At 19,341 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa and the fourth highest of the seven summits. It takes five to eight days at grueling altitudes to make it to the summit and back.
By age 25 I had never been camping in a tent or done any serious hiking. So when my boyfriend mentioned that Mount Kilimanjaro was on his bucket list, I readily agreed without quite understanding what lie ahead.
I climbed with Materuni Tours, a company run by Ambrose, an amazing Tanzanian local who offers good prices and better service. We opted for the seven-day Machame route. You will be prepared by your team with the essentials, but here are some things they might not mention:
Bring your own toilet paper. Keep one to two rolls in a plastic bag to keep it dry and keep it in your day pack—it will do no good packed away in your tent during a nine-hour hike! The next tip had me laughing when it was recommended to us, but proved to be the best $160 we spent: the toilet tent. This small standing tent sits a few feet from your sleeping tent at each campsite. The toilet is basic, but will save you from long lines or from walking hundreds of feet in the middle of the night to the hole-in-the-ground toilets.
You’re going to need to hydrate. A lot. After the first day, your water will come from nearby streams and can be purified with iodine pills. I was not a fan of the iodine flavor and grateful to have nuun tablets with us. Try a few brands and flavors before you go to see what you like (my favorite was pink lemonade). While I can’t confirm whether it gave me extra energy, the flavor certainly helped me stay hydrated!
This will be personal for everyone, but after reviewing our weeklong itinerary I packed a small journal, deck of cards, mini watercolor kit, and my DSLR with a 50mm lens. It turns out we didn’t have much free time, after all. We took it slow on hikes, often getting to camp at 5 p.m. Tea and snacks would be waiting for us, shortly followed by dinner and a conversation with our guides. We ate and fell asleep by 8 p.m. most nights thanks to the altitude. I never once took out the cards or watercolor.
We ended up using hand warmer packs but not in the traditional way. Since I mostly used my phone to take photos, a handwarmer saved my battery power. Keep a handwarmer in your jacket pocket to keep the battery warm in between photos.
Train Your Lungs
It doesn’t take a marathon runner to climb a mountain. While there are a select few who run marathons up mountains, that is not what this journey is about. We were surrounded by people of all ages and fitness levels. Altitude is about pacing and listening to your body. I trained by doing HIIT sessions a few times a week in the months leading up to prepare my lungs for the low oxygen without actually living at altitude.
As much as you prepare and hear stories, the most important thing is to listen. Acclimation affects everyone in different ways, so listen to your guides, your body, and pay attention to the mountain. If you’re tired, stop. If you’re dizzy, drink water. If a 70-year-old woman passes you, let it go. It’s not a race to the top but a journey for yourself, so might as well take your time. On day two I lost my appetite, and felt sick and exhausted. We were still four days from the summit, and I had the mounting fear that my body wouldn’t acclimate. After lots of sleep and water, by the afternoon on day three I felt really good. It was only uphill from there…
Breathe, hydrate, and literally take it one step at a time. On the day of the summit hike we arrived to basecamp in the late afternoon, ate, prepared our layers, and got to sleep as early as possible. At 11 p.m. we woke up, had tea, and added our final layers (I slept in 6 layers on top and 5 on the bottom.) With headlamps to light the way, we began a long, dark hike to a summit we couldn’t see. Little dots of light ahead seem miles away, but keep your head down and take one step at a time. Looking up too much will hurt your neck and make the seven-hour journey feel endless. We stood on the summit—the highest peak in Africa—as the sun cracked over the landscape and lit up the country below.
Thank Your Guides
Park regulations prevent anyone from climbing without a certified guide. And regulations for proper camping and cooking gear mean that most climbers do not ascend without a decent size support group that includes guides, porters, and a chef. A support staff of 11 incredible locals is the reason we were able to summit, and while having them is more of a necessity than a tip, make sure that you do tip them appropriately. They are also grateful to accept clothing, water bottles, shoes, and other gear you may wish to leave behind.
Enjoy your shower, wash your hair twice, and take a well-deserved nap. You have accomplished something incredible, so reward your aching body with an amazing safari or a beach weekend in Zanzibar.