Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Tips for climbing Kilimanjaro

In 2010, I did my first big trip to Tanzania, and had the absolute time of my life. I led a group of 22 volunteers in fundraising for Childreach International, climbing Kilimanjaro, then travelling around Tanzania for a couple of weeks afterwards. (Full blog of the climb here).

At the summit!
Kilimanjaro is quite honestly the best thing I have ever done. When people ask me why, I can't quite explain it. It's certainly the hardest thing I've done, by far, but it's also one of the things I'm most proud of. I pushed myself to the absolute limit, did much more than I ever thought I was capable of, and yet still managed to enjoy myself.

I'm not going to lie and say that every minute was amazing. There were times, especially on the summit attempt, that I was SO close to turning around and giving up. There were times, when I was being sick onto the rocks, or hallucinating on my descent to Millenium Camp on summit day, that I questioned why I was even there, but the trip as a whole massively outweighed all those downsides.

The scenery is incredible, and changes every day, so you never get bored. If you have a good group, the camaraderie is brilliant, and above all, the guides and porters are absolutely phenomenal. They cook for you, carry most of your equipment, organise everything, and do it all with massive smiles on their faces. They'll be your chefs, doctors, porters, friends and more during your week on the mountain, and you could not climb without them.

View from the tent

I've booked quite a few people to do the climb through work, and people always ask me the same thing. What are your tips for the climb? I've documented some of my main ones below - it's by no means a comprehensive list, but it's the most important ones I can think of.

1. Enjoy yourself. Having the right mindset is key to this climb; if you go there believing it's going to be too hard, and you're never going to do it, you probably won't. Acclimatisation is at least 50% psychological, and I would say that sheer determination and stubbornness got me through the summit day. The guides and porters are amazing; they'll cheer you up, sing you songs and look after you, so do them a favour and go into it with a positive mindset, and you'll be absolutely fine.

2nd degree sunburn - ouch!

2. Bring a first aid kit with you. You're climbing a mountain for a week; the chances are, you're going to at least get a scratch from a rock. Cuts heal less quickly at altitude, so it's important to keep them clean. Anti-septic wipes, baby wipes, anti-histamines, plasters and painkillers are vital - I used them all. Also suncream! I was too ill to remember to apply this on the summit attempt, and paid dearly for it, so I can't stress enough how important it really is.

3. Bring water purification tablets with you, preferably chlorine if you can, as they taste much nicer than the iodine ones. Water will become purer the higher you are, but it's all from the streams on the mountain, so don't take chances.

4. Wear layers. Lots of people in my group brought big down jackets, which were great for the summit attempt, but not so good for the lower slopes of the cloudforest. I took a thin waterproof coat, but packed fleeces, thermals and jumpers, and piled them all on underneath for the summit attempt, when you're climbing through the night and it's much colder.

5. Prepare yourself for illness. Most people get some form of altitude sickness, even if it's just a mild headache, so if you resign yourself to it not being the most comfortable few days, and don't fret about it, you'll be absolutely fine. I completely lost my appetite, and didn't eat for about 4 days; I also had problems with my breathing. Let your guides know if you're suffering, and they'll keep an eye on you, and make sure you don't continue if it becomes dangerous. As I walked for miles, and was running on empty, I felt dreadful and pushed myself to the limit, but at no point was I in any danger. Had I been, the guides wouldn't have let me continue.

6. Bring a headtorch. Quite a simple one, but very useful for both the summit attempt, and for navigating the camp at night.

7. Take LOTS of photos. I had bought a wrong battery for my camera, so instead of having a spare battery, I was left to conserve the one I had as much as possible, determined to keep it alive until summit night, for the all important summit photo! As camera batteries die more quickly at altitude, and the fact that I didn't have the energy a lot of the time, I didn't take as many pictures as I wanted to, and no videos, which is something I regret. Take as many batteries as you can!

8. Appreciate your guides and porters. I know I've gone on and on about this, but you really won't appreciate them until you're there. I tipped mine at the end around $100, but wish I'd had more. The assistant guide that was with me the whole way to the summit, and practically dragged me up there, is an absolute life saver. He kept my headtorch after looking after it for me, but I didn't mind in the slightest, and would have given him more if I could. I wouldn't have reached the top without him.

9. Eat and drink as much as you can. I'm a massive hypocrite for saying this, as I lost my appetite half-way through day 2, but I kept myself going on soup, juice and water. I wouldn't have felt half as ill as I did had I been well enough to eat, and keeping yourself as hydrated as possible helps you to acclimatise.

10. A good sleeping bag, daypack and walking boots are possibly the three most important pieces of your kit. Make sure your bag and boots fit you well, and are well worn-in, and make sure the sleeping bag is warm enough and a good quality.

If Kili is something you've always thought about, but been unsure as to whether you should do, I have one last piece of advice. DO IT. I've never met anyone who hated it, and to a lot of people it's the most special thing they've done. I shall be doing it again at some point in the near future, and I don't imagine it will be the last time. Amazing people, scenery, and an amazing trek - what more could you want?

Jambo, jambo bwana;
Habari gani, mzuri sana;
Wageni, mwakaribishwa;
Kilimanjaro, Hakuna Matata

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