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What do I need to climb Kilimanjaro?

I admit it. My title is designed to help me show up in search engines.

But it is a good question.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is easier than most people think. It is not technical. It doesn’t involve any mountaineering skills, and in fact, novice hikers can likely handle it. All it takes is moderate fitness, the right preparation, and – excuse the cliche – a will to do it.

Which company?

I’m going to skip over the gear because plenty of sites offer lists of stuff (though I will mention one thing – bring hiking poles). I want to address what I think is the real first step in summiting Kilimanjaro: the tour company. There are a lot out there and it can be quite time-consuming finding the right one. So let me save you some time:

Book with Zara Tours.

One of my chief concerns was finding an American-based company. I wanted to make sure that I was sending my money off to a reputable source. Of course, being American doesn’t make a company trustworthy, but I figured it was better than a foreign company based in a country I had never visited. As it turns out, though, I had sent my money off to a middle man. He was nice enough, if somewhat difficult to contact over the phone, but I didn’t really need him. He just set up my trip through Zara Tours, a company based in Tanzania, naturally charging me more than if I cut him out of the picture.

Which route?

Again, I’m not going to list out detailed descriptions of things that can be found in a million other places, but I will recommend the route I took: Lemosho. I’m sure the others are fine, but it depends on the person. Personally, I didn’t want to sleep in a hut. The reason? A lot of other people do want to sleep in them. That makes for a messier, more crowded campground. Not that any route isn’t going to be crowded during high season, but I prefer a relatively quieter area. Lemosho provided that, especially since it is tent-only.

Here are some campgrounds. This first one is one where I actually stayed:

If I recall, more groups eventually did show up, but it was still pretty quiet. Higher up, however, it gets more crowded because several of the routes converge:

I actually stayed at a site about 30 minutes from here (Shira 2, maybe?), but this is pretty representative. Continue further and it gets more and more crowded. It never got overwhelming, but do expect to see some people up there.

When?

Plenty of sites list out climate information, so I’m not going to knock out a list myself. But for my experience, my trip was from the tail end of August into September, which was dry. In fact, I experienced 15 minutes of drizzle the whole time, and that was only because I was in a cloud. (It also snowed a couple of inches at the final camp before summit, but I’m told it was rather unusual for that time; besides, it happened at night.)

I would recommend to obviously go during the dry season. The mountain is still accessible in the wet season, but scheduling will be more restricted and a successful climb may not be in the cards. Also, many people like to go during a full moon. I personally wanted a new moon so I could see the stars more intensely (plus there would be fewer people). As it turned out, I had a long night filled with amazing stars, later giving way to a yellow quarter moon, capped with the most incredible sunrise I have ever seen. On this one it’s to each his own, but I don’t think disappointment is possible with any choice.

Money?

The Zara link above will list out how much it costs for the climb, which may change at any given time. I personally paid about $1850 with the middle man. That isn’t the rock bottom price, but it is somewhat on the lower end, and the guides and porters were fantastic. What I wish I had have done, given my half-day or so ride from the frickin’ Serengeti, was spring the extra few bucks (okay, a lot bucks) for a safari. Don’t be overly concerned with money. I plan on revisiting Africa at some point, so a safari will happen for me, but my Tanzania trip could just as easily be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It would have been worth it to go all-out.

Also be sure to budget cash for the loose ends. I was short on cash because, duh, Tanzania doesn’t much like debit or credit cards. The visa, which can easily be had immediately after landing, was $100 (cash only). I also had to buy some meals and (of course) beer at the hotel (cash only). They weren’t expensive by any means, but it is a cost. For the tips for the guides and porters (cash only) I had to use an ATM in Moshi. It was a disconcerting experience to put my card in a machine so far from home, to say the least. I believe I only gave them around $200, but the average is probably more like $250. (And given the incredible people I had, I wish I had have withdrawn more.) Don’t worry about how to dole everything out; I know a lot of sites make a big deal out of it, but all the money just goes to the head guide. Clean and simple.

Why?

Because it is there.

I’ve barely scratched the surface for the sort of questions people have, so feel free to ask in the comment section: you will get an answer.

I refuse to believe it

I just came across an article about Mount Kilimanjaro. It says something I find difficult to believe.

There’s no clear number of how many people attempt to climb Kilimanjaro each year, although it’s at least 20,000. Steinhilber said probably less than half that number make it to the true summit.

When they reach Stella Point — about 800 to 1,000 feet below the actual peak, Uhuru Peak — many figure “good enough,” she said.

Upon reaching Stella Point, I actually thought I was practically there. But then I saw how far the trail continued. It was no longer so steep – it’s a very significant incline to that point – but it was still another 1-2 hours from the summit. And perhaps that was the most excruciating part. It felt like I should be seeing that idyllically simple African sign indicating the summit of the mountain at any moment, but it seemed like it was perpetually ‘just around the next corner’.

But could I have ever just stopped? Could I ever have just called it good because the rest of the way was mentally frustrating?

No.

Summit day is roughly 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Stella Point is a mere 700 or so feet lower than the summit – and that’s over the course of a good distance. It constitutes an insignificant portion of the entire hike, even if it is in some ways the most difficult. Unless the person is physically struggling with the elevation (I was told after the fact that someone in another group died near Stella Point on the same day I was there), I find it impossible to believe anyone could just say ‘good enough’.

(Please excuse Buga for the crooked horizon.)

Update: I am reminded by a member of my hiking group that the peak is actually visible from Stella Point.

My dirty little secret

Yes, I love hiking. Yes, I know how to prepare for any given non-technical hike. Yes, I’ve been to the top of Maine, the top of New England, the top of Africa. But okay, okay. There was a time when I didn’t know what I was doing.

Just as Maine Warden Sgt. Rick Mills was calling off Friday’s second-day search for two lost hikers due to heavy rain and fog at 12:30 p.m., state police dispatchers honed in on a 911 cell phone call, pinpointing the young men’s location.

“They’re alive and well,” a relieved Mills said in the Appalachian Trail parking lot of Grafton Notch State Park on Route 26 in Grafton Township, shortly after a dispatcher radioed coordinates to him for the two inexperienced day-hikers, Ryan Weeks and Michael Hawkins.

There used to be far more stories available, including on the Globe’s site, but most of them have fallen into the abyss of the ancient Internet. This happens to be one I hadn’t read until recently.

I literally had to laugh out loud when I read that first paragraph. During the cited cell call I found out they had just called off the search, but it just seems so much more absurd in retrospect. The whole experience was so surreal; it seems all the more strange that people were done looking for us because of fog (…the heavy rain was over at that point, so someone either gave or interpreted some inaccurate information).

Anyway, I wrote all about this experience for a local weekly paper back in 2006. I can’t get that link anymore, but I will reprint the unedited piece in the comment section.

Thought of the day

Slim Jims, while terrible any other time, are great for long hikes.

But this was impressive

Of course, the Grand Canyon is a bit bigger than the Hoover Dam.

For those interested, I hiked down that trail in the the middle right of the shot. It pretty much ends right there, overlooking the Colorado River. (Also, the maps lies. It’s claimed to be an 8-12 hour hike. It isn’t. I was out in 5.5 hours, including a 30 minute break above the river.)

“Were you in the clouds?”

Over the past two days I’ve been fortunate enough to hike a part of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Leaving from Crawford Notch with two friends, we followed the Appalachian Trail (AT) to the summit of Mount Washington, cutting down Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail to Pinkham Notch.

The original plan was to use the AT for the entire trip, but after having done the 100 Mile Wilderness last year, the pain of a 15 mile day is well known to all of us. Even though we had an average trek of 11 miles on the first day, there was a lot of downhill, not to mention 90+ degree, humid, sunny weather ahead, and that adds up to a whole lot. There’s the toll on the knees, the toll on hydration, and the toll on the mind. We took our chance to shortcut down Tuckerman’s when the opportunity presented itself.

One of the most interesting aspects of this hike was the presence of hostels. Throughout the 100 Mile Wilderness the best accommodations were lean-to’s, so it was strange to see such significant buildings so far from anywhere. And I don’t mean relatively significant. They were actually good sized for the base of a mountain. They had all the amenities, including bunks, tables, showers, and a kitchen.

Of course, in the exact opposite spirit of the AT, it costs $100 to stay in one of these hostels. Per night. Per person. It’s bullshit.

But there were two hostels and the first was just a bit stop. We trudged on, passing Mount Monroe, among others, to arrive at the hostel at which we planned on staying, just 1.5 miles from the summit of Mount Washington. And by “planned on staying”, I mean “hoped would have some place to stay for real hikers”.

We walked the hostel, Lakes of the Clouds Hut, to find a mess hall filled with about 65 surely wealthy, non-hikers. Of course, they all had their $2000 worth of equipment they just bought earlier in the week, complete with retractable walking sticks (we had left our forest-born walking sticks outside, unafraid they would be swiped), but most of them likely walked the 1.5 miles from Mount Washington after taking the train that leads to the summit (for $45). And if they did it this past Sunday or Monday, they had perfect weather. I personally find this fitting since good weather is the antithesis of Mount Washington – sort of like these people are the antithesis of hikers.

(To be fair, I heard rumor of thru-hikers staying at the hut. Those people – who put me to shame – get a pass. They’re actually doing it. They mean it.)

But back to the hostel. We had heard tell of a so-called “dungeon” that cost a mere $10 per person. No meal, no amenities, but it was right there and out of the wind. The crew member helping us out didn’t make mention of it at first (instead recommending an out-of-the-way treeline hike that would have added miles to our at-the-time planned 15 mile hike the following day), but when prompted he offered it. It’s meant as an emergency refuse for hikers, but it’s really just for the winter when no one is likely to be at the hut. (It even has a raised door so all the snowfall won’t prevent a stranded hiker from gaining access.)

It was a little dank, but I actually enjoyed it better than some lean-to’s. The bunks (with our sleeping pads) were relatively comfortable, plus we weren’t sharing our room with 10 strangers like everyone else. It wasn’t a bad night.

I was pretty happy the next morning watching all the non-hikers gather their gear in preparation for what had to be the wettest fog I’ve ever experienced. The forecast called for awesome conditions (though humid) – but at lower elevations. On top of Mount Washington it was dense fog with 55mph winds, gusts up to 68mph. I’m glad they had to experience that – but I hope for some of the more genuine members of the group it wasn’t a matter of having to experience it, but rather getting to experience it.

I’ve hiked to the top of a sunny Mount Washington in the past (I refuse to pay the excessive price to drive or take the train to the top), but this was far, far better. The wind was intense. Visibility was measured in feet. We almost couldn’t find the summit building. It was difficult finding the trail head to Tuckerman’s. It was just right.

But in this whole excursion the best experience came at a much lower elevation, several thousand feet below. As we passed under-prepared after under-prepared hiking groups filled with children, one kid stopped for a moment. He looked up, at this point well below all the fog its non-raining wetness, and asked:

Were you in the clouds?

Yes, we answered.

…cool.

And it was genuine. Whether this was a one-time summer camp sort of trip for this kid or if he was jumping at any opportunity to climb a mountain, he meant what he said, he meant what he was doing. He was a real hiker.