Conquering Kilimanjaro: Impressions from an Inspirational Journey

Fitness, Gear, Personal Development

Well, after over a year of planning, my journey to Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro has now come and gone, and what a trip it was! Just a few months ago, I wrote a piece about training for Kilimanjaro and now, after being back home for almost a month, I’ve decided that I’ve had enough time to reflect on the trek and what I know, now that the post vacation buzz has worn off.

During the lead up to the trip, I did a lot of research and read many personal accounts from people who had already climbed Kili. I wanted to be very prepared and most importantly, I wanted to keep the surprises to a minimum even though nothing can really prepare you 100%. Living in North America and having never been to Tanzania, let alone Africa, I also had some anxiety about flying in nation that was not only under developed, but that I also knew little about. I can tell you right now that many of my reservations were unfounded.

So with that said, and to keep things straight and to the point, I decided to do a sort of post-trek “self interview” and ask my post-Kilimanjaro self some questions which I might have found helpful to have the answers to before embarking on this adventure:

What was the hardest part about climbing Kilimanjaro?

This is such a loaded question (and yes, it was I who just asked it!). So many aspects of the trek were difficult, and some of the challenges I just hadn’t considered. Let’s list some of these Kilimanjaro challenges and rate them:

Summit night/morning: It’s as hard as everyone says it is. The uncertainty of hiking at night, the altitude, walking over uneven terrain with only your headlamp to light your feet. The going is slow, and very long. You will not know how much farther it is until Stella Point, having only the twinkling headlamps moving up the mountain for reference. Go slow, breathe deeply, take one step at a time, and before you know it, you’ll be there.

Barranco Wall: The most technical part of the trek. They say climbing Kili isn’t a technical climb. They lied. The Barranco Wall is a steep, craggy, switchbacking climb so you’ll need to watch your step because you really do not want to slip and fall on sharp lava rock. You’ll also need to use your hands regularly so wear gloves. I used cheap gardening gloves which were thin but had a rubber grip. Best investment at 4$.

Packing and re-packing: You will need to pack and re-pack daily. When you arrive at camp, and when you leave camp. This can be a chore, especially when you need to crawl in and out of your tent to get things. And, it becomes harder to do at night, although you really will not be spending much time outside your tent at night. That said, my Pro tip here is: stay organized and designate a place to keep your headlamp so you can always find it, even in the dark.

The Altitude: Many people feel some effects of the altitude on Kili without getting full on altitude sickness. Hitting 15000 feet at the Lava Tower was my first real taste of naseau, headache and overall loss of appetite. Once we descended from Lava Tower, I started taking Diamox and didn’t have any further issues.

Camping: Be ready. Most people who take on Kilimanjaro have done some camping in their lives. However, many of us (myself) haven’t slept in a tent in years. Camping on Kili is rocky, dusty, and the ground is uneven. Crawling in an out of your tent for items is tough after a day of trekking. You’ll miss your shower, your bed, and toilets that flush.  Sure, you’ll suffer. But you will also live the most amazing experience and appreciate life, people, and the planet even more.

No one said it would be easy, so relish every moment!

Did I train enough for the trek?

I felt that I was very well prepared. We did the trek in September so I had all of spring and summer to continue working my legs and staying fit just by cycling around town. I actually only managed to go hiking about 3 times this summer but in the last month before Kilimanjaro, I carried a day pack with me and walked/cycled just about everywhere around the city. I also added about 20 pounds to my pack for some added weight. Incidentally, the only time I felt soreness on Kilimanjaro was after the last day where my quads were very sore. Yes, everything they say about coming down is true: your knees and thighs will take a beating, so it’s very good to have hiking poles (I did) at least for the descent. Maybe I should have done more training going down hills but to be honest, this is Kilimanjaro, a very large mountain.

My advice: do pushups everyday, cycle, do squats, walk a lot and always take the stairs when you can.

Buying gear for Kilimanjaro. Did I buy too much or spend too much?

A trip to Kilimanjaro will cost you $5000 US approximately. It’ll be about $2000 for the hike, $2000 for the plane ticket plus gear, tips, etc. You can spread out most of the cost over the year by buying your plane ticket well in advance as well as budgeting and slowly collecting the gear you’ll need.

I think I did pretty good overall. When I first started buying gear for Kilimanjaro, I got caught up on all kinds of Kilimanjaro websites from tour guides and personal blogs. But know this: just about everyone on the Internet wants to sell you something. It just depends on how badly you need to buy. Do you need brand new gear? Do you want new gear? That’s a personal choice. However, you should make sure that your hiking boots are in good shape and waterproof. You don’t need to spend 500$ on boots, or on an insanely warm jacket for summit day.

Remember: all you need on Kilimanjaro are layers that are warm and breathable, plus everything is going to a) get filthy and b) probably only get worn once depending on how often you hike. Also remember that while this is a serious trek, it is no Everest and you will likely NOT be trudging through knee deep snow.

I saved a few bucks on the following items by finding them for less or by using what I already had:

Waterproof/windproof shell – I used the soft shell that I use for skiing and wore 1 tshirt, 1 long sleeve polyester shirt, 1 fleece and 1 packable down jacket underneath. I was toasty.
Hiking pants (quick dry, unzips into shorts) 10$ at a used clothing store
Down jacket – 45$ at Costco.
Long sleeve fleece – 7$ at a local thrift shop.
Merino Wool socks – 16$ for 4 pairs at Costco.
Sleeping bag (rated for -12C) – Got lucky and found one used for 50$ Craigslist

Hopefully, some of the answers to some of those questions will help you if you ever decide to take the journey and the challenge to the top of Tanzania and to the roof of Africa!

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