Maybe it’s on your bucket list. Maybe you want to raise money for a good cause. Perhaps you’re a young adult touring the world looking for adventure, or a senior citizen hoping to prove that you’re not over the hill yet. Whatever your motivation, you have decided to climb Kilimanjaro. Now what?
Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s great mountains; it’s the highest point in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain (not part of a range) on earth. Happily, its summit is within the reach of anyone in reasonable physical condition; it is technically no more difficult than a rugged mountain hike. Many people who set out to climb it, however, never reach the summit – I’ve been told that perhaps 50% of attempts fail.
I climbed a lot of mountains in my younger days, went on to gentler pursuits, and then, 20 years later, got to the top of Kilimanjaro at the age of 72, when my knees were shot and my aerobic capacity was limited. From that perspective, here are a few hints for those who want to attempt this magnificent volcano.
The greatest problem on Kili is acclimatization. Since most of us don’t live at or above 3000 M, our bodies need to make major adjustments to the rarified atmosphere of the mountain, whose summit is close to 6000 M. The most popular route on Kili is the Machame route; it’s very scenic but very short, allowing the body little time to acclimatize, but even longer routes, such as Limoshu, push the body to its limits. Acute Mountain Sickness is a deadly condition that can strike without warning and kill quickly. Make no mistake – this mountain can kill you.
Being physically fit will make the climb more enjoyable, but fitness offers limited protection from altitude sickness. It can even be a liability if it leads you to push yourself too hard. The mantra of Kili is “pole, pole” (slowly!). If you climb with a group, leave your ego behind and aim to be the slowest member of the party. If your guide or porters are trying to get you to go faster, you have chosen the wrong outfit to lead you (they have your money and they want to get the trip over with).
The ideal way to acclimatize is to climb a neighbouring volcano, Mt Meru, immediately before Kili. That climb will take you quite high, after which you should be able to waltz up the Machame route with no problems. If you don’t have time for that, then I advise taking one of the longer routes such as Limoshu.
You are required to climb Kili with a guide and porters. It’s possible to arrive in Moshi or Arusha and hire someone on the spot, but you will have no idea how qualified they are. I strongly advise going with one of the better companies, even though they may be more expensive. The good ones will let you know what percentage of their clients reach the top (it should be more than 90%). There should be a good ratio of guides to clients and the guides should have medical training in high altitude response as well as climbing credentials. I went with Tusker Trail, which is easily one of the best, but there are other good outfits. Do your research on the Internet.
Do not start the climb if you are sick; a common cold will quickly turn into bronchitis under the stress of the climb. Be completely honest with your guide as to how you feel, as hiding symptoms just allows matters to get worse. There are ways to deal with altitude problems, and most people will be able to continue with a little treatment.
Assuming that you cope with the altitude, the main key to success is mental. How badly do you want to reach the summit? There will be times when the path ahead seems just too daunting, when you are gasping for breath and your legs feel like lead. Those are the times to put your head down and concentrate on just taking the next step. Don’t look up the mountain – the distance to go will seem impossible. Instead, look down and take heart from how far you have come.
Kili will cause you to dig deep, perhaps teach you things you did not know about yourself. The climb may well be the hardest thing you have ever done, but the sense of achievement can be life changing.