Preparing to Hike Kilimanjaro: More than Training & Gear

Kilimanjaro, schoolchildren, kids, Tanzania, Africa, vista, view, Olympus, travel, photo

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…

Kids, uniform, Tanzania

The kids at the Kili Centre orphanage sporting the new uniforms paid by funds raised by this trek

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!

packing gear for hiking trip

The “mess” in the spare bedroom!

Advice

  • 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)!

I am happy to email you a copy of my packing list!

Clothing

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.

Accessories

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.

Health/”Medical”

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!

Final thoughts…

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!

Uhuru peak or Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

P.S. – Thanks for all the words of support, advice, and for orphanage donations via Trekking for Kids!

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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!

–  The Machame Route

–  Gear for climbing Kili:  clothing

–  Day 1 (and links to the subsequent days)

Trekking with a Purpose – the Best of Both Worlds

A hike around the Bucegi Mountains in Romania

My trip to Romania and Moldova was triggered and centered around a hike in Romania organized by Trekking for Kids to support a local orphanage.  If it were not for this organization, I may have waited much longer to get to Romania and, more than likely, never hiked the beautiful trails along the Carpathian Mountains.  And, if it were not for this organization, I would not have met the wonderful kids I met at the orphanage in Romania.

A hike around the Bucegi Mountains in Romania

The Bucegi Mountains

Trekking for Kids

Trekking for Kids (TFK) was created in 2005 to find a way to support orphanages around the world while combining those efforts with treks for those helping fundraise for those orphanages (see their full story).  Over the years, they have conducted treks (some of them they repeat over the years) and helped orphanages in (trek/orphanage):   Everest Base Camp/Nepal, Camino de Santiago/Morocco, Inca Trail/Peru, Kilimanjaro/Tanzania, and others.  In fact, Kilimanjaro is planned for 2013 along with a couple of  other unnamed destinations but including college- and family- oriented treks!  So go check them out and bookmark; you never know what will call to you!

The Romania Trek

In this Romania trek, TFK organized a well-planned and well-run hike whether for newbie trekkers like me or experienced ones as some of my fellow trekkers.  Their choice of the hike guides (Your Guide Romania) was simply outstanding; they do more than hikes and should you desire to explore Romania and mix with adventures like hiking, paragliding, skiing, etc., they ARE your guys and this group of trekkers seriously endorses them!

More importantly, TFK found and carefully vetted a local orphanage that would not just accept funds and other contributions but one that has a philosophy of truly caring for its children, offering them a healthy home environment, and that thought about the children’s long-term needs:  those once a child turns 18 and, normally, gets shown out of an orphanage.

The Foundation for Abandoned Children (Pentru Copii Abondonati) clearly has a vision not only for the immediate care of the children and young adults, but for preparing them to enter life outside of the home.  And that’s what I found so wonderful about the choice TFK made:  I knew my efforts, my donors’ contributions, and my time would be magnified as this foundation’s philosophy and approach was perfect to take the unexpected support they were receiving via TFK and translating it into bigger possibilities for the children and young adults.

Our First Day with the Children

We arrived at one of the three houses in the town of Ghimbav, near Brasov, all eager to meet the children and wondering what specifically the conditions at the orphanage would be.  As we arrived, a couple of children came out as they were clearly all eagerly awaiting us.

We had just made the 2-3 hr drive from Bucharest on a Saturday morning which means it takes longer than normal due to weekend traffic from the big city to the country.  We had stopped at our hotel, the Kolping Hotel, on the outskirts of Brasov by the mountain with the BRASOV sign, to drop of our luggage before meeting the children.

So, we entered the orphanage and immediately started meeting both children and staff.  Lots of names to remember but TFK had brought name tags which would greatly facilitate remembering everyone’s names.  At some point, I traded names with one of the kids named Anton, and I started a mania – all of a sudden, and for most of the rest of the day, a constant flurry of name tag changing began.  The younger kids loved it and it made for part of the fun.

Clearly my name is not Anton but that was my name at the moment. Here with Alex, one of the older teens.

We were shown around the houses (2 owned by the foundation and 1 rented if I remember correctly).  The facilities were pretty good and that made my heart feel good as I have seen orphanages elsewhere where the conditions, while not the worst, still did not feel adequate for children.  Clearly, the foundation has done a good job of establishing a healthy environment for the children to live in.

The largest home houses kids, boys and girls, of all ages.  The second home houses boys.  The third home right now has mostly work space (e.g., a woodworking workshop) but will be prepared to take the older children/young adults after a new roof is installed and the indoor space renovated.  Some of the funds raised will go to the repair of the roof and some of the older boys have contributed to the prep work and will participate, led by the construction crew, in repairing the roof – a good skill to pick up!

House in Romania

The roof and space to be renovated

Old roof in a house in Romania

The upper space to be renovated

After getting a lay of the land and seeing the garden where they grow produce, we proceeded to break up into groups to do different projects.  Some of us stayed at the boys’ house to sand furniture down so they could be restored.  Others went off to help bottle up jam (to sell, along with crafts made by the kids, in local markets).  Others started doing a tie-dye shirt project which they kids and teens greatly enjoyed (and we the saw the end results when we returned after the hike – really good job!).  At some point, we all moved through some of the activities along with the children.  These activities enabled us to get to know the kids and the kids to get to know us.  It was a great afternoon.

Working hard and having fun with tie-dying!

Tie-dying

And lots of concentration!

Post-Hike Time at the Orphanage

Hike concluded, we went back to the orphanage for two days of activities:  on the first day BBQ/dinner and games at the orphanage; and the second day a morning hike followed by lunch.  The kids sported their newly-made tie-dye shirts and they truly were amazing!

The BBQ/dinner was a lot of fun.  These kids know how to fend for themselves and the food was delicious!  We then did several activities:  making smores, playing football (soccer) & basketball, etc.  I played my very first soccer match ever and apparently I am great at defending and goal-keeping!  Who knew!

Amateur soccer player

Yet-another Spanish-blooded Raul who can play football/soccer

 

The hike and lunch was a fun day too.  Not all the children went up the trail and stayed earlier in the trail.  The rest of us went to the top with a few of us hanging out and the bulk of the group going through a more difficult section of the trail.  I hung out with a couple of adults and a few of the kids who didn’t want to go on.  Afterwards, we treated the kids to a lunch out which was a great way to hang out before our departure for Bucharest, and back home.

Zoli and I killing time as we waited for the rest of the group

In the end, it’s never enough time to spend with the children and teens, especially once you make the connections.  While I do not know what the future brings, I sure hope I can remain in touch with the foundation and hear about the children – and, who knows, perhaps seeing them again some day!  And I also hope I am blessed with another opportunity to go on a trek with TFK.

Group picture

The entire group – thanks to the wonderful staff and the great children!

How to Plan a Trip – and then Increase Scope: The Desire to Travel!

Map of Romania and Moldova

When I decided earlier this year on doing the trek in Romania, little did I know how a one week trek was going to become a 16-day trip – but I am talented that way:  plan a vacation and then add more than originally intended to practically double its duration and scope!  Let me share with you how that happens to me using this trip as an example.  I will also use this post to lay out the overall trip to Moldova and Romania so that, as I write about it, readers can see how it all comes together…

Note:  I hope you subscribe to the blog (if you have not already done so) so you can keep up with the writings and read as you have the time.  The trip was incredibly different for me and I hope what I share helps give a better glimpse into these countries!!

First Things First:  What Led Me to Take a Trip Now and to Romania?

Fine questions!  As I announced in a prior post, the main purpose of this trip was to go on trek with Trekking for Kids to help an orphanage in Romania by raising funds for projects to improve the orphanage and also to just be with the kids and bring them something different from their day to day.  More about the orphanage part of the trip later but I will say now that if you want to help children around the world and tackle some great mountains (Everest base camp, Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, etc.), you should look into Trekking for Kids.

Trekking for Kids

An Itinerary Takes Shape, with Some Randomness

On to how I planned my itinerary….  The trek was about a week so I knew I had to take advantage of getting to that part of Europe to see something more.  Can’t waste a good and dear trans-Atlantic crossing…

Among the choices was a return trip to the Greek islands (for R&R after the hike; something I would have really enjoyed), or visiting any of the countries that surround Romania.  Of those countries, I had already gone to Bulgaria so that left the Ukraine, Moldova, Hungary and Serbia – none of which I had visited.  I eliminated the last 2 as I felt those are easier to get to from places like Austria, Croatia, etc. so I w0uld be more likely to see them in the future.  That left the Ukraine and Moldova. Moldova started peeking my curiosity as it is so much less known to me and, likely, to my compatriots.  As I researched the country, it sounded like it had some interesting things so that became the destination.

My plans then were to land in Bucharest and go to Moldova ahead of the hike part of the trip.  I proceeded to research hotels in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova (pronounced KISH-now).  I had not yet figured out how I was going to see the country and what it had to offer.  As I read reviews in Trip Advisor for hotels, I ran into a comment that a reviewer from the UK had made about a guide he hired for a one-on-one tour of Moldova.  I sent the reviewer a few questions and with his strong endorsement of this guide, I proceeded to contact the guide, Dumitru, to see what itinerary he would recommend for a 2-3 day visit and what the costs would be.  Dumitru offered several options and mentioned, in passing, that he could pick me up in Iasi, Romania if I wanted.  Immediately curiosity kicked in as I wondered why he would think I would go to Iasi.  There had to be a reason…

So off I went to research Iasi.  Turns out it is considered to be the cultural capital of Romania and that it had a hotel designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself.  That was all I needed to hear but now I had more logistics to research and more time on my vacation calendar to slice off.  (I will say here and likely repeat in a future blog how great Dumitru was!  Should you need a guide in eastern Romania or Moldova, hit me up for his email.)

Researching Trips Rocks

If you are thinking to yourself “this guy must love researching stuff”, you would be correct.  Doing research for me is the beginning of the trip:  I started learning the moment I started studying the maps of Moldova and Romania, or when I read some bloggers’ writings about these places, or when I chatted with a fellow Twitter friend about his trip through the Transniestra…

Figuring out the Logistics…

In any case, I decided due to my arrival date in Romania and the start of the hike that I could not afford taking the train from Bucharest to Iasi.  While distances are not long some times in Eastern Europe, what I consistently found out or heard was how artificially long the train rides are; case in point, a 6-7 hour drive from Chisinau to Bucharest could take twice that by train!  So I decided to fly to Iasi the morning after arriving in Bucharest foregoing looking at the landscape as I traveled.  Once in Iasi, I would have that afternoon and evening to explore it (almost enough time).  The next morning, I would be picked by my Moldovan guide, and then fly back to Bucharest from Chisinau, Moldova 2 days later.

My 3 days in Moldova would mostly be centered in the middle region of the country given where most of the key sites are but a trip north was planned to visit an important fortress in the town of Soroca on the Ukrainian border.

Romania

Once in back in Romania, the situation required less planning as most of it was handled by the trek organizers.  I only needed to take care of my hotel after returning from Moldova and plan my sightseeing the day after.  The trekkers would spend one night together in Bucharest before heading to Transylvania (the town of Brasov – prounounced BRAH-shov) where our trek and orphanage work would be “headquartered” for the next week.

The Travels I Did – A Map

I find a map helps visualize things so I quickly marked on this Romania/Moldova map the key travel routes and the method of transport I ended up using.  Clearly, I did not see all that Romania has to offer.  I hear Sibiu, Timisoara and Cluj-Napoca are well worth seeing too.

By the way, as a footnote, there is some kinship between Romania and Moldova.  In fact, the languages are practically the same and there are many cross-border family ties as, at some point in history, they were both one country.  Apparently, it is still a topic today (reunification or not), but I do not know enough to explain the situation here… Suffice it to say that Moldova has, itself, a region in the east that wants to separate from Moldova (it’s called the Transniestra and it was in the news in the 1990s due to civil war-like clashes with the Moldovan government)!

Romania Moldova Map

Final Itinerary and Key Activities in Romania and Moldova

To sum it all up and serve as a guide to writings I will create (I will add links here as the writings are published), here is a detailed itinerary of the trip…

Day 1 – Depart Atlanta, connect in Amsterdam, and land in Bucharest at midnight local time.

Day 2 – Depart Bucharest in the morning and land in Iasi in the morning.

Day 3 – Be picked up by my Moldova tour guide in Iasi and cross the border into Moldova.  Visit the Frumoasa and Curchi monasteries.  Brief stop in Orhei.  Visit Chateau Vartely, have lunch, and sample the wines.

Day 4 – Tour Chisinau, and travel to Soroca.

Day 5 – Visit the Milestii Mici winery and the Capriana Monastery.  Fly to Bucharest.

Day 6 – Sightsee in Bucharest, including its Palace of Parliament, and meet the hike group.

Day 7 – Travel by road to Brasov (3-4 hrs).  Explore Brasov and visit the orphanage.

Day 8 – Begin the hike on the Wallachian side of the Carpathian Mountains.

Day 9 – Second day of the hike into Transylvania via the Strunga Pass.

Day 10 – Third day of the hike.

Day 11 – Final day of the hike and night out in Brasov.

Day 12 – Explore more of Brasov.  Afternoon and evening at the orphanage with football (soccer) match included.

Day 13 – Hike with the kids.  Return to Bucharest.

Day 14 – Depart for Paris.

Day 15 – Hang out with nothing seriously planned in Paris.

Day 16 – Fly back home!

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If you can relate to this approach to trip planning and/or have stories of your own, I’d love to hear them!

Traveling for Good – A Trek in Romania

I have pondered may a-times how lucky I am that I can travel to places around the world mostly for personal reasons and sometimes even for business.  I, like many others, are blessed with the opportunities possible in this day and age to make long distance travel possible.  In 14 hrs I can be in Seoul should I choose.  50 yrs ago, maybe a lot less years ago, that trip would have taken much longer to do.  And on and on I could go about how good we have it.

And then I realized that I can do these trips not only because the world is smaller and technology facilitates many things.  I can travel because where I was born and where I live have afforded me opportunities to be in a good enough situation to travel, something many people in other less developed countries may never have.  But I go further the more I think about it:  even if I didn’t have the wherewithal to be able to travel, I still don’t have to worry about many basic things.  Malaria is not a threat in my country.  Water safety is not a concern (usually, anyway).  There is good medicine accessible within a mile or so from where I live.  Etc.

Many people in this world have to worry about such things.  Forget about whether they would have the wherewithal to travel abroad – they have to worry about the basics that you and I, dear reader, more than likely will never have to worry about.  Yes, we do have issues too but not at the scale of what a good portion of our fellow human beings have to worry about.

It is with that in mind that I decided to do a trek to help some folks who may have a lot less of the basics than most of us.  A friend of mine founded an organization a few years ago that organizes treks in support of orphanages around the world.  They have gone to base camp in Everest, to the top of Kilimanjaro, done the Camino in Spain, hiked to Machu Picchu, etc.  This July they are organizing a “lite” trek in the mountains of Romania – the Transylvanian Alps – and I have decided to join them for the first time!  The organization is called Trekking for Kids.  The trek will begin and end in Brasov in central Romania, an area with well-known beauty and famous (or infamous as the case may be) for Bran’s Castle that inspired the Dracula story (I even hate to mention it but had to!).

Trekkers raise funds that directly fund the projects that will be done for the targeted orphanage (capital improvements, sustainability-oriented projects, etc.).  Not only do we fundraise for the orphanage but we will pitch in with sweat equity while at the orphanage as well as just be with the children.

I am thrilled to be undertaking this challenge.  It is a lite trek but that is 4 days in a row of hiking and I have not done more than one day ever… My longest hike was over 20 yrs ago…  So I will share a little between now and July about preparations for the trek and then share with you the experience once the trek is done.  I am hoping my troublesome knee will cooperate as it has been acting up the last 3 years.  But I hope it all works out for the best first and foremost for the kids in that orphanage in Brasov, Romania!

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If you’d like to support the orphanage projects via Trekking for Kids via my trek, go to their site, click on “Donate” on the top right, go to the “Select Trek or Fund” box and select “Romania 2012”, and then (don’t forget!), select me as the Trekker you are supporting!  (If you prefer to pay by check, please email me so I can get the form to you which will also provide you with your tax receipt.)

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