Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro Part one... Anticipating the mountain.
So what does it take to plan a trip to the roof of Africa? Several things. What route? When to go? What outfitter/tour company? What are the weather considerations? What are the altitude considerations? Buy or rent gear? What time of year to go? How much will it cost?
When we decided Africa was definitely on the destination list for our Round-The-World trip, an attempt at climbing Mt Kilimanjaro almost instantly became a must. Looking back at old emails it appears as though I started writing outfitters as far back as July asking questions about the climb. The email to multiple outfitters went something like this: “ A friend and I are planning a trip to Tanzania in the spring and we are hoping to trek Mt. Kilimanjaro. We have been looking at different tour options and researching success rates. I see on your website you offer several options for trekking (and summiting!) Kilimanjaro. What would you recommend for for two enthusiastic, healthy and fit women, 28 and 30years old? Though we reside at about 200M, we have successfully hiked and camped in Peru above 4000M for several days after appropriately acclimating to the altitude. We would truly like to climb Mt Kilimanjaro but want to be sure to do so in safe and most enjoyable fashion! Any information, suggestions or recommendations you have to offer would be greatly appreciated.”
After several backs and forths with two or three different companies, the one I got the best vibe from was Ultimate Kilimanjaro. Upon choosing Ultimate Kilimanjaro, we had to pick a route and settle on a departure date. One of the nice things about this company is the fact that they offered daily departures on any route at any time of the year. We knew we would be there in early May, right smack in the middle of the low tourist season, so as much as joining a few others on the trek would have been nice, the flexibility of the being able to leave on the exact day that best fit our schedule was very nice as well.
So what route do we take? There are six routes to Uhuru peak, the very top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. How do you pick one? Well, Ultimate Kilimanjaro also happened to have a “What Route is Best For Me?” link on their web page. I had to read the descriptions only once before knowing Rongai Route would be best for Michelle and me. Rongai is considered “the road less traveled” when it comes to Killimanjao, only 15% of climbers choose this route. It’s difficulty rating is moderate among the other routes. There’s a good chance of spotting wildlife. The climb takes you up one side of the mountain and down the other -- double the scenery. And if those reasons weren’t plenty to have my heart set on the Rongai Route, we would also be less likely to see loads of rain (possibly 24 hours per day) as compared to other routes.
When should we leave? That decision actually became rather easy to make when we looked at the calendar and our other plans for Tanzania. Our week-long safari was to begin on a Sunday, our week-long volunteer commitment was also to begin on Sunday, so when better to begin a week long Kili trek? We opted for Sunday. We easily chose Kili as our first “thing” in Tanzania, thus settling on a departure date of April 29, 2012. A few emails later and we were set. Rongai Route, April 29 with Ultimate Kilimanjaro.
How long does it take? The fastest any Mt. Kilimanjaro route can be completed, up and down, is five days. Some routes require at least six days. However, it is strongly recommended that climbers add what is known as an “acclimatization” day, in which you hang out somewhere between 3500 meters and 4500 meters in an effort to allow your body to adjust to the quickly increasing altitude and, in so doing, increasing the chances of successfully reaching the summit. I’ll tell a little but more about how altitude change plays into the climb shortly.
To buy or rent gear? One can actually rent everything you could possibly need to climb the mountain in Moshi, the city in Tanzania where all climbs begin. However, I do not recommend renting everything. Anything you think you’ll use again, is worth bringing along as you know how well it fits, how waterproof it is and how easy or difficult it is to pack. Michelle and I wound up renting only hiking poles, sleeping bags, gaiters and ponchos as none of these items were necessary to carry all around the world but were very useful, if not essential, on the mountain. I might add that what we got were of good quality for being rented items.
Weather considerations: We knew we had booked our trek during the low/rainy season. The upside to attempting the climb during the rainy season is it’s a bit warmer, but climbers should expect to get poured upon occasionally if not constantly. Michelle and I were fortunate. Some would say we got lucky. The “dry side of the mountain” was good to us, and we really didn’t get rained on very much at all for it being rainy season. Some travelers (from Germany) we met at the hotel said they’d had little more than thirty minutes a day without rain.
Temperatures on the mountain vary depending on elevation and time of day. Near the base of the mountain, in the forest, temps can be between 15-25 C (about 60-75F.) during the day. As you move up the mountain temps can be as cold as -15 to -20 C (about 5 to -5F) at night. Both Michelle and I were in shorts and tank tops on the first and last days. In the middle, however, we were hiking in pants, and rain pants, long shirts with jackets, hats and mittens. At night I typically wore two pairs of socks, three long pants (including insulating running tights) six shirts, a neck warmer, hat and mittens. All that around me and inside my -20 C. rated sleeping bag. I was still chilly. Bottom line, it’s colder up there than you think!
Altitude considerations: The concept of altitude, and what it does to your body, is a difficult one to grasp. It’s not something you can train for, and it is said anyone can be affected at elevations above 3000 meters. We have all heard the term “thin air.” What exactly does that mean? The easiest way I can explain it is this: As altitude above sea level increases, atmospheric pressure decreases, thus creating thinner air. Still confused? Try this illustration: Fill a jar with air at sea level, and there are, let’s say, 1000 oxygen molecules in it. Take the same jar up to 5500 meters and fill it with air a second time. Oooops! Only 500 molecules of oxygen now – same volume of air but only half the oxygen. Why? Because the atmospheric pressure is half of what it is at sea level, permitting twice the space between all the oxygen molecules. This is the same reason shampoo bottles can explode in an airplane… less air pressure, the molecules want to spread out increasing the volume of the shampoo, and the bottle bursts.
Why does any of this matter? Unfortunately, your body still requires the same amount of oxygen it did at sea level to function properly. Actually, it requires even more oxygen because now you’re hiking up a mountain over uneven terrain, and your muscles need a lot more oxygen than when you are sitting on the beach drinking beer! What’s there to do about this little altitude and oxygen problem while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro? This is where the acclimatization day comes in. The only way your body can adjust to the lack of oxygen in the air is with time. When you don’t give your body the oxygen it wants and needs, it starts on its own to do things to keep itself alive. These things include breathing faster and deeper – to get more oxygen in your body, increasing heart rate – to send the oxygen to vital organs and getting rid of fluid (peeing a lot) to make room for more red blood cells – to carry the oxygen to where it needs to go. Altitude sickness is not something to be taken lightly. It can come on quickly and can be deadly if not taken seriously. The good news is that if one is suffering from altitude sickness the cure is very easy. Turn around and descend.
Are you still curious about altitude? Click here and go nuts.
How much does it cost? I’ve read in many places there is no way to climb Kili cheaply and safely. You can do one or the other, but you can’t do both at the same time. That being said, any book you read on the subject states that you can’t do a safe trek with the minimum supplies, guides, porters necessary for under $1200 USD, even booking directly without any middle men. In an effort to remain politically correct, I’m not going to tell you what we paid for our trek, but if you go to the Ultimate Kilimanjaro website you can probably figure it out.
Okay, so I’ve probably gone on way longer than some of you care to read. Stay with me. There is better stuff to come. I promise.
Arriving in Tanzania.
We got to Tanzania on Friday afternoon, April 27. After a bit of confusion at the airport with yellow cards and taxi drivers we finally found ourselves in Moshi. That was good. Not so good was that it was nearly 24 hours after we had departed Delhi. It didn’t take five minutes before I was reminded of how much I love Africa. It’s hard to put into words that would make sense to many people, but I absolutely love it here.
After we arrived at Springlands Hotel (the place the climbing company sends everyone before and after their trek) we learned we would not be meeting our guide until the next day. At that, we quickly pulled ourselves together so we could go into town and take care of some last minute things before leaving for the mountain. Laundry was a must, an ATM was necessary, and we had a few rental items in mind for the trek. A nice meal would be good too!
Springlands Hotel was a ways out of town, so we took their shuttle to get ourselves back into the heart of the city. It didn’t take but about ten seconds in the street before we found someone who knew of a spot where we could drop off our laundry.
The guy in the laundry shop was Ambrose. Ambrose is working on starting up his own business in Moshi for trekking, safari and local cultural tours. In the laundry shop his wall was covered with photos of people at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro. Ohhh, my blood is boiling with excitement! When we asked Ambrose about where we could find a shop for some rental gear he called his friend Soloman who showed us his giant inventory of high quality rental gear. We each got a pair of gaiters for the mud and some higher quality ponchos for the rain.
Now for some dinner. Both Ambrose and Soloman recommend a spot called IndoInaliano. It was nearby, and had a decent menu, so we went there and managed to find a few delicious Indian dishes, a development that certainly made leaving India easy! On our way out we met a guy sitting alone who had just come down from the mountain that day. So of course we engaged him in some brief conversation. Ohhh, let the excitement continue. I wish I could remember his name, and I wish I had had the energy to sit and have a celebratory beer with him, but we had been awake nearly 36hrs at this point. What I do recall of the encounter was how happy this guy was and how proud he was of himself. He described his entire summit to us with a giant smile on his face. My anticipatory excitement continued to rise.
Okay, now fast forward to Saturday evening, the part where we meet our guide. Up to this point there was an unequal mix of nerves and excitement, with nerves being the winning emotion. I know I’m tough when I need to be tough. And I know I’m capable of taking on challenges, one of those people often welcoming them with open arms. Still, I hadn’t yet allowed myself to say “I’m going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro on my RTW trip.” It had always been, “I’m going to attempt to climb Mt Kilimanjaro.” Then we met Johnnie. If only everyone who climbs this mountain could be as lucky as Michelle and I to have Johnnie lead them on what would become one of my life’s greatest accomplishments, lead them to the top of Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro.
For quite some time that evening, Johnnie sat and talked with us about the mountain, his experiences and what to expect. By the time we were finished talking, I could confidently declare: “I’m going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.”
From the moment Johnnie sat down, it was clear we were going to get along. Johnnie has a wonderful and wonderfully genuine smile that will put anyone in a good mood. And with that smile on his face, he told us all about the route we were going to trek, what the food would be like, how hard it was going to rain, how cold it was going to get, what the campsites would be like, if we would see animals, and if we would see people. He told us about our porters, and he told us a lot about his experiences on the mountain. Johnnie has been climbing Killi for 11 years, he’s taken 251 trips up the mountain with clients, Michelle and I make 252. Of those trips, he has an 87% success rate reaching the summit at Uhuru Peak.
Oh my goodness!!!!! I’m really going to do it. I’m really going to climb Kili!!!