It’s been estimated that only 60–65% of people successfully reach the summit at Uhuru Peak from any of the seven major routes to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but this rate increases the more days that a climber adds to his/her trek, with success rates reaching around 85% for 8-day routes. After successfully summiting along with my four other trekking mates on the 7-day Lemosho trek, I’d like to give you seven tips for ensuring that you also have the very best chance of reaching the summit on your Trekking Hero adventure and can avoid the effects of altitude sickness:
1. Stick to the longer Machame or Lemosho routes on the Western side of Kilimanjaro if possible. For your best chance to reach the summit with minimal ill effects, time spent on the mountain is the best help for successfully acclimatizing to the higher altitudes and ultimately making it to the summit. By providing time in the schedule to “climb high” and then descend again to “sleep low” on these routes, the body can more easily adjust to the higher altitude. The weather conditions on the Machame and Lemosho routes also tend to be more favorable, especially in the dryer months of January/February and August/September.
2. Take your Diamox. Although altitude sickness can seemingly strike anyone at anytime, Diamox (acetazolamide), a carbonic anhydrase inhibitor used to treat glaucoma and seizures in addition to preventing or lessening the effects of altitude sickness, should be taken during the trek unless you prove to suffer significantly from the side effects, which include light-headedness, dizziness, fatigue, and the feeling of pins and needles in your hands and feet (please check with your doctor pre-trek to ensure this medicine will be safe given your current situation). Our Lemosho team started taking Diamox on the first night in camp above 2650 meters and took 125 milligrams after breakfast and dinner each day until after reaching the summit, though this dosage can be doubled depending on the person (again, check with your doctor). Almost everyone will suffer some effects of altitude by the summit itself, but these effects will hopefully be minor and will subside as soon as you begin your rapid descent after reaching Uhuru Peak. It should be said emphasized here, however, that if you feel the signs of altitude sickness early on during the trek and the symptoms do not improve, the only solution is to get down as soon as possible. Altitude sickness can be fatal and symptoms should never be ignored or concealed from your guides.
3. Train train train before Tanzania, at higher altitudes if possible. It has been said that the most successful summit comes from how you train beforehand and how helpful your guide is on the way to the summit. The best kind of training for the summit is 3-4 hr walks with your backpack on going uphill for two hours straight and doing the same for downhill on as uneven terrain as possible (forest trails would be best). If possible, it would be great to practice somewhere at a relatively high altitude beforehand to adjust more easily to the altitude. If not possible, you may want to look into training in a simulated environment with reduced oxygen if you can get that fancy, but this is not essential. At a minimum, you should be able to walk for a long periods of time at a brisk pace before signing up for a trip. Good cardio fitness beforehand through running or swimming would be a bonus. The more you train before the trek, the better experience you will have on the journey.
4. Lots of layers, lots of hand warmers/ body warmers/toe warmers – These will be your great friends on summit day. Find the warmest grade of thermal clothing possible for summit day and hand/foot/body warmers that last for 12 hours if possible. I wore six layers of shirts on summit day under a winter coat and I still felt cold. Thick thermal clothing will help keep the number of layers that you need to wear at a minimum.
5. Make a power mix of great music and podcasts – I listened to all four hours of podcasts that I randomly had on my phone as well as an Adele album that had transferred from my old phone while climbing to Stella Point in the middle of the night. I firmly believe that I may have given up due to sudden severe left hip pain on the way up if I hadn’t had something to focus on. If I had had even better power music and podcasts, I may have been in an even better headspace by the top. Music really has the power to motivate you to go above and beyond when feeling like you can’t go any further. Bring it with you.
6. Consistently drink at least 3 liters a day and even more for summit day and make sure that you bring an aluminum bottle (Nalgene bottles will also work). Our Camelbaks did freeze about halfway up the climb to Stella Point on summit day even with blowing back the water through the tube each time, so it will essential to have at least one if not two liters of water in aluminum or Nalgene water bottles as well. If you can bring a thick sock to wrap your bottle in for summit day, this will help even more to keep your water accessible and drinkable on summit day. Rehydration salts or electrolyte mixes can also help keep you hydrated as you make your way to the summit. I also found energy gels to be much easier to eat as snacks on the overnight walk up, as we didn’t stop long when we did stop on the way to Stella Point. You are also more susceptible to getting gassy as you quickly change altitude and your body adjusts the pressure, so eating something that is easier to digest but also packs an energy punch will keep your stomach in better condition (hopefully). One final note here: although Camelbaks freeze on summit day, all of us were happy that we had Camelbaks during the rest of the trip because they allowed us to stop much less frequently for a drink on our multi-hour hikes (and also meant that we didn’t have to put down our trekking poles).
7. Break in your shoes and daypack beforehand. For a much more comfortable trip up the mountain, give yourself a minimum of five long walks uphill and downhill in your hiking boots beforehand. As someone who brought a 46 L Osprey pack that was quickly taken away and carried by a porter on summit day, I believe it is essential to bring no more than a 25 L day pack. You will not need anymore than that and 25 L will feel like 100 L at 5000 meters. Find a smaller, reliable pack. Get used to the feel of it and go from there.
By following these tips and preparing for them ahead of time, you should be in a great position for a successful summit! Pole Pole (Slowly Slowly)!