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Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was not in my bucket list until my friend Tom started to talk about it. He is an incredible 50 years old Canadian, working as a consultant. I met him at the UTS cafe where I work, and I immediately was fascinated by this hyperactive guy who runs marathons and loves to climb mountains.
Talking to him triggered something.
I love adventure, but surely climbing a Mountain is no activity for fools. I prepared this trip well in advance and didn’t leave anything to chance. And it turned out to be a blast.
Here I sum up the 10 things I believe everyone should know while planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
1 - Basic knowledge of Mount Kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, it stands at 5.895 m above sea level, and it includes three peaks.
Kibo, the highest, is a dormant volcano that could erupt again. The last activity happened between 150,000-200,000 years ago; the eruption created the crater at the top of Kibo. Along the rim stands Urugh Peak, The highest point of the mountain.
Mawenzi and Shira, respectively second and third peak at 5.149 m and 4.000 m, are both extinct.
During the walk, you will pass through 5 different climate zones in as many days:
– Alpine Desert
– Arctic Zone
Each zone has a different temperature and offers unique landscapes views.
Said so, you need to know that this will not be a technical climb, but more a hard trek. There is no need for special mountaineering equipment, but you’ll gonna have to choose your clothing carefully. I will talk about this later on.
2- Pick the right season for you
Being so close to the equator, the area doesn’t have winters and summers, but only dry and wet season.
Walking in the mud is nobody’s dream; therefore, I suggest to go during the drier months, between January and March and June to October.
January to March: I climbed the mountain in February and found the perfect weather. These months are recommendable if you are after a smooth walk.
April and May: it is rainy season, it gets very wet, and the climb can end up being very uncomfortable. Many operators do not offer tours during these months.
June to October: This season starts with a few scattered showers that slowly leave the place to dry and warm days. The peak season is August to October.
November and December: minor rainy season, these months are moderately cold, and if you don’t mind a little rain, you can still climb the mountain with very few people around.
3 - pick the right Route for you
Choosing the best Route for you is an essential step of the process, that can make the difference between a happy summit and a dreadful turn back.
You can choose one of the six different routes, each one differs from the other in terms of length, difficulty, scenery, crowd and cost.
Known as the “Whiskey Route” is now the most popular between the six, due to its average position on the scale of the main choosing factors.
It is about 62km long, can be done in 6 or 7 days, it requires a minimum level of fitness and can be done by first-time trekkers. The cost is also relatively in the middle.
Or “Coca Cola Route”, a name acquired due to its popularity, is the only Route that offers hut accommodation and uses the same track on the way back. It ascends the mountain mildly and steadily, avoiding any steep climb, except for the summit day. It the cheapest option and offer a higher level of comfort. But don’t be fooled. The huts where you will sleep are merely little shacks furnished with timber benches and thin foam mattresses
Now as popular and Machame, although more expensive, due to its length, a little over 70km. It takes one or two extra days to summit Kilimanjaro through this Route, and it is designed for physically fit people. The scenery is fantastic, and you will get the most of all the different climate zones. On the third day, you will join the Machame Route on Shrira Camp 2 and continue to Lava Tower and Barranco Camp.
It is considered the easiest Route, that approaches the mountain from North. The scenery is quite dull, but it has the advantage of being remote, therefore not crowded even during peak season.
Parallel to Lemosho, this Route is slightly longer and takes at least 8 days, that makes it more expensive. In term of difficulty and scenery, it can be aid the same of Lemosho Route. They join Machame Route on Shira Camp 2 and then proceed South.
It is the fastest Route, the less crowded, but also the one with the lower success rate. It is recommended for experienced climbers who are confident about their quick acclimatisation skill.
Like I said before, choosing the right Route can increase your chances to summit Mount Kilimanjaro without problems.
A big part is also played by the company you choose and its employees.
Travellers on a budget tend to choose budget providers that are based overseas, where most of the money you pay goes, leaving peanuts to the team that will work hard for you to achieve your goal to summit the highest peak of Africa.
There are plenty of companies out there, and even though it is possible to book last minute trips once you arrive in Moshi or Kilimanjaro (that will save you money), I would recommend planning in advance and do not trust providers who offer tours for less than AU$2000.
4 - AMS Acute Mountain Sickness
Whether you are a marathon runner, a postman, an Olympian or a waitress, you should be aware that your physical strength is not enough to summit Mount Kilimanjaro.
Whoever has been above 2.500 m altitude has undoubtedly heard of AMS. You need to understand what is it, its causes, its symptoms, and what to do in case you experience it.
What is it?
AMS stands for Acute Mountain Sickness. It is a condition that occurs when the body lacks oxygen, usually due to a rapid ascent at high altitude. Symptoms often appear above 2.500m; however, some susceptible individuals can experience it at a lower elevation. Anyone can be affected, there is no way to predict in advance who can be influenced by this condition.
What causes it
At high altitude, the air thins and oxygen level decreases. At 6000m you will find only 47% of the oxygen you have at sea level.
The body needs to adjust to the lower amount of O₂; the easiest and safest way to let your body get used to the change is time. It is recommended to ascend 300m per day and take an acclimatisation day for every 1000m.
If the body fails to adapt to the environment, you may experience symptoms such as:
what to do
First of all listen to your guide. At an early stage, AMS is easily treatable. If symptoms are mild, some ibuprofen and Diamox can do the trick. But if such symptoms continue or get worse, the best option is to descend at a lower altitude, and sometimes oxygen treatment will be administered.
AMS can also develop in two different severe types: HAPE and HACE, respectively High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema and High Altitude Cerebral Oedema. In short, fluids within the lungs and the brain.
Both conditions often occur together, are potentially deadly and need immediate attention.
Symptoms of HAPE are:
Accelerate heart palpitation
Blue-tinged nails and skin
Frothy and blood-stained spit
Symptoms of HACE are:
Lack of coordination and stumbling
The best thing to do is descend immediately and seek medical attention.
Nobody wants to spend thousands of dollars to find themselves turning back, maybe at the last minute, but surely is not worth to risk your life to summit a mountain.
Guides are trained and prepared, they are not only there to walk with you, but mostly to keep you safe. Trust your guide more than you trust your gut.
5 - what to wear and what to bring
I am pretty sure you wouldn’t go to the Opera wearing a gym suit, right? Some occasions require a specific attire, and the same applies for a trek at high altitude.
You need to be protected and safe in all situations, as the wheater on Mount Kilimanjaro can change rapidly; you can start your trek walking through the rainforest at 30℃ and less than a week later you will find yourself coping with -15℃ at the summit.
To keep yourself warm and comfortable throughout your journey, you should use a very simple strategy: layering.
Multiple layers are the secret to facing the harshest weather.
They are usually dived in three categories, each of one will be worn during the trek:
That is the layer in contact with your skin. The primary purpose of this layer is to draw away moisture from your skin; therefore, it keeps you dry and warm. In a cold climate, multiple base layers can be used to provide more warmth and better insulation. It is proven that combining multiple thin layers is more effective than wearing a single thick one. The fabric used for these pieces of clothes is usually merino wool or polyester.
Both materials have pro and cons. Merino wool, for example, feels great on the skin and keeps you warmer, but it is more delicate and expensive and has less wicking properties (the capability of moving moisture on the outer layer) than polyester, that is cheaper, lighter, and easier to care for.
I always combine multiple layers; I prefer to have merino-wool thermal in contact with my skin, and a synthetic short on top of it. But that is my personal choice, everyone is different, so it is a matter of preference, other than budget.
But one thing I need to stress is that no matter what, never take cotton with you. It has zero thermal properties and is very absorbent, that means if you sweat, you will stay sweat the whole time, and if wet you will get freezing.
1 short sleeve
2 long sleeve (one for the day, one for the night)
2 long john bottom layer (one for the day, one for the night)
2 base layer socks
1 layer gloves
1 sport bra
The primary purpose of this layer is to maintain your body-heat trapping warmth. The most popular materials for mid-layers are fleece or light down jacket. There are also some other synthetic options, although I believe that fleece is the best option for cold climate, given that it is quite cheap and keeps you warm, even if heavier and slower-dry than other fabrics.
1 fleece jackets
1 zip off lightweight trekking pants
1 snow pants
3 ski socks
This third layer is your ultimate protection against whatever weather you have to deal with. It will defend you from wind, rain and snow, and again, you have different options to choose from, in this case, two: soft or hard shell. Soft shells are usually made with down and keep you warm and comfortable thanks to their flexibility properties. On the other hand, you are exposed to wind and rain. In this case, a hard shell will do the trick, with thicks membrane that will serve as a screen against any natural element.
It is again a matter of preference, but mostly a matter of where you are going and what are you going to do.
I recommend having both options available because as I said before, the weather on Mount Kilimanjaro is very unpredictable.
I rented a down jacket and took with me my gorgeous red riding waterproof and windproof hood to wear on top of that, and my summit day was as comfy as a walk on a Carribean beach. Sort of.
1 down jacket
1 lightweight windproof and waterproof jacket
1 waterproof pants (better with full lateral zip)
1 waterproof hiking boots
1 snow gloves
Other than the items mentioned above, I will list here pieces of equipment I would recommend having.
Some can be quite expensive but can be rented from the tour operator.
1 notebook and pencil
1 hot water bag
1 category 4 polarised sunglasses
1 fleece headband
2 hand warmers
1 lithium-powered headlamp
1 pair of sneakers
1 pair of gaiters
1 2l water bladder
1 pair of walking poles
2 dry bags
1 duffle bag
1 -20℃ sleeping bag
1 camping mattress
1 toiletry bag (bring whatever you want, just don’t forget deodorant and wet wipes!)
6 - TOILETS AND SHOWERS
There is no easy way around it; We all need to go to the toilet at some point. I will tell you straight away that you have to lower your expectations on this matter.
You will find public toilets in every campsite along the way, although they are plain wooden shacks with a whole on the slippery floor and something that resembles a door that never closes.
The use of these infamous facilities is quite an adventure itself, but it can be a challenge for a first time hiker.
If the thought of it grosses you out, then opt for a portable toilet. Some companies offer this little luxury for an extra $100, that consist in a small tent with a bucket. Fellow hikers can share the cost, so if you travel in a group, this option can be a cheap way to avoid disgusting experiences.
I travelled by myself, so I sucked it up and used the public restrooms, and I survived.
Whether you rent a portable loo, go free in the nature or use public toilets, things gets complicated if you are a woman, and we all know why, but there is a solution: a pee funnel. Usually made by silicon, which is hygienically safe and easy to wash, this fabulous invention lets you urinate while standing. The idea sounds silly and somehow crazy, but think twice, because the last thing you want while hiking in the mountains at freezing temperatures is to undress and strip off to tinkle.
There are no shower facilities in the mountains; That is why bringing a good amount of wet wipes is a good idea. Your team will help you to freshen up yourself, providing you every morning with a basin of hot water to wash your face and hands. I used that water also to wet a towel and rub my body with it.
Hiking in the mountains for several days is not a vacation at the beach; you will sweat, smell, and freeze, but do not despair, because there is always a way to keep yourself neat and clean.
7 - create a team
A thing you do not forecast when embarking on an adventure such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is the tremendous effort that locals put on it, and in this chapter I will explain you why establishing a solid team is a good idea.
Solo travellers cannot get past the first gate at the foothill of the mountain; only through a tour operator you can make it to the top. If you consider this a strategy to extort more money to the many travellers that wish to tick the box of climbing Africa’s highest Peak, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Unlike the Himalayas, where the many routes that lead to various mountains are supplied by scattered teahouses and guesthouses, the few paths that can take you to Uhuru Peak are as empty as Trump’s head (except for the Marangu Route that offers hut accommodation).
This means that whatever you need, from tent to water and food, has to be carried by porters. If you are accustomed to camping life, you must know very well how arduous it is to prepare for a multi-day hike at high altitude.
I booked for a group tour, but as happened in the Himalayas, I ended up being alone (and I was so happy about it!), so I had a whole team of 7 people taking care of me. Here they are:
The leading guide usually speaks fluent English, while the rest of the crew has basic knowledge of the foreign language, which makes it challenging to communicate with them. However, they will go far and beyond to make your journey as safe and comfortable as possible.
New regulations impose porters not to carry a weight over 20 kg each, which is quite a heavy load to transport up in the mountains. While you are well prepared and spent a fortune either buying or renting the right gear for you, most of them carry out their job with basic equipment.
Tour Operators sell themselves as fair companies who adequately treat their employees, but the truth is that those guys are not paid as much as they should. They save every penny to support their families instead than investing the money they earn to get better gear and clothes.
To break the wall built by the language barrier and culture difference, I suggest to learn a few Swahilis words and expressions; Surely you cannot have a proper conversation, but your team will appreciate your effort, and it will show your respect towards their culture.
Hello, how are you? Mambo, Jumbo
I’m good = Poa
How are you? = habari gani
Goodbye = kwa heri
Thank you = Asante
Thank you very much = Asante sana
May I take a picture? = naomba kupiga picha
Friend = rafiki
Slowly slowly = Pole pole
You can find a lot of useful sentences to use during your trip on Tripsavvy.com.
Another thing you can do to show your appreciation is to tip the s**t out of them. They will work very hard for you, so don’t be stingy. Budget around $500 for the whole team. A few hundred dollars will not make a dent on your wallet, while your porters can support their family for a long time with those money.
8 - COST AND EXPENSES
Finding a tour suitable for your pocket can be haunting. You will be likely to spend hours scouting the web for the cheapest option, but believe me when I say that is the worse thing you could do. Think twice before indulging in one of those low cost trekking advertised in internet, because climbing Kilimanjaro is expensive, and it should be.
National Park entry fees, camping fees and taxes amount to $800-$900 per climber. Add staff wages, equipment and food supplies, and you can easily guess why this is not the right time to be stingy.
Prices of Kilimanjaro treks differ considerably, from $2000 up to $5000 per person, depending on the company you choose, but remember that giving more money to a firm based overseas does not guarantee that you are assisting local businesses. Most of what you pay ends up in the pockets of overseas employees, leaving peanuts to local porters.
There are regulations and associations against porters exploitation. Check with your company how fairly it treats its employees.
Speaking about staff, bear in mind that training costs money. If you choose a low-cost company that cuts costs hiring cheap labour, you will end up putting yourself in the hands of inexperience and untrained guides.
If you are an outdoor person, you are likely to have almost every piece of equipment required for the climb; you can rent whatever extra gear you need at a fair price from the Tour Operator. (Here my suggestions on what you need)
When it comes to choosing a trekking company, the truth lies in the middle, as always. Avoid budget companies that offer treks for less than $1500. At the same time, do some research and try to choose a local company rather than an overseas based, this way the money you spend will end up in the pocket of local people.
I ended up booking my trip with Absolute Africa, a tour operator based in the UK, specialising in overland tours. After some research on-line I found that they have a few people from the UK working for them, to take care of logistic and organisation matters, and give plenty of jobs to local people across several African Countries touched by the tours they organise, so I thought it was a good option.
The downside was that because of the few climbs they organise to Kilimanjaro, the crew hired for my trip does not have a stable income.
9- summit at nighT
There is no way around it, you require plenty of rest toward the end of this amazing journey, because summit day starts the night before; I tried to sleep as much as I could, given I had to wake up around 11pm to have breakfast and be ready to ascend at midnight.
You will have to endure freezing temperatures and make yourself eating a rich breakfast to have abundant energy.
In my case, I overdressed and ended up boiling most of the time, while everybody else was shivering. Even though I have to recognise that during the rare occasion where I stopped for a tinkle I froze my ass off. See, I needed one of those funnel I spoke about before. Temperatures vary slightly depending on the season, but be certain you will encounter nothing above -10℃, so plan accordingly.
As I said, my guide forced me to overdress and that made my ascent very uncomfortable, because it was difficult to walk. Despite that, I sucked it up and made my way to the top to see the beautiful sunrise.
Yep, I said sunrise. That means it takes 7 to 8 hours to reach Stella Point, the rim of the volcano; from there another hour walking along the rim and you will ultimately arrive at the highest peak of Africa. The reward is worth all the trouble.
But don’t be fooled by your accomplishment, because the steep and tiring ascent equals a steeper and exhausting descent. I couldn’t bare all the clothes I had on and stripped till I was wearing only two top layers, one pair of leggings and windproof trousers. I had to carry all the rest on my backpack and it wasn’t particularly pleasant.
A considerable number of injuries take place during descents, when adrenaline level decrease, together with energy and concentration.
It will be a hard day, you need stamina, resistance and a strong will.
Remember, it is not a competition, don’t be intimidated by more experienced mountaineers who will overtake you.
My recommendations are to go slow and steady. Keep your pace constant, this way you will keep yourself warm. Take frequent and short breaks instead of long ones. Once you feel tired stop for a minute and then continue. Pausing for longer than a few minutes in those conditions will expose you to hypothermia, when your body looses heat faster that it can produce.
Is short, prepare yourself mentally because it will be an extremely hard day, but great at the same time; one you will remember for the rest of your life.
10 - PLAN WHAT'S NEXT
I believe that climbing Kilimanjaro could be the trip of a lifetime for many.
Organising and planning a journey of this magnitude can overwhelm you, that’s why starting planning in advance is a good idea.
What I would like to suggest here is to think what you should do after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Africa is a wonderful continent with endless possibilities of having a great time.
I went on a three days safari in the Serengeti after my climb, and afterwards I spent two weeks wandering around Zanzibar, the spice island, I will soon publish the blog post about that.
The agency I booked my trip with offered a wide range of activities to add up to the trek;
I chose the option more suitable for my time and budget available.
It was a though choice, I admit, because all activities were very inviting.
Amongst the options my company offered were a trip to see the gorillas, Victoria falls, and various overland tours other than volunteer projects.
Climbing Kilimanjaro should be only the beginning of your visit to Africa, a magic continent where history, nature and culture merge to offer incredible experiences that will stay with you forever.
Make the most of it.