Kilimanjaro almost killed me. The first time was no joke. Lessons were taught by the mighty Kilimanjaro on how not to mess with her without proper preparation and a healthy mindset. At the last hut, Kibo, was when I had to make the painful decision to turn around. At that point, the symptoms of altitude sickness had increased tremendously to the point I was experiencing symptoms of High Altitude Pulmonary Edemy (HAPE). It was heartbreaking to abort my plan to forge ahead because I was just a few hours away from the summit. However, surviving the ordeal taught me important lessons in dealing with high altitude trekking and ensuring a non-fatal ascent.
While many mountaineers aspire to trek up Kilimanjaro for very good reasons, one being the peak is part of the seven summits, it is prudent to keep in mind the dangers involved in climbing this non-technical trail. Your number one enemy in this case is the altitude, among other possible deterrents that are mentioned below.
Here are 13 ways to survive the dangers on the trails of Kilimanjaro and cross it off your bucket list for good:
1. Before even flying out to Kilimanjaro airport, learn about the symptoms of altitude mountain sickness (AMS) and the appropriate treatment.
The internet has extensive articles on the subject. You can dive into it as deeply as you’d like but at the very least, you should know the signs to look for to indicate whether your body is experiencing some negative effects from the altitude. However, only study the topic to the extent it gives you sufficient knowledge on the symptoms and treatment. I know some people who scare themselves off from reading too much about it. Although knowledge is certainly useful in this instance, on the other hand, make sure not to overdo it to a point you cause yourself unnecessary stress and anxiety. Your mental disposition is one of the key things for a successful ascent as discussed below. Hence, find a balance between knowing enough about AMS and knowing about it too much.
2. From knowing the symptoms follows knowing the treatment.
Diamox is one common medication that prevents and treats AMS. Make sure to talk to your doctor regarding the appropriate usage in your case as the dosage can depend on each person’s medical history and condition. These days it is easy to obtain a prescription from your primary care physician, which most health insurance covers. No need to go to a travel doctor, which can be costly. While you’re at it, ask for antibiotics for stomach issues. You’re likely not going to need it but it doesn’t hurt to have it just in case. Another prescription drug which is used for treating HAPE is some form of steroid. You can ask your doctor about this particular medication and decide if it’s something you wish to bring with you as a treatment measure for HAPE. Typically, HAPE is treated by descending as soon as the initial symptoms appear. If you get to a point in which you’re prompted to use medication to treat HAPE, that usually means you’ve already gone much higher than you should have. This isn’t a smart way to trek given the risk of death resulting from HAPE.
3. Learn to listen to your body and be honest with yourself when it comes to your body’s condition.
Sure, you paid tons of money to conquer Kilimanjaro, but will you allow the mountain instead to conquer you? And leave you dead? No. Life is too precious to lose over a mountain. Let’s be honest. We love the idea of success. We’re obsessed with the the idea of conquering Kilimanjaro and crossing it from our bucket list of peaks to bag. But guess who’s the one who makes the call whether you go forward or not? No, not the ego. It’s your body. I witnessed runners run up the mountain like they’re jogging in the city. I’m not sure why they would do that but as days progressed, I realized it was their ego talking. The ego in their heads told them to go fast so they can be the first to arrive at the hut every night. Sure, they did get there first. But once they were above 12,000 feet, they realized the inevitable — your body needs to adapt to the altitude. Instead of listening to their bodies, they acted against their bodies’ natural state. Hence, I wasn’t surprised later on to find out that they didn’t make it to the summit. Kilimanjaro is the kind of mountain that will punish you for being a speedy Gonzales. Keeping the ego in check will serve you better.
4.How will the mountain reward you?
By going the opposite — “pole, pole,” which is Swahili for slowly, slowly. Every local says it, chants it, preaches it, and even yells it at those who refuse to listen. There’s a reason why. It’s the only style of hiking that will make you conquer Kilimanjaro. Practice the idea now so when you hear your guides say this, your tendency to go fast will be put on sleep mode by the time you start the trek. In our hiking lives, we are prone to wanting to go faster. It’s just in our nature to work on our speed. In this case, you must throw that idea out the window. And trust me, it sounds easy but it’s actually hard. Your adrenaline is pumping. You see other hikers on the trail and like most people you don’t want to be that last one to arrive. To reverse that thinking is unnatural. Hence, I would emphasize one more time — practice your walk now at a lesser than normal speed. That way you would not have any difficulties adjusting when you’re on the actual trail. You’ll have one less thing to worry about.
5. Drink plenty of water.
Get into the habit of drinking even if you’re not thirsty. This is especially important when you are taking Diamox as this medication causes dehydration. You need to make sure you are drinking enough water. For altitude, sufficient water intake is also deemed to help. It’s a general rule in life that is definitely worth practicing on the trail, no matter which peak you’re bagging. Drink enough water. Always!
The highest mountain in Africa stands at 19,341ft (5,895m) near the Tanzanian border with Kenya. Ascents of the peak make use of several established camps on the mountain’s slopes, allowing climbers time to acclimate to the elevation.
Photo courtesy of Mountain Travel Sobek
6. Eat well on the trail.
This is not so much of an issue given that most trekking operators feed you more than enough nutritious food, especially carbohydrates. Eat enough carbs but don’t overfeed yourself. Snacking on protein bars is a great way to supplement you with energy so make sure to bring trail bars with you because the town, Moshi, where you spend the night prior to the trek, is devoid of any nutritious trail snacks.
7. Get good rest and sleep.
I cannot emphasize it enough how important this is. Enough sleep every night is going to determine your body’s overall functioning the next day. It’s the best means of preventing or treating any illness on the trail. Know that it is cold at night so make sure that you bring the right gear to give you enough warmth to allow you to have a restful sleep. Sleepless nights on the trail can certainly impact your chances of making it to the top. Likewise, rest is important during the hike each day. As noted above, you must listen to your body. If it tells you to stop and rest, then you do so. When it tells you it’s ready to move, then go.
8. Do the longest route possible to the summit of Kilimanjaro.
I made the mistake of doing the shortest route, Marangu, which takes you to the summit in 3-4 days. This is the only route that has huts and so no tenting needed. It might have been warmer at night time via Marangu but the ascent was suicidal given the elevation that you gain from 1860 meters to 5895 meters in 3-4 days. The success rate for summiting stands at less than 30% whereas the longest route via the newer trail, Northern Circuit, has a success rate of around 80% as it gives you 3-4 extra days to summit. Of course, the longer route would mean it’ll be more costly. One thing I learned from all this though is that climbing Kilimanjaro is such a major endeavor that you should do it properly the first time around. Otherwise, if you don’t summit, then you do it again which means you end up spending more money than if you did it right the first time.
9. Get medical and emergency evacuation coverage.
Considering the risk factors of climbing this peak, it’s a no brainer, really. Make sure you are covered by adequate insurance in case of medical emergencies. Luckily, in my case, the guide was able to arrange for porters to bring me down the mountain via a stretcher. In other cases, a more immediate evacuation may be necessary and require a helicopter rescue. It’s worth investing in having the appropriate medical insurance and emergency evacuation for these reasons. Also, do keep in mind only certain insurance companies offer medical and emergency evacuation for trekking that involves high altitude. Make sure to check that they cover the activity and the specific altitude as some only cover trekking up to a certain elevation.
10. Provide any relevant medical information to your guide.
It may not be altitude that gets you on the trail, but allergies of some kind. Make sure that you inform your guide or trek operator ahead of time if you have medical conditions that should be noted. This is not the time to be shy about it. Failure to disclose can cause you your own health, and perhaps, life so be honest and upfront. Trek operators are expected and required in most instances to ensure confidentiality of their client’s personal information so there’s no need to worry about others finding out.
11. Work on your cardio and stay active.
Being fit may not keep altitude away from pestering you and causing you to experience symptoms but the fitter you are, the lesser issues you’ll have on the trail, besides the altitude, that is. After all, walking up from 1800 meters to over 5000 meters requires tremendous amount of cardio and fitness, and more so at high altitude.
12. Know your blood type and carry a medical card with said information.
Let’s go back to basics. If you don’t know your blood type or have forgotten it, find out before your trek. If any injuries occur that would require blood transfusion, this is a critical piece of information that can save your life. It’s worth knowing that in some countries, certain blood types are rare to find. Hence, do your research beforehand. You can find out more about altitude and its impact on blood types and about organizations globally that can help with rare blood types via this article: High Altitudes Can Change Your Blood.
13. Finally, learn to let go of the pressures of making it to the top.
Those who do make it to the top of any high altitude peak are usually calm and deliberate in their efforts to be stress-free in their journey to the top. If it’s not the altitude that will stop you from summiting, then my next bet would be the mental challenge that is inherent in this endeavor. I know of people who were physically fine and could easily have trekked up to the top but didn’t because fear stopped them. Don’t fall into that trap. Don’t compete or succumb to the pressure of comparing your abilities with others. Don’t bother questioning who will make it or who won’t or canvassing among your peers who will be the first or last to make it. Seriously, just don’t. Their journey on this mountain or any mountain for that matter, is totally different from yours. Respect that and just focus on your own path. Preoccupying yourself about others’ abilities eats up energy that you can be using towards hiking up to the top and is merely a distraction that serves no purpose in your own unique journey. The healthier your mind is, the less ailment and stress you’ll experience on the trail. Meditate, nap or listen to music to relax you when you get to camp. While you take care of your physical body by eating and sleeping, your mind also requires the utmost attention while on a trek that is as strenuous as one that will take you to the highest point in Africa. Yes, so much pressure, indeed. But your best approach is to stay calm and focus on trekking up that peak, one step at a time.
With all the above pointers, you’re ready to conquer Kilimanjaro. Either way, the mountain will always be there. You, on the other hand, have one life to contend with. Take care of it, and the peak will show itself to you sooner or later.
And remember, “Pole, pole!”