Sitting on a rock in the dark in the coldest cold I’ve ever experienced, I held up my hands helplessly as our guide shoved his mittens over my insufficient gloves. I felt pathetic.
Walking was a challenge – at 18,000 feet I could barely feel my legs – but sitting was frightening. I felt like the frigid rock was sucking the life out of me and I was going to die if I didn’t keep moving. Clear thinking was impossible.
I swiveled my head to the left and peered out of my hood and balaclava. My friend was sitting with his mouth open while an assistant guide shoved cookies into it. Swiveling to my right, I noticed another member of our group was receiving oxygen through a face mask. Well, at least I wasn’t the only one struggling. Only my freakishly robust husband seemed to have himself relatively together, and even he was moving glacially and breathing way too fast.
For the first time in our 7 day trek I knew I would be in trouble without our highly capable Tanzanian guides to drag my numb, confused, oxygen-deprived ass to the summit. I was finally getting the answer to the question, just how hard IS climbing Kilimanjaro exactly?
“This part,” I vaguely remember thinking, “is harder than I expected.”
How hard could it be?
So how hard is climbing mount Kilimanjaro? At 19,341 feet it’s the highest point on the continent of Africa, but it’s just a “walk up” – no technical climbing required. Just a little stroll in the park, right? A very expensive little stroll. At least that’s one way to look at it.
No doubt about it, preparing for Kilimanjaro is a challenging and epic project for anyone who doesn’t already have experience with multiday hiking. But I wondered, what about those of us who already do some backpacking, long-distance trail running, or other long days outside? Surely having our every need met by the mandatory guides, porters and cooks would make Kili easier than our usual self-supported backcountry adventures, right?
My husband and I, since being bitten by the endurance bug, consider ourselves reasonably fit. Not the fastest people out there, but we know how to get it done when it turns into a slog. We are pretty good sloggers, if we don’t say so ourselves. We stay in reasonably good shape through regular running and weightlifting even when we’re not able to hit the trails.
So when a friend proposed a Kilimanjaro climb, we thought “sure, we can do that.” We weren’t particularly concerned about getting in shape. We almost wondered if it would be too easy, but it seemed like a worthwhile experience nonetheless. We chose our guide company (the excellent value and highly professional Gladys Adventure) and our route (a seven day itinerary on the Lemosho route that promised a good mix of dramatic scenery and acclimatization time) and off we flew to East Africa. OK, it wasn’t all quite that easy, but that’s not the point.
A Slow Start
Any trustworthy guide company requires a minimum of six days for a Kilimanjaro summit attempt, and more is better. The human body takes time to adjust to high altitude, no matter how fit you are. Getting this part wrong means risking altitude sickness and ending your trek early at best, or serious medical issues (like death) at worst.
So for several days we bounced up and down between around 8,000 feet and 12,000 feet, hiking higher and sleeping lower, gradually adjusting our bodies to run on less oxygen. The days ended well before dark, our tents were always set up for us at camp, and dinner was waiting in the mess tent. Luxury! It was almost too easy; we were almost a little disappointed. We got cocky. We wanted to go faster. We wondered whether we really even needed our guides.
Feeling the Altitude
At the end of day five we made our way to the high basecamp, the last camping spot before the final summit attempt. This camp hovered well above the clouds at around 15,000 feet, just higher than our previous record when climbing Mt. Whitney in California. Getting there wasn’t exactly too hard, but, it wasn’t too easy anymore either.
Once at camp we didn’t want to do much besides sit. Getting up to walk to the pit toilets seemed unappealing, and not just because of how indescribably nasty they were. The cooks put ginger in everything – ginger soup, ginger spaghetti – and still we barely wanted to eat. We were definitely, as my husband calls it, altituded.
We were fed an early dinner and encouraged to sleep the afternoon away in our tents, resting up for a midnight wakeup call for the long-awaited summit push. At this point I realized even sleeping is hard at 15,000 feet. My sinuses were dry. My throat was dry. Everything was dry. My head throbbed and I had gas. And I definitely couldn’t sleep.
Starting the Summit Push
When the “wake up” call came (I was already awake) we bundled into every layer we had, packed light day packs with water (which froze) and snacks (which we didn’t feel like eating), and shuffled into a headlamp-lit conga line tended by a guide and two assistants. The push was to take about six hours, plus time to descend back to camp.
The idea behind the summit push is to get to the top and down again as fast as reasonably possible, because the longer you spend up there the higher the chance of altitude sickness forcing a mandatory descent. Still, near the top of Kili, “as fast as reasonably possible” resembles a snail on sedatives. Step, breathe, breathe. Step, breathe, breathe. Focusing only on our headlamp beams on the ground, we shuffled into the night.
The reasoning for doing the whole thing in the dark still eludes me. They say it’s so we can see the sunrise from the summit. I guess that was nice and all, but for someone like me – chronically cold, with hands and feet that go numb at the slightest hint of chill – a daytime ascent would have been far more pleasant. In any case, despite having paid thousands of dollars it wasn’t up to me, so off we went in the dark at midnight.
The Hard Part
So, what of our fitness and slogging skills? Well, here’s the thing. Kilimanjaro is HIGH. I already knew that high altitude causes fatigue and shortness of breath, but between 15,000 and 19,000 feet I started to feel things I’d never experienced before: numb heavy legs, muddled thinking, increased anxiety, frighteningly intense cold.
Being fit certainly didn’t hurt, but no amount of training at normal elevations could have prepared me for the physical and mental f**cked-up-ness that set in near the summit. Fortunately, one mental benefit of endurance sports is the ability to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how weird things get, and that’s exactly what we did.
At one point I mumbled to our guide through numb lips “I can’t feel my legs. Is that normal?” He reassured me, “yes it’s normal,” but I was never totally convinced. He could obviously feel his legs. Darn those guys, they scampered up the mountain like eager kids on Christmas morning. I guess the best way to adapt to climbing tall mountains is to climb tall mountains all the time. Who knew.
This is the part everyone raves about, the moment all the hard work and discomfort melt away in a rush of glory and pride in the weight of your accomplishment.
I just felt cranky and cold. Paranoid that hypothermia was setting in, I flapped my arms and jumped around like an injured chicken waiting for our turn to snap summit pictures. As I scanned the alien landscape under the rising African sun and tried to feel proud, I felt empty inside. Summit Kilimanjaro: check. Now I just needed to get down and get warm.
Running Down Kili
Then something truly magical happened. One of the assistant guides began leading us down the descent route, a steep loose slope of volcanic dust and gravel that reduces most hikers to gingerly picking their way with planted hiking poles and tender knees. Obviously feeling spry or maybe just showing off, our guide allowed himself a few steps of speedy plunge stepping into the forgiving dust before stopping to wait for us. I don’t think he was expecting what happened next.
You see, we’re trail runners. Not high-altitude mountain climbers, it turns out. But gosh darnit, even at 19,000 feet, we’re trail runners. And what trail runner doesn’t love a good downhill ride? I’m not sure exactly who started it, but pretty soon our whole little group was sliding / running / whooping our way down Mount Kilimanjaro. Our guide was clearly stoked. The other hikers we passed, while kicking up clouds of dust with “sorry (not sorry)” written all over our faces, were shocked. It was awesome.
I have absolutely no clue how my body went from “I think I’m dying” to “best downhill race of my life” within five minutes. Apparently without the need to fight gravity my fitness base finally found its use. With every thousand feet we lost, we felt twice as good.
We hit the flatter rocky trail at the bottom and didn’t stop, literally running back to base camp so quickly that the porters who’d stayed behind thought we had failed to summit and turned around early. Finally, breathless and happy and high on the increased oxygen back at “only” 15,000 feet, I felt that rush of happiness and pride I had missed at the summit.
So was climbing Kilimanjaro hard?
Yes, sort of. Mostly for about six hours, and mostly in ways that are very difficult to prepare for. For people who are fit and have experience with multi-day hiking, I don’t think fitness will be the main issue. For me it came down to the effects of altitude and cold.
Maybe you already know Kilimanjaro is going to be the challenge of a lifetime for you, and you’re ready to start training. More power to you! It will be tough, but within your reach.
For the few of you out there who dare to wonder if it might not be challenging enough… Well, maybe it won’t be. But maybe you should still go to Tanzania and enjoy the spectacular scenery while finding out for sure. And if you do, you might – just maybe, possibly, unlikely but it could potentially happen – get your butt kicked in the best possible way near the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
More Awesome Hikes in Africa
Kili may be the highest and most famous hike in Africa, but it’s definitely not the only one. It may not even be the most interesting! Check out these cheaper, lower profile but still awesome multi-day adventures for alternative ideas.
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