go, but it wasn’t possible for me so I only had one tiny chocolate bar somewhere on the way and they say you burn as many as 4000 cals during the summit – mostly because of the cold and the low oxygen levels.
Snack break w/ excellent view of Mawenzi
We have to mention equipment. I can’t imagine anyone planning to embark on this kind of trip not prepping for it properly, but just in case let’s accentuate how important having the right stuff is.
An example – one person from our group opted for a summer-temp sleeping bag + a warm liner in stead of a good high-altitude sleeping bag and spent at least one night very uncomfortably until he managed to “hack” the system with a down layer. Another complained it was too hot in the proper sleeping bag (for -15 to -30°).
N. testing the full coverage of the sleeping bag
The key is to know your preferences but also know your equipment. If you can get your hands on an extreme sleeping bag (N. and I borrowed ours), it’s not a bad idea to test it out – sleep out on the balcony if it’s cold enough, for example.
Keep in mind that having at least one bottom and one top piece of base layers is a must anyway, so you can (and probably will) sleep in those once you get to 4000+m. I know I did 🙂
Speaking of base layers – do have them, but don’t overdo it with the clothing. All of us brought back clothes we hadn’t put on once. It was mostly the fact that we stocked up on merino clothing so we didn’t need to change every day, but it’s also a pain to have repack your bag every day, plus your porter will probably be grateful for every pound you spare him. Anyway, base layers are very important – that is bottoms, a long sleeved shirt, and socks and gloves as well.
Hand warmers! I had a pair of thin merino gloves underneath my skiing gloves and my hands were freezing the last couple of hours. Also, I had conveniently forgotten the hand warmers specifically bought for the occasion – do not make that mistake. The ones that
react with oxygen and last for hours are about 5gr per bag, so carry a couple with you regardless of whether
you need them or not. If you do, they’ll really make a difference; if you don’t, you might be able to help out a fellow climber or just plain not use them.
Shoes! You must already be aware that shoes are crucial. Get comfortable, durable shoes. I went with my good old Boreals that I’ve had for 8 years (and have used during at least 4 of them, hehe) and I did not have any troubles But if you’re only getting proper trekking boots now, wear them in at least a couple of months before the trek and stack up on good socks. From our experience, it’s better to have a spare pair or two of socks than a spare t-shirt. On summit night, I had two pairs of merino socks and there was a time when my feet were also pretty cold. Now, I have pretty bad circulation so my hands and feet get cold easily, so again, know yourself but be prepared. Plasters and anti-blister sprays or sticks should also be part of your emergency kit.
Trekking poles. I almost forgot about this but you should definitely not! They might not be of huge help on the way up – although I did rely on them a lot whilst dizzy and sleepy – but they will be of huge help on he way down. Your last day will start around midnight (practically the day before, if you’re anything like me who rarely goes to bed before midnight) and it will consist of 1000 or a bit more metres elevation going up and then more than 2000 m down (to Horombo hut at 3700m). I will not post a picture of it, but exactly one month later a third of my big toenail is still purplish-black and I can tell you exactly when that happened – on the way to Horombo, on a seemingly flat but actually covered in very uncomfortable stones path. I was wearing my lower, lighter shoes, which don’t hold the foot by the ankle, so my toe got bruise from the hours of repetitive ramming in the same spot. Even if those shoes are also excellent and have served me well on four continents now, the length of the descent and the stress builds up for all your parts. So do your feet, knees (especially), and even spine a favour and use your walking poles.
Sunrise at Horombo Hut
I read in a post somewhere how gross it was and how hard it was to not have a shower for six days, and I have to tell you… Oh, just grow a pair! All it takes is a pack of baby wipes and you’re good to go. If you want some extra cleanliness, you can do what I did and bring additional packs of antibacterial face and intim wipes, even wet toilet paper. (TP is generally a good thing to have – be it for standard usage or sudden nosebleeds). Also, liquid disinfectant is a no-brainer. As for showers, trust me, you will not be wanting to get wet above 3000-3500m anyway, so just figure out an in-tent cleaning routine. I used to bring rose water and cotton wads with me on camping/festivals but you run the risk of it freezing higher up on Kili. Our team also provided hot water and soap for washing up every morning/evening and TP as we also had a portable toilet (which we mostly skipped whenever possible, but we had it all the same) so you can check with your company about that if you don’t want to over-prepare.
Morning walk to the camp WC pay-off (4300m)
And speaking of bodily functions, you should definitely have at least basic medication with you. For us, luckily, only some pain killers were needed, but anything from Nurofen or the likes for headaches and stomach aches to Imodium, antihistamines, etc. should definitely be thought of. As should vaccinations and malaria medication, but that is something you should take care of with a doctor, so I will not be giving out any advice about it. Definitely go consult a specialist for any medical concerns you might have!
One very important thing – NO ASPIRIN if you’re going to be taking Diamox for AMS. Why? Short answer – it’s dangerous. Long answer: “Large or regular dosing with aspirin and other salicylates should be avoided as acetazolamide can potentiate salicylate toxicity by causing metabolic acidosis and enhancing the penetration of the salicylate into tissues. In addition, salicylates decrease the elimination of acetazolamide, which could result in CNS toxicity.” For an even longer or more extensive one, click here or just google it.
As for the Diamox -a lot of people say that you can avoid taking it if you just drink enough water, but I think that is highly subjective. Talk to your guides about the symptoms of AMS – such as headaches or dizziness – they should have a good idea how to apply the Diamox if unsure. The key thing is that, if you get severe symptoms, it’s useless to only then start taking it, but if you’re only getting mild discomfort that is obviously caused by the altitude, you can start taking it. That’s what some of us did and we only had more pronounced symptoms at the very top (or on the way down as it was for me). A friend who’s done the climb himself said we were taking too small a dosage, so make sure you talk to a doctor about it. The big downside of the Diamox is that it’s a diuretic and you have to drink at least 3-4 liters of water a day. 2+2 = a lot of pee breaks and getting up at night.
Our solitary camp at School Hut (4800m)
The altitude sickness itself, I did not know what to expect. I keep coming across stories about people hallucinating and losing awareness of where they are and what they are doing, and it sounds kind of scary, to be honest. What I felt wasn’t exactly new, just the circumstances were. As I was dragging myself down a dusty scree, which was uncomfortable even in the best of times, in my mind, I kept going back to my teenage years when we’d get so drunk (I’m from Europe, it’s OK! :D) that walking in a straight line would become a challenge of its own. You know, that nausea and the headache that just won’t go away; you’re fluctuating between wanting to and dreading that you’ll vomit because you’re not sure it’d help at all. So you just keep trudging forward because you’re only chance is to manage to get to a bed or a sofa, just not the nearest bench, and sleep it off. Well, I had a full day of walking still ahead of me so my options were more than limited. The thing is, the only thing that could really help me at that point was just going low. As soon as I got to around 4500 m everything was soon back to normal. The headache was gone, my appetite was back and we could finally bask in the sense of achievement because WE’D BLOODY DONE IT! WE CLIMBED MT KILIMANJARO!!
The exhilaration was stronger than the fatigue
Well, this is my “list” of things to think about when planning to climb Kilimanjaro and partially my account of our climb. A more literary account might appear at some point, but I’m not making any promises. I hope you enjoyed this, please use the comments to tell me if I’ve left something crucial out or just to share your experiences. Ta!
The chameleon and the mountain
Another view of Mawenzi peak (5100m)