Kilimanjaro Q&A

Wanderlust's Deputy Editor answers all those niggling questions about climbing Kilimanjaro

8 mins

Q: Can anyone climb Kilimanjaro?

A: In theory, yes. Summiteers have ranged from 12 to 87 years old. Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams climbed it in an enormous rubber rhino suit.

Q: But do I need to be super fit?

A: Some say the less fit you are, the greater your chance of reaching the summit because you take it very slowly and acclimatise better. However, some basic level of fitness is necessary. Kilimanjaro is one the world’s highest trekking mountains, giving relative novices the chance to reach nearly 6,000m, but it’s not an easy stroll. Be sure to get in some hill walking before you go.

Q: Will I get altitude sickness?

A: Quite probably. Altitude sickness commonly kicks in above 3,500m – Uhuru Peak, the top of Kili, is 5,895m. Almost everyone will feel some effects of altitude. Mild symptoms include headaches, nausea, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. Moderate effects might be vomiting, persistent headache and constant breathlessness. If symptoms worsen and you become uncoordinated and confused, your guide will make you descend immediately. These are signs of acute mountain sickness, which can be fatal if ignored.

Q: Blimey! Will climbing Kili kill me?

A: Very unlikely. It is claimed that out of the 20,000+ people that attempt to climb the mountain every year, as many as ten people die, mostly from pre-existing conditions such as heart problems.

Q: So how do I prevent altitude sickness?

A: Go polé polé (slowly, slowly) for a start. This will allow your body more time to acclimatise. Drink at least three or four litres of water a day and eat a lot. Descend as soon as any symptoms become serious. Some climbers take Diamox, a drug that aids acclimatisation. Seek advice from your doctor.

Q: What other health precautions should I take?

A: There is no malaria on Kilimanjaro (it is too cold and high for mosquitoes). However, the disease is rife in Tanzania at lower elevations. Consult a travel-health specialist for advice. Other recommended inoculations are diptheria, tetanus, typhoid, polio and yellow fever.

Q: What about Delhi Belly?

A: This is not what you want when you’re trying to climb Kili. It will sap all your energy and make staying hydrated a real problem – two complete disasters when you’re climbing at altitude on a tight schedule. Don’t cut corners by going with a budget company that may not have the best food-hygiene standards. Also, treat all the water you drink with water purification tablets. Water will be collected from streams en route and boiled before it is given to you – but water boils at lower than 100°C at altitude so nasties could still be lurking.

Q: How cold does it get?

A: Very. The temperature at the top can plummet to –20°C, so pack plenty of warm clothing. The lower slopes are far warmer during the day – as high as 28-29°C in January and February – but the nights are still cold. Do not scrimp on a cheap sleeping bag; take one that’s at least three-four season.

Q: Is there snow?

A: Snow showers could occur at any time of the year, although they are more likely from April to June and November to December. The distinctive white glaciers that coat the upper reaches of the mountain year round are receding fast. Since the first survey of the summit in 1912, the glaciers have shrunk by 82%. It is thought that there will be no permanent snow left on the mountain by 2015.

Q: When should I go?

A: The best times to climb are from mid-December to March and July to October, outside of the rainy seasons. A full moon might brighten your spirits on the summit night: dates for the next trekking season are 15 December 2005, 14 January, 13 February and 14 March 2006. Start your trek four days before these dates so the full effect coincides with your summit attempt.

Q: How do I get there in the first place?

A: Moshi and Arusha are the gateway towns. Kilimanjaro has its own international airport.

Q: What are the loos like?

A: Long-drops ranging from unpleasant to downright disgusting. Don’t inhale while you’re in one. If you get caught on the hop, pack out your toilet paper – too many convenient-looking rocks have unsightly piles of loo roll behind them.

Q: Can I have a shower?

A: Not a chance. Stock up on wet wipes.

Q: How much will it cost me?

A: Quite a bit. There is no such thing as a cheap trip up Kilimanjaro. You have to pay park entry, camping, rescue and forest fees before you take into account porter and guide wages, food, transportation and other costs. If you add more days onto your trip for acclimatisation, this will bump up the cost but is far more sensible than saving a few dollars and not making it to the top at all. Then there are tips for the crew at the end, which will probably amount to $75-100 per trekker. As of 1 January 2006, the Tanzanian government is further increasing park fees.

Q: It’s expensive, smelly, cold + life-threatening – is it worth it?

A: Every second. Standing on the roof of Africa, after battling against adversity, is one of the most incredible feelings you’ll ever experience. The sense of achievement you get from making it to the top is almost as big as the mountain itself. Even if you don’t make it all the way, you’ve still had an amazing walk on the world’s highest free-standing mountain.

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