Today we’re sharing a guest post from Mark Whitman, a high altitude trekking guide and the author of Mount Kilimanjaro: Trekkers Guide to the Summit. In the article Mark explains the 3 things not to do when trekking Kilimanjaro. Feel free to ask him any questions in the comments section below, he’s happy to share his expertise with you.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro: Three common mistakes
Trekking Kilimanjaro is on many people’s bucket list, not only because it is the highest peak in Africa and one of the Seven Summits, but because it is an immensely challenging mountain pursuit.
Here are the three most common mistakes that I see undermine many trekkers’ dream to stand on top of the Roof of Africa.
1. Choosing the wrong route itinerary to the summit
As far as commercial high altitude trekking goes, Mount Kilimanjaro has one of the most rapid route profiles in the world. The average trekker goes from 1,800 meters (~6,000 feet) to the summit at 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) in less than 6 days.
To put this in perspective, other very popular commercial treks, like those to Everest Base Camp, take upwards of 10 days and only go as high as 5,600 meters (just over 18,000 feet).
Rapid ascent to high altitude is risky, as one’s body needs time to acclimatize to lower levels of oxygen per breath. Without adequate acclimatization the probability of a trekker experiencing acute mountain sickness (AMS) and its more severe variants, high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema, are high and potentially fatal. Susceptibility to AMS is still not well understood, but is heavily dependent on the rate of ascent.
This all sounds like doom and gloom, but I mention it here as many trekkers on Kilimanjaro continue to book themselves on short and poorly profiled routes only to fall victim to AMS and have their summit dreams thwarted.
For a successful bid at the summit it is important to choose a route that provides enough time on the mountain before the summit push, and ideally incorporates a best practice high altitude trekking principle called, climb high, sleep low.
There are six main routes on Kilimanjaro, and three summit assault passages. One of the more popular routes and the only one with sleeping huts throughout is the Marangu.
Unfortunately this route is often offered on a 5-day itinerary (4 up, 1 down), which is just too rapid for most trekkers. Ideal route candidates for a Kilimanjaro trek are the Machame and Lemosho, which are offered on 6 and 7-day, and 7 and 8-day itineraries respectively. Both routes incorporate a good climb high, sleep low acclimatization day and hence have high summit success rates.
The 7-day Rongai route, the only trail that starts from the north of the mountain, is also a well-profiled and quieter trail than the southern routes.
Finally, when on the trail make sure to remain well hydrated and not over-exert yourself. A slow and steady pace is key, or as the porters will constantly repeat in Swahili, Pole, Pole (Slow, Slow).
2. Using the cheapest operator
The second common mistake made by trekkers is using a cheap operator.
Trekking Kilimanjaro is not a cheap exercise. All told, a trek can cost as much as $2,500 depending on your route. Over the past two decades, as the popularity of trekking Kilimanjaro has grown exponentially, so has the number of operators. Many have great track records and are well run, but as the market is largely unregulated, there are still a number of sharks.
For locals living in the towns that surround Kilimanjaro, work is often limited, and the opportunity to become a mountain porter is seen as a good proposition to make money.
As there is no shortage of locals willing to lug 20kg of trekking gear up the mountain, exploitation has and continues to be a big issue. Some porters get paid as little as $2 or $3 a day.
Let that detonate in your mind for a minute. For the price of a cheap beer these guys are doing backbreaking work, at high and dangerous altitudes, and ultimately putting their lives at risk.
The cheaper operators typically employ guides that have questionable experience at dealing with potential issues that can happen at high altitude.
Essentially, if a tour price sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Someone is likely being exploited, usually porters, and the support team is likely composed of individuals lacking the experience and knowledge required for a truly safe summit.
Take the time to investigate whether your operator is a responsible employer.
As a final note, tipping on Kilimanjaro is standard. Expect to set aside at least 10% of the total amount you paid for the tour as tips.
3. Give up too early or get ‘summit fever’
The main reason most people trek Kilimanjaro, is to stand on the summit.
If you have followed the two points above and taken enough time to reach summit base camp, and have a solid support team, then the final push really comes down to your mental stamina.
Much like a marathon, the summit push often requires that one dig deep for the physical reserves to continue plodding higher and higher. The mind is usually the first to give up, undoubtedly a survival mechanism to protect your body, but you will be surprised how far you can push your body before it really gives in.
Some people have a relatively easy summit experience, but others find the going tough.
For the latter group, the trick is to continue moving forward without stopping. Continue putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how slow your progress. Some people find it useful to repeat short mantras to help them find the strength to continue.
There is a short respite at the sub-summits of Stella Point or Gilman’s Point, where many people, thinking they have reached the summit, give up. Be prepared for these points and don’t give up. It is important you have some spare reserves to push another hour or two around the summit ridge to Uhuru Peak.
Of course, the line between pushing forward for the summit despite suffering severe AMS symptoms should never be crossed. The signs that one should turn back are usually clear. Debilitating headaches, vomiting, hallucinations, extreme shortness of breath and loss of coordination are all clear signals to turn around immediately, and should never be ignored.
No summit is worth your life so don’t succumb to ‘summit fever’ when every critical sign is telling you to descend.
This final point is a little gloomy again (sorry!), but worth driving home. Trekking Kilimanjaro is a wonderful experience. With the right preparation the summit is within reach of most people. Even Canadian couple Martin and Esther Kafer reached the summit in 2012, at the ripe old age of 85 and 84.
Stick to the tips above and you will not only have a successful summit, but a safe, enjoyable and life-enhancing experience.
Author bio: Mark Whitman runs the Climb Kilimanjaro Guide and works in partnership with high altitude trekking specialists Private Expeditions, who run ethical and tailored made tours to trek Kilimanjaro.
Photo credit – some photos in this post were licensed under Creative Commons. Click on the image to source the photographer.