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Climbing Kilimanjaro: 5 decisions to make

Posted: Friday, January 17, 2014

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is a dream for many women. It's non-technical, meaning you don't need mountaineering skills or even to be an athlete. It is also truly a physical and mental challenge. If you are finding yourself thinking about it, here are some of the decisions you need to make.

1. Are you healthy enough to climb Kilimanjaro?

It is our heartfelt belief that anyone who is healthy can get in the condition required to successfully complete the climb. It requires determination and commitment to training, and acquiring hiking experience if you don't already have it. But what do I mean by healthy? There are several common conditions that should make you think twice:

  • Bad knees The descent is challenging for everyone, even those with healthy knees. If you have significant knee pain, it is unlikely you could train sufficiently. Even if you could, your knees will be incredibly painful when you descend. That being said, many people with some knee pain find that a regular program of strengthening the muscles around their knees (e.g. lunges and squats) will significantly decrease their knee pain. This was true for me.
  • Chronic lung disease Air has progressively less oxygen as you get higher on Kili. If you have lung damage that impairs oxygen exchange, trying to get enough oxygen into your bloodstream can leave you literally gasping for breath, even when you are hiking quite slowly. If you have never been diagnosed with lung disease but have a history of heavy smoking, having a pulmonary evaluation would be a good idea.
  • Heart disease This is not automatically a disqualifier because there are several kinds of heart disease. If you have had stents for Coronary Artery Disease and can exercise vigorously at high heart rate, you may be fine - check with your doctor. But if you have angina, even if it is controlled with medication, then climbing Kilimanjaro is probably not a realistic goal. The combination of the physical stress of climbing with the thin air means that your heart has to work extra hard to keep up with the demands.

2. What company should you go with?

Tanzanian law requires you to have a Tanzanian guide and at least one porter to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. You can either go through a local Tanzanian company or an overseas company (like us) who works with a local Tanzanian company.

Booking directly with a local operator will cost less. If you want to climb Kilimanjaro alone or have your own group to do it with, and feel confident in your travel planning skills and your ability to pick out a good local operator, this can be a great way to go. If you prefer having all the details arranged for you, having access to people who can give you advice as you prepare, having a Western leader who works with the local leader to make the trip go smoothly and provides extra medical backup, and you like the idea of being part of a group of people with the same goals, then it may be worth the extra cost of going with an overseas company.

Regardless of which direction you take, you should think twice about focussing only on the price. Trips are cheap because porters are inadequately paid and inadequately clothed. We highly recommend that you start with looking at the Kilimanjaro Porter's Assistance Project to familiarize yourself with the issues. Unfortunately they have had to suspend their Climbing Partners program because they are now denied access to the Mountain (due to the government bowing to pressure from local operators who did not meet their standards). However, you can educate yourself about the questions you should be asking any company you want to go with.

3. When is the best time to climb Kilimanjaro?

Kilimanjaro is close to the equator, so you can climb it year round.  January, February, and September are considered to be the best months in terms of weather (warmest with the lowest precipitation). The tradeoff is that they also tend to be the busiest and therefore more expensive. The longer rainy season goes from the end of March to early June; you will likely deal with more clouds and lower visibility, plus wetter and muddier trail conditions - but there will be fewer people on the mountain. The summer months (June, July, and August) are drier but colder. There is a shorter rainy season that lasts from November through the beginning of December, where skies are clear in mornings and evenings and afternoon rains are common. So it's all tradeoffs and what is most important to you.

We always plan our trip in February because it offers better weather and coincides with the time that many animals are giving birth - which is an amazing sight during the safari. The specific timing depends on the full moon - we always plan for the final ascent to take place on the night of the full moon because when the weather is clear, the moon is so bright that headlamps are unnecessary - truly a magical experience.

4. What is the best route for climbing Kilimanjaro?

You can read about the 6 different routes on Kilimanjaro on Wikipedia. Again, there are tradeoffs. We have chosen the Machame route for the last several trips because 1) it is very scenic, going through five different eco-zones; 2) it allows adequate time for acclimatization (we break up the route from Barranco to Barafu with an overnight at Karanga to allow one more day for acclimatization); and 3) the drive to Machame Gate is only a couple of hours. The main drawback is that it is a popular route so there are more people on it.

One option some choose is to sleep in the crater at the top (called Crater Camp), which means that they only have 800 feet to climb to the summit at sunrise. We don't offer it because it is colder than most people have ever experienced (it's not only the air temperature but the fact that you feel cold more when you are oxygen-deprived) and sleeping at 18,000 feet significantly increases your risk of altitude sickness. However, one of the advantages is that your summit day is shorter - 800 feet up, then 8,000 down. I know several people who have done it that say it was an amazing experience. Our summit day is 4,000 feet up and 8,000 feet down and it is a very, very long day. However, climbing the 4000 feet up in the dark by the full moon will remain one of my most treasured memories - I wouldn't trade it. But you might!!

5. Can you guarantee success on Kilimanjaro?

Absolutely yes!

But not if your measure of success means getting to the top. While we all talk about "it's the journey, not the destination", that attitude often seems to fall by the wayside when climbing Kilimanjaro and only reaching the top is deemed success.

No, we can't guarantee you will reach the top. That will depend on your conditioning and your luck. Your conditioning is about the only thing you can control - but fortunately, it is under your control. But luck? Not so much. When I say luck, I mean

  • weather - one year there was an unsual amount of snow and no one made the summit, on our trip or any other trip going on at the same time
  • acclimatization - whether or not you are affected by altitude is largely a matter of genetics (although Diamox can help). Some people will have been fine at altitude their whole life and suddenly become sensitive to it.
  • your health during the trip - if you get a cold, bronchitis, or diarrhea, you may feel too weak for the final summit attempt.
On the other hand, if your definition of success is to get as prepared as you can, give it your best shot, and then be open to whatever experience you have (and it will be amazing!!), then absolutely, we can guarantee your trip will be successful.
 
 
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