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The TRUTH about Kilimanjaro

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

There are two famous lies told about Kilimanjaro (other than the old 'because it's there' platitude we all use - courtesy of Edmund Hillary).

The first is told by people who have climbed it and say it isn't difficult. Sure, any reasonably fit person can make it to Uhuru Peak, and a high percentage of those who attempt the climb make the summit. However, almost all of them will admit that it was the single hardest physical thing they've ever done. If you ask them how it was shortly after their descent, they'll probably also tell you that on the ascent they were feeling sick as a dog with a crushing headache, nausea, perhaps were vomiting, and it felt as if a sock was stuffed in their mouth preventing them from breathing properly.

However, speak to them a month later and they'll wax lyrical about the grandest view in

Africa, the elation of having climbed Africa's highest peak, of camaraderie, the glorious forest, the expansive Alpine heaths and the monumental volcanic cone of Kibo.

The second lie comes from an old guide book which instructs that: "On a good day, you can

climb Kilimanjaro with only a waterproof jacket and a sweater." Whoever wrote that was

either suffering severe hypothermia at the time or lucked out with unusually fine weather.

For, on a 'good day' on Kili you can expect wind of up to 120 kilometres an hour, a temperature as low as minus 20 C and a wind-chill factor that freezes your brain. A 'bad day' will see you scrambling up the entire final 1 200-meter section in a raging blizzard. This is NOT a mountain you want to take lightly.

On a mountain like Kilimanjaro, there's no such thing as bad weather, only a bad choice of clothing. Yes, you can climb Kili in shorts and T-shirt, a waterproof jacket and a sweater ... but you'll be sorry - if you make it at all. Together with correct acclimatisation, proper clothing is the single most important factor for a successful trip to Kilimanjaro.

Modern-day explorer and photojournalist John Reader has written several books about Africa, including one on Kilimanjaro. Of his experience, he recalls: "The climb is not difficult in mountaineering terms, you could say it was equivalent to... climbing a staircase rather more than three kilometres long. But then, at around 4 600 meters where the final ascent begins, there is little more than half the air found at the foot of most staircases. In effect, it's like trying to climb that staircase with just one lung. The result is agonising. There is no other word for it".

How well your body does depends on its ability to absorb available oxygen - but it's mostly in the genes. Aerobic training can help a little but the best technique to use is the Kilimanjaro mantra of "pole-pole" - (Swahili for slowly, slowly). Above about 3 000 meters there is a noticeable decrease in air pressure and consequent shortness of breath. It feels rather like breathing through a blanket and after even the easiest of physical tasks, such as packing your bag or tying your shoelaces, you'll be left gasping.

Further decreased pressure causes excess fluid to accumulate in your body which mostly affects the eyes and brain, leading to severe, crippling headaches. Extreme cases are called oedema, which might be either pulmonary (in the lungs) or the potentially fatal cerebral (brain) oedema. This condition is regularly found in Kilimanjaro, usually inflicting people from low altitudes who go via the shorter, therefore quicker Marangu Route. All day your guides and porters will remind you to heed the lore of "pole-pole"- take heed.

Walk slow. Go high, sleep low.

For oedema there is only one cure - get down as quick as possible. For treating the symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness), you can take whatever brand of tablet you like, but remember that relieving the symptom is seldom the best treatment. If you want to remove the cause, you can either reduce your altitude (and forego reaching the summit), or you can reduce the buildup of liquid by taking a diuretic drug. Some mountaineers argue that if you can't make it without artificial aids then you shouldn't be climbing at all, while to others it is an ethical consideration much like that of using supplemental oxygen. Whether you use them or not is up to you, but it's better to at least have the option available than to come close to reaching such an important goal only to have to turn back for a little fluid build-up on your eyes! One Diamox tablet three times a day might just be the difference to actually enjoying the trek.

Regardless of above, what ultimately will determine whether or not you stand on top of Uhuru Peak is your state of mind: will you freeze up with fear and personal misgivings; will you pace yourself properly, are you prepared to push yourself to your limit; and will you make the right decisions about whether or not to take medication when you need it?




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