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.

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.

Approaching the Sun Temple of Ramsis II

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When people talk about visiting Egypt, I usually hear about the Pyramids of Giza. But dang, if Abu Simbel doesn’t take your breathe away you aren’t living. Photo taken September, 2002

The 2015 Summer Bucket List

Summer! Whether you define summer as that time between Memorial Day and Labor Day (rejoice! You can wear white without worrying if you are breaking a fashion rule), or if you follow the Farmers Almanac more traditional first day of Summer (June 21st: thank goodness I for the extra time to mentally prepare), we can agree the season is here.

Summer in the US is synonymous with barbecue and vacations (or staycations). Because I march to my own beat, for me, Summer means the return of my the Summer Bucket List.

Inspired by Carla Birnberg, I made my first summer bucket list last year. It was so much fun, I decided it will be my new “thing.” Here are a few highlights from my inaugural list.

2014 Bucket List Highlights
2014 Bucket List Highlights (from the bottom left, up and around): Pottsville, PA road trip, Ride in 2nd Trek Across Maine, Photography Tour of Central Park, Kayaking on the Potomac River, a National’s game and Visiting the re-opened Washington Monument.

This year’s list is not as extensive as my first go-around. I have a lot of work lined up and don’t want to be disappointed about not getting everything done. I’m already dealing with one failure, why set myself up for another?

But really, the length of the list is not what matters. The list is a collection of things and mini-adventures I want to have. Writing them down and sharing them becomes a device for making it happen. I mean, let’s be real. How many times have you said you wanted to do something and months, even years later, it still wasn’t done. Yeah, I thought so. I’m guilty too.

Instead of lolling around wasting beautiful days, my Summer Bucket List helps me prioritize my weekends, days off and most importantly gets me out enjoying life and all that the greater Washington DC area has to offer. Without further ado, here is the 2015 Summer Bucket List.

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What do you think of my summer tradition? Would you make a Summer Bucket List?

Misc. Musings vol: 1

After a lot of thought, chatting with mentors and friends, I’ve decided that a semi-regular “Miscellaneous Musings” is a great way to share things that are on my mind. Because, believe it or not, my life is not ALL about travel. More like 92.5%

What follows is what I hope will be the beginning of a regular feature.

Right now I’m musing over… 

It’s been over a month since I returned from Tanzania. The trip was absolutely fantastic and (not surprisingly) I have really been struggling with “re-entry.” Getting back in the swing of work and other commitments has been tough. I am totally unmotivated.

I’m also really wrestling with a strong sense of failure. I had a specific vision in my head about what it would be like to reach the Summit of Kilimanjaro. Sure, I made it. But when you are grappling with altitude sickness, dreams and reality clash. Talking through it with friends in the social world is helping. But this overwhelming feeling is certainly why I’ve been slow to write. (That and I made arrangements for some guest writing that fell through).

I have finished writing about my pre-climb time in Moshi, Tanzania. If you’d like to see more photos, you can “friend” me on Facebook. I just published an album of images that haven’t been published here or on Instagram.

Just one of the breathtaking views surrounding Kilimanjaro
Just one of the breathtaking views surrounding Kilimanjaro

Travel. After such a big trip, I don’t have any immediate ex-US plans. I am working on my summer bucket list and look forward to sharing that.

Summer is a great time to travel and explore. It’s also a perfect time to do one of those things you always talk about but have yet to actually make happen. Last year, we visited the Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, PA last summer. Nothing crazy but something we had literally talked about doing for 3+ years.

Auntie Adventures.  I consider myself a “Professional Aunt” to five nieces and one nephew. Recently, I spent a lot of time with my two youngest nieces. (Referred to as five and six so they have some form of anonymity later in life). I took Five, who is four, to the beach one afternoon. It’s always fun to see how excited kids are. Seemingly inconsequential things, like finding a pretty rock, bring them such joy. It really is true, kids just care who shows up. Not what they brought.

Here's Five totally enthralled with collecting fragments of shells.
Here’s Five totally enthralled with collecting fragments of shells.

Fitness & Lifestyle. I injured my knee last summer and getting back to cycling has been a slow process. But I’m finally up riding and hoping to do my first Century ride (that’s 100 miles in one day) this September. Can I get a Woot-Woot?

On My Bookshelf.  Earlier this year I read All the Light We Cannot See. That was a brilliant novel. I loved how the author ultimately brought the two main characters together. I just starting reading The Rosie Project. If you haven’t read this, I totally recommend it. The story is incredibly accurate and so well written. Another noteworthy read: As You Wish by Cary Elwes.

What Else? My former co-worker has moved to Dubai and started blogging. Check her stuff out here. I LOVED her story that equated making new friends to dating. It’s so accurate. Anyway, she’s great and I can’t wait to read more about her adventures.

The Most Overused Words in Travel Writing hit my inbox in April. I’m doing a significant amount of content writing for a client and tips like this are always interesting to me. I was disappointed to be an offender with some of them (Hello, “Must See”). I thought she had some good points and am actively working on banishing a few of these words from my personal writing.

What are you musing over right now?

Kawaha Shamba: A Tour for Coffee Devotes

Coffee is the lifeline to a good day.” –Me

Coffee, Java, Black Gold, Kahawa in Swahili, whatever you call it, my days start with two things: coffee and a trip to the gym. Take away the second and I’m grumpy. Take away the first and I am not fit for human company. It’s gotten to the point where I travel with a stash of acceptable coffee in case I’m someplace (gasp!) that does not serve coffee. (There is a certain irony to this. While I survive on coffee, I cannot actually make my own cup of coffee. Seriously, but that’s another story for another day). Thankfully this wasn’t an issue in Tanzania.

Following bananas, coffee is Tanzania’s second biggest cash crop, and it’s readily available. Granted, you won’t find Starbucks at every corner but coffee is at all hotels and restaurants. Curiously, coffee at the hotels is instant. Outside of coffee at hotels, there are coffee shops or cafe’s, such as Union Cafe, popping up for residents, ex-Pats and travelers.

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AfricaFe, the instant coffee that is prevalent at Tanzanian hotels. It’s a bit like Goldilocks. One scoop is not strong enough, two scoops is too strong but a scoop and half is just about right!

But there’s more to Union Cafe than welcoming travelers and locals. It’s part of the Kilimanjaro Native Co-Operative Union. This is Africa’s oldest co-op and represents more than 60,000 farmers around Kilimanjaro.

The co-op’s main focus is helping more than 800 farmers secure a fair price, of 2500/Tsch per kg, for their coffee beans at auction. Before picking season, the co-op offers workshops to help farmers provide the best quality beans. It’s these beans that generate the best price. And the best price can be traced back to how someone picks, washes and dry’s their coffee beans.

For curious coffee drinkers, you can visit part of the co-op called Kahawa Shamba, for a tour. A visit lasts about 90 minutes. During the time you will learn boatloads about coffee: how it’s harvested, how to pick the beans, how to wash them, how to roast and grind them, and how to brew a cup of coffee. Following the tour, guests are treated to a traditional Tanzania lunch.

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Going old school: grinding our coffee beans on the Kahawa Shamba Coffee Tour.

If you liked the coffee, I highly recommend buying a bag of beans. They are fantastic and the coffee makes a thoughtful gift. You can purchase these at the co-op or Union Cafe. And, here’s some expert advice from Epicurious about how to store your coffee so it stays fresh long after you are home.

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Have you ever roasted coffee beans on an open fire? Me, neither. The smell was heavenly.