My main objective when I went to Tanzania was to climb Kilimanjaro. I thought about it years ago and then I bought a house and renovated it. For the last five years I just didn’t have the cash to invest in a Kili climb. This year I knew I would pay off my house soon, so I knew it was time. I booked my climb with Africa Travel Resource in May and went on the trip of a lifetime in January.
I learned a lot from this experience, especially how to be better prepared mentally, physically, and equipment-wise if I attempt a high altitude climb again. I’m sharing what I learned and some tips that might help you reach the top of Kilimanjaro.
ATR is based out of the UK, but they are closely connected to safari and Kili climbing companies in Tanzania. I utilized their expertise to organize my entire trip to Tanzania. The team of people that guided me and the other seven members of my group up Kili was The African Walking Company and they were truly outstanding. Our chief guide was Florence. If you look up the definition of charismatic in the dictionary, you will find his picture, but he is genuine. He was born to lead not only tourists up this mountain, but his team as well.
The other guides were Mustafa, Hans, and Jonas. We were also taken care of by one of the most charismatic characters I’ve ever met whose name was Hand I believe, but we called him Sparkly Jeans. One of his main tasks was to serve our three course dinners, and even one three course lunch! He entered the mess tent like Cosmo Kramer. Awesome. My porter who set up my tent every day was Frankie. He was a teenager and was just wonderful.
For a group of eight, we had a staff of 33 including Florence. They were just amazing. Check out this picture of our last night, after our work was done. They sang to us and I nearly cried, which is very unlike me, but I got quite attached to their smiling faces. Notice the two women porters on the left? They carried the same 27kg all the male porters carried. They are two strong, beautiful women.
I could go on and on about The African Walking Company. But it’s time to move this article along. My friend and I had 2.5 weeks for this entire trip, so ATR recommended the Rongai 5 Day route up Kili. It begins on the northeast side of Kili, not far from Kenya. We climbed five days, and on day six we did a 19km gradual descent and exited from the Marangu Gate.
Tips for Climbing Kilimanjaro
Based on my experience and the knowledge of our guides, I want to offer some insight and advice to help you reach the top. Full disclosure, I did not, so maybe I’m not qualified to offer advice, but I learned a lot I’d like to share with you. I made it as far as Gilman’s Point. Loss of appetite due to altitude and very little sleep over the five days due to a snoring tent mate (I was NOT aware of this before we got there!) caught up with me and when I reached Gilman’s Point, I just didn’t have any fuel left to keep going to Uhuru Peak.
I still struggle with whether or not this was a failure for me because I didn’t reach my goal. This is the first time I didn’t succeed at a goal that was both physical and mental and that’s hard for me. I hope these suggestions help you get to Uhuru Peak and reach your goal, whether it’s Gilman’s Point or Uhuru Peak.
1) Be prepared. Cliché, but true.
The Boy Scout motto definitely rings true for climbing Kilimanjaro. ATR sent me a gear and clothing list and I got everything on the list that wasn’t optional, and a few things that were. I used everything. There were a few dots I didn’t quite connect before arriving though. I didn’t realize that the 15kg weight limit they stressed was actually the total weight of the gear a porter would carry for me. While I was aware the porter would carry my gear, I realized what ATR didn’t tell me was that they would also carry my clothes, including the four season coat I used on the last day.
I guess I didn’t realize they would carry things like my journal, pretty much everything except snacks, water, rain gear, and a fleece, all of which I could carry in a small day pack. Little slow on the uptake I guess. Most people seemed to know this before the debriefing we had the night before we started, but this is the one thing I feel ATR fell short on. Their explanation of what I would carry just wasn’t clear to me.
When climbing Kilimanjaro, most of your clothes will be used on the last day. The four season coat, the fleece/ski pants, the rain pants, and a couple of extra top layers will be necessary on that last day of the climb. Another thing I found really useful for the entire week was the use of my Camelback bladder and daypack. I didn’t want to carry bottles. I was the only one in my group with a bladder and the only one who didn’t have to remove my pack every time I wanted water. Because my bladder was next to my back, my water didn’t freeze during the climb to Gilman’s Point. Everyone else had issues with their water starting to freeze in the bottles. I thought the bladder was way more convenient.
Invest in an actual camera and get two batteries, and sleep with both batteries. The cold will drain the batteries and your phone. I slept with mine and didn’t need the second battery until I got to Gilman’s. If your phone takes good pictures and you want to use it, get a second battery or do what one of the guys in our group did. He had a solar charger on his daypack, which I thought was brilliant.
You will be required to get travel insurance before you depart for your trip. Climbing Kilimanjaro is no joke, and accidents do happen. The few dollars a day you spend on travel insurance is well worth it, even if you don’t use it. You can mentally relax knowing you’re covered if something happens. I use World Nomads for all of my trips and have had a great experience with them.
Ultimately, follow what your tour company says about preparing and what your guides tell you on the trek. They know what they are doing.
2) Get fit before you go. Climb those stairs.
I read about unfit people, even smokers, attempting Kili. I didn’t read about any who were successful. While altitude eventually became my downfall, my fitness level and the fitness level of the others in my group got three of us to Gilman’s and four of us to Uhuru. The eighth? A smoker who was 50 pounds overweight didn’t make it very far on the midnight hike to the top before she turned around. A higher level of fitness won’t guarantee you reach Uhuru, but it sure will make it much more likely. Run, walk, climb, hike, and if you can hike at higher altitudes, even better! Get moving!
3) Prepare for issues with altitude as best you can. Everyone reacts differently.
I didn’t take Diamox or any other recommended medication to prevent altitude sickness while climbing Kilimanjaro. Once we got above 13,000 feet, I popped Advil for a headache, about eight of them a day and night. Diamox was suggested by ATR. Two people in my group took it and one of them suffered from headaches and appetite loss like me. The rather unfit member of our group hardly suffered at all, having only the occasional headache. Altitude affects people differently. If you’ve done high altitude trekking, above 13,000 feet, you probably have an idea of how it might affect you. Before taking medication to prevent it, do your research. Sometimes the medication causes the same symptoms as altitude sickness.
Any time you book a tour with a travel company, whether it involves an activity classified as “risky” or not, you will likely be required to get travel insurance. For my entire trip to Tanzania I was covered by World Nomads. They have great coverage at a very reasonable price and it is easy to know exactly what is covered.
4) Eat and drink, even when you’re not hungry or thirsty.
You’re climbing, even if you don’t think you are. You’re thirsty, even if you don’t think you are. High altitude makes dehydration even more of a problem. Drinking water helps to ward off altitude sickness as well. Our guides recommended 3-4 liters a day and I took their advice. When they made us stop to ‘drinky drinky’ I listened and just did what they said. Day four of the Rongai route seemed deceptively easy with a wide, seemingly flat trail most of the day. It wasn’t flat. We were slowly climbing at an altitude around 15,000 feet.
My appetite was nil. But the guides said eat, so I ate, until dinner. Everything I put in my mouth tasted like dust and I couldn’t swallow anything but soup. In the end, I think this was why I wasn’t successful in reaching Uhuru. This and a lack of sleep. Next time I will attempt to prepare for this in case it happens again. I know what NOT to bring as a snack on that last day. Cheese cashews and biriyani cashews. No way. Bland all the way next time.
5) Stay positive. Think positive. Smile. Laugh.
This might sound cliché like my first suggestion, but it is so true and your guides will tell you the same. I had a great group of people and we laughed a lot. We talked a lot while walking and got to know each other. We talked to our guides and each had a story to tell. Our guides had the most amazing smiles. When they smiled, we all felt positive. Listen to your guides because they will motivate you and make you feel like this is possible. Take pictures of the views, the camps, your group, your guides. You will want to remember every minute of climbing Kilimanjaro. Who would ever want to forget this smile?