Destinations: Africa, Travel Tips

Surviving Kilimanjaro: Tips to Prepare for Success

July 25, 2017

Climbing Kilimanjaro is no easy feat. Only about 65% successfully make it to the top (according to research published by the Climb Kilimanjaro Guide). You can read about my personal experience in my prior post: “Surviving Kilimanjaro: A Humbling Experience“. Preparation is key. Here are some tips to helping you prepare for success.

Before your climb

  • Choose a tour company wisely. When selecting a tour company it’s more important that you choose one that makes your health a priority, has a high success rate and has positive user reviews. Don’t choose based on cost alone. You need to be kept in top health during your trek. Choose a company that will feed you well (hot soups and meals versus box lunches) and takes sanitation seriously. After all, the last thing you want is to get a stomach bug. You’ll also want a company that will ensure you’re healthy to summit. This means checking your oxygen levels and heart rate twice daily and only permitting you continue if they’re in a healthy range. You should also look for a company that is ethical and treats their team of guides and porters fairly. It’s shocking how some companies take advantage of porters and don’t care for their health. The bonus of investing money on a good company: a clean camp toilet! Trust me. You’ll appreciate this! I used Kandoo Adventures and would highly recommend them. They even posted an update on Facebook every day so that family and friends could follow our progress.
  • Choose your trail wisely. Not all are created equal. Some routes are longer, some shorter. Some trails are busier, while others are less frequented and more serene. Longer trails gives you more time to adjust to the altitude, which equites to a higher success rate of getting to the top. Of course longer trails also means it’ll cost you more and you’ll be hiking a few extra days. I chose to do the Alternative Lemosho route: an 8 day hike that is more remote and difficult, but allows for a longer time to acclimatize. This is a great resource on the various route options.
  • Get the right gear. You might wonder whether the extra money for top-of-the line gloves or jacket makes that much of a difference. Trust me. It does. Especially on summit night when temperatures can reach 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C). Having the proper equipment will make your summit attempt that much more achievable. Check out my post on Surviving Kilimanjaro: Your Ultimate Packing List for a list of the equipment you’ll need.
  • Physically prepare. This is an obvious one. You’ll need to ensure your body is prepared for the physical challenges of Mount Kilimanjaro. Be sure to get a checkup with your doctor and work on both your cardio and strength.
  • Mentally prepare. Making it to the top is more than just physical fitness. Remember: mind over matter.
    • Be prepared for long days. Summit night we left camp at 11pm and did not return until noon.
    • The high altitudes can cause light-headedness, fatigue, nausea and a multitude of other symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS). You can take Diamox to help prevent and reduce the symptoms, but remember that you can’t train for altitude and it can hit anyone.
    • Get used to the idea of wilderness hygiene! This means baby wipe baths and bush toilets for the entirety of your trek. It’s not too bad.
    • The temperature range is bonkers. Daytime temperatures can reach over 80 degrees F. Evenings it can drop to below zero. On top of that, you’ll have to decide whether to stay in the warmth of your tent and pee in a pee bottle or do the deed outside your tent in the freezing cold night. This is particularly problematic for those using Diamox where increased urination is a side effect.

On the climb

  • Pole Pole. (Swahili for slowly slowly). This is the mantra on Kilimanjaro. Seriously, don’t rush it even if you feel you’re up for going faster. Take in the scenery and breathe. Your goal is to reach the summit. It doesn’t matter how quickly you do it. In fact if you go too fast you increase the chance of AMS. So check your ego at the gate, listen to your guide and respect the mountain.
  • Climb high sleep low. If possible take a short evening hike to higher altitude then sleep low. This principle will help you acclimate to the altitude and avoid AMS.
  • Drink water! Lots of it. More than you think! And ensure you’re adding electrolytes so that your body is fueled and functioning properly.
  • Use hiking poles. You might think you don’t need these, but they’re essential for reducing the external and internal loads on the knee joint.
  • Mental toughness. Remember how you mentally prepared for this trek? There comes a point on the hike where it’s not just about how physically fit you are, but your ability to mentally overcome the challenge. You can do it! Stay positive!
  • Listen to your body. Don’t underestimate the dangers of ascending too quickly and don’t be ashamed if you have to stop and go back down. There are several deaths every year and thousands of climbers that have to be rushed down the mountain, usually from AMS. Drink enough water, eat regularly and take Diamox if necessary to avoid AMS, but past a certain point, don’t let your ego get in the way. Remember that Mount Kilimanjaro will always be here for you to climb another day.

“Everybody wants to reach the peak, but there is no growth on the top of a mountain.  It is in the valley that we slog through the lush grass and rich soil, learning and becoming what enables us to summit life’s next peak.” ~ Andy Andrews

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