9 Lessons Learned From Climbing Kilimanjaro

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••• Kraig Becker

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is one of the top bucket-list items for just about any adventure traveler. At 19,341 feet (5895 meters) in height, it is not only the tallest mountain in Africa, it is the highest freestanding mountain in the entire world. Here are nine things we learned during about the mountain that could help others planning on making the trip too. 

Be Physically Prepared

While it is true that anyone who is in reasonably good physical condition has a chance to make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro, that doesn't mean that it will be an easy stroll to the top.

Quite the contrary in fact, as the often steep trails, mixed with relatively high altitude, can make for a challenging trek for those who are unprepared. The entire experience will be a more enjoyable one if you arrive on the mountain as physically fit as possible, and prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Cardio and strength training will help get your body ready for the long days of hiking and will allow you to truly enjoy your time on the mountain rather than simply suffering through the climb.

Not All Guide Services are Created Equal

In order to climb Kilimanjaro, you must first sign on with a guide service that can take you up the mountain. There are literally dozens of options to choose from, with price generally playing a major role in who travelers ultimately choose to hire. While most of these outfitters are good, reputable companies to trek with, they are certainly not all created equal.

The CIA-trained chefs continually amazed with their ability to create incredibly tasty meals even while we were in remote campsites, and twice-daily medical checks kept the guides well informed of the health of the entire team. In short, Tusker ensured that travelers felt well cared for and prepared for the challenges, which helped to increase our chances of reaching the top.

 

Pole, Pole!

Pacing yourself and taking your time is the key to success on Kilimanjaro, something that each of the guides will remind you of regularly. You'll often hear them say "pole, pole!" which means "slowly, slowly" in Swahili, as they set a measured pace up the mountain. Going slowly allows your body to acclimatize properly to the altitude, and saves your energy for the tough push to the summit. It is important to remember that a Kilimanjaro climb is a marathon, not a sprint, and by going slowly you'll ensure that you have the best chance of completing the climb. 

The Route Makes a Difference

There are at least a half-dozen routes that can be taken to the summit of Kilimanjaro, each with their own unique challenges and characteristics. For instance, the Marangu Route is the busiest, which can make the trail crowded at times, but it also offers basic huts (rather than tents) for sleeping in each night. Meanwhile, the Machame Route is more challenging but is well known for being very scenic too. Which route you choose will have an impact on your overall experience, so do some research and find one that appeals to you. On Tusker's Climb for Valor, we hiked the seldom used Northern Circuit – an offshoot of the Lemosho Route – which meant plenty of solitude on the trail for several days.

At times it felt like we had the entire mountain to ourselves, which made for a very different experience from those who are trekking one of the more well-trodden trails to the top. Also, the longer routes cost more money to hike, but also provide more time to acclimatize as well, which is something that shouldn't be overlooked. 

Altitude Sickness Can Impact Anyone

As mentioned, one of the biggest challenges of any Kilimanjaro climb is overcoming the altitude. It is not uncommon for trekkers to experience headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, insomnia, and other symptoms as they go up the mountain. It can also bring on full-blown altitude sickness, which can be life-threatening if not treated properly. The only way to alleviate the condition is to descend to a lower altitude, which wasn't easy on the remote part of the mountain where we were hiking.

In the end, a helicopter was called in to evacuate him and within a matter of hours, he was feeling much better. But his Kili climb was over, and it was a good reminder to the rest of us that altitude sickness can affect anyone, including those who are well prepared and in peak physical condition. 

Trekking Poles are Essential

One of the most important pieces of gear that you can bring with you on a Kilimanjaro climb is a good set of trekking poles. These poles will help you to maintain your balance on trails that can often be rough, uneven, and covered in unstable rocks. They'll also help your legs to stay strong throughout the entire trek, both going up, and especially when coming back down the mountain. If you're not familiar with how to use trekking poles while you hike, then we'd suggest practicing ahead of time. That way, when you do start your Kili trek you'll be accustomed to having them in your hands, and it won't feel so awkward on the trail. After gaining a bit of experience using the poles, you'll soon find that trekking with them becomes second nature, and you'll appreciate the benefits that they deliver. 

Going Down is Tougher Than You Think

With its steep trails, thin air, and difficult terrain, reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro requires a lot of focus and dedication. Which is why many trekkers look so forward to turning around and heading back down the mountain when they're done. But in a lot of ways, the descent can be tougher than the climb to the summit, which can lead to a lot of unexpected suffering on the final day of the hike. Most climbers will spend a minimum of 5 days reaching the summit, but they'll essentially spend just one day going back down, descending thousands of feet in the process. That massive drop in altitude is great for the lungs but very difficult on the legs, which are usually already tired and sore after a long trek up to the summit. Take your time on the way back down, and be prepared for another very long day on the trail. The climb isn't over until you're completely off the mountain, and those last few miles can be the hardest of all. 

Not Everyone Makes it to the Summit

As already mentioned, there is a myth that surrounds Kilimanjaro that says that anyone can make it to the top. This would lead you to believe that there is a very high success rate on the mountain with just about everyone reaching the summit. The reality is about 60% of those who attempt to climb Kili are actually successful. That means 4 out of 10 don't make it to the top, with altitude and health issues preventing them from seeing the "Roof of Africa."It is important for an adventure traveler to understand those odds before attempting the climb, as it will also help them to assess their own situation more clearly when deciding if they can continue higher up the mountain, or need to turn back themselves. By the way, Tusker's success rate is closer to 90% due in part to the longer routes that they hike and the health assessments they make along the way.

The View From the Top is Worth the Effort

Over the course of a Kilimanjaro climb, trekkers will find themselves challenged on a regular basis. In addition to the long days on the trail, and the difficulty breathing the thin air, they may find that they lose their appetite, have a hard time sleeping, and are routinely uncomfortable due to any number of other factors including the weather, their teammates, and so on. But when they reach the summit all of those challenges wash away as they celebrate their accomplishment. The view from the highest point in Africa is spectacular, with the mountain serving as your perch, and the African plains spreading out in all directions. It is a wonderful experience, to say the least, and while it isn't easy, the payoff at the summit makes it all worthwhile.

It is also a good reminder of why we love adventure travel so much.