Not a bad view. (Photo: Nick Aster)
All of the stories you’ve heard are true. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro isn’t technical, but it also isn’t for the faint of heart.
It’s a mountain anyone can climb, and it is a mountain anyone can fail to summit.
There is no real way to train for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro except to be in pretty good shape. If you’re in pretty good shape, then you have about a 50/50 chance of being OK on the mountain. See, Kilimanjaro rises very, very high, so the altitude can get you. There’s no way to train for that.
This is the top of the world. (Photo: Intrepid Travel)
But, after just emerging from a Mount Kilimanjaro climb with Intrepid, a company that has an incredible track record for getting people to the top, I have a few tips that will help you get there.
1. Climb with an experienced guide. There are more than 300 companies offering a trek to the top of Kilimanjaro. Do your research before making your choice and, if you can, do not make it based on price. I chose Intrepid not only for its success rate but also because through my research, I learned that it is a company that treats its guides and porters incredibly well. Too many companies cut corners when it comes to making sure employees have the right climbing gear, are well-paid and are happy. Make sure to find a company that respects its guides. That means the guide will respect you enough to get you up that mountain.
2. Take your time. Altitude sickness is a funny, funny thing. The only real way to beat it is to go slow, or as the Tanzanians say, “Pole, pole.”
“Pole, pole,” means “Slow, slow,” and you will hear it time and time again on the mountain. You will hear it so many times you will begin to compose songs about it in your head as you hike.
It isn’t a race to the top. (Photo: Nick Aster)
Do not feel as though you need to keep pace with anyone. Tell your guide if you want to slow down, and they will help you find the right pace to get up to the top.
3. Sleep as much as you can. The route I took up the mountain had sleeping huts instead of tents along the way. They are rustic and adorable, but they are also cold. Ask your guide if you can have some hot water bottles to add to your sleeping bag at night. Staying warm will help you get the sleep you need to keep your energy high enough for summit day.
Make your temporary home as cozy as possible. (Photo: Nick Aster)
4. Pack light. Most companies offer porters to carry the majority of your things up the mountain, but carrying your gear and water for the day is on you. Be wise when choosing exactly how much weight you want to carry as you make the climb. You may think you need a selfie stick, an extra camera batteries, a deck of cards and a book in your day pack, but after a day of steady climbing, you will want to toss all that stuff right into the jungle.
5. Eat. You will lose your appetite on the mountain at some point. It’s a natural effect of exertion and altitude. Eat anyway. Your body needs as much fuel as it can get to make it to the top.
Make sure you to finish all three meals each day of your climb. (Photo: Nick Aster)
6. Drink. It doesn’t matter if you are thirsty or not — drink at least three to four liters of water on climbing days.
7. Don’t gossip. Complaining is contagious, especially under stressful circumstances. More than once, my intrepid guide Justaz Molel has seen altitude sickness symptoms spread through a group. While altitude sickness is a very real thing, a lot of the effects are psychological.
“Sometimes you see one person say they have a headache, and then the whole group has a headache,” Molel said. “I have no idea why it happens.”
8. Be honest with your guides. They are there to help you get to the top of the mountain. Most of the time, they will be able to get you there. Experienced Kilimanjaro guides are less trek companion and more therapist, ready to talk you up to that summit no matter what. But they can’t do that if you aren’t honest with them about exactly how you are feeling. Tell them when you feel sick or weak or nauseated. They want you to feel good enough to reach Kibo peak.
9. Test everything before you hike. Do a test run with everything — from your hiking boots to your day pack to your medication (Diamox, etc.). Do nothing on the mountain that you haven’t done before, except climb a mountain. Too-tight boots, an uncomfortable pack, and a bad reaction to your meds will lampoon a perfectly good climb.
10. Keep your spirits up. I said it before and I will say it again: Getting to the top of Kili is mostly in your head. Keeping a positive attitude as you go up the mountain will do more for you than a month of wind sprints.
I met one guy on the mountain who had been training for years. He was in top-notch physical shape. He was also a negative Nelly. Nothing was good enough. He didn’t make it. Another bloke was cracking jokes, laughing with his fellow climbers, and smoking rolled cigarettes all the way up the mountain. That guy made it to the top without a hitch.
Take time to enjoy the sunrise every day. (Photo: Nick Aster)
11. Celebrate the little things. Savor each and every time you reach one of the camps, or get a glimpse of Kibo peak when she isn’t hiding behind the clouds. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is about the journey as much as the destination.