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It’s been nearly four years since I stood on the roof of Africa alongside two of my best friends. Kilimanjaro had been a dream ever since I first spotted it, the great wedding cake of a mountain, between parted clouds while on safari at Amboseli National Park. I have a distinct memory of sitting on the savannah in the pitch dark that night and staring at the Kili-shaped void in the starry African sky. I thought of all of the adventurers sleeping on the mountainside and I wanted to be one of them.
So when my good friends Tami and Katie met me in Kenya where I was working in 2009 and agreed to give it a go I didn’t allow the fact that I was severely lacking in appropriate gear to stop me from getting to the top of the mountain. Forget the fact that my daypack had been lifted (along with my water bottle and Swiss Army Knife) a month earlier or that I wasn’t quite sure if my weathered hiking boots were still waterproof or that the warmest coat I had with me was a heavy raincoat. Katie was able to grab a spare daypack from my parents’ house (and Mom and Dad were generous enough to stuff it with a pair of amazingly warm long underwear and two pairs of hiking socks) before flying to meet me.
But watching Tami and Katie unpack insulated CamelBak’s and Gortex gaiters and rain paints and fancy hiking boots I felt like I was living out a dream I used to have in college – the one where I go to take a final exam for a class I didn’t even know I was registered for. Despite lacking fancy gear, I made it to the summit. Still, I wish I’d known a few things before setting out:
It’s really cold. I mean seriously cold. I’m a Chicagoan, I know cold, so when my Kenyan friends warned me about how cold it is at the top of that mountain I poo-pooed it a bit. Kenyans think that 65 degrees calls for parkas and wool hats. Cold is relative, but not on Kilimanjaro. It’s really freaking cold up there! Especially on summit day – I’m talking frozen water, frost bite on your chin, frozen hair. Seriously, my hair froze. FROZE!
It takes a village to climb a mountain. The three of us apparently required a team of 12 men to get us to the summit. Three porters per trekker, two guides (one senior guide, one apprentice) and a cook. It was a little crazy and hard to believe that all of those men were really needed. But this is the norm on Kilimanjaro where the mountain is the main source of income for the area. Though I will admit that having hot tea and an assembled tent waiting for me at each campsite was really nice.
- Getting to the top is far more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Yes, it’s physically tiring, exhausting even, and I guarantee you will have blisters and sore muscles and physical scars to show for your efforts. But, barring altitude sickness, it’s entirely possible. You will inevitably hit a wall at some point on this multiple day trek – for me it was about 15 minutes shy of reaching Stella Point. Having a mantra or phrase or prayer or whatever repeating in your head helps. Or say it out loud. I trekked those 15 minutes repeating “left foot, right foot” out loud, instructing my muscles to lift each limb and place it down again.
Just because porters carry your packs doesn’t mean it’s okay to overpack. I was so guilty of this on my trek. Because I felt like I had so little appropriate gear, I overcompensated by bringing pound upon pound of unnecessary gear. Most hotels in Arusha will gladly store a bag for you while you’re on the mountain so there’s no need to bring all of your clothes up the mountain – just necessary items. I also recommend leaving a clean set of clothes in Arusha, or at least zip-locked in your pack, for after you trek. And flip flops!
- Speaking of porters, they expect a tip. Ah yes, tipping. Coming from the US where everyone tips for everything I find it a little disheartening how that crazy expectation has spread all the way to East Africa. Yes, you will need to tip your porters, guides and cook. Determine ahead of time how much cash you will need for gratuities – I’ve heard anywhere from $5-$30 per person, per day is acceptable and expected. At the end of the trek the men will line up and wait for their tips and will, undoubtedly, look disappointed with what you give them. To be honest, this puts a bit of an awkward damper on the end of your experience as you’ve become friends with these men. We ended up buying a round of sodas for everyone after the uncomfortable tipping experience and that seemed to help things a bit.
Turns out clouds are pretty wet. And you will spend hours, if not days, walking inside of them. While the idea of walking in the clouds sounds magical and lovely it’s actually similar to walking in constant drizzle where you can’t see more than a couple of feet in front of you. This is where the waterproof boots would have come in handy, though I managed.
- Waterproof your pack. It’s hard to dry things on Kilimanjaro once they get wet so in the interest of protecting your gear, especially your sleeping bag, be sure to waterproof your bag. A rain cover is great, but it may not be enough. Line your bag with a trash bag as well, and bring an extra couple of trash bags in case the first one tears.
You don’t need to take Diamox. Both of my trekking companions had scripts of Diamox, a medicine used to prevent Acute Mountain Sickness, aka altitude sickness. I was nervous that I wasn’t medicated but soon discovered that as long as you drink a lot of water and climb the mountain slowly (or pole-pole, Kiswahili for “slowly”) then Acute Mountain Sickness can be avoided. One of the reasons that trekkers on Kilimanjaro are required to have a guide is to prevent you from climbing the mountain too quickly. Of course if you have a history of getting sick at high altitude then you should consult your doctor before attempting Kilimanjaro, or any mountain for that matter.
Be prepared for unpleasant bathroom situations. Listen, I’m totally comfortable with the nature pee – something that is much harder for women to master than men. I grew up going to summer camp, I know the leaves to avoid, when to dig a hole and how to aim in order to keep my pants dry, etc. Kilimanjaro is littered with “porter” and “tourist” toilets – essentially three-sided shacks with uneven flooring and a dime sized hole in which to take care of business. After encountering my first “Shit-Shack” I decided that I would be using a bush for the rest of the trek but neglected to realize that, above a certain altitude, bushes simply don’t grow. I used a large boulder when accessible but most of the time I was forced to endure the Shit-Shacks. BYOTP.
You have to climb down the mountain, too. Duh, right? What goes up, must come down. I was completely unprepared for how difficult it would be to get down Kilimanjaro. Climbing up, you have a goal, a prize that motivates you to keep going. And you go slowly, taking anywhere from 4-6 days getting to the top, depending upon which route you take. But going down must be done quickly, covering the same distance but in about 24 hours. I was somewhat sore while climbing up Kilimanjaro but my quads were all-out burning on the way down and I struggled with stairs for about a week after descending. That’s also when the blisters arrived, my poor, tired toes being shoved to the fronts of my hiking boots.
Adrenaline is a powerful thing. I mentioned before about hitting a wall just shy of Stella Point. Well, from Stella to Uhuru Peak, the actual summit, I felt like I was flying. I’ve never felt adrenaline like that, it literally carried me the last hour of the trek, all the way to the top.
- It’s a big deal. It seems like every visitor in Arusha is there to climb the mountain and that, in some way, can diminish the accomplishment. But Kilimanjaro takes strength, determination and stamina and it’s certainly an accomplishment to be proud of!