A few years ago, I had the incredible fortune to be included in a trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, which turned out to be an unbelievably humbling and gratifying experience. Although these days I try to exercise a few times a week, back then I was not quite a greatist/fitness enthusiast, so many of my friends found my Kili plan mystifying. But by golly, climb Kilimanjaro I did, and I’m here today to share a couple of things I learned along the way. Please note that I am not a travel guide, a mountain expert, or a doctor. This is just one gal’s reflection on a big climb.
Be deliberate — The Route You Choose Matters
Risk yields reward, but it also helps to factor in common sense when planning an adventure. You’ll probably only climb Kilimanjaro once, so pick the path that has the highest chance of bringing you to success. The statistics can be unreliable depending on whom you ask, but it’s estimated that only about 30% of climbers reach the summit, Uhuru peak. There are 6 official routes you can take to the top of Kili (Marangu, Rongai, Lemosho, Shira, Umbwe and Machame) and each has its own set of considerations and success rates. I took a 5-night Rongai route, which is consistently gradual except for the final ascent, less crowded, and allows for a broad range of scenery. Find the route that’s right for you and your group. Kilimanjaro trips are not cheap, but should be done the right way with the proper advisement. Don’t cut corners that might make the difference between getting to the top or significantly injuring yourself.
A Little Research (Probably) Never Killed Anyone
Do your due diligence, and as Jeremy Irons told Whoopi Goldberg in The Lion King, be prepared. Depending on your route, it’s basically a walking mountain, so you don’t need to worry too much about your grappling skills. If you are not already an avid hiker, try to get some longer trails under your belt beforehand. I did an 8.5-mile hike in Pennsylvania the month before my trip, but definitely could have done more prep. On the mountain you will be hiking between 4 and 12 hours a day for 6 or 7 days, so you will want to be comfortable with distance and endurance. Make a thorough checklist for all the gear you’ll need. Do your best to break in your hiking boots! You do not want to deal with painful blisters or be complaining about your feet the whole time. The weather and temperature will fluctuate dramatically from the beginning of your trip to the end, so bring layers and choose fabrics that wick. You will also not be showering at all during that time, so keep that in mind.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
This is not a sprint, and if you rush you can quite literally die. So chill out, check out the amazing views, and let your body adjust. Guides will help pace your climb appropriately. Usually once you finish hiking for the day and set up camp, you’ll take a short climb a little further up and then come back down in order to help the body acclimatize. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a real thing and it can affect the healthiest and strongest of folks. In fact, there is no correlation between age, gender, or fitness when it comes to susceptibility.
Listen to Your Body
Speaking of AMS: The awkward truth is that each year about 10 people die attempting to climb Kilimanjaro, and several thousands have to be carried down the mountain before making it to the top. The majority of deaths and evacuations result from altitude sickness. You can increase your chances of success by drinking lots of water and eating regularly even if you start lose your appetite (choose a company or guide that provides produce on the mountain in addition to starches and protein). If you are not allergic to sulfa-based medications (as I am), you can also take AMS medication like Diamox either preventatively or when you start experiencing severe symptoms. Past a certain point, however, there is nothing you can do to cure acute altitude sickness, except stop climbing and go back down. It’s extremely important to pay attention to your body and not underestimate the danger of ascending too quickly.
Oh Man, the Earth Is Kind of Amazing
Over the course of the hike you will travel through the rainforest, peep monkeys and crawly things, and come across insane-looking, other-wordly vegetation. By the top there’s not much but rock and (hopefully) snow, and you’re looking down at the cloud level. That’s crazy, my friend. It’s like living through five episodes of Planet Earth. It’s peacefully quiet and breathtakingly beautiful at each camp along the way. This is a perfect time to connect— and disconnect. Breathe and think deeply and clearly. Contemplate your place in the universe, your connection to the environment, how you got here and where you’re going. (You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.) Before you retreat too far into your own head, get to know your guides and fellow hikers. You will learn a lot from each other. One of the climbers on my trip would never have made it to Uhuru if it wasn’t for the patience, encouragement, and support of one of our guides. While hiking, we also met a woman climbing by herself who works for the Division for the Advancement of Women at the UN and also happened to live 20 blocks away from me in NYC. We all stayed in touch after Kilimanjaro, and a year later had dinner to celebrate the anniversary of our summit. It is big world…and also an eerily small one.
The Mountain Is in Your Mind
Okay, this is obviously not entirely true. There’s definitely a mountain. But you also have to summit the mountain in your head that can quite stubbornly stand in the way. The body is capable of some incredible things, and if you can overcome self-doubt and mental weariness, you will discover the heights of your capability and strength. I’m not gonna lie: The ten hours before you reach the top are brutal, in ways you never could have imagined. On the second to last night, you only sleep for a few hours and wake up at midnight to start the climb— you can’t spend too much time at that altitude so you have to go up and come back down in one continuous hike in order to maximize sunlight hours. So you’re tired. It’s freezing cold. The altitude is making your brain hurt a little. The oxygen is so thin that you can barely get enough air to breathe, let alone support this much physical exertion. Just wait for the best part. One thing no one ever mentions is that the last few miles up the mountain are really steep and also made of this terrible thing called “scree,” which is basically like gravelly sand. So for every step you take forward, you slide half a step backwards. It feels like someone is playing an excessively cruel joke. But, as long as you are physically holding up, you CAN do it. And you will see the world from a spectacular vantage point and it will be entirely, unequivocally worth it. You may have to pick your jaw up off the ground, cry, take photos, and call someone you love or tweet out your victory (yep, they’ve got cell reception up there). Unfortunately you can’t spend longer than 15 minutes or so up at the top, since the altitude is tough for the body to take, and you still have to make it almost 60% of the way back down the mountain before you will camp again. For my group (in which some struggled particularly on the last leg up to the summit), this meant we climbed from midnight until 6pm. Don’t let your brain cheat you out of that well-earned victory for which you came all this way. When I began I wasn’t 100% sure I would make it all the way to the top, but by the time I walked out of the gate of Kilimanjaro National Park, I had summited the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. I had traveled 50 miles and climbed 19,300 feet. I learned a ton, not just about what the human body and strength of spirit can accomplish, but what I specifically can handle and achieve. I had never pushed myself so far and it’s made all the difference off the mountain. I will always feel intensely proud of my summit moment. I’ll always have that in my back pocket for a rainy day when I’m feeling lousy or unmotivated. It’s an unparalleled experience and I highly recommend it for anyone who is game and able to afford the trek.