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Climbing Kilimanjaro

5 key points from a novice climber!
Dec 19 2013 Written by: Richard Field

I am a safari guide, and climbing mountains has never really been my focus. However, having lived and loved Africa as long as I have, Mt Kilimanjaro was always something that I had wanted to do, and in July the dream became reality. As a ‘novice’ climber I was concerned about how my body would adjust to the altitude. With a brand new baby daughter in the family, I was also concerned that I hadn’t put enough time and effort into my pre-climb fitness regime.

As it turned out, I did manage to summit, as did all of our group and I can safely say that it is one of the major highlights of my life. With that in mind, here are 5 points (from a novice climber) that you need to know if you are contemplating doing it. These points are things that either surprised me about the experience, or things that I had known, but were really rammed home on the climb.

#1 Spend as much time on the mountain as you can

At 5895m, Kilimanjaro is seriously high. Some people attempt the summit on their fourth night. This to me is crazy, as your body hasn’t had time to adjust to the altitude and you would have stressed your body just getting to that point. From a personal perspective you will also be stressed, as you know that the likelihood of you making the summit is slim, and there is a very high likelihood that you will be in a lot of pain and discomfort. Attempting the summit on the 5th night is good (like on a 7 day Machame Route climb), but summiting on the 6th night (like on the 8 day Lemosho Route climb which I did) is even better. I was grateful for every second I had on the mountain and by the time we were getting ready for the summit I felt physically ready, and very relaxed.

#2 When someone says ‘pole pole’ (po-lay) it is best to listen

The walking pace on the mountain is extremely slow – slower then you might imagine and particularly slow when you are on any sort of incline. This is intentional, as your lead guide wants you to go slowly and preserve your energy, so that you are prepared for the summit attempt. ‘Pole pole’ is a Swahili phrase meaning slowly, slowly and you will hear this phrase ad nauseum on the mountain, but it is key. Not only do you preserve your energy, but you are also able to take in all of the astonishing scenery around you as you walk. There a number of other golden rules which are also majorly important and will be communicated to you regularly on an Epic trip. If you follow them, then your chances of getting to the summit safely and enjoying the journey increase dramatically.

#3 Only 12 hours of your climb is spent on the main peak

When you see a photo of Kilimanjaro, the thing that stands out is the immense main, glacier covered peak. I imagined that during the climb, I would be spending multiple days on that main peak. In reality though, you will only get onto that main peak when you make your summit attempt. If you are doing an 8 day Lemosho climb, you will summit on your 6th night. The previous 6 days are spent walking to the point where you start the summit. So long as you follow ‘pole pole’ and the other golden rules that is the easy part. Anyone can do it, as you are never covering too much territory in a day, you have porters to carry your bags and you walk incredibly slowly. The summit attempt, however, is major. It is the reason you train for months before hand. It is a hard physical challenge that involves endurance and persistence. However, if you have done the work beforehand, and you follow the golden rules, and you just focus on putting one foot in front of the other, it is achievable by almost anyone who has a reasonable base level of fitness and no heart or lung complaints.

#4 It isn’t about just about reaching the summit

Coming down fromthe summit, we passed a number of other groups who were not in good shape. They had done their climb with cheap operations that endorse short routes. Their guides were pushy, they had poor food and poor equipment. Many of them had hardly slept since getting on the mountain and whilst many of them had made the summit they had hated the experience. What it reinforced for me, was that it is more important to enjoy the journey then just reach the summit. I loved my time on the mountain, but Epic has a great crew, great equipment, incredible food and phenomenal support. Even if I had not made the summit, my overall feeling about the experience would have been overwhelmingly positive. Kili isn’t a place to skimp. It isn’t just about reaching the summit, it is about enjoying the journey and having absolute trust in the people who are looking after you.

#5 It is truly spectacular

I have been fortunate to do many incredible things in my life, but climbing Kilimanjaro is right up there. There is no doubt that it is a great challenge – anyone who has woken up in the middle of the freezing dark night to climb to the summit is deserving of major respect in my eyes. Yet, being on that majestic mountain and being able to take our time and not feel rushed, and able to absorb all the absolutely spectacular terrain meant it was almost a therapeutic experience, and I was left on a high for months. So if you have ever found yourself thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro, stop thinking about it and do it.

The time to make the decision is now!