“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How Hard is Climbing Kilimanjaro....Really?

When I talk to people about my Kilimanjaro climb the first thing they invariably ask is: How hard was it?

No surprise there, when I first thought about climbing Mt Kilimanjaro my concern was whether I could make the climb.  I did extensive research but there was so much conflicting information out there that all it did was confuse me.  I would check a dozen blogs and websites and get a dozen different takes on how difficult the climb actually is.

And even more infuriating was that most accounts were on the extreme ends of the spectrum; either “a piece of cake” or “unbelievably demanding”.  I also believe that many people who make the summit tend to make it sound worse than it is to heighten their success story.  I finally threw up my hands in frustration.  Who could you believe?

Granted, everyone brings a different level of skill and fitness to the table so how to determine the true answer?  What I discovered is that most people gave their opinion without any frame of reference.  How old are they?  Did they train?  How long and how hard?  Are they a marathon runner or a step above couch potato?  A little background would be of tremendous help.
So let me do that for you.  Let me tell you about my background, preparation and other details that will hopefully provide you with a baseline to do a comparison of your particular situation and make an intelligent determination of your chances of success.

First of all, you’re probably wondering how many people who actually attempt the summit are successful.  You would think that would be an easy answer to find but unfortunately the web is a veritable storehouse of misinformation, conflicting data and success rates that are skewed to favor certain routes and tour companies.  Many companies boast success rates upwards of 80-90%.  I initially took these to be accurate but the more I checked it became obvious that a lot of tour companies inflate the percentages in order to not discourage potential clients. 
There are actually three points on Kilimanjaro that are loosely and commonly considered to be the summit.  The three points are Gillman’s Point, Stella Point and Uhuru Peak.  Only Uhuru, at 5895 meters, is the true summit but some climbers make it to Gillman’s or Stella and can’t make it further.  If you reach either Gillman’s or Stella you will still be issued a climbing certificate from Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA) but these are NOT the true summit.  It is another 300 meters from Gillman’s to Uhuru and 200 meters from Stella—which doesn’t sound like much but is a grueling trek.  However, again to boost their success rates, most tour companies count these as summit successes since a certificate is awarded.

After some digging I found a published success rate from Kilimanjaro National Park of 45%.  I consider this an accurate figure since KINAPA has no reason to pump up the success rate.  In other words, take claimed success rates with a grain of salt—and if you are talking to someone who claims to have summited Kili ask them if they made it all the way to Uhuru Peak.

OK, now we have that out of the way let's get to the original question: How hard is the climb?  To answer that for you let me break my answer down into two areas; personal physical shape and mountain difficulty.
First the personal.  As I said earlier I will give you an idea of my specific situation and hopefully it will give you a starting point to assess your situation vis-a-vis mine.  I was 62 years old when I climbed Kili.  Old for a climber.  I checked the entry logs at the campsites and for the three weeks prior to my climb only one person older than me signed in and he was 78 years old.  Having said that I am in excellent physical shape.  I am very active and have hiked, biked, canoed, backpacked and otherwise been active my entire life.  Six months before my climb I started a dedicated training regime of hiking, running and gym training.  I ran a couple of 5Ks and a half marathon (my first) during that time.  I ran, hiked or hit the gym at least four days per week.  I ran the half marathon four months prior to the climb and after that I did very little running, mostly hiking.  My hikes were 8-, 10- and 12-milers, often while carrying a fifteen pound pack.  I also ran the steps (with full pack) at a nearby high school football stadium.  My gym work was largely treadmill and stairmaster although I did some upper body work on chest and shoulders.  Finally, three weeks before we left for Tanzania, we went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to do some “altitude” hiking.  We did three consecutive summits of Mt. LeConte (up and down) in three days.  I live in Alabama and Mt. LeConte is only 6500 feet but it was our only option in the Southeast.

As you can see, I prepped well.  I felt good about my physical fitness, the only unknown was what effect the altitude would have.  I was dedicated to getting in shape, part of this was due to my age which caused me to have some doubts as to whether I could summit.  If you are in your 20s or 30s or 40s you have an edge on me and could probably get by with a less dedicated program.  Still, don’t underestimate the mountain.
Which is a nice segue to the second area: the difficulty of the mountain.  We did a six day trek.  I don’t recommend the shorter 5-day trips which give your body less time to acclimate to the altitude.  It is four days to base camp, fifth day to summit, sixth day down.  There is no comparison between the four days to base camp portion and summit day.  I was pleasantly surprised with the four day climb to base camp.  While it was strenuous, it was not as bad as I feared.  I attribute this to my training.   The days are long and constant and unrelentingly upward, upward, upward but definitely achievable by anyone in good shape. 

As you go up each day you will start feeling the effects of altitude.  Two significant side effects are insomnia and lack of appetite.  I took Tylenol PM to help me sleep but still got very little sleep and spent every night tossing and turning.  Worse, even though our tour company provided plentiful and delicious meals we were able to eat hardly anything. 
Although the hike to base camp was easier than I expected summit day was another story.  You will begin your summit assault at midnight after having spent a large part of that day hiking to base camp so you are already tired.  The darkness, altitude (base camp is at 15,400 feet) and cold are all disorienting.  You will set off in total darkness with only the light from your headlamp.  From base camp the mountain flank is steep and consists of loose scree (slippery rocks).  And did I mention it is cold?  You will be wearing heavy gear to further limit your movement.

I will tell you frankly, the summit climb is brutal and was as difficult as I had feared in my worst dreams. The altitude effects can be daunting—headaches and nausea, lack of oxygen.  The goal is to summit by dawn to see the dazzling sunrise over Africa so there is little time to dawdle which means a steady, brisk pace and little time for rest stops. Our first rest stop was Williams Point and I still felt OK but by our second stop at Hans Meyer Cave I was struggling and seriously thought I would have to turn back.  This was only the first of many times I considered giving up and going back to base camp.  I became increasingly tired and we would stop and gasp for breath every few steps.  The scree complicated the climb—for every three steps up it seemed we slid one down.  An area called Jamaica Rocks was particularly difficult, picking traverses back and forth through this steep rocky stretch. Still, just persevere, keep on walking and it is doable.
By the time we made it to Gillman’s Point I was totally exhausted, gasping for air.  It is a mistake to think you have an easy go from Gillman’s to Uhuru—it was another two hours of grueling climbing.  I should mention that we took Diamox, a prescription altitude drug and we felt that it helped us deal with the altitude. Frankly, from Gillman’s to Uhuru, I was on autopilot, my brain fuzzy.

But we made it—and you can too!  Reading back over this it sounds brutal—and it is.  Yes, it is a physical challenge that you need to train for.  You can’t do the climb on a whim.  But it is mostly mental.  Don’t give up, persevere and you will have your picture at Uhuru Peak.  It is the trip of a lifetime and while I would not do it again under any circumstances, it was a huge achievement and I will be proud of it for the rest of my life.