Standing at 19,341 ft., Mt. Kilimanjaro is awesome to behold. It is one of the Seven Summits of the World and is the highest free standing mountain in the world. Over 35,000 people a year attempt to climb the “Rooftop of Africa“, because it is a dream, on their bucket-list, or because it is simply a life changing accomplishment. Despite the dream or desire, not everyone who attempts to climb “Kili” succeeds. Cathy “Wildcat” and I were very blessed to be able to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. We get asked a lot to share how we got ready for that expedition, so I thought I’d share our guide on how to prepare to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Do Your Home Work
It isn’t enough to just want to do it. We started preparing for Kili almost a year ahead of our planned trek. Kili is the easiest of the Seven Summits to climb, but just because it isn’t very technical doesn’t mean anyone can do it.
We read lots of articles about climbing Kili and talked to people who had reached the summit. Here is your cheat sheet for your homework. There are a number of different routes to the top. They range in time from 5 – 9 days to complete. The longer the route, the higher chance of reaching the summit. This is because you are giving your body a chance to acclimate to the high elevation. Routes that take 5 days have about 50-60% success rate, while 9 day treks have a 90% success rate. We ended up taking the Machame Route, which took us 7 days.
Walking is Not Hiking
When I first met Wildcat, she invited me on a hike. I thought no problem I had hiked before and how hard can it be? That hike was probably the most eye-opening reality check in my life. We climbed Mt. Pierce in New Hampshire, which is one of the 48 – 4000ft mountains of New Hampshire. I soon realized I actually had never been on a hike, and that what I thought was hiking was merely a walk in the woods. Climbing any mountain with elevation needs practice. Simply walking around your neighborhood parks is not hiking. To prepare for Kili, we found the most difficult trails near us. Fortunately, we have the White Mountains in New Hampshire, which are no joke and some are more technical than Mt. Kilimanjaro. Every other weekend we climbed one or more of the 48 – 4000ft. mountains in New Hampshire.
The hardest of the hikes would take between 8 – 10 hours to complete. On summit day for Kili, we started at midnight. We reached the summit at sunrise. We were back at our base camp by lunch. We then had to hike back down to a camp below 10,000 feet elevation to avoid the affects of Altitude Sickness. We finished the day at 8PM because we were helping a member of our party who was suffering from the altitude. That is an 18 hour day people…walking will not prepare you for Kili.
Training Tips – Hiking Alternative Training
- Avoid stair climbers or other climbing machines at gyms that use your upper body. They do not simulate hiking effectively and many people tend to develop a bad form or sore upper backs from its use. Me included.
- If you have to use a gym to train, keep your hands off the rails of the machine. Use variable hill training so your body doesn’t get used to a single motion.
- No mountains or gym membership? Find a building and do the stairs. One of our team ran the stairs in his office building for his hiking training. Although not ideal, it was a great way to do cardiovascular training and work the muscles used on the descent of a mountain. Not something you can do in a gym usually.
Keep It Pumping
Although we hiked every weekend we could for 8 months, we wanted to really boost our cardio. Wildcat is a big believer in trail running. At 6’5″ and over 240 lbs., I am not a runner. I had to be coaxed (a lot) to take up running. The benefit of trail running is that the terrain changes. Having hills, bends, or other obstacles in your way makes you work harder and never drift off into a runner fog. The best benefit of running for a hiker is to build endurance. You will be winded hiking. Either because of the effort or the lack of oxygen, you will have to work harder to get a good breath. Running or any high intensity cardio work will pay off when you face Kili.
Take Your Medicine
If you have done your research, then you should know that altitude sickness is a very real possibility and even the best of athletes can suffer from altitude sickness. There is no way of knowing for sure if you will suffer any effects until it is too late. Knowing this, many people take Acetazolamide (Diamox) on the hike (take it before you reach altitude!). It works well but does have some potential side effects. The most common are nausea, headache, and frequent urination. I can attest to the urination part. Wow. The good news is it only lasts a day or so. If you rather not take a prescription like Diamox, some people have found relief from the extreme headaches with Excedrin Migraine. Be sure to consult your doctor about what is right for you.
Secret Squirrel Solution
OK…for those of you too young to remember, there was a cartoon a long time ago called Secret Squirrel. This squirrel was a spy who always had a gadget on him to solve any problem. Well just call me Secret Squirrel because I know a gadget that may be the best thing to help you on Kili. That gadget is an O2 trainer. The biggest struggle you will face on Kili is altitude sickness. If you who can not train at altitude (like us), the low oxygen environment can cause some potentially serious issues. I used the Bas Rutten O2 Trainer, which looks like the mouth piece of a snorkel with filters you change to restrict the oxygen you take in.
As you adapt, you can decrease the oxygen flow. I used it for a month before we left. By the end of the month, I was able to actually exercise while using the O2 Trainer. Whether it was the training to work with less oxygen, or merely being more relaxed about not being able to take full breaths….I never suffered from altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro.
Tips On O2 Trainers
- O2 trainers come in many different versions. Most higher end sporting goods stores will have them to try before you buy.
- Although it is a preference, I would advise against O2 trainers that fit like a mask over the face. Most will become too hot or restricting if you are working out with them.
- Make sure you can remove your O2 trainer easily in case you become disoriented from the lack of oxygen
- Always start O2 training on the lowest settings. Like any muscle to be trained, you need to build your strength gradually.
- Whether using an O2 trainer or in a low oxygen environment. The key is to relax. Trust your body to adjust. As the Kili guides say, “pole, pole” -translated “slowly, slowly”
There you have it. The secret to our success on Kili was preparing, working hard, and taking the mountain seriously. Reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro was the most challenging thing for us mentally and physically, and it was life changing. Now we face all new challenges in life with a new perspective because of being able to push ourselves to the summit. Hopefully, with this advice and hard work, you too can reach the summit of Kilimanjaro and RoarLoud!
We give thanks to the porters and guides who helped us have summit success- read about them here
Read about our climb of Mount Kilimanjaro starting here
Is Kilimanjaro on your wish list? Save this for when you go!
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