Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Canadian Tree Planter Climbs Kilimanjaro, part 1 of 3

I recently had the opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, which is Africa’s tallest mountain. It was a pretty amazing trip, and I took a fair number of photos and also some video footage. There’s a TON of information out there on the internet already for other people who are interested in climbing Kili, but I was struck by the fact that despite the information overload, there’s a lack of information in a few key areas, so I thought I’d write about my own experience in detail. I’ll cover basics first, but eventually I’ll get into some very specific suggestions which should be quite useful for others who are attempting the climb. Bear with me, I have a lot to cover here.

If you want to look at my photos first, I have them on both my website and facebook. The facebook version is better if you’re watching on mobile (less bandwidth) or if you want to make comments on photos. The photos on my server are better if you’d like to download any of them as desktop backgrounds, etc., as those ones are in the highest resolution (2700x1800 pixels, around 3MB each on average). Here are the links:

  Photos on Facebook: Kili Photos on Facebook
  Photos on my server: Kili Photos on

By the way, the few photos that I've included in this blog posting are not the full-resolution versions. Go to the photo page on my server (above) to see them in the best detail.

I also took about twenty minutes total of video footage, which I combined into a YouTube video. Since there was no effective background audio, I just used a copy of my weekly radio show as background audio. You don’t need to listen to the audio if you want to mute it:

Kilimanjaro Information

Alright, let’s get down to some background details before I talk about my own experiences. What’s so special about Mount Kilimanjaro?

Kili is the highest mountain in Africa, so it’s often referred to as “The Rooftop Of Africa.” There’s actually an Imax video out there of the same name, which you can view HERE on YouTube. Come to think of it, that's probably the video that years ago originally got me thinking that I’d like to see Kili in person.

Anyway, Kilimanjaro is a mostly-dormant volcano, and due to this, it’s the largest free-standing mountain in the world. It has three volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. Kibo is the cone which is highest. Kibo has two peaks on it, Stella Point at 5725m AMSL (above mean sea level) and most people’s goal, Uhuru Peak at 5895m (19,341 feet).

Kilimanjaro has glaciers at the top. However, they are disappearing rapidly, like glaciers in many other parts of the world. Of the glacial ice at the top in 2000, almost half has now disappeared, and estimates are that Kili will be glacier-free in approximately ten to fifteen years.

Kilimanjaro is one of the Seven Summits, which refers to the group of the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. The others are: Mount Everest (Asia, 8848m), Aconcagua (South America, 6961m), Mount McKinley (North America, 6194m), Mount Elbrus (Europe, 5642m), Mount Vinson (Antarctica, 4892m), and Puncak Jaya (Australasia, 4884m). Most people regard Kilimanjaro as being more of a hike than a true climb, so it usually has a reputation as being the easiest of the Seven Summits. However, there are climbers out there who have succeeded in climbing the other six but failed to reach the top of Kilimanjaro. I have some ideas about this, which I’ll get into later.

So how high is Uhuru peak? Let’s put it this way: “Kilimanjaro summit is well above the altitude at which high altitude pulmonary edema or high altitude cerebral edema can occur. All trekkers will suffer considerable discomfort, typically shortage of breath, hypothermia, and headaches.” In comparison to other well-known mountains, the Mount Everest north base camp (Tibet side), which you would expect to be at a pretty high elevation, is only at 5150m (more than 700m lower than Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak).

Kilimanjaro is usually referred to as a “trek” rather than as a “climb.” If you take any of the standard seven routes (Lemosho, Machame, Marangu, Mweka, Rongai, Shira, and Umbwe), you will not need any ropes or specialized climbing equipment. Most of these routes can be walked the entire way, although a few of them (including Machame, the one that I took) have some areas which require “scrambling” or using your hands to help climb over rocks and up the face of hills.

The Machame route is one of the more popular routes. It’s one of the hardest, but it’s also one of the most scenic. There is also an advantage to this route because there are some “acclimitization” sections, where trekkers are forced to ascend to a certain altitude but then drop back down to a lower altitude further on the trip. Therefore, this route seems to mitigate some of the effects of the altitude. Acclimitization is important, and one guideline that is often recommended is to “climb high, sleep low.” In other words, push your body so you become accustomed to thinner air during the day, but sleep at a lower elevation to allow your body to rest at night.

Tour Operator

As a tour operator, I chose G Adventures. GA is a global tour company, although I was surprised to find out that their head office is actually in Canada. For the Kilimanjaro Trek, the packages are advertised online as a G Adventures tour, but they subcontract the actual trek to a local company called Zara Tours.

I also used G Adventures prior to this trek for my other African safaris. I was very happy with the experiences. Also, I should note that when we were in Moshi (the closest town to Kilimanjaro), we were asking locals which the best tour operators were. Without saying who we were booked with, we were told that G Adventures has one of the best reputations, and treats it staff well.

I was amused to see that G Adventures doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulty of the trek, unlike many other operators. In fact, their trip details document says, "These trips include serious high-altitude treks, cycling or other heavy exercise. For superhumans only. Remember to pack your cape."

Gear Required

Since the links on the G Adventures website change annually, I’m not going to do a direct link, because I don’t want it to stop working in a year. Instead, I downloaded the current (December 2013) version of their full trip details (for the Machame 8-day itinerary), and I’ve added that to my own server. Click HERE if you want to download that PDF. Of course, if you’re going to climb Kili, you should look at the most recent version of the trip details on the GA website.

Because I have lots of comments on the gear suggestions from the GA list, I’m going to list those here right now. The notes in italics are my own commentary:

- Warm fleece or wool jumper/jacket (fleeces are awesome when it gets chilly)
- Waterproof jacket and pants (I recommend a light waterproof/rain jacket, and also a heavier waterproof ski jacket, in a size large enough to go OVER the backpack you’re wearing)
- 3 shirts/t-shirts, cool and breathable (not cotton)
- 2 Long-sleeved shirts or sweaters (bring “quick dry” specialty clothing if you can)
- 1 pair of shorts, mid-thigh or longer
- 2 pairs of long hiking trousers, lightweight, breathable
- 1 pair of long trousers (I’m a fan of long underwear in combination with light, loose, breathable workout pants – a combination of long underwear and rain pants is quite warm and very comfortable)
- Thermal underwear – top and bottoms
- Waterproof, light weight hiking boots. They will get wet and dirty (I brought heavier steel-toed and steel-shanked work boots, which I was very pleased with, although they’re heavier on your feet)
- Tennis shoes or sandals for relaxing in the evening
- Comfortable, breathable socks (not cotton, and bring extras because they’ll all get wet)
- Winter hat/warm hat, balaclava (I brought both a wool toque for warmth, and a floppy sunhat for shade)
- Warm gloves/mittens (I brought lightweight gardening gloves for most of the trip, and a pair of heavy winter gloves for summit night)
- Day pack with good hip and sternum support, for you to carry (you can rent this at the Springlands)
- Very warm sleeping bag (see my notes below)
- Small travel pillow (I just use my fleece)
- Water bottles or "camel baks" (see my notes below)
- Small hot water thermos (as cold water has been known to freeze near the summit)
- Water purification tablets or purifier (I thought that this was unnecessary, since all the water is boiled, but for peace of mind you might want to bring a fistful of purification tablets, if you worry about that sort of stuff)
- Sun hat, bandana
- Sunglasses (very important for hiking in the snow at the summit)
- Sunscreen (very important, especially if summiting in snow, we saw people coming down from the summit with extreme sunburn)
- Headlamp / torch / flashlight (the Springlands does NOT sell or rent headlamps! Make sure you bring extra batteries and bulbs)
- Camera and extra memory cards (you don’t want to wear out your batteries reviewing photos on the mountain, while trying to make space on the card for more photos)
- Extra camera battery (and/or charger)
- Pocket knife / utility knife
- Electricity plug adapter (see my notes below)
- Energy bars and snacks (loss of appetite meant that I couldn’t handle pure protein bars on the mountain, but chocolate based energy bars still tasted palatable)
- Personal first aid kit (see my notes below)
- Toiletries (take care of your teeth and bring soap too, but other than that, remember that you aren’t on the mountain to look good – brush your hair with your fingers)
- Hand sanitizer gel/Sanitizer wipes
- Toilet paper (bring two rolls, just in case, and pack each one in its own large zip-lock bag to keep it dry)

With regards to the sleeping bag, I saw that it’s possible to rent a cold-weather sleeping bag in Moshi for $40 for the trip. I thought that this made far more sense than trying to carry my own good winter sleeping bag for weeks of travel across multiple continents. In retrospect, I would have been happier if I'd brought my own sleeping bag. The sleeping bags at the Springlands are allegedly rated for -20 Celsius. But for anyone who does serious camping, you’ll immediately see that these are NOT high-end sleeping bags. I sleep in the snow quite often, and I found these to be fairly cold. I don’t know why these were said to be rated for -20. Mind you, many of the porters did the climb in sneakers (without socks!) so perhaps they're more impervious to cold than your average Canadian. Anyway, you'll sleep much better if you’re warm, and you’ll burn fewer calories on the trek. You’ll appreciate still having those reserve calories when summit night rolls around. Consider bringing your own proper cold-weather sleeping bag, or at least a warm friend.

For water bottles, bring enough to hold at least 4 litres. Five or six would be better. You can get away with three or four litres for most of the trip, and you don’t want to carry a ton of full bottles in your backpack all the time, especially on the days when the hike is only 5-6 hours. But you’ll definitely want more water on summit night, even though that’s the night when you want the least amount of weight. Make sure your bottles are not metal, because that’s a problem when the temperatures drop well below freezing. Also, some types of plastic aren’t good when it gets that cold, so do some research. By the way, normal plastic (disposable/recyclable) water and pop bottles are not permitted on the mountain. The rangers have banned them because some idiotic tourists throw them on the ground as garbage and leave a mess. You can probably hide a couple in your large duffel bag, but it would be easier just to carry extra reusable cold-weather Nalgene-type bottles.

In terms of electricity, be aware that almost all modern electronic devices (including all my cameras, laptop, and cell phone) can run on any voltage from 110v – 240v, at either 50Hz or 60Hz. Unless you’re bringing a food processor or hair dryer or something non-electronic, you probably do NOT need the weight of a voltage transformer. Just a simple physical adapter should do it. Incidentally, if you're thinking about bringing a hair dryer, you should not be allowed anywhere near Kilimanjaro. Anyway, back to electronic devices - make sure your chargers say 110-240V on them to be safe, before you plug into the Tanzania grid. Depending where you are, the local electricity is probably either 220v or 230v or 240v, and running at 50Hz. By the way, Moshi seems to be famous for brownouts and power outages. In one night alone, our hotel had four power outages, one lasting for hours. When I got up at 5am on the last morning, to pack and catch my 6am shuttle, I had to do all my packing and showering in the dark thanks to yet another extended outage. Extra headlamp batteries are very, very handy.

For a First Aid kit, consider including all of the following:
- Sunscreen, which you should apply liberally so you don’t also need Solarcaine or Aloe Vera for a burn
- Lip Balm (bring the kind that includes a sunblock)
- Ibuprofen or pain killers (seems to be safer in combination with altitude sickness pills than acetaminophen or ASA)
- Malaria pills (if you’re on a short-term visit to Africa, they make sense)
- Anti-histamines (I often have allergies thanks to hay fever, although I didn’t have any problems on Kili – be aware though that many anti-histamines dehydrate you)
- Anti-septic and band-aids, white tape, etc., in case you fall and scrape yourself up?
- Imodium or similar tablets in case you get hit with Traveller’s Diarrhea.
- Insect repellent (you don’t need much, as there are almost no mosquitoes above Machame Camp)
- Prescription drugs, if necessary
- Electrolyte powders (definitely can’t hurt – I wish that I’d brought a can of Gatorade powder)
- Zip-lock bags (you can never have too many dry, clean zip-lock bags, good for everything from cameras to toiletries)
- Don’t bring muscle relaxants for leg cramps, because being in good shape to start is smarter
- The jury is still out on Altitude Sickness pills, so I’ll touch on this topic later

In terms of gear rentals, the Springlands Hotel in Moshi has a rental shop and a sales shop. If you’re not with G Adventures, your own hotel might have the same, but be aware that it might not carry everything you need. The following list is what the GA website says is available, but again, I’ve added comments in italics:

- Backpack /day pack $12 (this was a good deal, and avoids needing to carry a bulky pack for international travel)
- Balaclava $6 (this is something that I wish I had brought, it’s even better than a toque)
- Sleeping bag $40 (see my notes above)
- Ponchour $18 (what does this mean? Is it a rain poncho?)
- Plastic bag $4 (you can rent this large blue heavy plastic bag that fits inside your duffle bag, and you use it to keep everything dry in case water gets into the duffel bag. I found this to be useful, but I’d also recommend bringing a dozen heavy-duty garbage bags from home, and putting each complete change of dry clothing into its own garbage bag)
- Almost waterproof duffel bag $6 (this is a good deal, so rent this, don’t bring one)
- 2 Walking poles / ski sticks $12 (I didn’t use these, because I’m used to working in the mountains without them, but I feel that they might have been useful. I think when climbing up or down, if you can use the poles and your arm muscles to assist, it will take some of the strain off your leg muscles)
- Gaiters $8 (I find these to be relatively ineffective at the best of times)
- Gloves $6 (I brought one heavy set of winter gloves for summit night)
- 2 Finger gloves $8 (I brought a light pair of gardening gloves with me)
- Sweater $5 (bring your own wool sweater or wool fleece, if you want to be sure that you have something comfortable)
- Sunglasses $8 (the Springlands did NOT rent or sell sunglasses, so you’d have to find them in Moshi)
- Long underwear $5 (bring your own)
- Raincoat G.T.Waterproof $12 (worth renting)
- Rain pants $12 (worth renting)
- Fleece pants $6
- Mountain boots $9 (risky, you should bring your own comfortable and worked-in boots)
- Warm jacket/down jacket $12 (these appeared to be decent and warm)
- Hats $6 (you can buy a floppy sunhat in the Springlands shop for $7)
- Scarfs $6 (I forgot to bring a scarf, so I ripped up an old shirt)

I was surprised to find that the prices in the Springlands rental shop actually matched these prices perfectly.

The Springlands also has a locked room where you can leave any luggage that you don't want to take up the mountain with you. It's one large room, not individual lockers, but appears to be reasonably secure. There is no charge for leaving extra bags here during your trek.

Click HERE to read part 2, which covers a typical itinerary and what I experienced on my own recent route.

Click HERE to read part 3, which covers medical and physical challenges, altitude sickness, potential travel problems, getting trip insurance, and some final notes.

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