What does it take to climb Kilimanjaro?
September 14, 2006 6:47 AM   Subscribe

I want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. What do I need to know? How fit do I need to be?

Ever since I saw an IMAX film on a bunch of people who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro (without the need for specialized gear, just a week long hike), I've been pondering just what it would take to do this.

I'm reasonably physically fit and have a regular workout regimen, although I haven't been hiking lately. What are some useful benchmarks for determining if I have what it takes - or how to construct a training program to do this? (and how do you avoid altitude sickness?)

One last medical-related question (I know, ask a doctor) - I have a retinal condition where I've already had tears patched once, years ago, and am being monitored for others. Would being in a thin-air environment endanger my sight?
posted by canine epigram to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
One of the first few chapters of Michael Crichton's book "Travels" deals with his trip up to Kilimanjaro when he was younger. I thought it was a great essay, and would strongly suggest that you take a look -- just as another perspective.
posted by ruwan at 6:59 AM on September 14, 2006

You could also, for inspiration, read Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly in this book. It's very good.
posted by Flashman at 7:19 AM on September 14, 2006

Lonely Planet (now called Globetrekker) did a show about climbing Kilimanjaro. It's very informative. There is an issue with altitude sickness, but the thing that gets to the host is how cold it is. You might find the show on torrent or online somewhere.
posted by parmanparman at 7:21 AM on September 14, 2006

I have friends who went and they weren't in the best shape by any means. They didn't even work out that regularly. One of them had done some mountain climbing in the past. It seemed the cold and altitude were the most important factors.
posted by sweetkid at 7:38 AM on September 14, 2006

I'd echo Sweetkid from personal experience. I went a few years ago with my husband and a friend. We are experienced hikers but not superfit. Five-day trek, I forget which approach. We had to turn back just short of the summit due to shortness of breath and the bitter cold. The guides insist that you attempt the summit in the middle of the night -- I still couldn't tell you why. Nevertheless, it was an amazing experience and I'd highly recommend it, but you might be better off with a slightly longer route which would give you more time to get acclimated to the altitude.

Also, if you go, do take a few days on safari in the Ngorongoro Crater. We tacked it on as an afterthought, but it was by far the best part of the trip.

Please do email me (address in profile) if you have questions -- I'd be happy to discuss.
posted by libraryhead at 7:58 AM on September 14, 2006

I went up the easiest route and of the seven 20-somethings I went with a few years ago, three made it to the top, and only one made it to the top of the top - you get to the crater and then walk around it to get to the highest point. Those three were not neccesarily the most fit, and the one who made it all the way around was certainly not the most fit of the group. It had more to do with motivation, tolerance of discomfort, and intestinal fortitude - 6 of 7 vomited at one point or another. The altitude change and the cold at the top are formidable. They make you go in the middle of the night so you will be at the top for sunrise. Also they want to get you off the mountain so they can get another group up.
posted by mzurer at 8:09 AM on September 14, 2006

The toughest part of climbing Kilimanjaro is the altitude. It's nearly 20,000 feet high, and fitness is not really a predictor of altitude sickness or -- worse -- acute mountain sickness. Being fit and used to long, difficult hikes with a full pack is your best preparation, but since it's not possible to predict how your body will respond, going with guides who know how to diagnose and deal with AMS is probably your best bet, especially if you haven't done a lot of climbing above 10,000' before. There are plenty of accessible hikes in the US that would give you a taste of high altitude that you might consider doing before committing to the cost and risks of Kilimanjaro.

Some people have mentioned the cold. It gets cold, but not absurdly so. It gets colder in the White Mountains here in NH in winter than it does on Kilimanjaro. If you live somewhere with cold winters and don't mind being out -- or can get used to being out -- for long periods of time in temps below freezing, you'll probably do fine with the cold on the mountain. Assuming adequate gear, the cold there is not life-threatening, so it's more just a matter of being used to it.

You might check out this tour at IMCS. I know some of the folks at IME/IMCS pretty well, and they're excellent teachers and guides.
posted by dseaton at 8:14 AM on September 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow. Thanks for all the pointers and links. I'm in New England, and I love the Whites, so that might be a good practice ground. Looks like getting some winter-hiking/survival training might not be a bad idea.
posted by canine epigram at 9:07 AM on September 14, 2006

Response by poster: dseaton, which hikes would you recommend as preparations?
posted by canine epigram at 9:10 AM on September 14, 2006

I know nothing about climbing, but would second ruwan's reccomendation to read the chapter on Kilmanjaro from Crichton's Travels. He harps quite a bit on his sock selection, if I recall correctly, and says that the second day is the hardest.
posted by gsteff at 9:25 AM on September 14, 2006

Keep in mind that you most likely will *not* be carrying a heavy pack (guides/porters are required) and the terrain is dead easy compared to the Whites (not steep in most places; few rocks), yet you'll need to go extremely slowly to acclimate to the elevation. Don't be too disappointed if you don't get great views -- once you get above the cloud forest you'll mostly see, um, clouds. If you're interested at all in the plant life bring along a field guide; according to our guides every flower was named "Kilimanjarica". If you're anything like me, the porters will produce contradictory feelings of guilt and resentment, but the warm washing water and popcorn at the end of every day will spoil you for unsupported hikes.
posted by libraryhead at 9:35 AM on September 14, 2006

I have not been to Kilimanjaro but have summited other higher mountains. The key is altitude acclimitization. You can do it in 5 days or so but you are likely to feel really sick and not enjoy it. Try to find a guide who will take at least 7 days or more with at least one rest day above 10,000 feet for acclimitization. The guides make the most money by shoving clients up and down the mountain as quickly as possible, but that is not in your best interest. The longer you take and allow for acclimitization, the more likely you will be successful in reaching the summit. If I had my choice, I would take at least 10 days, with several rest days, but you may not be able to find a guide willing to go that slowly. My general rule is to average no more than 1000 feet per day above 10,000 feet. That doesn't include the summit day when you could conceivably do 4000 feet in one day, but return to a lower altitude to sleep.

Altitude sickness is no joke and can lead to death through either pulmonary or cerebral edema. Take plenty of ibuprofin because many people suffer intense headaches at high altitude. You should also consider getting a prescription for Diamox. This is called the climbers sleeping pill. One common effect of altitude is severe sleep apnea in which your body forgets to breathe and you wake up gasping for air every 10 minutes. Diamox helps to stimulate your breathing when asleep. Diamox can also speed up your adaptation to altitude if you use it from the start of the climb. Use the smaller doses of 125 mg.

Use the buddy system to keep an eye on each other for symptoms of altitude sickness. The victim is the last to realize the problem as they gradually become slower and dumber. The classic sign is the person who struggles for 10 minutes in the morning trying to put their right crampon on their left foot. When that happens you need to descend immediately. Even 2000 feet of descent can bring relief.

Another key to altitude acclimitization is drinking lots and lots of water -- more than you think you need even if you have to force it down -- no less than 4 liters per day and preferrably more. You should be pissing like a racehorse all day long. Again use the buddy system to constantly harrangue each other about drinking regularly because you will forget. If you get a headache, sometimes downing a liter of water will bring relief.

Cold should not be a big issue if you are properly equipped, but keep in mind that at high altitude there is less oxygen to fuel your body, so you feel colder. Be careful of those hard plastic shell insulated boots. The closed cell insulating foam will expand at altitude constricting your foot and could lead to frostbite. I have seem people with some nasty black toes. Make sure they are properly sized and not too tight. For non-technical climbs I prefer using regular hiking boots with an insulated over boot for cold days. This is much more comfortable than plastic boots, particularly on the long approach and descent hikes.

Take a pair of hiking poles. They take some of the stress off your leg muscles on the ascent and your knees will thank you on the descent. Poles also help to prevent spills and injury on rough terrain.
posted by JackFlash at 10:22 AM on September 14, 2006 [3 favorites]

A friend of mind did this at age 65, or thereabouts. He ran marathons regularly, so he was in good shape. He related the altitude effects as the big problem. Near the summit, he said, you get so stupid it becomes difficult to just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. He went on to do the 19,500 foot level of Everest at age 69.
posted by beagle at 10:31 AM on September 14, 2006

Libraryhead: Keep in mind that you most likely will *not* be carrying a heavy pack (guides/porters are required) and the terrain is dead easy compared to the Whites (not steep in most places; few rocks)...

Yeah. Agreed that the Whites are not a good proxy for the terrain on Kilimanjaro, but certainly hiking there in the winter would be good preparation for the cold conditions you'd face. If anything, a cold day in the Whites will be colder than a cold day near the top of the mountain.

The pack issue is trickier, because that pretty much depends on what guide service you choose. Either way, the effects of altitude take a serious toll, so if, in your training, you can get used to just putting one foot in front of the other while fatigued, that helps. A fully loaded pack on a snowy hike will definitely help prepare you for the feeling of continuing even when exhausted.

canine epigram: which hikes would you recommend as preparations?

In the Whites, if you're looking to try hiking in the cold, you might consider a winter visit to one of the AMC huts, if you haven't done that before. It'll give you a good idea of how you deal with the cold, but it's a little less intense than full-on winter camping. (Make sure you bring adequate clothing, no cotton, etc. which you undoubtedly already know, but should not attempt winter hiking without knowing if you don't.)

The IME winter programs would be another good option that would help get you ready for the cold, plus teach you a lot about mountaineering too.

Otherwise, just pick long hikes. Do regular multi-day backpacking trips to build endurance. Lots of good suggestions here.

Out west there are plenty of high mountains that don't require technical mountaineering skills -- Colorado's Mt. Elbert for example. Knowing how you react to altitude will give you a big leg up.
posted by dseaton at 12:06 PM on September 14, 2006

A co-worker who has done this said that a lot of the info in this post is excellent. He suggested to take as much time to go up as you can as the acclimation is important. He also suggested the back route as well because it is less crowded.
posted by mmascolino at 12:22 PM on September 14, 2006

Before I did Kilimanjaro, I hiked up Pike's Peak 3 times. The best thing about Pike's is that it is accessible by so many means: car, cog railroad, hiking, walking, biking. If you get into trouble along the way, you can more easily extricate yourself than on some other climbs.
posted by forrest at 3:28 PM on September 14, 2006

I climbed it about five years ago, when I was reasonably fit but not especially so. My training consisted of going walking here at home (Peak District, UK) every weekend. My wife, who was much fitter than me (rock climbing/long distance swimming/mountainbiking does that) failed to get to the top because of altitude sickness and was evacuated by the guides. She made a full recovery. Although I did get right to the top, I felt like shit.

You climb up the last 5 hours before dawn so the scree you are walking on is frozen (and therfore solid to walk on). Once the sun hits it it instantly melts, and that means after you have been right to the peak, on the way down the scree its MUCH faster. Also, as you are feeling so much better for descending even a few feet from the top, there's no problem in running down the scree in less than half an hour (when it took over 4 to get up that bit in the dark).

Go and enjoy, but don't miss out on seeing other neaby bits of Tanzania whilst you're there.
posted by muckybob at 3:28 PM on September 14, 2006

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