8 Things to Know Before You Climb Mount Kilimanjaro

Published 04 January 2017

Tessa Watkins

Tessa Watkins

When I signed up to climb Africa’s highest mountain, I thought I pretty much knew what to expect. I’d done my research, I’d got all the gear, I’d trained (admittedly, not as much as I should have, but every little helps) – I was set. And while I naturally had a few butterflies on the day I flew to Tanzania, I remember feeling mostly excited about the adventure which lay ahead. But it turns out there were a few situations I was wholly unprepared for. Here are some of the things I wish I’d known before I embarked on the toughest challenge of my life:

Starting to climb Kilimanjaro

Starting to climb Kilimanjaro image: Tessa Watkins

Wear your boots in

It may seem obvious, but it is surprising how many people don’t do this. As a non-climber, I spent a great deal of time ahead of the trek finding the right boots after it was drummed into me that they really can make or break the trip. Purchasing them signalled the start of the hard work, and I dutifully laced my boots up most weekends to hike through the countryside. I can’t recommend this enough; comfort is key when you’re hiking for at least six hours a day. The mountain throws all sorts at you and blister-free feet is simply one less thing to worry about.

Day 2 - The rainforest, Kilimanjaro Climb

Day 2 - the rainforest image:Tessa Watkins

Don’t over pack

Anyone who knows me will tell you I find it almost impossible to travel light. I have been known to go away for the weekend and pack a bag larger than myself. I knew Kilimanjaro would be a challenge for me in this sense; I like to pack for every eventuality, and during the climb you experience both lush balmy rainforest and freezing snow. We were each limited to 15kg and when my bag was weighed, I hit this on the nose. However, I quickly learnt I really didn’t need so many clothes; it’s cold, you’re tired and you just don’t have the energy to root through your bag for a clean outfit. What’s more, you’re all in the same boat, and it’s pretty refreshing to embrace mountain life fully without worrying about what you look like.

Tents pitched above the clouds, Kilimanjaro

Tents pitched above the clouds image: Tessa Watkins

Don’t forget your wet wipes…

When my bumper pack of oversized wet wipes arrived through the post a few weeks before the trek, my housemate laughed and said I couldn’t possibly need that many. She was right, but they were also my most treasured item. When your only means of washing for the week is a small bowl of water provided tent-side most mornings, you’ll thank your lucky stars you packed those wet wipes. It’s amazing how much fresher I felt after a quick wet-wipe wash, and they come in handy when you find yourself using one of the not-so-luxurious mountain toilets too.

Shira Camp, Kilimanjaro

Shira Camp, Kilimanjaro image: Tessa Watkins

Or your waterproofs

Granted, we did tackle the mountain during rainy season, but I didn’t realise how important good waterproofs were until we were on the trek. The heavens actually opened when we set off on day one, so our gear was immediately put to the test. Luckily, I had invested in waterproof trousers and gaiters, and a friend had lent me her excellent rain jacket, so I was nice and dry. The same can’t be said for some other climbers we saw, and I’m afraid the rumours are true – nothing dries on Kilimanjaro. One lesson I did learn the hard way is the need for waterproof trousers which fit over your boots. Speaking from experience, you really don’t want to have to take your boots on and off in a downpour!

The porters singing on Kilimanjaro

The porters singing on Kilimanjaro image: Tessa Watkins

Porters are lifesavers

When we were told our group of 18 people would have 45 porters, we all stared at each other in shock. Surely that many wouldn’t be necessary? But we were soon to find out they were not just necessary; they were the difference between us reaching the summit or not. We embarked on our trek with G Adventures, and our team of G Fighters carried an endless list of items up the mountain for us, from tents and tables to cooking equipment and food. They were also invaluable on summit night. I shall never forget James, who carried my day pack, constantly offered me water and held my hand when I began to slip at Stella Point. Had it not been for him, I’m not sure I would have made it.

Headed towards the Barranco Wall, Kilimanjaro

Headed towards the Barranco Wall image: Tessa Watkins

Be aware of altitude sickness

I thought about altitude sickness constantly before the trip. I read everything I could about it, I packed ginger tea and Diamox medication; I even considered altitude training at a centre in London. As it turns out, I quickly learnt all that there really isn’t much you can do about altitude sickness when it strikes. I unfortunately felt sick from day two onwards – I struggled to eat, and by summit night, I was fuelled by only a bite or two of shortbread and half a jelly baby. Yet adrenaline somehow kicked in and the encouraging words of my fellow climbers kept me putting one foot in front of the other. Some of my team mates suffered from sickness and exhaustion on summit day, but the porters know the danger signs to look out for and they constantly kept a watchful eye on us. We all made it, but altitude sickness is serious and can be fatal – be aware of the symptoms and descend if you feel ill.

Tess at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro

Tess at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro image: Tessa Watkins

Nothing can prepare you for summit night

I knew the final push was going to be tough, and yet I still wasn’t prepared for all that summit night threw at me. We were woken at 11pm after two hours’ sleep and pulled on as many layers as we could, before beginning the slow trudge over snow-covered ground in pitch darkness. Six hours later, you are still walking and it takes everything in you to keep going. I began to question why I ever signed up to this, and then one of the porters reminded me to look up. The sight which greeted me is hard to describe. The sun rose as we reached the crater rim, and the brilliant orange glow was dazzling against the snow-flecked ground. I had never seen anything like it, and I felt a surge of adrenaline course through me. I ate half a jelly baby at this spot and somehow found the energy to trudge onto Uhuru Peak, which we reached at 10am. I slumped breathless onto a rock and gave into the tears which had been threatening to fall for the previous 11 hours. I’ll never forget the all-encompassing sense of relief at the summit, and yet a huge challenge still had to be tackled…

Tessa at sunrise, Kilimanjaro

Tessa at sunrise image: Tessa Watkins

You have to climb down too!

It sounds ridiculous, but I was so focused on getting to the top that I hadn’t given the descent a second thought. When we were told we faced a further three-hour trek back down to camp in a snow blizzard, my heart sank. I had used up everything in the tank to get to the summit, and I wasn’t sure I had anything left. All I wanted to do was lie down and I kept slipping over. Three tumbles later and my porter was by my side, carrying my walking poles for me and helping me over the slippery terrain. When I eventually reached my tent, he removed my boots, gave me a cup of tea and told me to rest. I’m not ashamed to say I then shed more tears; at the porter’s kindness, from sheer exhaustion, and at the overwhelming realisation that months of planning and training had finally paid off – I’d done it. 

Chat to your Expert for further information about climbing Kilimanjaro and to book a holiday to Tanzania.

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