Trekking to the Top of Africa

Earlier this summer the CSA director found out I was planning on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in August. “You have to write about it in the magazine!’ she told me excitedly.  “Sure, no problem”, I immediately replied, but after thinking about it a bit more, I became reluctant.  Each month I already do regular nutrition articles, restaurant reviews plus an editor’s note.  How much could our readership really take of hearing from me?  I was already seeing the eye-rolling in my head as CSA patrons stop on YET ANOTHER article written by the editor when they’re flipping through our magazine.

When I mentioned my concerns to my wife, she nonchalantly offered to write one for me.  My wife is one of the most altruistic people I’ve ever met, which sometimes means she bites off more than she can chew.  “Are you sure?  I’ll need it right around the time classes begin.”  She assured me it wouldn’t be an issue.  What an awesome wife I have.  I guess problem solved.

Anyways, I wanted to share the article that my wife wrote (it will appear in our October issue).  She really did a fantastic job with it.  Enjoy!

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Trekking to the Top of Africa
by Lindsay O’Neill

When my husband and I made the decision to move to Egypt last year we had no idea that we would get the opportunity to travel to Tanzania so soon.  We have been climbing mountains for more than 10 years, with most of our climbs taking us to summits in the Canadian Rockies.  We didn’t think that climbing Mount Kilimanjaro would become a reality this soon in our lives.  It’s always been a bucket list item for me so when the opportunity came up I was pretty excited.

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Mount Kilimanjaro is situated close to the Kenyan border in Northern Tanzania.  Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kilimanjaro is 5895m above sea level and the highest point in Africa.   Most people who attempt the trek up its slopes fly into the Kilimanjaro airport and hire a trekking company from one of two towns, Moshi or Arusha.  We went with Kessy Brothers Tours & Travel, a small company out of Moshi, which had been recommended by our trusty Lonely Planet guide book as a reputable operator.

As for preparations for the 7-day trek to the top of Africa, most people usually take about 1-2 years to prepare for their climb.  Our Lonely Planet stated that, “A trek up Kili lures around 25,000 trekkers each year, in part because it’s possible to walk to the summit without ropes or technical climbing experience.  Yet, non-technical does not mean easy.  The climb is a serious (and expensive) undertaking, and only worth doing with the right preparation.”  Due to our experience with climbing we figured a few months seemed good enough preparation (okay, not really…we had originally planned on going to Northern India during this time, but plans changed last minute).  We knew this would be a challenge seeing as I had experienced altitude sickness (headaches, nausea, upset stomach, lack of appetite and fatigue) at much lower elevations and Kilimanjaro offers little opportunity for acclimatization.  At Kilimanjaro’s summit there is only roughly 50% of the available oxygen as there is at sea level.  I was aware the cards were stacked against me successfully reaching the summit, but did this stop me from wanting to attempt the mountain?  Definitely not!  To improve our chances and minimize the effects of altitude, we both decided to take a medication called Diamox, which acts to speed up your breathing and allow you to take in more oxygen.  The side effects of frequently having to urinate and experiencing a tingling sensation in your fingers and toes, seemed more than worth it.  It’s also important to climb “Poly, Poly”, as the locals say – in other words “Slowly, Slowly”.  Climbing Kilimanjaro is not a race and moving up the mountain too quickly is a sure way to feel the effects of the high altitude. My husband and I had discussed what would happen in the event that I (or he) would not be able to continue due to altitude sickness.  If this happened, the healthy climber would continue on and the sick person would retreat to base camp.  Altitude sickness can become extremely serious and something that you cannot take lightly while climbing.  As Ed Visteurs, an American climber who has climbed all of the peaks in the world over 8000m, says, “Getting to the top is optional.  Getting down is mandatory.”  Definitely a good motto to have when undertaking higher altitude climbs.

kili morning

One thing that we have learned over the years is when it comes to climbing you have to make sure you have the right gear.  Skimping on gear is a sure way to make your climb very uncomfortable so finding a reputable trekking company that provides appropriate gear is important.  We were aware that most companies provide all of the gear you need for the climb, however, the quality of that gear may not be up to the standards that you are used to at home.  Before packing for our vacation we had read, “Don’t underestimate the weather on Kilimanjaro.  Conditions on the mountain are frequently very cold and wet, and you’ll need a full range of waterproof cold weather clothing and gear, including a good quality sleeping bag.”  This is not a lie – if you want to be comfortable, especially on summit day, my best advice is to bring the warmest cold weather gear you own.  Overnight temperatures regularly dip below 0oC and the summit can get as cold as -20oC with the wind.  My husband and I remarked many times during the trek that we were so happy that we had brought our hybrid sleeping bags (synthetic and down mummy sleeping bags that retain their heat even when damp), among other essentials.  Another non-negotiable item to take is a pair of hiking boots that you have already broken in.   Showing up to Kili with a brand new pair of hiking boots is setting yourself up for failure and some pretty sore feet!

One of the most underrated and often forgotten realities of a Kilimanjaro trek is the role that the porters, cooks, and guides play in climbers successfully reaching the summit. For our trek, my husband and I had 7 porters, 2 guides, a cook and a waiter all working to make our climb a successful one.  It is shocking how many of these porters lack basic climbing gear, some trekking in running shoes or worn out boots that are several sizes too big.  Their gear is very inadequate and most will carry bags weighing up to 20 kg.  These are often not more than burlap and/or waterproof sacks.  Porters carry most of your gear up the mountain too, which makes your trekking much more enjoyable and certainly increases your chances of making it to the top.  As we were traveling between camps each day, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the porters passing us, most carrying their loads balanced on their shoulders or heads.  I was shocked when we saw many even carrying metal chests and buckets of water up the pretty steep terrain.  And did I mention that these porters would keep such a quick pace that most would pass us even though we had left camp more than an hour before them?  It was incredible.

kili team

Our camp included a dining tent, our sleeping tent, a tent for the guides, tents for our porters, and a cooking tent.  Each day we were treated to three full meals, including tea delivered to our tent when we woke and tea with snacks prior to our dinner being served.  It is a luxury when you do not have to cook all of your own food, wash dishes and set-up and take down your camp each day.   Without all of their contributions, I find it hard to believe that we would have made it to the top, let alone back to the park gate.  Our guides, Tony and Cornell, were amazing on our summit day, at one point even linking arms with me to keep me going when I felt I wouldn’t reach my goal.  For the job that these guides and porters do, you might think they are paid well.  But typically they only receive minimal wages and depend on tips as their major source of income.  If you ever find yourself questioning how much to tip guides, porters, and cooks (we find it is always so hard to know just how much to tip because the “suggested” rate always doesn’t seem like enough), go with your gut and don’t be afraid to show your appreciation.

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In the end, despite having a pounding headache and feeling like I was going to pass out, at 7:20 am on August 17, 2014 we reached the top of Africa.  After pictures in front of the summit sign, we descended back to base camp very satisfied with our experience.  The following day we returned to the Kessy Brothers office, celebrated our success with Kilimanjaro beer, and received our commemorative certificates and t-shirts.  It was an experience of a lifetime and one I know we will be talking about for a long time!

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