Why I decided to climb Kilimanjaro / Preparation
I have wanted to climb Kilimanjaro ever since I saw the BBC celebrity comic relief trip back in 2009. I love keeping fit and go to the gym often so have always wanted to try something extreme that was both physically and mentally challenging. The opportunity was made available in 2014 when a group from work decided on trekking Kilimanjaro to help raise money for charity, I signed up for the trip almost immediately. I was the only person in the group who didn't have any trekking experience and had never camped or slept in a tent before. I had one year from the date of signing up to prepare for this mission.
I never managed to get any outdoor trekking or hill walking experience during the training period and thought it best to leave my first night of ever sleeping in a tent to be on mount Kili. My gym program normally consists of weight lifting and mild cardio. The year leading up to the trip, I added 20-30 minutes of incline walking to my regular weight training sessions. This is pretty much all I did to get the muscles ready for the long walks that I would endure on Kili.
The first piece of kit I bought was my trekking boots 9 months before the trip. All my equipment was purchased new and the full list is on the 'MY KIT LIST' page. I didn't wear the boots during the first few months as the trip was still a fair distance away. I started wearing the boots 3 months before I left for Kili (2-3 times a week) both to work and also while I was out shopping or whenever. Boots are very important and must be broken in well before you travel, spare no expense when you are buying your boots!
Leading up to the week before departure I felt strong physically was mentally ready and had all the right equipment for my climb. I managed to get a very nasty cold about 4 days before my flight but luckily managed to shift it when I arrived in Tanzania, think the weather being so nice also helped. By the time I was at the gate my cold virus had gone and I was ready.
We set off from our hotel in Arusha around 7am to arrive at the gate just after noon. I didn't realise that the drive would be almost 5-6 hours long but this went fairly quickly as the sights of Tanzania on the way are great. The long drive is due to the Rongai gate being the only route to start on the north side of the mountain so it takes a while to drive around. Being a very quiet route, we only saw one other team when we arrived at the gate. We were introduced to our lead guide and 4 assistant guides before they provided a better than expected lunch.
We set off around 1pm-ish to our first camp, Simba camp located at 2671M. The walk on the first day was great, it's a decent gradient and the lovely views being in the rainforest make the 5hrs to camp go fairly quick. Our group did very well on the first day and made it to camp fairly quickly. I did make a comment during our debrief that night in the dinner tent that the walking pace seemed very fast and it might be an idea to slow down for the following day. I would recommend speaking up if you find any problems. Before coming to kili I read and watched everything possible to help me reach the summit, going slow was the main tip from everyone.
This was the first time we were introduced to our guides who provide a welcome song and dance which was energetic and fun. We got no rain on day one and it was hot, even at camp.
Kilimanjaro start, nice meal before the start of the trek
Every day on mount kilimanjaro started the same, we would be awoken by our waiter who provided us with a tea or coffee followed by a bowl of warm water to allow for washing. Breakfast always consisted of a different porridge each day with omelette and toast. Walking through the Moorland zone you will already start to notice how high you have climbed, you are now able to see the clouds and the city below in the distance. The path is rocky and steep but is consistent (it doesn't change much and you finish the day how it started). Day 2 is a good day to find your pace and adjust as required. We were able to take breaks when needed to have water and allow for picture moments. The whole group would take a break when anyone needed to take a toilet break.
Once we reached 'second cave' we had lunch followed by a two-hour rest. Post lunch, we went on an acclimatisation walk which took about 3hrs return. It is vital that you do these walks to allow your body to adjust to the new altitude, even if you are very tired from the 5-6hrs of walking that day. We had one person in our group who was feeling altitude sick on day two but it did pass the following day. I arrived back from the acclimatisation walk feeling great and ready for bed.
Once again we got very lucky with the weather and it was hot throughout the day with no rain.
The trek on day 3 is almost identical to day 2 in terms of steepness but the walk is about 4-5hrs. The ground gets a lot dryer and plant life starts to vanish during your walk up. During the 3rd day, the pace is now noticeably slower as people in the group are getting more tired. We were able to see the top of the mountain which looked very far away considering we were just another day from summit night. I tried not to think too much about summit night during the walks and just concentrated on walking and drinking enough water.
On arriving at the third cave you will notice how lovely this camp is. Your tents are set up next to a massive cliff and the views are amazing. We were the only people at the camp so we were able to enjoy it just that bit more. This was the first time I was able to get any phone signal and was able to send my first message home. The weather does take a noticeable drop just after lunch and the wind picks up, just enough for a small fleece. Our guides were even calling us a lucky group as we hadn't seen any rain yet, it usually rains during October.
We ended day 3 by taking another acclimatisation which was close to 4 and half hours there and back. Our group had read about a dead buffalo which has been there for 3 years and hasn't decomposed, so we walked to this point which took about 3hrs. If you choose to do this, please hold your breath getting near this dead buffalo as it STINKS. One of the guys in our group actually vomited after he got close. Walking back to camp, I needed to activate my hand warmers as the weather dropped considerably from when we left. It was by chance I had them in my daypack as I left my gloves at camp (the weather can change at any time)
Day 4 is the longest and most difficult day. This day requires both mental and physical strength or you won't make it.
The day starts at 6am and being woken up and given breakfast as normal, you really notice how cold it now is when you awake on day 4. The weather was sunny, cold and dry. We set off to Kibo Hut around 7.30am, Kibo Hut is basecamp for the Rongai route.
The walk up to Kibo is very steep and you finally start to feel your on a mountain at this point. The weather took a turn for the worse as soon as we left camp and it was raining for the next 3hrs which made it just that bit harder. My hands were starting to get cold as I wore my non-waterproof Northface gloves, the weather had been so nice the previous day that I didn't put my waterproof summit gloves in my day pack. I soon had to remove the gloves as they were getting wet. I attached my walking poles to my backup and put my hands in my pockets for the rest of to walk that day. Luckily I carried hand warmers in my daypack so it wasn't so bad.
Just after the 2-3hr mark, it started to snow, a complete 180 from the day before when I was wearing a t-shirt. The ground starts to get more slippery and walking gets more difficult. The climb does get more intense at this point also as there are lots of big rocks and boulders to get over. The best way for me to describe it is like a massive rock staircase and you are no longer walking but climbing up. The weather if I was to guess would have been around -5c the whole time we walked and the snow didn't stop.
On arrival to Kibo I was extremely tired and finally started to realise the task ahead would not be easy. Kibo camp was busy with lots of other groups and was totally snow covered when we arrived, I have no idea how our amazing porters managed to set up all our tents and camp before we arrived, amazing! Kibo is the only camp that doesn't have a water stream so porters had to also carry up water from the previous camp (huge respect).
We had lunch and dinner with a brief from our head guide about the summit night that day before going to sleep at around 5-6pm.
All the training and preparation had led to this point, I had made it to base camp and was just about to leave for the summit. We were given no food and everything in my day back was already packed before I slept. I wasn't feeling tired and had no altitude sickness, I made a quick stop at the toilet before leaving the camp as I didn't want to go on the way.
The weather on summit night was crazy, it was snowing from the time we woke up and it was freezing cold. Maybe around -10c. There was one other group leaving for the summit at the same as us so the route wasn't very busy.
Just to break down what I wore for the summit. trekking socks, thermal socks, leg base layer, leg fleece base layer, trekking fleece lined trousers, thermal top base layer, thermal top fleece layer, fleece top, water-resistant jacket, liner gloves, waterproof insulated gloves, balaclava, fleece lined beanie hat, head torch, gaiters, poles.
The following was in my daypack. Down jacket, 2ltrs of water in my bladder, 1lr in my Nalgene bottle, spear batteries, mobile phone, a digital camera with spare battery, my passport and wallet (protected in waterproofed pouch), some medication and a poncho. My day pack was around 5kg.
Summit walk starts around 12am
We set off just after 12am having just had a 5hrs sleep and an extremely difficult climb earlier that day. Overall I was feeling pretty fresh and due to the number of layers I had on, wasn't feeling that cold either (maybe the adrenaline) The walk started like nothing I had ever experienced in my life, everything covered in snow, pitch black darkness and now very very steep inclines.
The way the mountain is tackled is using cross backs (zig-zag style), you ascend like this for almost four hours just before you hit the rocks face just before Gillimans point. The rock face just before Gilimans point was something that wasn't mentioned much in anything I had read before. This is the point I saw a few people turning back due to the scariness and exhaustion. The cliff, rock face just before Gilimans point took me about 1.5hrs to ascend, It takes amazing energy and concentration to keep climbing from boulder to boulder. This is one part you do not want to slip or fall.
The walk starts to get hard very quickly and I saw the first people from our own group unable to continue after a few hours. The climb up is very scary if you hate heights, as you look to your left/right to the narrow path you are walking on and can just see a drop on one side, your head torch will not be able to reach the end of the drop so it looks endless. I remember asking the guides a few days before why summits are done in the night, he replied that 'it would be too scary to climb during the day', I can see why now. Not being able to see down helps a lot. I kept my head down looking at my feet and just continued to walk.
Due to the cold, things were starting to freeze. My water bladder was completely frozen just an hour into the climb, 4hrs later my glasses had a layer of ice and they had to be taken off and my outer waterproof gloves had so much ice build up that the fingers froze straight, luckily I had inner gloves and hand warmers so my hands were fine. It did look a little odd as I was able to hold my poles using my inner gloves and the palm of my outer glove as the fingers was locked frozen straight on my outer glove. That is how cold it was, I would say it was -15c / -20c.
After about 2hrs my calves were now really feeling the incline and could hear my breath and heartbeat at times. I wasn't very bothered with keeping up with my team and wanted to save energy by going slow. I pulled back from the group and allowed them to power on at there own pace. I had a guide with me and it felt a lot more comfortable walking at this pace. Please take this as the BEST advise I can give, go at your own pace as getting to the top is the goal, either on your own or with your group doesn't matter. I will cover this more on the TIPS/Advise page.
Being at the back of the group had a disadvantage, I was able to see the people from my group above who were unable to continue coming down. All 4 people in my group who didn't make it, didn't reach Gilimans point. It is very difficult for me to explain exactly how hard the summit night actually is, its VERY hard and will need your total mental strength and willpower to just keep walking. Your body will keep telling you to quit internally but having mental focus is key, I kept thinking about my pose for my summit picture and random things like that to keep me busy lol. My attitude was simple, "I am getting to the top so just keep walking".
One mistake I was making during the accent was that I kept looking up, which was making me stop. Looking up is demotivating as you see the head torches so far up and realise how far you still have to walk. My guide noticed this fairly quickly and told me to stop doing this, It was good advise, just look down. It was at the 5hr mark where I was feeling very tried and asked my guide something I shouldn't have; 'half way?', he looked at me and said 'not yet'. That feeling being so tired and cold really hit home and the next hour was a struggle as its all I could think about. Looking back, it must have been more than halfway as my summit time was 8hrs30min, I think the guides don't want to say anything that will make you relax thinking you're almost there.
The sun had just come up when I hit Gilimans point and the rest there was amazing. Our brilliant guides had tea for us that appeared from somewhere lol. The Trek from Gilimans point to Stella point is a lot better and as the sun is now out you can focus on the amazing views of the glaciers and walking around the rim of the maintain to reach Stella point. The steepness has now got a lot better but there is snow.
My backpack at this time was feeling very heavy even though it was only 5KG, my guide was an angel and carried it for me until I was ready to take it back, they are so amazing he probably would have carried it from the start had I asked. After about an hour I saw Stella point and was shocked by the crowds that used other routes who were taking pictures. I didn't want to stop here and just carried on to uhuru peak as I didn't want to break my pace and wait around for my turn in the freezing cold to get a picture.
Stella point to uhuru peak takes around 45mins and should not be a point where anyone feels they need to quit after walking for so many hours getting there unless you have severe AMS. As you walk up you will see the people who have just summited on there way down who provide encouragement as you trek. I saw the sign for the peak and saw my group of 6 who had made it heading down. It was AMAZING seeing them and a hug was overdue at this point.
I quickly took my summit picture and managed to also get a few with my guide who helped me up. I must have only spent about 10mins at the summit and there were about 20people there from other groups. I managed to also get my picture at Stella point on my way down as the crowd had cleared. The walk down is no easy mission, you are going the same way you come up unto Gilimanpoints and then down the steep rock face/cliff. It is then a gravel path which is different from the path used to get up.
By the time I had reached Gilimans point, I needed assistance from both my guides to safely get down the rock face as my legs were feeling like jelly. I could see the camp in the distance but was told that it was still over 2hrs away. towards the end of the walk, I needed both guides to keep a hand on each arm as I kept loosing my footing and slipping. The guides are amazing, our travel company was amazing. While on the way down, the leader from the travel company called our head guide many times over a sat-phone to get status updates.
There is no real way to describe how hard summit night really is unless you do it. I also had no altitude sickness and still found it to be the hardest thing I have ever done.
In totally, I would say the trek up took me 8.30mins and 4hrs to get down. Getting to camp was amazing and I was able to see the smiles of my team waiting at the bottom for me. I slept for 1hr before being woken up to start the walk down to Horombo Hut. I think it was the happiness of making the summit but I loved this walk down even with minimal sleep, all I was thinking about was the flight back and having a good meal. We made it to Horobo camp in record time even our guides were surprised (I was literally running down)
After about an hour after arrival, we did the tipping ceremony and thanked our amazing team.
The following day was lovely, the weather was now back to being t-shirts and the sun was out. The walk back took about 6hrs to the gate but the time went very quickly. This was the only time I was actually enjoying all the views and stopping to take pictures of wildlife and plants.
The walk back is not very steep it just very constant, you can easily twist an ankle on the rocks so caution is still needed. As I was about an hour away from the gate, I noticed how fat my fingers had got, to the point I couldn't make a fist. I asked my guide and he advised me it was the cold leaving the body, very strange feeling indeed, but normal.
We got to the gate just after 12pm and the first thing I did was get two Kilimanjaro beers lol. The first one was gone in record time but was well deserved. We were given lunch and our certificates for the people who made the summit.
Thanks for reading my day to day blog!! If any part of this doesn't make sense and you wish to know more, please contact me and I will try and assist.