Last week I returned from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. I’ll start with the bottom line: I made it to the top!
That’s three of us at sunrise on the sixth day. We took the Machame route, which takes seven days. In theory, you could march right up the mountain, but you need time for your body to acclimate to the altitude, so after ascending for a couple days, you spend several days hiking around below the main summit getting used to the altitude.
We did something that 95% of people don’t do: we hiked up to the crater at the top of Kilimanjaro (18,000+ feet) and camped there overnight. There are some pros and cons to this approach. One big advantage is that you do the 6+ hour slog up to the summit during the day instead of starting at midnight. Hiking during the day is leagues better than at night, in my opinion. The other big advantage is that you get to explore the crater. For example, this was the view out the front of our tent:
That glacier was just a five minute walk away, and then you could pet the glacier all you wanted. I gave this one a big hug:
There’s a disadvantage to camping in the crater though: you’re just below the summit, and so your body isn’t getting all the oxygen it wants. Most people hike to the top, stay for twenty minutes, and immediately descend. You’re spending most of a day at that altitude. We heard people throwing up in the morning, and later we recognized a couple people from Crater Camp going by us in a stretcher:
That’s a normal stretcher with a single all-terrain wheel mounted underneath, and it helps get people down faster. Our guide jokingly called it the “Kilimanjaro Express.”
Some people reading this post might wonder, “Can I climb Kilimanjaro?” I read that about 50% of people make it to the summit. Kilimanjaro isn’t like rock-climbing; it’s like walking 5-7 hours a day, mostly uphill. If you’re reasonably fit, you’ve got a decent chance. I did a couple triathlons last year and did similar stamina training before the climb. That meant the Kilimanjaro hiking was more of a grind than grueling or arduous.
But it’s not really the walking that gets people–it’s the altitude. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a headache that Aleve can solve or possibly other mild symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). If you’re unlucky, you might get High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). One book I read said that for climbers of Mt. McKinley, which is about 1,000 feet higher, 3% of climbers experienced symptoms of HAPE, e.g. extreme shortness of breath, while 0.5% of climbers experienced symptoms of HACE, such as ataxia–think poor coordination or the inability to walk a straight line. As long as you’re aware of the symptoms and descend if things get bad, you should be fine. But you’ll want to read up on altitude illness if you decide to climb. In my experience, the guides on Kilimanjaro are very well-trained to spot HAPE and HACE. Fitness training doesn’t really help with AMS, HAPE, or HACE, so I was lucky to be in the “only got a mild headache” set of folks.
A better question is “Do I want to climb Kilimanjaro?” And that depends. Do you like camping and hiking? You’ll be camping without a shower for several days. You’ll face some real difficulties–several people told me it was the hardest thing they’d ever done. And it can be expensive (besides the airfare and the trip itself, you’ll probably end up spending hundreds of dollars on various gear). But it can be immensely rewarding to test yourself and see what your limits are. I think maybe we don’t do that enough sometimes. No matter what, it’s definitely an adventure.
By the way, the best shower I ever took was the first shower after Kilimanjaro. After a week on the mountain, I looked like this:
During that first shower, I think the phone rang, someone knocked on the door, and at some point the power went out. I didn’t care. I just kept on showering.
A few tips in case you decide to go:
- I’ve read lots of Kilimanjaro books, and the best one to start with is the book by Henry Stedman.
- I never walk with hiking poles, so I almost didn’t bring poles. Trust me: you should bring hiking poles. I definitely recommend the FlickLock or thumb lock poles over the “twist to unlock” poles. These poles worked very well for me. I’d opt for black handles if you can, because the gray handles got pretty grubby-looking by the end of seven days.
- Get good hiking boots and wear them all over the place for a month or two.
- Take care of your lips with SPF 15 or SPF 30 lip balm or Chap Stick. I used regular Chap Stick, which is SPF 4, but the sun is much stronger at higher altitudes. My lips were pretty sunburnt by the end of the hike.
- We flew into Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO, but sometimes written as KIA) from Amsterdam on KLM. But a lot of people flew into Dar Es Salaam (DAR) via Dubai on Emirates. The people we talked to said that the Emirates flights were very nice.
- You may the word “Mzungu.” Our guide told us that it means “guest,” but a more literal translation would be “white person.” As far as I could tell, people are saying it with affection though.
- Hike at your own pace–ideally a slow, steady pace that you can maintain for hours. It’s Kilimanjaro, not KilimaNascar.
- Throw in a safari at Tarangire National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, or the Serengeti National Park. As long as you’re in Africa, why wouldn’t you want to see stuff like this?
Or a sunset like this?