March 24, 2016
I just got back from climbing one of the world’s tallest peaks, Tanzania’s Mt.Kilimanjaro with One Million Thumbprints. Fifteen women summited on International Women’s Day on behalf of women in war zones, specifically Syria, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It was a fantastic experience overall. I did quite a bit of reading before I went to get ready, physically and practically, for the climb. If there is one thing I’ve learned being married to a mountaineer is that you never go in underprepared – if anything, over prepare and be ready for multiple variables.
While many of the sites I discovered were extremely helpful, very few were written for women specifically. So here you go –
If you are a woman climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, here are some helpful tips you need to know.
- You need endurance and leg strength. Don’t believe the sites that tell you it’s just a long walk and training is optional. It’s not. Get on every mountain you can, and go for 2-4 hours at a time a couple of times a week. Practice interval training. Build your quad muscles. You will be climbing for multiple days in a row, and while the pace (pole pole – which means slowly, slowly) helps with fatigue, you still need to be well conditioned. Rainier Mountain Guides (RMI) has a training program designed for Mt. Rainier that will help you with Kilimanjaro also. Specifically, my husband recommended their Daily Dozen and I tried to do those exercises most days.
- Learn the rest step and compression breath. My husband drilled these into my head over and over. And turns out he was right. Both were essential on the climb for me and the other women also. Correct breathing can help prevent altitude sickness, and the rest step is critical in saving energy and not taxing the body. The weight goes onto the skeletal system rather than your muscles. KEY. Learn them – do them – both in training and on the mountain.
- For me, going down was probably the hardest part of the trip. One, it’s hard on the knees, so bring K-tape or a brace if you have one. Two, it’s really, really long. After the summit, we then hiked 10 more miles to the next camp, and then 13 miles out the next day. It’s LONG, and some of it is over rocky terrain. Mentally prepare yourself for the distance when you are tired from the summit. Thankfully I had my friend, Kim (in the pic below), and we talked the entire way down! The bottom third of final day’s hike is rain forest and beautiful (you may see monkeys).
- The altitude is no joke. By the time we got to Kibo Hut (base camp), I couldn’t believe how much harder it was to breathe. Take the guides’ advice and go s.l.o.w.l.y to let your body acclimatize so you don’t get altitude sickness. Every one us rented oxygen tanks through our outfitter, The African Walking Company (highly recommend them), and all but one used it. I have a heart arrhythmia and I had some problems with rapid heart beats at the summit. The oxygen ended up being key in helping bring my heart rate under control. But even for those who don’t have heart issues, it is helpful and may assist in preventing altitude sickness and brain swelling (and that scares us half to death, so why wouldn’t we do what we can to prevent that???) Rent the oxygen!
- Our group opted to rent the portable toilets and Lord, have mercy, are we glad we did! Many people ended up in those all night long, and I can’t imagine if they had been up all night going to the squatty potties (the African version of an outhouse – think a hole in the ground). Some things are just worth the money!
- Diamox is a medication that helps to prevent altitude sickness. I highly recommend you take it. It has a few side effects – such as tingling in the hands and feet, nausea, and sometimes drowsiness. On summit night you take 2 before you begin the trek (they don’t want you taking it at high altitude), and some in our group were struggling to stay awake climbing. That freaked me out a little, and I’m glad it didn’t happen to me. Test out your reactions beforehand. Either way, though, I’d rather be sleepy than get pulmonary edema from the altitude!
- Here are the medicines I brought: Lots of Ibuprofen (we passed this around like candy at mealtimes), Imodium, Cipro (if Imodium is not cutting it – it’s a prescription med so ask your Dr. for it), Tums (for some reason the altitude caused major heartburn for me), my heart med, and diamox. I also had After-Bite in there, and our team brought a first aid kit. DO NOT take sleeping aids on the mountain – you may not wake up!!!! Some say melatonin is OK, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
- As far as gear goes, focus on your boots and your pack. The ones made for women really do fit better. I loved mine and they made all the difference. Sierra Trading Post is a great place for outdoor gear at a fraction of the price, but you have to be diligent about watching to see what they get in. We found a perfect Deiter pack that had the air comfort carrying system with the mesh back panel for support and circulation. This is a key feature not to overlook – it’s so comfortable and breathes well.
Boots you need to try on and walk around in before you purchase. For this I went to REI and found the perfect pair, La Sportiva’s FC 4.0 GTX Hiking Boots. They were exactly what I was looking for – durable, leather, breathable, lightweight, and comfortable… and I never got one blister – amazing!
- We rented sleeping bags, sleeping bag liners, walking poles, and expedition weight down jackets. Everything was fine except the sleeping bag liner. Theirs really didn’t work out and I wish I had brought my own.
- I also wish I had brought a camping pillow and I didn’t. Go get one – you will sleep so much better than I did!
- Packing cubes are key. You are packing and unpacking every single day as you move from one camp to another. Label the packing cubes and this will make finding the gear you need so much easier. I used one for socks/underwear, one for medication, one for under layers, one for leggings/pants, etc.
- The North Face Large Camp Duffel is a great size and durable purchase for the trip if you don’t have a bag. The Helly Hansen bag is great also, but not as big. The porters will wrap your bag in a large rain-proof tarp and carry it on their heads. So you don’t need to worry about having the right straps as much as a manageable size for them to carry.
…And they do weigh the bags. Almost all of us were over weight and had to remove some items (AHEM…..), so be precise about weighing your bag before you leave home according to the parameters set by your guide service. You will be so grateful for your porter who carries your bag – -they are strong and amazing.
- Toiletries: I brought dry shampoo (critical), toothbrush/toothpaste, a brush, hair ties, a small mirror, Burt’s Bees lip color, sunscreen, biodegradable toilet paper, nail clippers (cut your toenails before summit day), and a microfiber towel (for the daily washy washy – a tub of water they bring to you in your tent – see pic below). Some people brought mascara, but I didn’t wear makeup.
- Bring panty liners and hand wipes. You are out there for 6-10 days depending on your route. With no shower. Going to the bathroom more than normal if you are taking Diamox. I used all kinds of wipes: clorox wipes, face wipes, and vaginal wipes, and I was so glad to have all of them. The panty liners keep “the area” as clean as possible with all that is going on – sweating, peeing, etc. Sorry but there is no way around these topics on the mountain.
- I never burn, but Kili sun is intense and even my hands burned. Re-apply sunscreen often and especially watch your ears, your hair part, and your lips. Consider buying Natural Ice’s Lip Protectant (the only time in your life you’ll spend $12 on chapstick). Speaking of lips… many of us had problems with major lip swelling on summit day. It looked like we all summited then got botox. Not kidding. So weird. So our lips were flaking off and burnt and as big as Angelina Jolie’s. They do go back to normal eventually, but it lasted a couple of days. Don’t panic when it happens to you.
- My sons made me Spotify playlists for summit day and that got me up the mountain. You are climbing in the dark for hours and music will make it a much more pleasant experience, and help the time to pass. The music inspired, motivated, and pushed me when I needed it. Put the time in to make playlists (or have someone make them for you), and plan for battery with your device. Bring an extra battery pack for summit day, or save your phone battery. Remember – cold weather drains batteries, so keep whatever you want to stay charged warm (headlamp, phone, extra battery, etc.)
*If you are a Spotify paid subscriber, you can download your playlists and listen to them offline.
- As far as snacks go, the ones I found most helpful were: Protein bars (one for each day), almonds, a little chocolate, beef jerky, and peppermint gum.
- I LOVED my Hydroflask water bottles on the mountain. On summit day they fill your water bottles with warm water so they don’t freeze. My water was still hot when I got to the summit – they really work! I read so much about camel backs freezing on summit day that I decided to not use it (plus I think they harbor bacteria) and go with straight water bottles. I’m glad I did. Plus then you know how much water you are consuming (which is key – esp. on summit day).
- I use essential oils and found peppermint, ginger, and thieves to be the most helpful. Be careful using any citrus on the mountain or other “hot” oils as you can burn your skin in the altitude and sun.
- The first 3 days were warmer than I expected during the day. Make sure you have shorts or pants that zip off into shorts in case the weather is warm. It is chilly chilly chilly at night, though, so plan for that!
- The time spent each evening in the dining tent was one of the best parts of the trip. Such great bonding time together! And they served popcorn and tea before dinner each day – and who doesn’t love that? You won’t believe what the cooks can produce in a camp kitchen – incredible.
- You live in hats on the mountain – both for warmth and because your hair is a mess. I preferred my Peace Within trucker hat for the daytime, and a warm, Northface knit hat for the higher elevations and at night. And as a side note, bright colors look great in the pictures with the somewhat brownish high-altitude Kili background, so remember that as you get your gear (PHOTO TIP ALERT)!
- I didn’t realize this until the night before during the summit briefing in the tent, but there are officially 3 summits. The first summit is “Gilman’s Point.” If you make it to this point you get an official summit certificate. The other two summits go around the rim and up a few hundred more feet. The second is “Stella Point” and the third is “Uhuru” which is the very top. Some of our group turned around, satisfied with Gilman’s, and some went on to Uhuru.
- You will fall in love with your guides and porters and want to give them some of your gear when you are done (at least I did). Keep that in mind. I gave away my husband’s gators to my porter who hopes to become a guide, and some of my under layers, hats, and gloves. They just don’t have access to the same kind of quality gear that we do in the States and it was such a joy to get to share with these people who work so hard and are such beautiful souls!
For me the best part of the trip was not the summit, but the talks on the trail, the training, the education that took place about why we were climbing in the first place, and the special memories made along the way.
ENJOY THE JOURNEY & have an amazing climb!