The highest freestanding mountain in the world, imposing its monumental 20,000 foot height above the African plains. Kilimanjaro is a mountain everyone should revere with great respect. Its many terrains and wildlife amaze both amateur and veteran climbers alike. Summit day was one of the toughest mental and physical feats I have encountered, but I would not change the experience for the world. I wanted to share some key tips that I would have loved to know prior to this amazing feat.
Tip 1 – Preparation is Key
For most people, climbing Kilimanjaro, will be one of the most physically taxing feats every to accomplish in their lifetimes. As the old saying goes, “The war is won before the battle”. Picking the right guide and company to help you accomplish this amazing milestone is very important. Prior to the climb, our guides advised us to train 3-4 times a week three months prior! They suggested trekking and climbing with your 30-gallon backpack filled with weight, if you lived in a region with mountains. However, for us Floridians the next best thing was the Stairmaster. If you are not an active person, physically preparing for the climb will be the deciding factor. You can’t expect to climb for six days straight, 5-8 hours a day, at a higher than normal elevation; if the most exercise you get is walking up stairs when the elevator in your apartment building is open, then you need to get serious and crank out some cardio!
Tip 2 – Sleeping Aid
For most people, they do not live in a place 2,000+ meters above sea level, or have every visited somewhere with that high of an elevation in their lifetime. Living in the coast most of my life, I knew elevation sickness was a hurdle I was going to have to overcome. If you choose the “Machame Route”, which is the shortest route to reach the summit, as we did; high altitude mountain sickness is more prevalent. This is due to elevating an average of 1,000 meters per day! Every night you reach a new campground, your body has to adjust sleeping in this higher elevation. If you are not acclimated then your body naturally wakes you up in the middle of the night because you are not getting the same amount of oxygen you are accustomed. Without sleeping properly at night, it will be much harder for you to reach the summit. Packing some kind of sleeping aid, will allow you to recharge your batteries at night and be ready for the next day ahead.
Tip 3 – The Right Gear
One of Kilimanjaro’s wonders is that it inhabits many different kinds of animal and plant species. This is possible because of the enormity of the mountain and it having various terrains at different levels of the mountain. The lowest level is Rain forest, while one of the last levels before reaching the summit is Tundra. This wide contrast of changing terrain and climate will alter the gear and equipment you put on. Below is a list of key items you will absolutely need when climbing Kilimanjaro:
- Quality pair of hiking boots
- Rain Jacket and rain pants
- Camel Pack
- Comfortable 30 – Gallon Backpack
- Plenty of thick socks
- Warm clothes for summit day
There is of course other equipment not mentioned above that are very important, but these are the most ones that make or break you summiting. On a side note, you will see the porters (locals who carry supplies and equipment during the hike), climbing with air force ones from the nineties, a torn up soccer Jerseys and jeans; while carrying 30 kilos of equipment, beating you to the top, amazing!
Tip 4 – Mind Strong, Body Strong
Kilimanjaro can defeat even the fittest on earth. You can be an avid runner, cranking out marathons once a month, but if you cannot acclimate correctly; you will not reach the summit. High altitude mountain sickness is one of the main reasons climbers are unable to summit. For some it comes in the beginning part of the climb and for others it arrives just before reaching the summit. If you have never had altitude sickness before, it is comparable to the hangover you get when consuming copious amounts of cheap tequila for the night, awful! Trying to prevent this unfortunate circumstance starts with getting the right amount of sleep every night, if your body is not recovering every night properly, then it will be much harder for it to acclimate to the higher elevation. Another way to prevent this is to fuel your body adequately; on summit day, you must eat snacks high in energy, every time you rest. Without enough calories, your body can collapse. Your body ultimately dictates whether you will be able to summit, but what dictates your body, is your mind. Climbing Kilimanjaro is mental more than it is physical. Staying positive and imagining you reaching the summit will be key for you to push through the pain and reach this great milestone. Our guides were our biggest cheerleaders during summit day; they were constantly encouraging us and singing songs in Swahili to help us through this arduous climb.
Tip 5 – “Pole, Pole” (Slowly, Slowly)
Slow and steady wins the race! This is true for climbing Kilimanjaro. You will constantly hear your guides say “Pole, Pole” which means “slowly”. It is not about making to the summit the fastest, it is about actually making it. If you go too fast, you will be more prone to high altitude mountain sickness, because you give your body less time to acclimate to the higher altitude. Besides, there is so much beauty on the route to the summit, you will want to stop and admire this marvelous creation more often than not.
Around 25,000 climbers attempt reaching Kilimanjaro’s summit, per year. With only about 66% actually reaching the summit! If you decide to take on this adventure, keep in mind the tips I have outlined for you, I guarantee that you will dramatically increase your chances of reaching the tallest peak in Africa!