Mt. Kilimanjaro is not for everyone.
Specifically, the signs at the entrance to the park say it’s not for those with heart or lung problems, but I think it’s mostly not for those who don’t really, really want to climb it.
As the tallest mountain in Africa, and the tallest free-standing mountain from base to summit, Kili makes a lot of mountaineering lists. Unlike many of the mountains on those lists, Kili is not a technical climb– you don’t need to know crevasse rescue techniques, or ice climbing or glissade or ice axe self-arrest– frankly, all you need to know how to do is to walk.
The main issue is that you need to walk a lot at a very high elevation.
And I don’t know if you know what it’s like to be up so high, but it’s not quite like it is down here.
Have you ever been on the ocean for a few days? You know how everything gets damp and salty and there’s water and salt everywhere and it contaminates everything and there’s nothing you can do about it? (It’s the same with sand in deserts) That’s what the elevation is like on Kilimanjaro. Instead of there being salt and it’s everywhere, there’s oxygen and it’s nowhere.
Especially your lungs.
On the first few days, it’s not so bad. The first day felt like we were going too slow, even. Our guide Nixon led. One step per second, maximum. Pole pole, he said. It means “slowly” in Swahili, and all the Kilimanjaro guides say it. It’s the motto of the mountain, sort of.
It’s applicable to the climb in two senses. The first is that you need to take steps slowly. With ever-decreasing levels of oxygen as you ascend (50% of sea-level amounts at 14,000 feet), you are simply unable to move quickly. Even at the plodding pace we trekked at, my heart rate was still hitting 150 at points, and only sinking below 120 when I sat down. The juxtaposition between such slow steps and such a rapid pulse was disconcerting, but that’s altitude for you.
The second sense you need to climb pole pole is the vertical distance between camps. Most humans accustomed to gratuitous oxygen shouldn’t ascend more than about 1,000 feet a night, and even that’s pushing it if you do it night-over-night for extended periods. Start going up faster than that, and you’ve got problems: those problems start with headaches and end with you filling up with fluid in bad places. Cerebral or pulmonary edema kill within hours, and if you are coughing pink or can’t walk straight, you need to get more O2 like your life depends on it.
Fortunately, neither Nik or I had either of these problems. I had a headache pulling into camp on a few different afternoons, but as I did next to no training for the mountain, I suspected that my 5-hours cardio workouts every morning were triggering exercise headaches. Plus, an ibuprofen once I got into camp cleared things right up.
Many climbers take a drug for altitude sickness called Diamox, which lowers your blood pH, tricking your brain into thinking you need to breathe deeper– which you do, thereby taking in more oxygen, even while sleeping, and speeding acclimatization. I took none, because a.) I never felt like I needed it and b.) any drug that has a very common side effect of making your fingers and toes tingle can stay the heck out of my body. Plus it’s a massive diuretic. Very inconvenient. Oh, and c.) the Tanzanian guides have choice opinions about weak western tourists who Diamox their circulatory systems into submission for Kili.
Nik would appreciate me mentioning that an effective medicine to stall pulmonary edema is Cialis, and I did indeed wander up Kili with a filled prescription of said drug. That fact came up in a few conversations with other climbers (particularly the conversations Nik was involved in), and one aging climber made not one, not two, not even three, but four awkward jokes about buying it off me. But I kept it. As it does me no good down here, I’m thinking about shooting out some e-mails to see if any of my address book contacts wants some.
The Route and the Guide
Nik and I climbed the 8-day Lemosho route, which approaches the summit from the west side of the mountain, climbing up from the rainforest through ever-diminishing levels of shrubs to a barren Shira Plateau. At that point, we loop around the south of the mountain and meet up with other trails before Barafu camp, from which the crater is reached.
Eight days is a pretty typical amount of time to take for the Lemosho route. There are shorter treks that cost less, but those always run the risk of going up too fast and running into elevation issues, minor or serious. If you’re going to go through all the money and effort to do Kilimanjaro, it is infinitely worth doing it right. Longer treks are the way to go.
(Technically, we climbed Lemosho in seven days, but that’s because we climbed down the mountain in one day, not two. The speed of ascent is what matters, though, and so the important part is not summiting before day seven if you want maximum odds of reaching the top.)
Picking a guide is an interesting process, and the contrast between what the REI Website looks like here and how the tour operates on the mountain are quite a gulf. In fact, it’s well known that the vast majority of the cost of the “first-world tour operators” doing Kili treks stays in the first world. But no one’s heard of the Tanzanian tour operators simply because they don’t spend their money on international marketing campaigns (or, let’s be honest, web developers that know CSS).
Fortunately, I lucked out choosing a tour operator. I went with Ringo Expeditions, a Tanzanian-owned operator with experienced guides and dramatically lower prices than anything I could find on Google. I happened to correspond with the American entrepreneur who provided the capital for the company– the man’s guide had mentioned wanting to start his own tour company, and things went from there. Now Adam Ringo runs his own shop and we paid half the price of other expeditions for acceptable service and a guide who’d been up the mountain well over a hundred times before. The only awkward experience in the whole climb/safari (which was also run by the same group) was our guide asking us for a larger tip than we had anticipated.
We heard a similar experience from another group, so that’s something to look out for. In general, if you tip 10% of the cost of the expedition, that’s more than enough.
On the seventh day, we didn’t rest. Not for long, anyhow. It’s the modus operandi to get up at midnight in Barafu Camp (15,500 ft.) to reach Uhuru Peak (19,200 ft.) by dawn, six and a half hours later. This was only a fraction of the hours we spent trekking on the mountain, but it was as physically and mentally taxing as the rest of the trek combined.
As I was asleep at 8 PM most nights on the mountain anyways, I actually got a cycle of sleep before the big climb. It wasn’t getting up at midnight that was hard; nor was it even the first hour of that trek. Indeed, I spent most of the time in awe of how unexpectedly beautiful the whole scene was. The clouds that obscured the summit so often in daylight had cleared away, and I could see lit cities sprawled across the savanna 10,000 ft. below. The trickle of climbers who began the night’s ascent before us looked like a candlelight procession stretching towards the snowy summit, their headlamps and flashlights forming a midnight vigil in the freezing quiet.
Oh, and the cold! Yes, your heart and lungs are working like pistons, but because you are walking so slowly, your muscles never really heat up like you’re exercising. Consequently, one must dress as if they’re about to go stand still in 10-degree weather for five hours. We wore everything. I mean everything. Five layers on top, four on the bottom, plus accessories.
After some climbing, Nik asked how far we had to go.
“We’ve been climbing for one hour. Don’t ask again”, Nixon reprimanded him.
Nixon was full of odd warnings during the summit experience. In last night’s debrief, he had even mentioned that “Frozenbite (sic.) comes and goes. You feel it coming, but just keep walking” and “Don’t close your eyes at the summit. You may be tired because of the climb, because of no sleep… don’t close your eyes“. His advice for us was to pretend we were “walking to the grocery store”, which was growing more and more difficult every time we passed another climber hunched over their walking poles, panting like a dog or throwing up.
My pace slowed and slowed. The one-step-a-second drudgery of the first day was now absolutely too fast. I spent an hour on one particularly steep segment following a strict five-steps-and-then-a-break rule. And let me tell you, that break was heaven. I looked forward to it more than I looked forward to pecan pie. I was more excited about that break than I was first dates. I couldn’t help it though– if you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.
But I’ll spare you the rest of my grim musings on oxygen depravation. It was just before 6 AM that we caught sight of the wonderful sign, Uhuru Peak, Highest Point in Africa. Nik and I fulfilled a promise made at the mountain base and took a picture shirtless at the summit, shaking hands and grinning like idiots. It was unparalleled.
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There’s a lot more information I could give about climbing Kilimanjaro, but I think I’ve said the most important things here already. I certainly have many other stories to tell about the climb (let alone the safari and fishing), but I should perhaps save those for another blog– or at least another post. I hope this was inspiring and informative, and if you have any questions, please leave them in the comments. Good luck on the mountain!