In early July our Product Manager Sam Holland travelled to Tanzania to take on the iconic climb of Mount Kilimanjaro.
It’s one of our most popular adventures, down to it being a true bucket list trek. At 5,895m at the summit, the climb takes many people probably to the highest altitude they’ll ever climb in their lives.
Sam experienced what it was really like to summit Kilimanjaro and has some tips for anyone preparing to embark on this trip of a lifetime. Here is Sam's journey in his own words:
I`ll be honest, I am not a fitness freak. I don’t do triathlons or visit the gym regularly but I am hugely passionate about the great outdoors. Living in the Lake District means that I spend much of my free time hiking, kayaking, wild swimming and camping. My level of fitness is really just a by-product of my love for being outdoors.
That being the case, I was a little worried about my fitness before flying to Tanzania and I stepped up my level of activity significantly in the weeks before. I started climbing peaks in the Lake District ferociously, at least three big fells every week, usually in the evenings after work. I tried to make sure I was doing at least 1000 m of vertical ascent on each hike which would often mean summiting more than one peak in a single session. Skiddaw (931m) with a quick diversion to the summit of Little Man (865m) was a favourite that I repeated many times.
I also started going for long runs once a week.
As a regular adventurer I already felt well equipped for climbing Kilimanjaro. However for some of you this might be your very first big adventure trip. If you’re wondering about what kind of gear you’ll need for climbing Kilimanjaro check out our gear list here. Certainly the thing I’m glad I spent money on was a good quality pair of boots. Also it’s no joke that we put a sunhat on the list, one of these is a must. Trekking poles, even if you have never used them in the past, are a huge help and you can rent these from our local team if you prefer. All the items on our gear list really are important so be sure to go through the list and make sure you have ticked everything before you set off for the airport.
Once you are up on Kilimanjaro you are totally dependent on your kit. On my climb the temperature on the summit was -17 centigrade and I was grateful for my down jacket, neck gaiter and mittens. Don't be tempted to buy cheap kit and then regret it later!
Definitely bring everything on our Kilimanjaro packing list, but if you do forget anything there are plenty of places to buy most of this equipment in Moshi the day before you head out. Just inform your guide at the pre-climb briefing if you feel you are missing anything and they will help source what you need.
Arrival in Tanzania
Sadly it was cloudy when I landed at Kilimanjaro International airport so no view of the mountain as I arrived, but it was great to see my driver Damien waiting with a huge smile to pick me up. With our bright orange uniforms it is not easy to miss the Kandoo Adventures staff waiting for you in the arrivals area. The drive to Moshi takes around an hour and a half and it is nice to watch the open grassy plains pass by the window and see the local Masai people in their traditional blankets herding their livestock along the road edge.
On arrival at the hotel, check in was quick and easy which is welcome after a long journey when all you want to do is collapse on a comfy bed for an hour. On arrival day the lead guide will be present at the hotel and normally one of the assistant guides also. Everybody gets together for the briefing in the evening, which includes the first of many health checks and an equipment check. If you requested to rent poles or a sleeping bag the guides will have this ready for you at the briefing.
Even if you felt apprehensive before the climb, once you start and realise the pace the guides are setting - you suddenly feel a surge of confidence. Climbing Kilimanjaro is a marathon, not a sprint. There is no need to go fast, our itineraries have been carefully planned to allow plenty of time to cover the required distance each day whilst moving at a completely manageable, slow and steady pace.
The first day is spent in a tropical rainforest. Black and White Colobus monkeys and Blue Monkeys shout and jump through the greenery around you, swinging from vines and disappearing behind the leaves of enormous tree ferns. It is misty and humid but not too hot with the thick jungle canopy protecting you from the sun's rays. Our first camp, Mti Mkubwa, is a vast clearing in the jungle and our guides warned us about the monkeys waking people up very early with their calls.
On day two you suddenly emerge from the tropical belt on the lower slopes of the mountain and enter a moorland zone where scrubby vegetation still rises around you but the thick forest canopy has disappeared and you start to feel the effects of the heat and UV bearing down on you. A steep ridge climb takes you to the incredible Shira Plateau and Shira 1 camp where for the first time you can see the bulk of Kibo Peak in the distance and the scale of the task at hand becomes clear.
Once you have reached the Shira Plateau you are already above the clouds and the views are simply staggering. Every moment is like looking out the window of an airplane and the sense of adventure and isolation is just superb.
A highlight for me was scaling the Barranco wall on day 6. Scrambling up this steep section is loads of fun, you will need to strap your trekking poles to your backpack and use your hands to help you ascend the steep and rocky trail. Once you reach the top of the ridge, you are rewarded with outstanding views of ice fields clinging to the sides of the crater wall above you and the endless expanse of the cloud base below.
Beyond Karanga camp you can really start to feel the altitude as you make your way up to Barafu basecamp. A lung full of air just does not do what it did 3 days ago! Depending on how the group is feeling it is normal for our guides to take you past Barafu camp and on to the slightly higher Kosovo camp. This will make your push to the summit easier and means that you do not have to negotiate some steep and rocky ground in the dark with your head torch
The summit push on Kilimanjaro requires a huge amount of effort and you need to be prepared for that. Day 7 involves 6-7 hours of trekking from Karanga camp to Barafu (or Kosovo) camp. Once you arrive at camp you have lunch and then immediately go to sleep. A few hours later you get up and have dinner, have a summit briefing by your guides and then go back to sleep. A few hours after that you wake up again and have breakfast before starting your push to the summit at around 11.30pm.
With the light of your head torch to guide your feet you will be climbing a steep zig zagging path for between 6 and 8 hours to reach Stella Point on the crater rim. From there the track is less steep but it is another 45-60mins to the summit proper. In the middle of the night at over 5000m of altitude it will be well below freezing and this is where the quality of your equipment is really going to become important.
Getting to the summit was a phenomenal feeling of achievement, though it does come with a feeling of real exhaustion from the altitude. You’re also wrapped in as many layers as possible as it’s extremely cold up there.
On the summit climb my camel back actually froze solid which was to be expected. The guides had advised me to carry an extra bottle well wrapped up in my backpack - advice I was very grateful for! By the time I got back to base camp I’d developed a pretty intense headache, so when the waiter handed me a pint of icy cold orange juice it was a huge relief.
Questions from Social Media
We asked our social media followers for their burning questions for Sam about climbing Kilimanjaro. We got some great questions from you:
thembiso_m on Instagram asks - ‘Hi Sam! Can altitude sickness be avoided?’
I did not experience any altitude sickness during the ascent of Kilimanjaro except for when I got back down to camp after the summit. So yes it certainly can be avoided! There are a range of things to remember to make sure you cope well with the altitude.
- Drink loads of water, 3 litres a day at least. Your guides will make sure you are hydrating properly. There are continual stops for water in and water out. You can read our guide to avoiding altitude sickness on our website.
- Go slow. Again your guides will make sure you are not over exerting yourself but making sure you ascend gradually and take your time will allow your body to adjust properly.
- Take care of yourself, this may seem obvious but make sure you eat loads and get plenty of sleep. Our chef will produce incredible 3 course meals in the dining tent every day so eating is not normally a problem for most people. Get your head down and make sure you are getting plenty of sleep every night.
- I took diamox as prescribed by my doctor to help prevent altitude sickness and as I did not experience any symptoms, I can only assume it helped. Always consult a medical professional before buying or taking diamox.
Char.shaker.smith on Instagram asks - ‘What clothing do you wear in your sleeping bag at night? I know this will vary depending on temperatures’
It really does depend on the temperature, for me the coldest night was actually the second camp on the Shira Plateau. I wore thermal leggings, thermal vest, jumper, hoodie and fleece trousers inside my sleeping bag. Oh and a thick pair of socks! The next morning, before sunrise, there was a thick layer of ice all over the outside of my tent.
Higher up on the mountain it never felt that cold again, most nights I just wore my thermal leggings and vest with no socks. The sleeping bags we provide are fantastic, Mountain Hardwear Lamina bags that are good to -30 degrees.
helen.crocker.9 on Instagram asks - ‘Anything you took but didn’t need or that you wish you’d taken but didn’t?’
I took everything on our Kilimanjaro packing list and I needed everything I took. When going through the packing list it is easy to think, I can just leave that or I probably won't need this. Follow the list exactly! You will need everything we recommend.
I wish I had taken more snacks, energy drinks, snack bars, chocolate etc. You are burning so much energy every day it is amazing how many calories you need to keep putting in to keep yourself moving. Even with the huge breakfasts and 3 course meals, I still wished I had more snacks to consume during the days.