When I originally signed up to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro I thought I signed up for a vacation, but about an hour into the hike I realized climbing this mountain was the furthest thing from a vacation. I soon realized I was embarking on a once in a lifetime adventure.
There are a few things to know about Mt. Kilimanjaro. It stands at 19,341 feet. This is the number that sticks in your head as you are taking each individual step up the mountain. Trust me when I say, this number will never leave your head.
Kilimanjaro also known as “Kili” is Africa’s highest point and the world’s highest free standing mountain.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL
It takes a lot to take on Kilimanjaro. Yes, it takes physical strength to make it up the mountain, but more importantly you need mental strength.
At first I looked at this adventure solely on the destination and being at the top, but if you really want to make it to the top you have to look at it all as a journey.
There were three or four times where I considered giving up and turning back, but I closed my eyes and told myself I could survive this journey and take each obstacle day by day.
Climbing the mountain is not for everyone, and it’s far from easy, but by all means it is possible.
YOUR GUIDE IS NUMBER ONE
In order to climb the mountain, you need a guide - this is not optional. So I booked my trip through the travel agency Abercrombie & Kent.
I didn’t have a hiking partner, friend, or family member that wanted to go with me on this trip, but I had no problem going it alone. There were nine other people taking the hike, none of whom I had met before. They were from Texas, New York, and London and we all had plenty of time to get to know one another.
Each of us came from different hiking backgrounds. I was born and raised in Chicago, so let’s just say I wasn’t the most experienced in the group. But don’t let your level of experience intimidate you because climbing Kilimanjaro is a learning experience and nothing can prepare you for it.
Dismass, our guide, had climbed the mountain over 200 times! When he told me that number my jaw dropped, but after that I knew I was in good hands. The single most important thing when climbing the mountain is to TRUST your guide. Your guide knows the mountain better than anyone, even if you think you know what you’re doing - TRUST YOUR GUIDE.
The first two days into the hike I was severely dehydrated and some people in my group didn’t think I’d make it, but Dismass recognized my problem right away and told me that if I did not eat or drink, I would have to go back down. That was my wake up call. No matter how flushed I looked, or how nauseated I felt, I knew I had to force myself to drink a lot of water.
Drinking and eating are so important during the hike because you’re using up a lot of energy and burning so many calories. Even if you don’t have an appetite, you need to eat. I never thought I would eat so many biscuits in my life or drink so much water.
Each time we would stop for a break, Dismass would make sure I drank water. He would watch me drink because I was the “sipper” and sipping water was not good enough. So I would look at him and say, “Good?” and his response was “More.” Eventually I got used to drinking cups and cups of water, but by the end of the trip I told him I was watered out.
One plus to drinking a lot of water is that it also lightens your pack so the quicker you drink, the less hunched over you look.
After learning how important drinking water was, I knew I had made it past a huge obstacle. Dismass told me from there that as long as I kept eating and drinking I would make it up the mountain. There were still doubts in my mind though because each day we got higher in altitude.
DIAMOX SAVES THE DAY
If you can take Diamox, take it, because the last thing you want to deal with on the mountain is altitude sickness. It’s already hard enough to breathe without adding a pounding headache or nausea to it. Some people are against it, but I can tell you from experience, taking Diamox made all of the difference. Like I said, you do not want to test the powers of the mountain.
Every day at breakfast, lunch and dinner Dismass would check our oxygen and heart rate. My heart rate was always around 120 and my oxygen in the low 80’s. Well the 80’s are not good enough for climbing so I would sit with Dismass until I got my oxygen between 93 and 95. I was always the last one of the group to leave the table, but by the end of trip I would like to say I became a professional breather.
One of the most important things while hiking and even while sitting at such a high altitude is breathing. Once you learn how to breathe, everything becomes a lot easier. There are moments you may panic on the mountain, but if you know how to breathe it is easier to get back into the swing of things.
A NEW FEAR
I was never afraid of heights until this trip. At first you really don’t realize how high you actually are, but once you get above the clouds then it all gets real. When you are standing on a ledge or climbing from rock to rock then the fear starts to set in.
There was a point on the trip when I had my sunglasses on and we had to make our way from point A to point B that was extremely narrow. Part of me thought I was going to fall backwards and my eyes were filling up with tears, but Dismass grabbed my hand and pulled me over. Like I said, it is all about trusting your guide.
If you are afraid of heights prior to climbing this mountain, try not to worry too much because your guide is there for you every step of the way. There is no need to panic prior to it all. If you’re going to panic, panic at that moment because there is nothing you can do to change the height of the mountain or how narrow a pathway will be.
NO SHOWER JUST STENCH
Not showering for the entire trip was definitely an interesting experience. I didn’t shower for six nights. I brought dry shampoo on the trip and I attempted to use it once. If you’re thinking about bringing it don’t bother. You get so used to your smell on the mountain that digging through your bag to find dry shampoo isn’t even worth it.
Every morning we had the option to use hot water, but even putting water on my body chilled me, so I really embraced the odor throughout the trip. I barely changed clothes and didn’t really care about how I smelled. My goal was making it up the mountain and if I smelled, I smelled.
I climbed the mountain during dry season, which makes you extra dirty because dirt and dust is flying all over. One important thing to bring though is nasal spray because your nose becomes so dry. It took multiple bloody noses for my nose to actually get back to its normal self.
Another thing that you absolutely need is sunscreen. I forgot to put sunscreen on for just three hours and my nose was as burnt as a tomato. I looked like Rudolph the reindeer getting on the plane back home.
Last but not least, make sure you have lip balm with sunscreen. Your lips will become so chapped; you want to make sure you have that handy.
Your body will without a doubt take a beating while hiking, but there is nothing you can really do to prevent it completely.
No matter what anyone tells you or what the internet says, you ABSOLUTELY need hiking poles. You rely on them so much while you’re hiking.
The night you are trekking to the top you need them because you are in the pitch black with only your headlamp and also because your body is so cold and exhausted that you need something to grip to. Your hiking poles will become your best friend because they will save you from multiple falls.
It’s important your poles are at the proper length. They will need to be adjusted differently for when you are going up and downhill.
The night you are going from 15,000 to 19,341 feet you are so cold and numb. I’m not exaggerating when I say this, you cannot feel your toes. The more socks you wear the worse because if you can’t move your toes then the blood is not circulating, which is the last thing you want.
The night of the summit I had six layers and that was not enough. Dismass had to lend me his coat because I could not stop shaking. Some people are better in the cold than others, but if you are not good in the cold, bring more of layers. Even if you think you don’t need them, you will. It’s better to have more than less because you can always take layers off.
Eventually you forget about being cold and you just focus on getting up the mountain. The night we embarked on our six-hour hike to the top I thought I wouldn’t make it. I was tripping over my feet and my muscles were so tense I was dragging one of my legs up the mountain. Once you realize how close you are, you don’t let the pain overpower you. When you are so close to making it to the top there is nothing to stop you.
POLE, POLE pronounced (Polay, Polay)
Pole, Pole means “go slow” in Swahili. When you are climbing up the mountain I challenge you to go fast because you won’t make it very far. The only way you will make it is by taking your time.
Now let me say that the porters will blow your mind because they do everything in about half the time as you. The porters are amazing and all you want to do is applaud them and high-five them because what they do is remarkable and they deserve all the credit in the world. The amount of weight they are carrying is crazy and all you can do is pray for their safety. Sometimes I bit my tongue because I so nervous for them.
When I was on that mountain I considered them my family. Your guide and your porters are the ones encouraging you every step of the way. Sometimes you just have to take a second to stop, look at them and smile.
Everything is different when you are at the top.
All you can do is cry because of everything you have just accomplished. It’s so hard to explain how you feel at the top because it is almost like time stops.
The glaciers and the clouds are breathtaking. I was actually able to see a shadow of the mountain casted in the sky over the clouds. There is nothing that can take that image away from me. You feel like you are on top of the world.
Unfortunately because it is extremely hard to breathe up there you are only able to stay at the summit for a few minutes. I took in the view, took my picture with Dismass, and booked it down the mountain.
I could not be happier with everything I was able to accomplish. Every day I wake up and say, “I can’t believe I climbed Kilimanjaro.” I think to myself would I ever climb it again? The answer is - yes.