What does it take to climb to the highest point in Africa? Physical fitness and the right gear may get you some of the way but, as our guest Harry discovers, it is mental toughness that will take you all the way to the top.
This is Harry’s account of his trip:
It was my son’s idea. Really it was. When I told him back in January that I was planning to visit Tanzania for the fourth time, he said, “Dad, let’s do Kilimanjaro”. He had been fascinated by the mountain ever since he first saw it in 2016. Okay, me too. I admit it.
On the advice of friends in Tanzania, we contacted MyTanzaniaSafari.com. After much discussion with them and extensive research, we decided to climb the mountain via the Umbwe route. This was not a decision we took lightly. The Umbwe route is not for the faint of heart but its reputed beauty and isolation were our principal considerations.
And, I have to admit, the idea of doing something out of the ordinary was extremely attractive.
Although the rest of the family soon grew tired of hearing about our planned adventure, our enthusiasm was infectious enough to convince my brother-in-law, Will to join us. Now there would be the three of us.
Our research revealed a treasure trove of information and led us to conclude there were three major factors that we could control that would enhance our chances of summiting a big mountain like Kilimanjaro.
The first was our level of fitness and acclimatisation to altitude. All of the tourist routes up Kilimanjaro are really hikes or treks, with perhaps a little of what would be classified in the US as Class 3 climbing (four-point scrambling). We knew to not underestimate the distances and the sheer relief we would encounter, not to mention the effect of altitude and the ever-present risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). But our research indicated that improving our levels of fitness, spending time at higher altitudes and drinking an awful lot of water were ways to improve the probability of summiting. Diamox, a drug that many people can tolerate, also helps to reduce the symptoms of AMS and we planned to take it.
I am 56 years old. I have maintained an active lifestyle but, like my 21-year-old son John and his uncle, Will, I was not much more than reasonably fit. But now we all had a significant motivation to change that – fear. We might not be able to summit. We needed to get in better shape, and fast!
I spent most of May, June and July hiking and climbing in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in the US. Along with cross training on a mountain bike, I hiked at high altitude, climbing several of the Colorado 14’ers. (There are 56 peaks in Colorado higher than 14 000 feet – 4 300m – and it has become a popular pastime to “bag” a number of peaks.)
Both John and Ron joined me at different times and on different peaks. You never know how you will react to higher altitudes until you experience it. They each had a slight headache and a touch of light-headedness, having just come from sea level. I had a similar experience on my first 14’er of the summer, but found that the acclimatisation worked as I climbed more peaks. This was a very good test, because it was exactly what we would experience when we flew from our homes at sea level in Houston, Texas, to Kilimanjaro Airport.
Because of their work commitments, neither John nor Will had the luxury of training at altitude. John trained hard in Houston, running with a pack holding two to three times the weight he would carry up Kilimanjaro. Will works on a drilling rig far offshore Angola. Although truly at sea level, he climbed up and down the many steps on his oil rig, every chance he had. Each of us managed to trim a few excess kilograms – weight we certainly did not want to carry up the mountain.
For those of us living in cities, life is pretty easy. On a climb like this, you sleep on hard, unlevel ground. You get soaking wet in the rain forest or from the sweat from wearing too many clothes on the summit. Toilet facilities are limited and your bowels may not be in great shape. There is some hardship, privation and strenuous physical activity to endure. Of course, the reward is spectacular scenery – nature at its most fundamental – and the satisfaction of doing something that is hard and far from commonplace.
While I had read stories about those who don’t make it to the top, I did not realise how common it was to see people at Stella Point, less than 300m from the summit, heads in their hands, saying, “No more, I cannot make it…”
I also saw some very fit-looking people not make it to the top. I saw considerably more, who were physically ill prepared or with poor equipment, fail as well. We were resolved, that short of serious injury or illness, we would get to the top!