Tanzania Part 2: Adjusting To Life On A Mountain

For November’s travel post, climbing Kili — the most intense and amazing experience I’ve ever had — was the obvious choice.

The first few days of the trek on the Machame (aka Whiskey) Route were almost no different than normal camping.  [N.B. It’s called the Whiskey Route because it’s a little more difficult than the Marangu (Coca Cola) Route, but has a higher success rate because of additional time for acclimatization and possibly more adventurous/fit trekkers.]  All that was missing was the cooler full of beverages.  Otherwise, it was back to basics.  Communing with nature and enjoying the scenery.

In some respects, it’s actually easier than your average camping experience.  But that’s only because the trekking agencies (mine was Climbing Kilimanjaro) take care of virtually everything for you.  For the 4 of us (I joined 1 Aussie and 2 Irishmen living in Australia), a team of 17 people tended to our every need, guiding us up the mountain and hauling our food and equipment.  These incredible guys with the barest of gear carry 30-40 kilos per person up and then down the mountain.  They prepare and serve 3 meals a day and set up and break down the tents.  In sum, they are super-human, and there is NO way that any of us could have had a successful climb without them.

The walk begins with the impatiens and sage plants (denoted by a skunky smell) of the rainforest (where we managed to avoid any rain), until you are caught in the haze of the cloud forest and eventually emerge into the moorland and heath.  After a warming cup of fresh ginger tea each morning followed by a hearty breakfast of porridge, eggs, crepes, toast and hot dogs (I have no idea why certain cultures think this is a breakfast food), the scenery over the next few days becomes more desertlike, eventually turning into weathered rocks that look like the apocalypse has come.  From volcanic rock to glaciers, you will cover every terrain imaginable.  My brief descriptions cannot do it justice, but there are plenty of photos and guidebooks for further details.

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Had it not been for the lack of rain, this description would be sounding much different.  But we were extremely lucky, and the challenges did not begin with figuring out how to dry wet clothes in the dark on Day 1 like it did for some others.  Instead, the biggest issues of our acclimatization concerned where to go to the bathroom (some campsite toilets were beyond foul and the trail may present other challenges) and dealing with lots of gas (not the petrol kind).

But those minor annoyances will inevitably resolve themselves (nature takes its course with a little help from some delicious African curry and you learn to position yourself upwind or get revenge).  And assuming you’re in decent shape, you can have a great time.  For someone who has not camped for more than one night since college and is used to showering at least once a day, I actually had FUN!  That was probably the one part of this trip I did not expect.  Being able to distance myself from the outside world (dead blackberry, limited battery power on iPhone) was bliss.

In fact, your chief concerns become the force-feeding of carbs for energy and how to amuse yourself on the daily hike to maintain a constant pace of “pole-pole” (slowly) – both essential for acclimatization and not being exhausted.  Music makes me go faster so that didn’t work until downhill.  Instead, I might have annoyed distracted the guys with lots of talking (you can really get to know people in 5 days) and suggested badly singing random songs to help get through some of the slightly more challenging uphill parts or seemingly endless walks.

That’s not to suggest it was an entirely easy climb.  Before I left, a few people joked about me not falling off the mountain to which I responded that it was not possible to do that.  I was wrong.

There’s one spot on the route where you do need to climb on all fours over the breach wall and are told to “hug the mountain.”  That was actually the most fun for me because I enjoy climbing around rocks like that, but it’s scary for some, and yes, you could potentially misstep and fall quite a ways down.  But it lasts about 10 minutes and is NOT a reason to forego the climb.

For most people, if you’re reasonably fit, you can handle the daily walks of between 6-11 km.  But if you have knee problems, can’t deal with humidity or get vertigo (didn’t know that about myself), you will have a challenge or two along the way.  Definitely use the trekking poles when you need them.  And bring a headlamp for camp and summit night.  All of it is manageable if you go pole-pole and listen to your guides.

As I expected, the toughest part for me was the summit night.  It wasn’t too cold or windy, and I ended up being overdressed and got overheated with a touch of dizziness and disorientation.  Starting the climb at midnight and finishing around 6-7am is tough on your body.  Especially after 5 days of hiking.  But just when you feel like you can’t push on anymore, you’re about to make it to Stella Point (the almost top) where you can rest and walk around at a place that feels like the flat ground.  And it was much easier after I gave my daypack to my guide– they will offer to carry it and you should take them up on it.  You may have almost nothing in it, but you’re so exhausted that any extra weight is too much, especially with the lower air pressure.  Then you have no reason not to walk the little extra distance up to Uhuru Peak unless you’re suffering from mountain sickness.  Just go slowly, and you can make it to take some photos and get ready for the walk down, which was fast and may result in a few blue toenails no matter how many socks you’re wearing.

But then you’re done and in celebration mode and feel invincible to the point that you don’t notice your utter exhaustion or what else has been going on in the world.  You conquered a mountain!  Everything else seems trivial.  Until you get back to civilization, which consists of 500 plus emails, a superstorm wreaking havoc on the Northeast US and a stiff neck from the last night’s sleep on the mountain.  At which point, you give serious consideration to climbing Mount Meru across the way and removing yourself from the real world again.

But instead, if you don’t have to go right home (and you really should take extra time if you can), head south to Zanzibar for some calorie packed frozen adult beverages on a beach or north to the Serengeti for a lazy safari.  Soak in the R&R your body needs.  I had thought I’d be bored taking 5 days in Zanzibar but wished I had another week away, as I am still recovering.

Top 10 Tips for A Successful Climb

1. Easily accessible water supply.  I bought a CamelBak daypack, which was the perfect size and held 2 liters of water.  I even wore it under my coat on summit night so it wouldn’t freeze (duct tape would’ve been better if I had thought of it sooner).  For me, having to stop to drink water changed my body temperature, ruined my momentum and would’ve made me drink less and become dehydrated.  Instead, it was easy to walk and drink.  You should have a total of about 3-4 liters, especially if you need to purify some over time (see below).

2.  Wipes, toilet paper and antibacterial gel.  All manner of wipes: antibacterial, fresh, and face.  And when you see a lot of TP near bushes, make sure you don’t step in anything.  You should also try to dispose of your TP and not leave it on the mountain, but I realize this isn’t easy.Except for my hair, I was basically clean the whole time and felt fine (and my skin looked good too).  And the wipes also came in handy in the few toilets that were newer and somewhat clean.  Only my hair was gross at the end. I should have brought extra hair ties, but it was so full of dust and sweat that it stayed up on its own.

3.   Comfy shoes and socks.  Make sure you have good shoes that are broken in and/or comfortable.  I bought some Scarpa ones that were supersoft and needed almost no time to break in, and I had no blisters.  I also doubled up on socks, with a thin white sock and thicker sock over it every day.  But no matter what you do on summit night, you’re feet will still be cold.  Just deal with it.

4.  Plastic bags.  I packed everything in them.  It kept my things easily organized, which is key in a giant duffel bag.  And it is a great place to put your dirty clothes, especially if you have to travel for another week or so after and aren’t planning on doing laundry until you get home.

5.  Diamox and water purification tablets.  Our guide recommended a double dose of Diamox- 1 in the morning and 1 at dinner.  None of us had any problems with oxygen levels.  And you will need to purify your water, which your porters will collect for you, starting on Day 2.  Maybe we would’ve been fine without either, but better safe than sorry.

6.  Snacks.  Bring things that you like and won’t get sick of after eating for 5 days.  There’s tons of good food served, but you may want to have something sweet or some nuts to much on.  Lollipops that are long-lasting are great for the walks too (they sell some excellent mango ones in Arusha/Moshi).  Make sure you taste what you are bringing first to know if it’s good.  And bring extra for your guides/porters.

7.  Pack just about everything on the list from your trekking agency.  You may not use it all, but you can’t possibly know that until you finish the climb.  Better to be safe than sorry.  The only thing I did not bring was gaiters, which I didn’t need with my boots or pants.  I didn’t end up using my rain jacket of all things or the moleskin for blisters.  But I’d never tell anyone not to bring those items.  My daypack was great because it was small and held exactly what I needed.  You don’t need a giant one for any reason.  And definitely get a sleeping bag that is good for 0 degree weather.  Being cozy in your tent and having a good night’s sleep is crucial.

8.  Don’t litter.  Except for the TP issue, you should leave with everything that you came with.  Keep the mountain clean.  And I’m pleased to report that except for some candy wrappers here and there, litter was minimal.  On the climb down, there was even less, as our guides picked up any trash they found and deposited it at the registration sites along the way down.

9.  Be kind to your porters and guides.  This should go without saying, but I will say it anyway.  They work very hard for very little (about $10-20/day if that and are taxed a ton).  They are not your servants.  They are people doing what they need to support their families or go to college.  Engage them in conversation if possible (language may be an issue).  One of our group played cards with them, learned some more Swahili and we ended up taking the crew out for drinks at the end.  And don’t forget to be generous with tips.  Our guide announced the total amount to the crew so they knew how much was there, and there were no issues about the head guide taking all the money.  Consider donating to one of the porters associations to help them obtain the gear they need.  Some of the porters we saw had shoes with holes in them and barely any winter weather gear.  I cannot be any more clear about how critical these guys are to your success and how they should be treated with the respect they deserve.  Thanks again to our guides Harold and Allen and all the crew!

10.  Laugh.  Inevitably some things will go wrong.  If you can laugh (particularly at yourself), it will make everything OK.  So when everyone is farting or you step in human poo like I did, you can joke about it.  Don’t freak yourself out about anything.  Just stay in the moment and try to have fun.  Having a good spirit and positive mindset is the best way to ensure you’ll have a successful summit.

Next and Final Tanzania Post:  Exotic Zanzibar

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