Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Kilimanjaro: Part 1

Ok "so we're not in southern Ontario anymore, Toto"!! Hey, I did warn you!

In February of 2007, two friends, Ray and Diane, and myself, set out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. We all have some experience in backpacking and hiking but we are not mountain climbers in any sense of the word. This was the highest I have ever hiked by about 12,000 feet.
I have been a naturalist all of my life and have traveled extensively throughout America and the rest of the world, usually focused on the natural world that is around me.
When I set out to climb Kilimanjaro I attempted to do some research beforehand. I found that although 30,000 people attempt to climb Kili each year there is not a lot of commonly available literature out there to help. Indeed some that I ordered through the internet never arrived, being on back order or out of print. Try finding a trekkers map of Kili and it is out of stock or out of print! I never did get one. A book on the flora of Kili? There is supposedly one for sale but I haven’t found it. The only book that I actually received through ordering on the web was Hemingway's THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO which doesn't really qualify as a "how to guide". The web is slightly better, although wading through the myriad of commercial sites attempting to get you to book your climb with them confuses the issue for someone who has already booked, and is looking for hard facts on the equipment you will need, the natural history, or the conditioning required.
This post is an attempt to add to the info that is available to you without any commercial interest.


If you are thinking of climbing Kilimanjaro you will need some equipment. If you read the travel guidebooks you will see that apparently you can rent everything you need in Tanzania. Perhaps you can but my climb was pretty much a once in a lifetime experience and I did not want a few hundred dollars worth of equipment to prevent me from success or enjoyment.
If you are going with a group, your travel agent will make recommendations about equipment and there are a multitude of books and websites that can help you. Just about any large outdoor equipment store will be very happy to help you out with their recommendations. If you can talk to someone who has done the trip so much the better.
I have done the trip so here are a few recommendations of mine.


Don’t skimp on boots and don’t leave it to the last minute. Get a good pair of multi-day hiking boots. You won’t really be carrying a full load as you will have porters, but much of the trail is fairly rugged so the heavier boot is welcome. As well, on the final night of climbing you will be cold. Take that as a given. Again the heavier boot will provide more warmth. I have two suggestions.

Buy them early. In fact if you don’t have a good pair now and are contemplating Kili, start looking. The last thing you want to do is break in a new pair of boots while climbing the mountain. You might make it to the top OK but the trip down will be a different story. The hike down is going to be a struggle regardless and if your heels are blistered it will be hell. Buy them as early as you can and start wearing them. You will be in them for eight or ten hours a day at minimum and on summit day for about eighteen hours. I would recommend building up to wearing them for eight hours a day in normal daily activities and then start hiking in them. If at all possible hike in a hilly area. Going up and down is where your boots and feet will feel it. When they are comfortable you will know it.

Make sure they fit correctly in the store. Before you start trying boots on look at the ones in the store and decide which models you are interested in. Then start trying them on. Don’t settle for the best fit in the store. Find the right fit if it means visiting a dozen stores and trying on a hundred pairs. Everyone’s feet are different so the right boot for one may not be the right boot for you. Boots can not be sloppy on your feet but you will want room for warm hiking socks. Try the boots on with the socks you will wear on the mountain. If the fit doesn’t feel perfect in the store it probably isn’t the right boot. The new boots will be stiff but they should feel good on your feet. Experience helps here, so if you have someone you trust who will help, by all means take them along on the shopping expedition. Most avid hikers are more than willing to spend a few hours in the local outdoors stores.


Hiking poles are something relatively new. I had never used them. They were recommended to me and so I tried them. I can pass on that recommendation! I am glad I had them and wouldn’t do a long hike again without them. I’m not sure I would do a short hike without them either. They give you added stability on tricky terrain and allow your arms to take some of the work off you legs. I bought the collapsible ones and considering you will probably be flying to Africa they are the wisest choice.

Sleeping Bag

Depending on the route you take you will really only experience one cold night sleeping. I bought a mummy bag rated for minus 12 degrees C and was quite comfortable. I don’t think I would want much less of a bag but neither would I want a heavier bag. There were quite a few people on the mountain with lighter sleeping bags but many of them complained of cold nights. If you are cold you aren’t getting a good sleep and it affects your days as well.


Only three things to say:

Gore-Tex (or some other waterproof breathable).

Seriously check with your local outdoors store!


Chemical hand warmers- I have seen photos of people at the summit in T-shirts. That wasn’t on our trip. On the hike up to Gilman’s point in the dark it was cold. No let me rephrase that. It was COLD!!!!!!!. After about four hours my hands were seriously complaining. Luckily a family member in Canada had given me as a gift some chemical hand warmers. They saved the day and I don’t think I would have enjoyed the rest of the climb without them. For a few dollars and a few grams of weight they are worth it whether you use them or not.

YakTrax- when we got to the crater rim the trail to the summit was narrow and very icy. Apparently I wasn’t the first to think of climbing Kilimanjaro. The trail was slippery and in some places the drop to one side or other would have been serious, or at least the stop at the bottom would have hurt. In Canada and probably anywhere there is “winter” they sell something called YakTrax which are a rubber mesh with steel grippy things that slip over your shoes or boots and provide traction on icy surfaces. While very cautiously picking my way along the trail to the summit and back I wished I had a set of them. Again, cheap, light and would be worth looking into. Mountain Equipment Co-op sells them.

Lithium batteries- if you are taking a camera (and let’s face it who isn’t?), ordinary AA batteries don’t last long in freezing temps. Lithium works. Before setting out on the summit climb change your cameras batteries to lithium and your headlamps batteries as well. They will last you till you get off the mountain even at 20 below.

Speaking of which, you will want a headlamp. The new lights are bright, lightweight and you will wonder how you ever did any camping without them. We used them every evening walking about the huts. Remember you are on the equator so it is pitch black by 6 pm. We also used them on the actual summit climb. Just about any outdoor store or the MEC has them

Fitness for Kilimanjaro

Before I start please do not take me as an expert. Do your own research. The group you are travelling with will likely make recommendations and or have a trainer lined up. There are numerous websites out there about climbing Kili and many of them discuss training in depth

When I climbed Kilimanjaro I was a few months shy of fifty years old. I have always kept active, but I am not a real fitness fanatic. Mostly, I like to be outside, whether on my bike or hiking. Regardless, when I committed to Kilimanjaro I obviously wanted to bring my fitness level up as high as I could. I did a variety of activities including hiking in hilly areas for a few hours at a time two or three days a week. I climbed in February so our later hikes were in the dead of the Canadian winter which helped acclimatize to the cold on the last days climb. It was still mind numbingly cold during the climb to Gilman’s Point but I am glad for those training hikes in the cold. I also went to the gym and did a variety of exercises to build up strength. However I think that the one thing that I did that helped me the most was spinning. For the last three months I joined a 50 minute Spinning class three times a week. If you are not a cyclist then I would recommend working your way into spinning slowly and as soon as you can after committing to climb Kilimanjaro. I climbed with two others, close in age and fairly active people. Both of them concentrated on stepping machines and both ran into difficulty the last night. I had no problems with breathing or fitness. I don’t guarantee that that was the reason for the difference but I feel my spinning classes gave me an excellent cardio workout. One trainer I knew who has climbed Kili recommended doing spinning classes with a paper dust mask on to simulate the struggle breathing that we would experience. I didn’t go so far but I never had breathing problems either.

Altitude Sickness

I really don’t believe you have to be an Olympic athlete to climb Kili. Anyone who is in good shape, and has some hiking experience should be able to make it. However everyone has a different reaction to altitude so fitness is only part of the equation. I experienced no symptoms of Altitude Sickness on this climb. If I was to do it again I might. I am not a Doctor. I recommend that before going you talk to your doctor about Altitude Sickness and about possible preventative measures. You can be the fittest person on the mountain and be turned back by Altitude Sickness. Having said that, being in good shape will make the climb more enjoyable. There will be some links to sites on altitude sickness later.

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