The Assumption: All I have to do is carry my daypack and put one foot in front of the other, right? How hard could that be?
The Reality: Turns out, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is quite hard: harder than childbirth. That was my experience anyway.
The Training: You might not be able to tell by looking at me, but I get a good amount of regular exercise. I walk a lot, I jog a little, and I horseback ride several days a week. Plus, I do hand weights and workout videos at home too. Was it enough for climbing Kilimanjaro? Sure, I made it to the top. Could I have done better? You bet. One of my fellow climbers was a marathon runner and she had absolutely no problem with the climb. In fact, she was skipping to the summit. It seems to me that lots and lots of cardio training must be the key to happiness on the mountain. Of course, she’s nearly half my age so maybe that had something to do with it.
The Arrival: Our group of 7 landed at the Kilimanjaro Airport as scheduled, and we were greeted by our guide, August, and his assistant. Dinner was being prepared for us at August’s home that evening so he took us directly to his tiny two-room cinderblock house, which was tucked back in a quiet little Tanzanian village. The hospitality was warm and the food, which tasted rather similar to Indian cuisine, was delicious.
After dinner, we checked into the Arusha Backpacker's Lodge. The room was small and basic, and the shared bathrooms were co-ed, but it was in line with what I expected for $12 USD per night. Something crawled across my face and woke me during the night. Thankfully, I’ll never know what it was. The ceiling fan, which seemed to be powered by rocket fuel, generated so much wind and whooshing, it more than made up for the lack of air conditioning and it masked all the traffic sounds from outside. A good night's sleep the night before the climb was essential.
The Route: Our guides collected us early the next morning and we began the 7-hour road trip to the Rongai Gate. Of the 6 possible routes, we chose to climb the Rongai Route, also known as, "The Whiskey Route," because it is more difficult to access than the other routes and is, therefore, less traveled. We allowed an extra day for acclimatization (for a total of 6 days), which is critical to successfully climbing Kilimanjaro.
There were at least a dozen of us crammed into that dirty, rusted-out, old minibus and we stopped in every town along the way to either pick somebody up or drop something off. Some of the roads were paved, many were not, and there were potholes, mud, and ruts everywhere. We were bounced around quite a lot, but we thought it was kind of fun.
We arrived at the Rongai Gate and started the check-in procedures. Kilimanjaro has a hefty park entrance fee and their credit card machines were down. Apparently, they only take Visa and they don’t accept cash at all (I didn't find these facts advertised anywhere before hand, mind you). We were not anticipating this, and suddenly found ourselves in quite a pickle as some of us didn't bring enough cash to cover the entrance fee. After pooling our money together and much back-and-forth, the park officials finally reluctantly agreed to accept cash payment (over $700 USD each) and a major crisis was averted.
The Ascent: Off we went. We hiked a few hours that evening and came to our first camp. It was a gentle, but tiring, uphill hike through beautiful scenery. Days 2, 3, and 4 were much the same. We started off walking through tropical forests, and gradually the landscape changed from luscious green foliage to dry, rocky alpine desert. We were rained on, sometimes poured on, and the temperature began to drop. Eventually we were trudging through crunchy ice and snow.
Each of us climbers had 3 porters to carry our equipment up the mountain: 21 men in all. Those sturdy young men did all the heavy lifting, they balanced our duffel bags on their heads as they hiked, they pitched our tents, and they cooked our food. Some of them wore nothing more than socks and plastic sandals on their feet. I was amazed. My personal daypack only contained 3 liters of water, rain gear, snacks and toilet paper. It wasn't much, but somehow my pack still weighed 15 pounds, give or take. I found it heavy to carry after hours and hours, but I managed.
The Food: The menu on the mountain was repetitive, but satisfying. We ate a lot of soup and bread, usually accompanied by rice or noodles with a vegetarian “sauce” or gravy. I found all of it to be quite tasty. The cooks boiled our water each night so it would be safe to drink and we took Diamox tablets to prevent altitude sickness. Every member of our team experienced altitude symptoms to varying degrees at some point during the climb: headache and nausea mainly. Fortunately, that passed.
Summit Night: Day 5, New Year’s Eve, was tough. After hiking 6 hours that day, we ate an early dinner and went to bed. It was more of a nap really because at 11:30 p.m. we were awakened, had tea and biscuits, and started our climb to the summit. It was cold. It was dark. It was steep. We switchbacked the rest of the way up the mountain. Neither looking up nor looking down was an option because the height was disorienting and dizzying. All I could do was fix my gaze on the heels of the climber in front of me, illuminated by the light of my headlamp. The air was thin and icy cold. It became increasingly difficult to breath and I thought my heart might bust right out of my chest.
We reached the summit at dawn on New Year’s Day. The view was spectacular: the sun was rising above the wispy clouds on our left and the full blue moon was sinking out of view on our right. The glacier sparkled and glittered like diamonds. I thought, “This must be what heaven looks like.” It was a moving and quite literally breathtaking experience.
We had just enough time to snap a few pictures and rest a minute, but then we were urged by our guides to start hiking back down the mountain. It’s not healthy to stay at that altitude for long, apparently. Uhuru Peak is above 19,000 feet.
The Descent: Back at the camp we were allowed a 1-hour power nap and a snack, but then we had to get moving again and hike even further down the mountain. An additional 4 hours later, we were finally able to stop for the night. We had reached our final camp. Never have I been so thoroughly exhausted. I was physically spent. My achilles tendons felt like they were on fire. My calves, glutes, back, and hips ached. Oh, and the rest of my body hurt too.
Early the next morning we got up and continued our hike right down to the parking lot at the base of the mountain: that took a whopping 7 hours or so in the pouring rain. I was tired of hiking. All I wanted to do was get our wet, stinky junk piled into the van and start barreling down the Tanzanian "highway" back to Arusha where we had nice clean hotel rooms waiting for us.
I don't know if it was something I ate, a delayed reaction to altitude sickness, or a result of physical and mental stress, but on our way back to Arusha I felt nausea start to creep up on me. Did the driver stop or even slow down just a little? Nope. So, I hung myself out the side of the van through an open window and did what needed to be done. Then, I felt much better.
The Nice Clean Hotel: Several hours later, we arrived at the Arusha Hotel (rated 5 stars) where we went our separate ways in search of a shower and clean, dry clothes. I got myself a cozy private room and I took the longest, hottest, soapiest bath in the history of the world. Later, all freshened up and smelling good again, we met in the pub downstairs. Together we celebrated. Those frosty Kilimanjaro beers and juicy steak dinners were the best we ever had. Or maybe that was victory we tasted. What an accomplishment. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was one of the most challenging and rewarding things I had ever done and I was glad it was over.
Lessons Learned and Tips For Future Climbers:
- Be prepared. Things don’t always go as planned. So, that means having extra cash in your pockets. Something unexpected always comes up and things always cost more than you think they will. You can pay for nearly anything, anywhere with USDs.
- Google it. Whatever you want to know about Kilimanjaro, it’s on the web. Someone has blogged in great detail about whatever question you might have.
- Buy the gear. When I started planning this trip I didn’t know what some of the recommended equipment was for. I bought it all anyway and I’m glad I did. I used every bit of it. My husband’s motto is, “use the right tool for the right job.” It just makes life easier.
- Be positive. Before you even get on the plane to Tanzania, make up your mind that you ARE going to make it to the summit. Half the battle is a mental one. Don’t allow negative thoughts to creep in, and for the love of Pete, don’t verbalize any negative thoughts you might have. That is toxic to you and everyone who can hear you.
- Bring earplugs if you plan on sleeping ever.
- Apply sunscreen every couple of hours. The UV rays are kicked up a couple dozen notches on Kili.
- Load your iPod with a variety of great music. It will keep your feet moving on summit night.
- Pack all your gear in plastic. I used 1-gallon plastic storage bags, but there are several options. It will rain and your bags will get wet, but if everything you own is tucked away in plastic, all your things will stay clean and dry. Don’t allow your belongings to get wet. That’s very bad.
- Tip well. The guides, cooks, and porters work their tails off to provide an adventure of a lifetime and they are paid very little. They also seemed to really like trail mix bars and beef jerky.
- Take a good camera. Wear it under your raingear to keep it dry and wear it under your down coat to keep the batteries from freezing. You’re probably only going to do this crazy climb once so be sure to document your experience with fabulous photos.
- Go ridiculously slowly. You will hear the phrase, “Pole - Pole” over and over, which in Swahili means, “slowly – slowly.” That’s the best advice ever. Successful climbers will tell you to go so slow you think you might stop, and then go even slower than that. It will help with acclimatization and it will get you to the top.
- Get Fit. I read somewhere that your level of fitness won’t necessarily prevent you from making it to the summit, but it will definitely determine whether or not you enjoy the journey. Boy, if that isn’t the truth in a nutshell. So, train for it and enjoy the climb.
Why Climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
- Because it’s there and because we can
- It makes for great party conversation
- It’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and challenge
- It’s a chance to see several beautiful eco-zones up close and personal
- It doesn’t require technical mountaineering skills so it’s an equal opportunity climb
- It’s the highest point in Africa
- Mount Kilimanjaro is nicknamed by locals, “the place where God lives.” Who wouldn’t want to see THAT?
Do I Recommend It? Oh, yes indeed.