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How to Successfully Summit Kilimanjaro and Get Back Safe

Kilimanjaro 19,341' (5,895 m), the highest mountain in Africa was one of my favorite trekking experiences and a mountain that people ask me about often when it comes to training and preparation. That’s why I’ve decided to write down some tips specific to a successful Kili summit and safe return.  I’m not going to get into too much of route descriptions, standard equipment, etc… but try and keep it to unique recommendations for Kili.

Although Kilimanjaro is not a particularly difficult for most experienced trekkers and fit people, the altitude can make it a challenge for many.  The following tips are based on my experience summiting via the Rogai Route, reviewing successful (note: in my book to be successful a person must get down safely on their own after summiting), and failed Kili summits.

Training

The FitClimb 12 week Training Plan should be sufficient for most trekkers, for those with extra time to train and prepare I do recommend going beyond this with a focus on injury prevention.   The better aerobic condition you are in the better your chances of avoiding altitude sickness.  I often get questions on training from members who live in cities or flatter, low lying areas.  My recommendation is to take the stairs at every opportunity, incorporate stair climbing on gym machines, and snowshoeing (breaking fresh trails) in snowy areas. More details in the above plan. 

Guide Service

To climb Kilimanjaro you must hire a guide service (either local or one partnered with a local service). Whether you’re an experienced climber or novice I recommend going through an established company with an US or European liaison or guide, even though it’ll cost a bit more, we used a European outfitter and were very happy with most aspects of our Kili climb and safari.   If I was only going for the experience and summiting wasn’t a big deal I might consider a cheaper local guide.  But paying a little extra to increase my odds of summiting and getting back safely was well justified when you consider the cost of airline tickets, time, etc… 

Here’s some other reasons for making sure you have a top notch guide service:

  1. Communication is paramount to increase your chances of success and this will help reduce issues.  On my Kili climb through our guide service with Chagga locals there was a lot of clear info communicated early on.  Equipment lists, who was responsible for what, how much it cost to rent, meal plans, dietary conditions, allergies, tipping expectations, clear answers to questions, etc…  This helped us have a successful summit and enjoyable climb.  The Chagga guides/porters did not mention tips, discuss amounts, or hassle us the way I’ve heard others do.  With us expectations of amounts and everything else was clearly communicated before the trip.  I’m not saying a good English speaking local would not be ok, but I do feel that your chances are better, including cutting through the local customs, when going with an international guide. 
  2. The international guide services that I know of have a higher level of experience and training for their guides.  This includes advanced first responder training and experience at high altitudes.  This tends to lead to a strong overall team when combined with a good local team.
  3. Higher end guide services don’t tend to scrimp and try to save every penny.  You won’t have to worry about a head guide trying to convince you to cut a 6 day climb to 5, quality of the food, treatment of the porters, substandard tents, sleeping bags, amount of boiled water available, etc… The last thing you need is loss of sleep because you’re in a 30 degree vs. a 0 degree bag.

Altitude

  1. While most the Kili routes are non-technical, the altitude must be taken seriously.  Consider taking Diamox before to prevent altitude sickness.  The better guide services will carry supplemental oxygen.  The best will have a Gamow (hyperbaric) Bag and pulse oximeter.  A couple hours in a bag can turn around Acute Mountain Sickness before it forces you down or becomes life threatening.  While I don’t recommend going beyond your boundaries because of these, an experienced guide will help make the call of wither you should continue a summit bid or turn around, and it’s nice to have the extra insurance.

 

Other

  1. Add an extra non travel day before the start of the climb.  This will allow you to rest up properly before you gain altitude, help with jet lag, and get you oriented.  We arrived in Arusha in the afternoon, then had a whole day of rest and chance to go on a short hike in Arusha national park, organize gear, etc… before morning of day 3 when we traveled to the mountain.  By the time we started our climb we had slept 2 night in Tanzanian hotels and were well rested.
  2. Food & Water - One thing I picked up from my survival training was the difficulty and importance of sanitation in the wilderness.  I have a hunch that ½ the people getting sick on Kili aren’t getting sick due to altitude but dehydration and mild food poisoning.  Although reputable guide services will ensure their staff boils water for the right duration and properly at altitude and follows safe and sanitary food preparation and storage.  We still brought chlorine droplets to add to our water, tea, and other liquids.  We also used concentrated lemon juice drops to improve the taste and as a backup as lemon is acidic and can kill some parasites/viruses.  We also were diligent about using hand sanitizer before every meal and after going potty.  It paid off only 2 out of the 7 of us started feeling sick and it was on the summit day so we were pretty sure it was the altitude.
  3. Dress Warm and in Layers – The summit day starts off cold but warms quickly as the sun comes up.  Having toe warmers was a godsend for my wife who has poor circulation.
  4. Allot extra cash beyond what the guide service recommends for tipping.  We also brought some older gear, t-shirts, power bars, and other items to give away to our chagga guides and porters at the end of the climb.  They really do work their butts off and deserve it.  
  5. Definitely well worth doing a safari afterwards.  I highly recommend Tarangire, Serengeti , and Ngorongoro Crater, and Olduvai Gorge as part of your itinerary.

Lastly have fun, take in the scenery, enjoy the company, and learn.  Here’s a recent story from FitClimb member Gunny on his Kilimanjaro experience  Climbed Kili or planning on it?  Add your tips, suggestions, pictures, and recommendations by replying to this post.

 

 

 

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