“No need to cry – the mountain isn’t going anywhere – you can try again.”
That statement made by my Kilimanjaro guide, Douglas, has stuck with me for 10 years. In a way, it’s actually haunted me. I started my career break and eventual life of nomadic travel writer 10 years ago when I flew to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro, which I subsequently failed at. My sister, friend Heather, and I took on the 7-day Machame route (It has an average summit success rate in excess of 85% whilst the 6 day option has a 73% success rate on average. I never ever thought I would be in that 15%, but I was.
I’ve always thought about going back and trying to finish the climb, but every time I think about it, I think about my past trip and all the things I know about it now that I didn’t back then and it makes me pause a bit.
“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”― Jack Heath
For those of you who are thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, it’s worth your time to research and select a reputable company that will ensure your wellness and answer any questions you might have. And so you don’t dive in completely blind, you’ll want to get to know the ‘devil’ before you get there. However, don’t let any of these dissuade you from taking on Kilimanjaro, this is all a normal part of high altitude hiking.
9 Things They Don’t Tell You About Climbing Kilimanjaro
Be Prepared for a Hard Reboot
“Have you tried unplugging the computer and turning it back on?” We’ve all been asked that question by a help desk representative at some point. Reboots aren’t just for computers or phones, they can also happen to humans. We arrived at the Machame gate and we thought we knew what hiking was, but then someone just turned off the power and we had to start all over rebuilding definitions and expectations. Suddenly our definition of what a good toilet was, a challenging hike, what it means to go slow, or good night’s sleep changed. We had to quickly adjust to our environment, and it was an environment that was not necessarily comfortable.
Age and Fitness Are Irrelevant
When I attempted the climb, I was in marathon shape having just finished another half marathon before the trip. In the end, being in good shape probably hurt me in a way. The way you combat altitude sickness is by going slow and acclimating. It wasn’t in my nature to go slow. I thought I was going slow, I really, really thought I was going slow. But apparently I didn’t go slow enough. People who are ultra fit are normally pretty competitive and slow is not in their vocabulary, which is why you see a lot of fit young people fail at this climb. In fact, you might be surprised at how successful the older hikers are on Kilimanjaro. When I did it we had a guy in his upper 70’s complete it.
This is Not a Technical Climb
The ascent does not require any technical climbing, however there is one section where you do have to scramble up boulders. But other than that, the climb is rather gradual and simple. The trails are not necessarily demanding; however, the environment is.
There is no Privacy
Sure – there’s privacy in your tent, but when it comes to other personal things such as what you are eating, what you are throwing away, and the details of your morning constitutional – it’s now all public knowledge – at least to your guide. Douglas went to great lengths to determine what we might not be telling him by going through our lunch box garbage and leftover dinner to see if we were eating everything. After all, loss of appetite is one of the symptoms of altitude sickness
You Will Be Peeing Outside
Before you panic, yes there are ‘toilets’ on Kilimanjaro. They are long drop toilets, which basically mean you are doing your business in an outhouse. It’s a hole…with a place to sit. Sure, some outfitters actually try to bring toilets along – but most don’t. During the day though, along the trail, there are very few long drop toilets. If you have to go, then you just tell your group and sneak behind a rock. There is no shame, and no one cares. In fact, I actually think it’s pretty freeing. Just make sure that you leave no trace. And don’t think that you are going to be one of these people who just ‘hold it’. They make you drink 3 liters of liquids on the trail to stay hydrated in altitude. I had to pee at least 8 times a day – honestly my body thought I was trying to drown it.
You’ll Lose Your Appetite
I love to eat, especially when I exert myself and feel like I need food for energy. However, at some point in the trek, you’ll likely lose your appetite. Nothing will look good to you. It happened to each of us and it’s a common result of high altitude. It’s actually a cruel result of high altitude since you need food for energy to get up the mountain, but the further up you go the food is not appetizing at all – or in my case, makes you vomit.
Even Though You Are Exhausted, You Won’t Sleep
By day 4 I was continuously tossing and turning in my sleeping bag. I was sleeping, but it wasn’t good sleep at all. And even though I was exhausted from exerting myself all day in little oxygen, I still didn’t fall asleep out of exhaustion. It was really frustrating, but it’s something that is typical in altitude.
Your Life is in Your Guide’s Hands
The summit stands at 19,340 feet – in extreme altitude. At over 10,000 feet, more than 75% of climbers will experience at least some form of mild Acute Mountain Sickness, and at that point, your life is in your guide’s hands. If you really do get sick, you won’t be able to make decisions for yourself, trust me I know. I would have stayed on that mountain if it was up to me, and I probably would have come down on a stretcher. It’s a good thing I listened to Douglas our guide. On Day 3 I lost my desire to do anything but follow Douglas up the hill, eat, and sleep. Headaches and nausea would come and go within a few minutes like a wave, and I relied on Douglas’s instructions to keep me going.
You Might Fail, But it Doesn’t Mean You are a Failure
You can do everything right, but still, everything can go wrong. Which is kind of like life isn’t it? I never thought failure was an option, but it was a good lesson for the rest of my decade of travels. Things don’t always work out the way you planned, and you have to learn how to cope with that.
You Have An Important Choice to Make
Based on all of this you can see how important it is to pick a guiding company that knows the mountain and can ease you through all of these things so that they are minor speed bumps instead of big issues. World Expeditions operates an extensive range of adventures in Tanzania from climbs on Kili, to technical climbs designed for the serious mountaineer, to easy walks that can be enjoyed by anyone.
“the mountain isn’t going anywhere – you can try again.”
Douglas was right, the mountain is still there, and more people than ever are summiting it. In fact, at times it feels like it’s just a given that you’ll make it to the top. But I’m someone who didn’t. I spent all that time and effort, and learned the most important lesson of all…sometimes the best memories are the ones that don’t go as planned. It might not have had a happy ending, but it’s one of my best memories I have of my travels. It taught me so much, and even though I didn’t summit, it was still the climb of a lifetime. Maybe I will go back and face the devil I know again. At least this time, I know what to expect.
Want to Climb Kilimanjaro? Here’s How…
It’s important to pick a good outfitter, a company with lots of trekking experience. Here’s the World Expeditions Machame Route Details
World Expeditions also does all of the other routes too – check out all of their Tanzania trekking offerings here.
This article is brought to you by World Expeditions, but all opinions expressed here are my own based on my own Kilimanjaro experience.