1. Is Kilimanjaro for me?
Of the 200 + people that I have personally guided on Kilimanjaro in the last decade the overwhelming comments on expectation versus reality is 'That was the hardest thing I have done in my life, I did not expect the final section to be so tough BUT I'm glad I did it! And I won't be doing it again..'
Climbing Kilimanjaro has some simple realities that should help answer if it is a trip you want to do:
- It's a minimum of 5 days trekking. I would not personally recommend less than 6 days and 7 + days is far more sensible in terms of acclimatisation. Can you handle camping for that long / and or staying away from creature comforts, dealing with other trip members that you may not like, food that is unlikely to be of hotel standard? (for food that Summits makes on Kilimanjaro see our Mountain Recipies blog). Make this easier by choosing a route and length of hike that suits you - my most recommended trip is a 7 day trip. The Machame route is the best 7 day trip (why and comparisons are for another article).
- You will be physically challenged. Aside from the acclimatisation aspects the final section is most likely to be the hardest thing you have done in your life. Low oxygen levels and hiking for at least 7 hours (ascending to the Summit) are inescapable but conversely most people have no idea what they capable of. Yes I've taken unfit people to the summit, but people who had a decend all round level of fitness had a far better time. Note, all round body fitness is best and coming down is best done with walking poles!
- You may fail. This may be due to altitude sickness, or you may hit a mental wall. Either way failure is a tough cookie to swallow. Again the simple adage of more time = higher chance of success rings true. In my experience people that have a very supportive and fun crew invariably do better and so take your time selecting a company and the longer the route also positively affects the success rate.
- This is an intrinsically dangerous adventure. Deaths are rare on Kilimanjaro if you a look at it from a purely statistical point of view (accurate data is very hard to come by but a 1/4000 chance of death would be fair over the last 10 years) but a majority are from altitude related sickness or triggered sickness (and note by this I include things like heart attacks as the hypoxic or low oxygen environment can be the causitive trigger). In this respect the amount you pay does not always equate reducing the chance of death as most deaths are fairly extreme scenarios. Kilimanjaro is a freestanding mountain - you can come down quickly and so it is amazing how many people 'get away with it' as almost all trips are a quick ascent to the top and then you head back down to a relatively safe zone. I'll write up a much fuller article on altitude sickness with links later on but here's the point: a good company with well trained guides should be able to keep you within your safe zone or as close as it is reasonable with the boundaries of extreme altitude trekking. Top tip: keep your heart rate down. Your 'normal' heart rate can vary enourmoulsy compared to others but pushing yourself to a point where you can feel your heart pumping furiously is not a good idea. A good outfit will have enough trained guides to enable your group to split up if neccessary.
2. Select A Route
Definately worthy of an article in itself - my top routes for 2008 were the 7 day Machame and the 9 day Lemosho routes. Overall selection criteria centre around:
- Price: the cheapest route is the Marangu route. As people stay in huts the don't need tents = less weight = less porters. But, it's super busy most of the time and I have real ethical issues with this route when it gets so busy that porters are left out in the cold. On my trips I even send up a porter tent on this route for people that insist on Marangu. There are numerous ways and specifications you can climb Kilimanjaro with - in essence you get what you pay for. Low prices normally mean crews and porters are being paid sub park stipulated amounts (8000 tsh a day is the 2008 recommended per porter per day amount) and or other items are not provided such as supplimentary / emergency oxygen, enough guides and or crew etc.
- Difficulty: if you invest 5 hours a week you can actually skip this. The easiest is arguable the 6 day Rongai route or 6 day Marange routes but with reservations. They both ascend via Gilman's point on the rim and so once at the rim it's still about 2 hours + to reach Uhuru Peak, the summit. Out of the two, Rongai trumps. Otherwise, if you value scenery and experience the Western routes are good choices (Machame, Lemosho).
- Length of climb: the shortest routes are via Marangu / Umbwe / Rongai. These can be done over 5 days but I DO NOT recommend doing a 5 day climb unless you have been to over 5000 meters before and are very fit. Remember that more days equates to a higher success rate and 7 days is a good minimum to work with. That generally leaves the Machame route 7 day hike up to the 9 or 10 day Lemosho route for people that really want to spend some time on the mountain and camp in the crater on Kibo.
- How busy a route is:historically the least busy routes are the Lemosho and Rongai routes BUT bear in mind that most routes are busy in the high seasons (mid Dec to early March and June through to early October). You can miss the crowds to a certain extent by starting mid week but don't bank on it. Certain times of the year historically have less people - late october to mid December, mid march to June but there comes with that an increased chance of rain.
- Weather: Kilimanjaro can be hiked year round. In the wetter times of April and May and November / early december you will most likely walk for hours in the rain and or snow futher up. The only time I have recommended the Marangu has been in the rainy season of April to simply keep out of the elements. Even then if you book with a decent operator (shameless plug for Summits Africa here!) certain camping routes remain feasible as extras such as mess tents are provided. Machame has a great trail which is generally kept in good repair. In the drier months, especially well into August and September, dust can be frustrating. Personally, I love June for the snow and ice left from the long rains and low cloud base. It can be a little more chilly then but the summit temperatures do not vary enourmously year round.
- Scenery: if Kilimanjaro was not such as summit orientated experience then this would be the leading criteria. The Lemosho route, as it ascends on the Western side and descends on the Southern side, has the greatest scenic variety. The trail head has really pretty Hygenia glades which turn into Podocarpus forest (dioecious, big and beautiful!) which then turn into Juniper forest. Rising up over the Shira Pleateau you enter heath and moorland - a zone where buffalo still roam and in the last year a guest even sighted Caracal - the African Lynx. Ok wildlife is hard to spot but then factor in the geology as you cross the plateau into and around Lava Tower and the southern glacial valleys and you've already seen more than you will ever see on the Rongai or Marangu routes. Less time and budget? Machame route comes in second.
3. Select a Kilimanjaro Climb Operator
Factors such as ethics and safety should factor in your decision. If they don't then choosing on the basis of price alone will most likely lead to a dangrous climb that exploits local people. There is another set of questions that relates to booking through travel agents and tour operators versus booking directly with an outfitter in Tanzania but the basic principles and questions are relevant - a Travel agent should be able to answer these questions or find out.
Here are some questions that you could ask of a climb company:
- How much do you pay your porters per day? The parks authority (KINAPA) have stipulated (as of Dec 08 this data is correct) that 8000 tsh (roughly $6.5 / day) per porter per day for camping routes and 6000 tsh (roughly $5/ day) per porter per day is required. That's a good guideline for the minimum.
- How do you guides monitor us? Acute mountain sickness (for a great article see our links page at www.summits-africa.com/training/links-training-information-altitude-geology.htm or http://www.ismmed.org/np_altitude_tutorial.htm) can be monitored in a number of ways - heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen saturations (with a pulse oximeter) and thereafter by checking things like headaches, dizzyness, gastro intestinal symptoms, ataxia, changes in mental status and so on. If the operator doesn't know then I'd suggest looking elsewhere.
- What's included? We have heard some shocking stories where people book only to find that park fees, rental of camping gear, porters, food and so on were not included in the price. Exactly what is NOT included?
- Do you have a valid Mountain TALA? The license for Kilimanjaro is called a mountain TALA - but note: if you are booking through an overseas operator or Travel Agent this won't apply - it is the local company on the ground that should have this.
- What happens in an emergency? Does the company have rescue scenarios and decision making mapped out and do the people running the company have a good understanding of the emergencies that can happen? An emergency involving a pulmonary edema should be treated differently from a cerebral edema due to the way that these types of life threatening altitude sickness manifest themselves and resolve on descent.
- How many guides to clients do you send? If your group is 10 people and there are only 2 guides then you could be caught short in an emergency. Not only should there be enough assistants but they should know enough to keep everyone out of danger. A 1 to 3 ratio of guides to clients is a good ratio IF they know what they are doing, the best offer 1 to 2 or even 1 to 1.
4. Physical Preparation
You will be walking for a mimimum of 5 days. Probably 7 days. So - start walking! It's a once in a lifetime experience and so if you do not exercise as part of your 'normal' life routine I strongly suggest starting. When ascending to the summit your heart will be beating in excess of 80 beats per minute and most likely in excess of 100 bpm for at around 5 to 9 hours. And that is the lower end of the spectrum. All round fitness is great - walk a lot, swim, go to the gym 3 to 4 times a week, run, do yoga, in fact do pretty much anything you like and find something that you can enjoy. There is no better excuse for a lifestyle change.
Most people I have met, irrespective of their training regimes, have said that the final push was harder than they expected. That doesn't mean overstressing your body during the lead up time to your trip but having a healthy attitude and lead time is a very good thing. Personally I like to gym 3 times a week for an hour, run once a week for 40 minutes and walk at least 3 hours a week to keep conditioned. If you're unfit a 4 month lead time is a good idea.
There are other training options these days such as hypoxic environment training (low oxygen simulated conditions where you work out either in a room with lower oxygen than normal levels or special masks) - when I have more scientific data for the efficacy of these methods I'll post it.
Back in 'the old days' a family friend told me a story of how he borrowed some army boots, a couple of woolen jumpers and carried plenty of newspaper to keep out the cold. He reached the top! I'll post a gear article with some more detail and soe gear that I've found to be great over the years but here's my top tips:
- No cotton: Keep away from Cotton. It doesn't dry easily and absorbs moisture. That means you get cold which is a bad thing.
- Waterproofs:Make sure you have waterproof bottoms (pants) and a waterproof jacket WITH A HOOD. Yes GoreTex is great but there are other makes too. Good gear will last you much longer than just this trip.
- Base layers: wick away base layers or thermals are great. Merrino wool is also a type of thermal that has become very popular of late but synthetic base layers made of artificial fabrics are now designed to draw away moisture from your skin.
- Layers: layers can really help trap heat. Having spare layers is also great for changing into / letting other layers dry out. On the final summit you will most likely wear on the bottom 3 layers of trouser (for instance thermal base layer, normal hiking trousers and waterproof outer layer) and on top 5 to 7 layers (thermal underlayer, 2 regular layers, fleece x 1 or 2 and then waterproof outer shell).
- Decent boots with heel support. Vibram soles come highly recommended. Carry these on the plane in your hand luggage or wear them on the flight as it can be very hard to source boots that fit you / or are in good condition once you land.