The first time I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, I was a 20-year-old uni student, in peak physical condition who believed he was invincible. Add a team of local guides with a policy of ‘summit at all costs’ and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Here are 5 things I wish I knew before I climbed Kilimanjaro.
1. ALTITUDE SICKNESS KILLS
I knew nothing about trekking at altitude and I was thoroughly surprised when I started uncontrollably vomiting at Gillman’s Point, the first of three summit points on the Marangu route.
Pigheaded and without proper guidance, I pushed on, stopping every 20 – 50m to vomit and sleep on my walking pole. I didn’t respect Mount Kilimanjaro and altitude and as a result I don’t remember reaching Uhuru Peak and I spent the next 3 days in bed. At the time, I didn’t realise that approximately 1,000 people are evacuated on stretchers each year, mostly because of altitude sickness.
If you’re trekking in altitude for the first time, make sure you research and understanding the risks of trekking at altitude. And whatever you do, do not push yourself so hard that you end of being evacuated, I guarantee it won’t be fun.
2. WHO YOU CLIMB WITH MATTERS
The company you choose matters. With thousands of companies to choose from, it can be tempting to go for the cheapest option. Don’t!
The first time I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, I was advised not to take Diamox and that 5 days would be sufficient. Never climb in less than seven days and never pay less than US$1,800pp. Park entrance and camping fees are approximately US$800 – $1,000pp and cannot be avoided. A cheap fee means your trekking company is skimping on gear, tents, food or wages. All of which are critically important.
Ignoring your health and safety can be fatal and camping in a leaky tent sucks. Spend the extra few hundred dollars to ensure you have a good experience on Kilimanjaro.
3. HIRE EQUIPMENT… IT’S CHEAPER
I wasn’t a regular hiker the first time I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, so I had to buy all of my gear and equipment before the trek. I spent a small fortune, only to realise that most of it could be hired very cheaply in Moshi, Tanzania.
If you are on a budget and you’re not going to use the gear again, buy the 7 Kilimanjaro Packing Essentials before you fly to Tanzania and hire the rest of your gear once you are there. It will save you a lot of money.
4. SUMMIT NIGHT REALLY HURTS
Fitness will help but nothing will prepare you for the mental challenge you’ll face on summit night. Walking slower than a snail, in complete darkness, for six – eight hours, at more than 4,600m, is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.
Your hands and feet will freeze, you may have a headache, or a little nausea and you’ll ask yourself why you’re doing this at least a million times. Mental resilience and determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other is what will get you to the top. That and an incredible support crew.
Summit night may be the hardest night of your life but when you reach Uhuru Peak and you look around at Kilimanjaro’s giant glaciers, you’ll know exactly why you did it and you won’t regret it for a second.
5. WATER BLADDERS ARE USELESS
Before I went, someone told me I needed to drink lots of water on Kilimanjaro. Being a regularly drinker already, I decided 6L/day would do the trick! I purchased two 3L CamelBaks, which was great until summit night… when both froze.
If you’re trekking Kilimanjaro, bring water bottles over bladders. They may still freeze but at least you can place them upside-down so the bottom freezes first and you can still drink from the mouth piece.
Looking back, I was stupid. I am so lucky nothing terrible happened. If you’re planning to trek Kilimanjaro, please make sure your experience is memorable for the right reasons and take altitude and acclimatisation seriously. I was so lucky, and I am grateful that I’ve been able to learn from this experience and use it to help other people safely reach Uhuru peak.