Facts (and Fictions) about Climbing Kilimanjaro

If climbing Kilimanjaro is on your “bucket list” you’ll find plenty of information about the climb. Complete strangers will transform into smiling, well-intentioned people who offer you counsel. Some of it is sage advice, some not so much.

Annually, about 25,000 people attempt to climb what is the highest free standing mountain in Africa. Of those visitors, estimated success rates according to Kilimanjaro National Park are less than thirty-percent for five-day routes.

Less than half reach Uhuru Peak (the Summit) doing the six-day route I climbed. An eight-day route promises the best chance for success. That’s because it provides the best amount of time to become acclimatized. Although I had horrible altitude sickness, I did summit Kilimanjaro, and offer a little “myth busting” for fellow travelers.

Fact. Your guide checks your oxygen and pulse rate each night.
It’s a painless process that tracks your overall health during the climb. Guides are monitoring your body’s ability to adjust to the thinning atmosphere. An oxygen rate below 60 will, however, will result in you being sent down to lower altitudes.

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My pre-Summit oxygen check. Why do I look distressed? Because my oxygen levels went from a stellar 99-97% to 88%. In retrospect, a sign of a long, tough night ahead.

Fiction. Guides will turn you back at the slightest hint of a problem.
Guides are there to help to ensure you reach Uhuru. Safely. Be open and honest about everything you are feeling. Got a headache? Feet hurt? Speak up.

I was very open that I have asthma, and cannot stress the importance of that to my ultimate success. Guides kept an extra close eye on my breathing and slowed my pace considerably at lower altitudes. While I H-A-T-E-D being stuck at the end of the line, I needed all that extra stored strength and energy.

Fact &Fiction. You are going to puke.
Not everyone will but it is not uncommon for even the fittest hikers to vomit on the way up to Uhuru Peak. Stomach upset is commonly brought on by a combination of fatigue and altitude sickness. Be prepared to set your jaw, and get right with it. Then keep climbing.

Fiction. Porters can carry everything you pack.
Not even close, because they’re lugging food, stoves and tents. Each person is allowed to pack a maximum of 30lbs of gear for your porter to carry. Anything else is on you. Literally. I try to Pack light, and pack smart. I carry rain gear, snacks, sunglasses, Cottonelle wipes, an extra layer, hat, camera and water, and personal medication/sunblock.

Fact. The most successful climbs to the Summit have a 1:1 or 2:1 guide-to traveler ratio on Summit day.
My tour had the same amount of guides as climbers for our climb to the Summit, allowing for personalized attention, motivation and medical care (if necessary). Worst-case scenario, a sick traveler can return to lower altitudes without disrupting other climbers. In this case, I was the sick traveler

Fiction. Summiting is all about physical preparation. Being physically prepared is critical, but only half the battle. You have to be emotionally ready and mentally resolved. While training, put yourself in situations that are mentally exhausting, boring and uncomfortable. Because come Summit night, you will be mentally exhausted on top of dealing with a host of potential discomforts. For me, getting to the top meant struggling through asthma, and overcoming altitude sickness. That  had everything to do with mental willpower and resolve.

Fact. Your guide knows all.
Don’t second-guess your guide, Kilimanjaro is his office. Get input on your gear before you take off for Kilimanjaro National Park. Chances are you over-packed and they are an invaluable resource for sorting out what is useful vs. what is weight.

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Our second guide, “G-Man” who decided it was time for me to rest and have a snack. Who needs snacks when you can take selfies?

Fiction. Guides travel with Oxygen, to dispense if someone is having difficulty during the climb.
Yes, guides do travel with oxygen. No, oxygen is not prophylactic. That’s a combination red flag/white flag. Once you require oxygen, your climb is done, and your hike returning down to lower altitudes has begun.

Fact. Guides and porters liked to be thanked.
If you think your guide and porters did a great job getting you to Uhuru Peak, don’t be shy. Tell them. It’s a source of pride for them. Trinkets like high quality wool socks are also appreciated. But, pro-tip, if you really enjoyed your trip and want to do something unique, offer to get them a banana beer on the way back down the mountain. It’s an acquired taste but a not-to-be missed experience.

 

Planning for a Trip to Kilimanjaro

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.

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This is the view of Moshi and surrounding areas roughly half way up Kilimanjaro. Breathtaking (literally and figuratively)!

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.

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Kibo Hut: Base Camp before you start the final climb.

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.

HomeTown Tourist: WONDER

 

Washington DC will never be a mecca for what’s on point in fashion, sports or art. But, the Smithsonian is working overtime to at least put us in the conversation.  (Thank you, Smithsonian!) Exhibit A: 2014’s American Cool at The National Portrait Gallery.

After two years of renovations, The Renwick Gallery reopened at the end of  2015 and is the latest proof point that we are not a city full of stodgy politicians and presidents who don’t live up to the hype.

The current exhibit, entitled WONDER, is delightfully just that. (Yes, I used the word delightful.)  The gallery lends its space to nine contemporary artists who created “site-specific” installations. In English, each exhibit is customized to the room, hallway or ceiling that serves as host to the finished masterpiece.

What results is unique series of massive works of art that are simply beautiful. You can wander through each room, walking around or, in the case of Patrick Dougherty’s exhibit (below), through enormous pods of willows and saplings.

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To truly enjoy WONDER, don’t rush from room-to-room. Slow down. Stand on your tip toes to peak down the center of the reconstructed hemlock. Circle through rubber tires a few times. Stand in the corner to marvel at the “wallpaper” Jennifer Angus created. And, lay down in the grand salon to really marvel at the waves Janet Echelman installed. (Trust me fellow, germaphobes, put your jacket up over your head and lay down.)

PROTIP: Thanks to press like this, WONDER is P-A-C-K-E-D on the weekends. To miss the worst of the crowds, take a lunch break or leave work early. Make sure your camera or iPhone is charged. Photos are encouraged and you are going to want to photograph the heck out of WONDER.

The Renwick is open daily from  10:00 – 5:30 pm. The first floor installations will be on exhibit through May 8, 2016. The second floor installations will be on display through July 10, 2016.

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In Search Of: Inspiration

If you’ve stopped by, you probably noticed my outdated and semi-abandoned blog. I’ve sorely neglected my little slice of cyber real estate.

Why disregard something that made me happy? I lost my inspiration and I just haven’t been able to find it.

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If we could press the rewind button on life for a moment…In April, I returned from Kilimanjaro where I obtained the number one missing stamp in my passport. I was eager to share my adventures. I was so eager to share my adventures I made arrangements to do some guest writing. I wrote two excellent stories –totally biased but they were GOOD- about preparing for Kilimanjaro and what’s like to climb the highest free standing mountain in Africa. I submitted them, eager for some affirmation of the work, eager to know when they would be published and how many photos were needed to accompany the each story.

I waited. I waited some more. I followed-up. And then I waited…and waited…and honestly, I’m still waiting nine months later.

Okay, I’m not literally waiting any more. I totally gave up.

At first my ‘never accept no for answer’ mentality kicked. I looked around for other opportunities. Nothing seemed like the fit or the bloggers said they weren’t interested in guest content.

While I was looking around for other opportunities, I started to notice how much sponsored content exists in world of travel. Honestly, I think it’s everywhere. We just tend to notice things more when it’s a topic or subject we are passionate about. The one that sent me off into the deep end was a travel post about avocados. Yes, the Avocado Board of Mexico wanted you to share your favorite travel stories over recipes that include avocados.

I really try to abide by a philosophy where I respect another person’s feelings, right to earn a living and have their own views, even if I might personally disagree. And on this, I disagreed. I couldn’t see the passion, the joy, or frankly the connection to travel. That ‘take no prisoners’ mentality that was just at my fingertips suddenly slipped. Now it was an arms length away and moving further as the days passed.

Then, life happened. First, there were family health woes. Stressful, but everyone survived and is great. Then there was work. It just wasn’t materializing the way clients committed. Then, my amazing canine companion passed away. He came into my life when he was three and we had some fantastic adventures. Caring for him in his twilight years was an ongoing joy and total pain in the ass. But saying goodbye was horrible. I’m still very sad and feel ridiculous sharing with people. And, in case you were wondering, losing someone (human or animal companion) does wonders when it comes to inspiring your writing. That’s sarcasm, by the way. The hits kept coming, too, that but those stories aren’t mine to share yet. Suffice to say, I had to step up to the plate big time in a caretaker capacity.

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Is that you knocking, inspiration?

After months of waiting for the something… hello?…inspiration fairy?…I still have nothing. And in the interim all the little things that were just annoying are suddenly 10-foot high hurdles: I hate the design of my blog, why can’t I find a design that matches the vision in my head? How do you write about travel when you are marooned in one location? Can you be credible? How do you write when it’s your own experience, not paid content? I don’t have the answer but it’s easy to see how sometimes, the mind is a terrible thing to be alone with.

This probably begs the question: why exactly am I hear being all ‘woe is me’?

In January I swapped my annual goals for Three Words. (The idea came from Chris Brogan and you can read about it 3 Words.) Goals were still too scary and overwhelming. But three words to guide me seemed a little more my speed this year. One of my words is write.

I’m still figuring out how to make this work when I feel lackluster and uninspired. I don’t have the answer. But, if you stuck with me this long, maybe you’ll stick around to see what’s next?

 

Kilimanjaro: A Mystic Welcome

Kili National Park
No matter what route you decide take when climbing Kilimanjaro, your trek starts here. You (or your guide) have to register and obtain park permits at the Kilimanjaro National Park’s main gate. The fog when we arrived created a bit of a mystic pre-trek feeling. Photo circa: March 2015.

Salem: Beyond the Witches

Salem, Massachusetts is a mid-size town along coastal New England. It’s famous for a tiny 17th Century misunderstanding that resulted in the stoning, burning and murder of 20 residents. No big deal, right? If you grew up in MA/NH/ME area of New England chances are you spent an entire month in school studying this NBD, also known as the Salem Witch Trials.

In summary, the reality of post-war, puritan New England set in with this deeply religious community. In addition, controversy bubbled up behind the ordaining of Reverend Samuel Parris. Locals disliked his ways and greed.

In 1692, Rev. Parris’ daughter and niece began having “fits.”  (fits: screaming, throwing things, uttering weird sounds and contorting their bodies in strange, unusual positions.) Presumably at a loss, a local physician blamed … THE SUPERNATURAL!

Under pressure from local magistrates, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, the Parris’ slave, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman. The woman were brought to trial, two proclaiming their innocence, the salve confessing “the devil came and bid me to do it.” The spark that would ignite paranoia was lit and the rest is history. (For the record, I remembered about 60% of the above from school. I had to look the rest up. Yet again, thank goodness for the internet.)

By today’s standards, the Witch Trials resemble Tina Fey’s biting (and accurate) Mean Girls but on steroids. But for whatever reason, people love the story and the idea that Salem is home to a lot of witches and witchcraft. They love it so much that the other “gems” of Salem, in my opinion, get overlooked.

What exactly are these gems? Thank you for asking…

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I loved the “pop” the turquoise door makes against the black frame of this house. It’s so un-colonial while pretending it is.
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The Flying Saucer pizza has great pizza and craft beer. Have no fear, Trekkies are welcome and they have memorabilia that will appeal to you as well.
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Harrison’s Comics & Pop Culture is *the* place for relics of days gone by (like this one) as well as TONS of Walking Dead and other more current stuff.
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Literary wonks will know interested to know this is The House of Seven Gables, that inspired Nathaniel Hawethorne to write the novel. (It’s also the oldest wooden mansion in New England.)

Other Salem gems not photographed but worth your time: Gulu-Gulu Cafe for lunch, Sea Level Oyster Bar (upstairs) for drinks and Captain Dusty’s Homemade Ice Cream for your sweet tooth.

If you are in New England, don’t wait until Halloween to visit this lovely community. It’s a great day trip from Boston (and not nearly as crowded) and Portsmouth, NH.

For visitors with a car, Salem is located off I-95 in Massachusetts. Parking was pretty easy since we were visiting a friend. Without that perk, you may want to Google “parking in Salem” to find a lot closest to your destination. Plan to pay $10-$15 for a day. You can also access Salem via MBTA Train.