As I have written previously, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is one of the most rewarding experiences us average city slickers can do. However how do you go about it? What types of things do you need to do in order to make your expedition a success?
Luckily for the normal guys out there, this adventure is not out of reach of almost anyone. Unlike Mt. Everest or countless other mountains, you don’t have to be an advanced mountaineer to climb it.
In fact, Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in the world that you can reach without the need of any climbing equipment. Basically it’s one long hike, with only a few rocky patches that you have to climb over.
How should I prepare?
While going up Mt. Kilimanjaro is not something super, super hard, you do need to be fit in order to do it. There are two important things that you need to get ready for.
1) You need to be prepared for long hikes in challenging terrain
If you do a lot of hiking on your free time, then you are set to go. However if you are a sit-on-your ass desk jockey, then you will need to spend some time to get your ass up to speed.
The first thing you need to do is to work on your stamina. Get your ass to the gym and start doing some cardio, whether on the treadmill, on a stepper, or on one of those static ski machine thingies. Or better yet alternate all of them!
You can also join some group classes where they do endurance work. One of the things I did to prepare was join a group of people who were doing cardio circuits. It’s a fun way to get in shape, but also meet some new people in the process.
The best way to prepare is to start going on actual hikes though. Start off slow and then gradually keep on building up, increasing the distance, varying the terrain and going higher and higher in altitude.
2) You need to be prepared for the altitude
And this is the key part of the preparation. No matter how fit you are, the altitude can get you. That’s why you need special preparation to address this issue.
If you are like most people, then you probably live at lower altitudes. In higher altitudes, there is lower pressure and less oxygen, which could create adverse effects in people who are not used to this. In extreme cases, this can even result in death.
The good news is that your body gradually adapts to higher altitudes. That’s why during the trip to Kilimanjaro, you spend several days hiking around the mountain, hiking high and then sleeping in lower altitudes. This gives your body time to adapt.
However, if you want to significantly lower your chance of your body breaking down while at Kilimanjaro, you should spend some time in higher altitudes before going there. That way, your body is already prepared.
We did some hiking in the Italian Alps, the weekend before leaving on the trip to Africa. I think this helped, although it probably wasn’t enough. If you spend maybe an entire week or two at higher altitudes before your Mt. Kilimanjaro adventure, then this could be very beneficial for you. You don’t even need to spend that entire time training, just being in that altitude and letting your body adapt, can be really good for you.
What to pack?
You need to remember that Mt. Kilimanjaro has different zones with different climates and temperatures. That’s why you will need to pack a variety of clothing ranging from summer stuff to winter stuff.
You don’t really need to pack too much, as you will be spending most of the time hiking. Just remember that during your entire time on the mountain, you won’t be able to take a shower, so you will be a bit stinky. But that doesn’t really matter, because everyone else will be too! 🙂
Here’s a video I watched before going to Africa. Don’t forget to pack lots of toilet paper and make sure you have good hiking shoes! Another tip I can give is to pack two pairs of sunglasses. While hiking, I lost my pair and had to borrow another one from others.
How to find the company that will help you go up the mountain?
You cannot go up the mountain by yourself, but you need to hire a company to guide you up. This actually makes it easier for you, as you won’t have to lug all your stuff (like tents and food) up the mountain yourself, but instead will have a team of porters to do that. They will also set up the tents and cook for you.
You will also be surrounded by a team of experienced guides that will lead you up, as well as help you out in any case of trouble you might get yourself into.
There are a lot of companies that provide this service and it is worthwhile to shop around online to find the best deal. The overall price will also depend on what type of a comfort you want to have on the mountain as well. For example, they can even carry up a private toilet for you.
I have to say that the company we chose to trek with on Kilimanjaro was very professional and I can only say positive things about them. However on the internet I have read that not all companies are like that. Especially beware of the cheaper ones without any references.
The actual trek itself
There are several different routes you can take to the top of the mountain. Each route differs in difficulty and scenery.
The most frequent route is the Marangu Route, often called the Coca Cola Route. That’s because it is considered the easiest and you sleep in huts instead of tents. It’s also the shortest and fastest route.
However, it is also one with the highest failure rates. I think there are two main reasons for this. Since it is the shortest and easiest route, it attracts less fit climbers. Since these guys aren’t fit, they can’t keep up and are forced to give up.
Another and probably bigger reason is the fact that since it is the shortest route, it also gives the climbers less time to acclimatize to the altitude. Because altitude has such an effect on the human body, those that haven’t prepared well, end up having all kinds of problems and have to turn back.
This route is not the only one that leads up the mountain. There are also other routes that you can take. Beware a bit of going on the Western Breach side of the mountain. While Mt. Kilimanjaro is generally safe, there have been occassional rock falls, and most of them occur there. That’s also the area of the mountain where Scott Dinsmore died.
The route we took is the Machame Route, which is supposed to be one of the most scenic ones, as well as good for acclimatization. It’s a bit more challenging than some of the other routes, but overall if you are fit it is pretty manageable.
One important note: on any route be ready to rough it up, meaning no showers and squatting over stinky holes to take a shit. 🙂
That is an underrated problem that no one ever mentions. For us people used to toilets, it takes quite a while to adjust to taking care of business over what is basically a hole in the ground. It takes a lot of practice and technique to squat properly and aim in the right place. 🙂 Not to mention the smell!
With the Machame Route, you start off at the gates. You have to sign your name and complete a few formalities and then you wait at the gate to get the final clearance to start your trek. In the meanwhile, all the porters are weighing all the stuff they will be carrying, as you are not supposed to leave any trash on the mountain, but need to bring it all back down.
Once all that is done, you can start on your trek. Remember to go “pole, pole“, Swahili words that you will hear often. They mean “slowly, slowly” and are often uttered by guides when you start going too fast. Remember you are in high altitudes and you don’t want your body to work too hard. You might be a bit faster now, but later you might come to regret it. So pace yourself and err on the side of caution by walking slowly and carefully.
Throughout the multiple days of your trek, you pass through different types of scenery and the weather might change from minute to the next. This is something that gives the entire experience its charm. At higher altitudes you even spend time above the clouds and can start to get the same feeling that the Gods of Olympus must have gotten when they were looking down from their mountain stronghold.
The entire route is set-up so that you can acclimatize yourself well. You hike high and then descend to lower elevations in order to sleep. This allows your body to get used to the high altitudes and lack of oxygen. This will be crucial for your final day of going up.
That final climb that begins at midnight in pitch black and freezing temperatures is the make it or break it day. It will be the hardest day of your trip. This is the point when most of the people who don’t get to the top turn it around.
You are in Africa, but there is snow and freezing temperatures. You are reminded to drink frequently since it helps with the elevation, however at these heights the water often freezes in your water bottles, making the act of drinking almost impossible.
When you get to the top, a sense of relief and joy overwhelms you! You made it!
Before embarking on the trip, I watched some videos on Youtube from guys who were sharing their own experiences and many of them were crying when they were on the summit. I was kind of shaking my head.
However I experienced it first hand. When you finally make it to that sign that says that you are on the top of the highest peak of Africa, emotions do get the best of you. Especially if you are there with your friends and family. Tears start forming at the corners of your eyes and you just can’t help yourself.
In a moment of triumph, you also remember all the people who helped you get there and it can sometimes overwhelm you.
The climb to the top was hard, but the day is not over yet.
What makes the day even harder is that after finally getting to the summit, celebrating and taking pictures, you still need to go back down. And there is no lift to do it. You need to descend by yourself.
I thought the going down part was going to be easy. It wasn’t. All the physical damage I took away from the trip happened on the way down.
Directly at the summit, you go down on these slopes of powdery dust, which allows you to descend really fast and feels almost like skiing. Watch out, since it is very easy to fall and hurt yourself. There is a lot of dust in the air as well and my black coat got all covered with it. It ended up going from black to fifty shades of grey. 🙂
After this initial part and a few hours, you finally make it back to your camp at midday (remember you have been up since midnight). At the camp you take a short rest and immediatelly start walking down to your other camp, which is really far away.
A frequent injury that you can get and one that I got is that your toes start banging against your shoe, which then causes severe pain. I ended up getting blue, green and purple nails from it and had trouble walking in shoes for a while. After a few weeks, the nails fell off. They are still growing back almost 8 months later! 🙂
It was not an easy trip, but it also wasn’t something that was impossible. If you prepare well for it, you can make it. Supposedly the success rate is 60% (so a bit more than half of the people who start the climb get to the top), but in our party 11 out of 12 made it to the top, with only one turning around on the final night climb to the summit.
Overall, it was one experience that you will never forget and the memories from it will last a lifetime.
All pictures are copyright by me! 🙂 Note to self, learn how to take better pictures.