I sit here, two weeks before my departure for Tanzania, asking myself “Oh my, what did I get into??”. As you may have read, I am headed to Tanzania to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, something that 5 months I would have told you was the furthest thing from my bucket list. Seriously. As I contemplate the process so far, I have learned a few things and I wanted to share those with folks who may be thinking of hiking Kilimanjaro. Conditioning and gear are two important elements, But there is a less immediately obvious element in being prepared…
Before that: How did I decide to hike to Kilimanjaro?
I already knew I wanted to do more treks with Trekking for Kids (with whom I trekked the Transylvanian Alps) because of the great work they do with orphanages but I was not expecting Kili would be the trek for me. I attended a TFK event last September where I heard Len Stanmore speak about his incredible journey of extreme outdoor adventure. His story is quite inspirational and others started talking about TFK’s upcoming trek to Kilimanjaro in February 2013 at the reception afterwards. I was hooked. Somehow. Not really sure what had just happened but I was in. ALL IN.
Besides the orphanage work (fundraising for it and actually spending a few days there), there are three key aspects for me about the hike itself: training, gear/packing preparations, and a third that I have yet to name at this point in this writing…
First – Training for the hike
Fortunately, when I decided to go on this trek, I was still relatively fresh from my Romania hike and had continued exercising in general. It makes for a good starting point!
I started more serious training by getting on the treadmill and increasing the incline over a few weeks to 15%, ending up doing this for a couple of hours. I also used a backpack whose weight I kept increasing beyond the expected weight we would carry on the hike (about 15 lbs for our day needs; porters would be carrying the rest) . I was doing great with this and was planning to mix in real hikes by going to small but still helpful Kennesaw Mountain near Marietta, Georgia, where I trained for the hike in Romania. And that is when a mini disaster struck: I over-stretched my Achilles tendons (both legs!) likely due to the imperfect simulation of a 15% incline on a treadmill. It all seems obvious now but I had not contemplated that I could hurt myself that way – you just don’t know what you don’t know!
That set me back about 6 weeks at a point when the intensity of my training was really beginning to pay off. (I am almost back to normal and training again at this point.) Not only that but I gained weight due to the double whammy of Thanksgiving and Christmas falling squarely in that 6-week period… So now I will carry even more weight uphill
Advice: If you embark on something like this without that type of starting point – don’t fret! Just be sure to start gradually. Aggressive training from cold is more than likely counterproductive if not outright a risk! That’s the easiest way to get injured. And also, stretch even of days you are not training. Stretching is your best ally in physical readiness.
Second – Getting in gear. Into gear, that is.
After being in good conditioning for the hike, the next item on the list is all the stuff that I will need on the hike. That short word “stuff” covers a wide range of things that I will need to make this a successful trip. After getting the packing list from TFK (VERY thorough!), I did an inventory of what I had and what I needed to research/acquire. I started staging all my items in a spare bedroom. It looks like a mess but it does two things for me: 1. allow me to start gathering in one place all that I will need to pack making packing later a lot easier and 2. allow me to start enjoying the upcoming trek by seeing it shape up!
- Get a good packing list for the type of hike
- Go talk to your local outfitter before you acquire things to learn about what they recommend, what materials are out there, criteria for choosing items, etc.
- Then proceed with sourcing the items (borrow or buy).
Let me share some more specifics about gear and packing here (for a more detailed description of the clothing I took, go here)… But do check out this post on what I considered my 7 key items for this hike (written BEFORE the hike) and then the top 14 things I took (written AFTER the hike)!
Mt. Kilimanjaro covers multiple climate zones ranging from forest where one may be trudging through mud to extreme cold and windy terrain towards the top. Guess what? That means carrying gear to deal with all the climate zones but, most importantly, to deal with the extreme cold and wind which is far more dangerous to a hiker. The key to all this is layers. Not rocket science, I know. I hear the cold towards the top is brutal!
The list I was provided by TFK was very clear on what was needed. I went (a few times!) to my favorite outfitter and explores the options available for each category of item needed. I have learned WAY more than I thought I’d ever learn about gear. And spent way more than I ever thought I’d spend. But two things help: one, I have bought thinking of re-use especially at ski time or in future treks and, second, I have tried to borrow some items (though it has not been as much as I would have hoped for).
Advice: My advice to you is to borrow, or buy used if possible, and think of re-use as you make choices on what to get. For example, instead of buying the absolute best gloves for the extreme temperature, think of using liners, etc. so the gloves themselves can work for you in less extreme weather back at home.
This covers a whole range of items like the hiking poles (with shock absorbers! see here for more on them), headlamp (not only to read at night or go potty in the middle of the night but also for the night hiking we will do on summit day!), sleeping bag liner (to make it warm enough for the coldest nights), sleeping bag pad (for comfort and further insulation from the very cold ground), cameras (yes, plural: the big one is not summiting with me – too heavy), even duct tape!
Advice: Borrow, or buy used if possible. Buy new if that suits you better. However, another possibility is renting some of the items on-site. This helps you in two ways: not buying stuff if you are not going to be hiking/camping more than this trip and also reducing the amount of stuff you have to lug half way around the world! However, some potential downsides of this: you don’t know the condition of the item you will rent (dirty, torn up, etc.) and you may not find the right type for the item you are looking for. For example, you need to be sure that sleeping bag will be warm enough.
For this destination, one does have to be ready with anti-malarial and other items as recommended by the CDC. I have all the hepatitis stuff from prior travels so the anti-malarial (which is taken for every trip) and the typhoid (which I needed) were on the must-have list. But the medical category is not just the innoculations/vaccines. Things like ibuprofen, Cipro (for the potential digestive maladies that could affect a traveler…), and maybe even something to help you sleep get on the list. Other items, such like the iodine tablets, sunblock with DEET, high-SPF chapstick, etc. are more preventive in nature but just as important. This list is very important and is sometimes less obvious than the gear and clothing lists.
Advice: Do your research, ask people who have gone before (feel free to ask here!), and don’t try to save money by skimping on these items!
Third – Is it the emotional preparedness?
I will have to get back to you on this after the trip for a full report. However, I had heard that a lot about hiking Kili is the mental strength to power through tough conditions like mud and rain, tiredness, perhaps pain, and other discomforts. So I am thinking this would fall under emotional preparedness. I have heard from people who have hiked it before that, in the end, this is the most important elements in preparing for Kili. You may be fit, you may not. Altitude sickness could keep you from summiting and that is independent of your fitness level (amazing!). But if you don’t have some toughness in this realm, you may fall short of your goals.
We are lucky that our lead guide is one of the foremost mountain expedition leaders in the world, Luis Benitez. He is also a Board Member of TFK! In an email he sent the trekkers last week, he told us that the best thing to do in this category is to expect discomfort, understand it will happen, understand it starts and it ends. All that so that when it hits at any point in the trip, you remember it will pass and you don’t let it bring you down (figuratively speaking!). I think this is a great piece of advice that will serve ME well in these 2 weeks before I leave for this hike.
Advice: Listen to Luis’ advice!
I am almost done doing all the things that I need to do to be ready but, in the end, it is the emotional preparedness that I am not sure how to measure. I cannot check it off a list, like I can do with the other items on my packing list. Yet it is likely one of the most important success factors in this trek. I don’t know if altitude sickness will beat me to the summit. I can’t control that. But I sure hope I am ready enough to control my willpower and discomforts to summit or get very close to it! Kili, I shall meet you very soon!
P.S. – Thanks for all the words of support, advice, and for orphanage donations via Trekking for Kids!
A month after this post went up, I had completed climbing Kilimanjaro and started writing about every day in the trek (7 total days) and about the route we were to take. Check it out!
– Day 1 (and links to the subsequent days)