As everyone who blogs about climbing Kilimanjaro offers their tips on how to do it, because doing it once makes you an expert right? Herewith (and in rough order) are some of mine that you may find helpful.
If you read one book on Kilimanjaro, it should Henry Stedman’s guide. An indispensable work, most of the facts and figures I’ve quoted in preceding posts have been drawn from it. Available on Amazon here, recommend you get yourself the paperback because you’ll be taking it with you. Henry’s website is here, again detailed and tremendously helpful. In terms of mission planning you’ve two basic parameters to consider for your climb, the first is when you climb, and the second is what route to take. As an example, we took the Lemosho route which starts lower and takes a total of eight days to complete (you summit on the morning of the seventh). Starting lower and spending longer on the mountain gives more time to acclimatise to the altitude and as the route takes you across the Shira plateau you get to see a lot of the mountain. We also picked a climb date that had us summiting on New Years eve, which falls at the tail end of the small rainy season. To answer the inevitable question, ‘did it rain?’ the answer is yes, in the afternoon we’d get cloud and then the rain would set in for an hour or so. As we’d usually reached camp by then, this was not such a problem and above 3000+ metres you’re above the rain line anyway.
I’d recommend doing your research regarding which company you want to go with, and also consider whether you want to book from overseas or wait till your in Moshi to make arrangements. Whatever you do, and however light you decide to go, there’s going to be a cost as you can only climb with a guide and a porter (or two). We went with G adventures, and apart from the porridge (shudder) really have no complaints, the climb was run professionally and everyone in the party summited, even me! The other element to consider is whether you want to tack a couple of recovery days onto the end of the trip taking a safari in the Serengeti or lying on the beach in Zanzibar. We spent a couple of days prior to our climb in the Serengeti and N’Gorongoro which were awesome, but would have definitely enjoyed a few days with the feet up after the climb.
Money wise remember it’s (mostly) a cash economy so carry enough to cover yourself if the next auto teller decides it doesn’t like you. You should also factor in how much cash you’ll need to carry for tips for the guides and porters. While the larger climbing companies usually have a set of rates you should also factor in exactly how satisfied you were with the services at the end. Having seen how hard these guys work on the mountain carrying your hi-tech western gear I don’t begrudge them their pay and neither should you. If you have gear at the end that you don’t want then gift it to the guys, they’ll appreciate it, after all without them you wouldn’t have made it to the top.
Once you have an idea of what you want to do, make an equipment list. I find it’s useful to do a pack out, that’s where you throw it all on the floor (or bed) and go through it to prune out any unnecessary things that may have crept in. Make a note of how much things weigh and make up a weight budget so you don’t go over you weight limits. Then throw it all in your day and gear bags and weigh them. Be ruthless with your list, pare it down to the bare essentials, because someone will be carrying it. You basically need to think about weight (as much as price) when you buy anything.
I am not a doctor, so any of the advice in this section should be taken as my very subjective experiences, don’t take this as gospel, talk to your doctor. Let’s talk about altitude first, Kilimanjaro is pretty high, Uhuru point (5896m) is actually higher than the Everest base camp at 5380m. In fact if you were climbing Everest you’d have ascended through the Kumbu icefall and be well on the way to Camp 1 at 6065m. The air is thin at this altitude and the body reacts to the lack of oxygen in the air, termed reduced partial pressure, by trying to acclimatise. If you climb faster than you’re body can acclimatise then bad news, you’ll get altitude sickness. In the worst case it can cause fluid in the lungs or swelling of the brain neither of which you want to mess with.
There’s no real way to tell who’ll get it or not although, somewhat ironically, smoker’s seem to be more resistant to it (at least the small sample that I’ve talked to). Apart from smoking, the traditional way that climbers deal with altitude sickness is the ‘climb high, sleep low’ strategy. That is climb up to a higher altitude then down to rest at a lower altitude, slowly repeating and extending your time at the higher altitude. Which is fine, but you are just not going to have the time to do that on a Kilimanjaro climb, so what to do? The first thing is to pick a tour that spends more days on the mountain, and that gives you simply more time to acclimatise. Unsurprisingly here’s an inverse relationship between length of the climb and the percentage of people who summit, that’s (partly) why we picked the Lemosho route which has the highest success rate, it’s also why the shorter routes, like the five day Marangu, have the lowest success rate. The other part of route selection is simple, spend the minimum amount of time at the summit and then get down quickly. Somewhat amazingly while you can spend days climbing up you can get most of the way off the mountain in one day, although it’s hell on the knees. So what to do if you have to take one of the shorter routes? One thing you can do is pick a route with an additional rest day. This is where you rest (actually you may be walking) at the same altitude for one day, not quite as good as sleeping low, but it does seem to help. The other thing to do is to look for a trek where once you’ve reached camp they take you on a short there and back to a higher altitude. In our case we climbed up to the Lava towers on day four before heading back down to Barranco. Extending your time, rest days and short acclimatisation trips all help. Have a look at the altitude gains you make every day as a guide, I’ve included these in each of my Kilimanjaro blog entries for our route.
All of which means that you’ll probably end with some degree of altitude sickness on your climb. I suffered from mild altitude sickness (headache, lack of appetite, mild nausea and general ‘meh’) from Shira camp onwards, with a pretty bad dose of it on the climb up to the Lava towers, and the last night was just brutal. G also suffered mild, and different, symptoms (swelling of the hands and face) but no headache or fatigue. The good news though is you can do several things that will reduce the severity.
The first is to just plain take it easy, you’ll hear ‘pole, pole’ or ‘slowly, slowly’ on the trail and that’s exactly what you need to do. Being overly enthusiastic and trying to carry all your own gear (as one our team did) is just not a good idea. One way to save your energy is to learn how to do the mountain rest step, another is to focus on a breathing deep, I was breathing my socks on summit night. You just have to get there, you don’t have to be the first so pick a pace that you can sustain. Trying to keep up with the main part on summit night was one of the reasons why I almost failed to reach the peak.
The second thing is just drink plenty of water. Everyone gets dehydrated at altitude, in part it’s the dry air, in part your body is trying to acclimatise and you can lose water volume that way, so drink. Just like a hangover, dehydration makes the symptoms of altitude sickness worse. Try to get water in your body before you head out for the day’s climb, drink during the day at every rest break, and finally when you get to camp. Our guides recommended three litres a day, but to be honest I found it difficult to maintain that regimen and that’s probably one of the reasons why I had such a bad time of it on summit night. During the climb I carried both a camelback and a water bottle, and found that getting rid of all that water weight in your pack was a good incentive to drink. As a by the way, if you bring just a camelback and intend to rely on it on summit night then get one that’s insulated and throw some electrolytes in, even with all of that one of our group found their insulated camelback still froze up, my bet is the hoses were the weak link. Un-insulated water bottles will freeze up as well but you can get around that by carrying them bottom up and wrapping them in a spare sock.
Finally you can take medication (and see your doctor). I started taking Acetazolamide (Diamox®) at Shira camp, half a tablet in the morning and half in the evening. Basically it works by helping the body acclimatise more quickly to altitude. My experience was that as soon as I started taking it the mild AMS symptoms I had diminished significantly, in retrospect I should have started it earlier. You can expect side effects like, tingling in the extremities, odd taste to some food and going to the toilet (a lot). Again I decided to start taking it early to give my body as much help in acclimatising as possible. All that being said it does not ‘cure’ AMS, so if you’ve got severe symptoms descend, and tell someone. The other thing you might consider is ibuprofen, there have been some interesting studies that indicate it may assist in relieving the symptoms of AMS at least. I took Ibuprofen and found that pretty much what happened, it helped the symptoms but Diamox helped with the acclimatisation.
In all that follows just remember that I’m a recovering gear junkie, you have been warned. So let’s start with clothing, and the problem of dressing for tropical rain forest to arctic desert. Basically my strategy is to layer, keep it light and go with natural fibres (except for cotton) where you can.
For the base-layer I packed a couple of lightweight Icebreaker merino t-shirts, that are designed to be worn in hot conditions, and are great for getting rid of sweat when climbing in the cloud forest as well as temperature regulation higher up the mountain. Key point I can’t stress enough, your base layer is as much about managing sweat as it is about managing heat. The other advantage of merino is that it’s naturally anti-microbial and doesn’t stink after a couple of days, that means you can take fewer pieces of clothing which is good as you’ll have a portage limit (about 10kg) for your main bag. Icebreaker also make merino underwear of the non-itch variety. For high alpine conditions I packed Kora yak wool thermals; natural, lightweight, anti-microbial and even warmer than Merino (about 40%) plus some Khunu yak wool socks and jumper. An awesome beast is the noble yak. 🙂
Mid layer and outer layer I went with Arcteryx’s Atom LT jacket and pants and Alpha LT hardshell. If you don’t have a hardshell/mid layer then have a look at these to get an idea of what features to look for. And Arcteryx’s weight versus performance are outstanding (yes so too are their prices) but if you start looking on eBay or Kijiji early enough you can find some very good deals that take the sting out of it. As I sweat a lot, I was looking for the ability to open up the layers and ventilate through without having to take everything off and the Atom and Alpha are good for that. One thing you should consider taking is an travel umbrella, it’s a hell of a lot less sweaty than a hardshell jacket when you’re hiking under the canopy of the cloud forest where, thanks to the humidity, you very quickly end up as damp inside your jacket as outside it, and get a jacket with pit zips if you can.
Take a pair of nylon trekking pants, ideally with a DWR treatment ,in the worst they dry quickly and will turn back anything other than a drenching. I took two pair, one light and one heavier but only ever wore the lightweight pair. I took a well broken in pair of Salomon hiking boots which are tough, lightweight and waterproof, but even with three pairs of socks bloody cold on summit night. The good doctor took gaiter’s and loved them, I took a pair but left them in my main bag and didn’t feel the lack. One thing we both agreed on was the value of walking poles, you’ll need two, especially on the descent.
Your day pack will need to be comfortable enough carry up the mountain and (just) big enough to carry all the stuff that you’ll need on the trail between camps, mine’s one of the Osprey series with the mesh suspension which I like because it reduces the pool of sweat that forms between your back and the bag.
You’ll need gloves with over mitts for summit night, believe me it gets that cold, and a set of thin merino glove liners are useful both on summit night as well as lower down the mountain just by themselves. If you have cold hands then get mitts rather than gloves. Rather than a scarf I used a Kora neck gaiter, gaiters weighs less than scarves and are less likely to get caught in anything. Just remember that the mountain weather is very changeable and just like the scouts you need to be prepared. A warm torque (or balaclava) is a necessity on summit night and for wandering around the higher camps in the evening.
For climbing during the day you’ll need a hat with neck protection as it gets very damn sunny, as well as very strong (Cat 2) sunglasses for glare. You won’t need true glacier glasses thank god, as they’re hideously expensive, I just got mine made up in a standard frame by my optometrist. Final useful piece of clothing, a shemagh. There are a thousand uses for this simple square of cotton, mine came in a tasteful grey and black pattern, good for keeping the sun of the back of the neck, dust out of the face, drying your hands, wiping away sweat, the list goes on and on. Much better than it’s near cousin the bandanna. But be warned, some folk have interesting reactions to the humble shemagh.
So the porter’s can carry your stuff around you’ll need a soft (ideal is a duffle bag) gear pack (mine was a 60 litres Kathmandu) into which all your aforementioned stuff will pack, less what you’re wearing and will be carrying in your daypack. Just be aware that your gear bag will get rained on so make sure you have a liner for the contents. Having lots of plastic bags to segregate wet and dirty from dry and clean is also godsend. Nothing is more depressing than getting into a damp sleeping bag… You’ll keep your gear bag inside the tent for security so what we did was put them on the low side of the tent which gave us something to rest your feet on rather than sliding down into the tent wall in the night. The other thing we did was keep a dry set of clean ‘sleeping’ clothes that we could change into after the bird bath at the end of the day, nothing more depressing than washing yourself and then climbing back into grotty clothes to sleep in. Sleeping mats are essential, the trekking company may supply them (you need to check) or may not but you may decide to take your own anyway for a warmer night’s sleep. The other part to sleeping comfortably is to take a good sleeping bag, down is best these days as it’s treated to minimise water take-up. The key point is the bag needs to be rated to the cold that you’ll experience. I took along the Sea to Summit Talus III which is rated to -17 C and was perfectly comfortable in thermals. One neat trick that G taught me is to get your water bottle filled with hot water before you go to bed and put it in the foot of your sleeping bag.
I took along my iPhone 6 with some add on Moment lenses for wide angle and telephoto shots, that meant I didn’t have to drag along a camera. Of course there’s the power question, so I also took along Power Travellers SolarMonkey Adventurer solar charger. Hang it off the back of your pack during the day and then charge up your appliances in the evening. Just one word of caution about solar panels, because they’re a photo-voltaic cell if a shadow falls across them they short our and you get no charge, so you need to make sure that the panel is in direct sunlight. You’ll need a good head torch for summit night, I took the Peta e-lite which despite being very small and very lightweight did stirling service, but you want to save the charge or have spare batteries for summit night as extreme cold kills battery performance. On summit night keep your camera/phone inside your jacket to prevent the cold from killing it. I took a small pencil style LED torch for use in camp which came with a diffuser so you could hang it from the tent roof for general illumination. Useful piece of kit the diffuser.
Medical and hygiene
Well you’re in Africa but no, no, Ebola is not going to leap out of the bushes and make you explode like a dropped tomato. There are however the usual inoculations to get, go see your doctor for the list. I’d recommend getting yellow fever if you transit through a yellow fever country because you’ll need the inoculation certificate to enter Tanzania, and while there’s a less than 12 hours rule that can change. Malaria is present in Moshi and Arusha, but not higher up the mountain, it is widespread in the coastal regions of Tanzania however so you need to factor your before and after travel plans not just climbing on the mountain. Using personal insect repellant, wearing trousers and long sleeved shirts and sleeping under a mosquito net are de rigour. You’ll probably find that even though your scrupulous about what you eat just the change of diet and being in a different disease pool brings on a bout of diarrhoea. I took Immodium as a prophylactic, as I really dislike you know what, especially given the state of Kilimanjaro’s conveniences. Believe me you don’t want to have to mess around with them at 2 am in the dark and cold. I also took some Lomotil along for dealing with nausea. Antibacterial hand wash, baby wipes, a bar of soap and a wash cloth (in its own plastic bag) plus a travel towel (from Outliers) are the basisc of a hygiene kit, and remember it’s essential to keep your hands and face clean. You should put together a small first aid medical kit to cover off all the little emergencies as well as store all your Diamox, Lariam, Ibuprofen, Lomotil and Imodium. Also carry a smaller still ‘essentials’ first aid kit in your day pack. You’ll need to take enough toilet paper to cover the trip and in their own waterproof plastic bag for obvious reasons. I’d also recommend a lightweight trowel to go in your daypack if you need to do it in the great outdoors, there are some nice lightweight titanium ones. While the trekking company will provide boiled water take your own purification tablets as well as this reduces the amount of water they will have to boil and the amount of fuel they have to carry in. Don’t forget chapsticks, and make sure they’re SPF 50 as burnt lips are absolutely no fun whatsoever. Likewise you should take sunscreen with you during the day, don’t forget to apply it under your chin and nose.
On the mountain
To get a feel of what a climb is like here’s a day by day description:
- Mti mKubwa
- Shira 1 camp
- Shira huts
- Lava towers and Barranco
- Barranco wall
- Barafu camp
- The curve of the earth
- Tumbling down
Other than that if you do decide to climb the mountain then good luck, ‘pole pole’ and enjoy.