Lessons Learned From Climbing Kilimanjaro

I have recently returned from my 37th trip to the summit of Kilimanjaro!  Each time I step foot on the mountain, I learn a new lesson and have a new and different experience.  The experience of climbing a mountain is never the same for any two people. Even for myself, after my many trips on Africa’s Highest Peak, I have never had the same conditions twice!  Every time I have climbed Kilimanjaro, been to Everest Base Camp, or out on any multi-day trip, there are lessons to be learned, because each trip is different. Sometimes on Kilimanjaro we can get hit with unexpected rain, strong and cold winds on the summit, cyclones, or slippery and muddy trails. We can experience different affects of altitude as well as different issues with sleeping and eating at altitude.

When you join a trip like this, things that are out of your control can cause unique experiences.  Things like the National Park entrances having issues and moving slow can be slow and cause problems, vehicles can break down, road works can cause delays, and sometimes other people in your group may come with out enough training and preparationAll of these things can happen that can effect a group.  Coming on a trip like Kilimanjaro requires a relaxed and positive attitude.  Remember… this is all part of the adventure!

Kilimanjaro’s Number 1 Guide

Over the past decade, we have developed our own unique itinerary with more acclimatization and using Kosovo Camp for our High Camp. I have personally worked with our head guide for over the past 10 years.  We have an excellent team on the ground and do not outsource any of our trips!  Athumani, our head guide, has been to Colorado, USA and also trained in Nepal with us. He has summited Kilimanjaro over 300 times and works full time with Ian Taylor Trekking. We have an excellent understanding of climbing in a range of weather conditions and how to pick, and execute, the right acclimatization program. The Lemosho route is the best route over 8 days.  Athumani was named Kilimanjaro’s Number 1 Guide in 2019 and we are VERY proud of him!

Kilimanjaro’s Number 1 Problem

There is one main reason why people are not successful on Kilimanjaro. Going to high altitude and standing at 19,341 feet above sea level requires specific acclimatization. Your safety and success will come down to how you adapt to the lack of oxygen.  You can not fully prepare for this type of altitude, but there are things you can do.  From years of experience, the best way to make the journey is on our 8 day trip. This gives you, and others around you, the best chance to acclimatize as best you can, enjoy the climb up Kilimanjaro and come back down safely.

Physical Conditioning

Specific physical training, prior to the trip, is essential. You will be walking up and down hills, with 6kg+/ 12lbs on your back, for 8 days back to back. The ideal preparation is multi-day hiking at home, building up to carrying double the amount of weight you will carry on the mountain.  If you can pair this with strength and endurance training in the gym, carrying your weighted pack on a stair master or inclined treadmill, 4-5 days a week, we consider this the best preparation for your Kilimanjaro climb.  Always consult your doctor and fitness instructor before you take on a more intense training program like this.  You do not want to over stress your body if it is not used to this type of training.  If you want to talk to us directly, and are signed up to one of our trips, CONTACT US today and we can set up a time for a call to fully understand the training needed.

Movement of Oxygen in the Body

Once you go above 10,000 feet, your body will produce more red blood cells.  This is to move oxygen more efficiently around the body to your muscles. If you condition your body to carry more weight prior to the trip, then your body becomes used to being under pressure.  The muscles adapt to the hard work walking up hill with weight on your back. This will help in your preparation and vital physical conditioning at high altitude. High heart rates and interval training help, but only when you have put in months of base training and improve your endurance capacity.

Camping

Another thing to consider, is your comfort while camping. When you are on the mountain, you will be sleeping in tents. If this is not something you have done before, it can add to your discomfort on the trip.  We always suggest camping before the trip to get comfortable with your sleeping bag, mattress and pillow. Getting good sleep on the mountain is extremely important!  Learning how to keep clean and organized while sleeping in a tent will help you to enjoy the trek a lot more.

Climb High Sleep Low

After arriving into Kilimanjaro airport and one night in Arusha at 1,400m/ 4,593 feet, we will get straight into the acclimatization process. As you will see in our Itinerary, we have an excellent, but challenging, schedule. Climbing high each day and sleeping lower that night is critical for the body to understand what it is going through in the acclimatization process.  This process will help you adapt better to the lack of oxygen so you can enjoy the hiking our itinerary provides. The 8 Day Lemosho Route up the mountain is the best route to naturally give you this critical acclimatization.

Ian’s First Experience on Kilimanjaro

From my experience, climbing Kilimanjaro 37+ times, I have learned a lot about why people are not making it to the summit. I remember my first climb up Kilimanjaro. It was when I was younger and very physically fit, however, that was not enough.  I lacked in knowledge and understanding about low oxygen environments and how my body reacts to the lack of oxygen.

On my first climb, I was signed up to a five day trek, which was a big mistake. On day two, I was feeling very fatigued and ill when arriving at the Lava Tower at 4,600m/ 15,000 feet.  Somehow, I struggled to make it into Barranco Camp at 3,900m/ 12,795 feet.  I was nauseous and vomiting and fell into my tent tired and dehydrated.  I felt there was no possible way I could make the summit. My first and biggest mistake was that I did NOT pick the right itinerary and acclimatization schedule.

One reason less than 50% of people make the summit of Kilimanjaro

Pace and Hydration

I was very strong and physically fit. I couldn’t understand why I was struggling so much. And now, with all the experience I have gained, I know that not only did I have a poor acclimatization schedule, but I also knew very little about how to pace myself and stay well hydrated at altitude.

Trying to Sleep at Altitude

The next day I got up and struggled all the way to Barafu Camp at 4,650m/ 15,255 feet.  This is the high camp, where we would spend two nights on the trip I was on. I remember the guides trying to get us to go for the summit that night. We had only spent three nights sleeping (or lack of sleeping) on the mountain. I was shattered, I didn’t want to be there anymore, and I felt horrible. My experience was demoralizing. I had ambitions to climb Mount Everest, but If I could not even make the summit of Kilimanjaro, then how could I climb the worlds highest peak?

Going Higher

I was not sure I could make it to the top, but I persevered.  I struggled the entire way to the summit, but made it.  Because I was not acclimatized, I barely remember any part of that night going to the top.  I had a whole experience that I could not remember, simply because I did not choose an adequate itinerary for acclimatization.

After reaching the top, we then went all the way down to the gate at 6,500 feet, in one day. Going up 4,000 feet and down 12,840 feet in one day is very demanding. Yes we made it to the summit of Kilimanjaro and back to the gate in one day, however this was stupid, dangerous and the main reason that only 42% of people make the summit. I did not enjoy the trip one bit and barely remembered standing a the top.  That is not the experience we want our clients to have on trips.

One reason less than 50% of people make the summit of Kilimanjaro

What I have Learned

After climbing Kilimanjaro 37+ times now, I have found that you really need 8 days on the mountain for a safe and successful ascent.
The main reason people do not make the summit of Kilimanjaro is because they are not spending adequate time at altitude, to acclimatize to the lack of oxygen. Above 18,000 feet is where the body can no longer fully adjust to the lack of oxygen.  This is where your body is slowly deteriorating and you are pushing the limit of what the body can take. This is a dangerous place and should not be underestimated. I want to make sure our clients have all the relevant information about extreme altitude before they decide to take on a trip like Kilimanjaro.

The Key to Success

The key to success on Kilimanjaro is coming with excellent physical conditioning and the right acclimatization schedule. Spending more time acclimatizing to the lack of oxygen is your first and most important decision when picking a trip. I have climbed Kilimanjaro in 5,6,7 & 8 days over the years, but now realize that the only way to climb Kilimanjaro is to spend a minimum of 8 days on the mountain. The goal is to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro and enjoy the entire journey there, not just endure it!  This is the only way to approach this climb.
Ian Taylor Trekking has a 95% success rate on our 8 day Kilimanjaro climbs and 85% success rate on our 7 day treks. We don’t run 5 or 6 day treks anymore. Climbing Kilimanjaro is a challenge. Why make it harder than it needs to be or put yourself and others at risk by choosing a shorter itinerary?
We fully prepare you with training information, a 40 page dossier, and are available five days a week to answer any question you may have if you join one of our treks. Get in touch and we can help you make your adventure on Kilimanjaro a safe and successful experience.
If you would like to know more, read this blog post on all you need to know about climbing Kilimanjaro. Or just EMAIL US or CALL US. We are happy to help you get the information you need for your Kilimanjaro climb.
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