The first bit of relevant advice that any veteran can offer a beginner in any major endeavor is to believe that it can be done. The second is know that it will end. Everything does eventually. You will either die or reach the summit, and when one foot is being placed before the other, when lungs are screaming, heads are spinning and extremities freezing off, this last snippet might have more resonance than you would imagine.
Planning Your Climb
Take advice from anywhere and everywhere, but in such a commercially competitive environment as Kilimanjaro, make sure the advice is relevant, genuine and unbiased. Tanzanian climb operators have a terrible reputation for agreeing with everything and stating that all things are possible in order to get your deposit, after which the whole enterprise is in the lap of the Gods. Outside climb outfitters, although they usually use local operators themselves, always have experts on hand who have done the climb more than once (you will be surprised how many Tanzanian climb and adventure entrepreneurs have never climbed higher than 2000m) and who will give you good, solid and reliable advice
Don’t fixate on kit. Obviously it is important, but it is not what is going to get you to the summit. Remember that Kilimanjaro is in the tropics so conditions for most of the climb are fairly benign. Any good Kilimanjaro climbing guide will state that high altitude, alpine level mountaineering gear is unnecessary. High altitude trekking gear is the best weight and standard to use.
Remember also that porters carry the bulk of you kit, and besides that all the expedition equipment is supplied. For day to day use a 35 liter pack is ideal, and if it has a camel bladder then all the better. In this pack carry what you might need for that day. This includes a couple of liters of water, your trail snacks (these are not provided), a small personnel medical kit and your basic survival gear.
The overriding kit issue is how to deal with cold weather at the high altitude camps and on the summit day. Your sleeping bag should rate for a few degree below freezing, but no more than that otherwise you will bake at the lower altitudes. Remember that the midnight summit push is often bitterly cold so an insulated water bottle is vital, as is a system of jackets, leggings and boots that can cope with this. It only lasts a few hours usually, and for those few hours chemical hand and body warmers packed in your inner layer can compensate for bulk. As soon as you hit the summit and the sun rises you will start to shed layers, and of course on the way down to lower altitude you will bust a deep sweat as the day progresses until you can get back down to camp and change into lighter gear.
Mount Kilimanjaro is not a particularly technical mountain. Even the famed Western Breach is technically quite manageable. What will get you, if anything will, will be the altitude. In the opinion of the author it does not matter who you are, and what experience you can claim, reaching 19300ft of altitude is a challenge.
The best advice is diamox. This is a prescription drug that has been proven time and again to take the edge, and sometimes more, off the worst of altitude. It functions as a diuretic so you will be up peeing more often than you might, but at least then you get to see the sweeping southern hemisphere starscape at midnight. Speak to your travel doctor about diamox.
Most importantly it is necessary to have a good lead guide. It is in matters of health and safety that the money your spend for a Kilimanjaro climb will be either wasted or well spent. A good guide will know what to look for, will know how to react and will know what steps to take.
Listen to your guide. If you have a crappy guide then you should not have chosen the cheapest package. If this is you then I am not talking to you. Your guide does, or should know what he is talking about, and if anything is going to get you up those last few horrible steps to the summit it will be the intrinsic quality of your guide.
This is the Kilimanjaro mantra. Pole-pole. It means, slowly, slowly. At high altitude one slow step in front of the other is great advice. Take it easy. Give your body time. They say an old man is more likely to make the summit than a young man. This conforms to an old African maxim. Two bulls were standing on a hillside looking at a meadow full of delightful cows. ‘Lets run down there are do a few of them…’ says the younger bull. ‘No,’ says the older, ‘lets walk down there and do them all…!’
Surprisingly this is not the main issue that separates successful from unsuccessful summiteers. It is altitude adjustment that does this. However a certain basic level of fitness is required. If you are a 500 lbs chain smoking alcoholic then maybe another vacation option might suit you. If, however, you are in reasonably good shape then you have as much chance as a triathlete of making the summit.
Altitude training is good. Spend as much time at altitude before you fly to East Africa. This does not have to be crazy altitude, but every little bit helps.
Choosing Your Climb outfitter
My last bit of advice is the same advice I give to anyone thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro. Don’t go for the cheapest option. You get what you pay for. Crappy guides, crappy food and crappy standards are all you will end up with. Budget outfitters are notorious for cutting corners and delivering disappointing expeditions. Just as one example….certain outfitters will sell you an 8-day package but try and get you to succumb to altitude a few days before the summit in order to have you evacuated as a retching, vomiting, sweating wreck in order to save on National Parks fees and other expenses for the two or three days you paid for but did not utilize.
If you need any more advice, or would like to know a little more about the many scams out there at the bottom feeding level, get in touch. I have seen them all, been burned by a few, and know all the ins and outs.