Exactly one year ago, I completed the number-one item on my bucket list; traveling to Tanzania, and summiting Kilimanjaro.
Anyone preparing to climb Kilimanjaro (“Kili” as it’s called) can find an abundance of information on the Internet. In fact, there is so much information it’s overwhelming.
Add to that friends, family and strangers who’ve never climbed a hill offering their best intentioned “helpful suggestions” about what they’ve heard about what to pack, proper physical preparedness, and who knows what all and your eyes may very well cross.
I listened to it all because, frankly I was a little intimidated. I’ve hiked Nepal, Colorado, New Hampshire, the Inca Trail, etc. Still, I knew enough to know to take it seriously.
I was right.
Among the “challenging” vacations I’ve taken, Kili was by far the most physically demanding. Psychologically, it rates third, but this is not a trip to take on a whim.
Unless, of course, whim is the usual way you approach things. For others visiting Tanzania for the first time, I jotted down a few insights from my experience. I winnowed it down to the things and tips I found valuable.
But first, let me set the stage. To view Kili from the right perspective—consider it’s the same perspective as viewed out of a Boeing’s window.
If it’s not the view out of an airplane window, sooner or later something about Kilimanjaro’s landscape will remind you of somewhere else you’ve been. Because climbing it means traveling through a little bit of everywhere, and a series of climates from sea level along the way up to 19,800 feet.
Beginning at the equator, ascending through lush rainforest, then on to grasslands, then alpine deserts, and finally arctic summit. Temperature variation ranges from hot and humid, to “I can’t feel my face or my legs…we have to go back down?”
With that in mind, the few things I found most important when climbing Kili are:
1. Plan your trip at least six months in advance. As mentioned, this is not a “last minute” trip, unless you already have everything you need, and maintain a very active lifestyle. I started researching tour companies, gear, training, vaccinations, visa, medical documentation—those little things take big chunks of time. I maintain you need six months to get it everything done and train sufficiently (mentally and physically).
My favorite resource for training is the book Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro . It’s an easy read that is direct, and accurate. I customized my training based on what the authors did. Helpful Hint: Do cardio wearing your daypack to help your body adjust to this added weight, feel and wear before you climb. I also urge adding yoga, stretching and weight training.
2. Bring used gear to the climb. Allow time to break in gear, and to get comfortable with it. Take time to organize and test all gear in as many types of weather as you can find. Pick the coldest day to walk in your Summit down jacket, wearing a properly weighted (35lbs) daypack. Or walks in rain gear, adding a rain poncho to keep everything dry. This also helps to mentally prepare for what’s ahead.
I believe there is a psychology behind packing (and over packing). The more gear is used before a climb, the more confidence there is in it, and the less one needs—or wants. Superfluous items are just added weight.
3. Choose your travel companions wisely. Your success and safety directly relate to the tour company you select and your climbing guide.
Our guide estimated there are about 300 tour company’s operating in Tanzania. Anything over ten requires good old-fashioned “elbow grease.” The website Kili Adventures has lots of traveler reviews on the different outfitters, look at Trip Advisor and network your friends for recommendations.
Specifically examine: were travelers satisfied with their experience, the service and search for those intangible things especially important to you. I decided to travel with a company that provided jobs to Tanzanians. I also wanted a team that had worked together. Finally, I was interested in being exposed to local customs and culture.
Before booking, here are a few questions to ask the operator:
· How large can I expect our group to be?
· How many guides climb the Summit with travelers?
· How many times has your guide summited?
· If you have a specific a medical condition, asthma let’s say, ask if the operator has experience in and is comfortable dealing with that issue.
We had three different conference calls with our travel operator to review the above, and travel insurance. Don’t be bashful.
4. Shyness will be overcome, or it will do you in. I’ll put it this way. Altitude sickness cannot be described. To experience it, as I did, is an entirely different perspective. You shift from livin’ the dream, to waking up in a nightmare. Symptoms can include sleeplessness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Of all of these, at 16,000 feet, the last symptom is the most miserable. I’m not saying that I experienced it (because that would be embarrassing) but modesty goes out the window and over the side. Not generally life threatening, altitude sickness is serious because it can mean not summiting. Listen to your guide, listen to your body, and then listen to your guide again.
5. Be thorough and thoughtful about what you pack. You’ll receive packing lists from your tour provider in addition to opinions about what to bring.
The onus is yours to determine what you need. I prefer traveling light so I have room to pick up souvenirs. Of all the things we were told to bring, the five I most appreciated were:
· Wet Wipes. If you are staying at a hut, you have access to a shower of numbingly cold water. Wipes are a great way to clean up and for emergencies (I’ve been told), so consider wipes appropriate for private parts. A few ten packs are better than a family-sized container.
· Tent lights. These small, light-weight lights can be found at any outdoor or recreational store. If you are sharing a tent, these help because you don’t have to use your headlamp, and can avoid blinding your tent mate. Also useful for late-night nature visits.
· (Extra) Camera battery. Cold drains camera batteries. Bring an extra one, or a portable iPhone battery. You don’t want your device to die before Summit night.
· Electrolyte tablets. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this last-minute addition to my bag. Be it Gatorade tablets, goop or generic electrolytes, helps avoid dehydration and provides extra energy for Summit night. My tablets were climb saving, and helped prevent even more serious issues of altitude sickness.
Kilimanjaro is truly the adventure of a lifetime. Despite my “extremely mild, nothing to see here, don’t worry about me, I’ll catch up” altitude sickness, summiting was a very proud moment. I’m so glad I did it and recognize my next journey has a tough act to follow.
If you plan to climb Kili, I wish you tenacity, perseverance and happiness as you reach Uhuru. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. I’m not an expert, but I love to talk travel, and collect stamps on my passport.