Editor’s Note: The views expressed here are those of the author’s and don’t necessarily represent or reflect the views of MangoBaaz.
By: ibn Azhar
“Climbing Mountains is dangerous and life threatening”, said my friend. My reply was, “according to Mountain Project estimate every year number of people dying in road accidents is more than on the mountains so it’s up to you to feel safe while packing your back pack or pulling out the key of your car.”
Being a mountain enthusiast I had the honor of exploring Margalla Hills apart from many similar adventures. It can be safely and humbly claimed that I being the only Pakistani to climb Africa’s top two mountains back to back i.e. Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya.
This story, however, is about climbing the taller one of those – Mount Kilimanjaro. There is a reason why Mount Kilimanjaro is called as “Every Man’s Everest”. Mainly due to its commercial success and the fact that it’s a non-technical climb and you can literally walk till the top, instead of the “mountain climb” that you may have seen in movies about Mount Everest or K2. But, it’s easier said than done.
Located on the present day border of Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 m/19,341 ft) with its three cones, “Kibo”, “Mawenzi” and “Shira”, is a dormant volcano. It’s the world’s tallest free standing mountain, tallest mountain in continental Africa, and one of the largest volcanoes in the world. Kilimanjaro features several topographies including rainforest, moorlands, alpine desert and the snow-capped summit itself.
So if you want to Climb Mount Kilimanjaro like about thirty thousand other people who do it every year here are a few things to know:
First things first: Cost
They say there is no free lunch in the world so how can trekking on a massively commercialized mountain be free. As a matter of fact the Mount Kilimanjaro National Park is visited by almost 30,000 tourists every year and it alone earns 45 percent of the total revenue earned by the government of Tanzania from its fifteen National Parks.
So the cost of climbing Kilimanjaro have two parts:
- Personal logistics like food, camping, salaries of porters, guide, cooks etc.
- The alarmingly high government charges (rescue fee, conservation fee, park fee etc).
Depending upon the quality of personal logistic services, cost can vary from 700 to 2000 USD. Add fixed “park fees” of up to 850 USD over and above that. So on our trek there were people who paid, in total, as low as 1500 USD and as high as anything above 3000 USD for a six days trekking tour, depending on their personal costs.
Multiply this amounts with current exchange rate (about 118 PKR at the time of publishing) and you may need to fetch a glass of water for the ensuing headache that your total number may give you.
Safety is important because people die on Mount Kilimanjaro even though it’s an “easy” climb
Mount Kilimanjaro is easy in a sense that it’s one of the highest mountains that can be climbed without requirement of any technical equipment. You can literally just walk up the mountain to reach the top. But this mere fact does not mean that it’s a happy go lucky kind of a trekking trip. In fact there are reports of as many as six to seven annual deaths on the mountain. Most of them are due to mountain altitude sickness.
For example, in Jan 2018, a Pakistani- Australian Doctor Junaid Yousafzai died on Mount Kilimanjaro reportedly due to altitude sickness.
Deeply saddened by passing of schoolmate Dr. Junaid Yousafzai. Died due to acute illness onset while summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. pic.twitter.com/qa8E7RS7yB
— Fasi Zaka (@fasi_zaka) January 30, 2018
Physical fitness is important but mental robustness is a must
Being a non-technical climb, for me the required fitness level for reaching the highest point of Africa is not that much. But of course you can’t just jump off the couch and start doing it, either. It can be pretty rough for the unprepared. However, in my reckoning climbing Kilimanjaro has more to do with mental agility than physical endurance.
On the summit night I saw many people in darkness abandoning the summit attempt and going down because their fears overcame them. I was surprised how those who could make it up to 5000 meters or so after five rigorous days of climb can suddenly turn their backs on their dream climb. In the darkness of night with my head down and almost out of breath I asked my guide Abel, “Why they are going down?” Always a man of few words, he replied in his signature cold voice, “they gave up”.
You’ve heard of “zor laga ke hayi sha” but the magical words to climb Kilimanjaro are “Poley Poley”
Swahili, the lingua franca of Tanzania is surprisingly similar to Urdu. You often hear words like “Karibu”( Welcome), “Barafu” (snow) , “Jambo” (hello) , “Rafiqi” (friends) and all-time favorite “Hakuna Matata”(No problem). Yet for climbing Kilimanjaro all the wisdom can be fathomed into two magical words “Poley Poley” which means slowly slowly.
To ensure proper acclimatization, getting used to reduced oxygen levels and saving energy for the arduous journey upwards all you need to do is go poley poley. This factor alone, if not adhered to, can become the reason for not reaching the summit.
Don’t forget the two most important items on Kilimanjaro – Toilet Paper and Wrist Watch
Personally, I had a long list of items to take along for the climb, like talcum powder and Vaseline for feet, gloves with inner and outer layer, sun glasses, fleece for wrapping around before slipping into sleeping bag, head comforters, hat, head lamp, power bank, extra memory cards, selfie stick, torch, medicines like Diamox to prevent mountain sickness, peanut butter, chocolates, toffees, lollipops, electrolytes, juices, diary, mug, Balaclava etc. Of course add DSLR, Go Pro, mini drone, GPS tracker and other tech gadgets as per your convenience or instagramming needs.
However on a more honest level this all can be stripped down to two vital items. One, Toilet Paper for obvious reasons and second, a good wrist watch. On a hike like Kilimanjaro it’s not the distance or space but time that matters. So a good watch is a companion not to be missed because you may be hiking up but since it’s not that steep a hike you need to keep track of what time it is so you don’t let your nerves take over you.
Selecting a good route can be a make or break decision
There are seven established routes to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Three southern (Marangu, Machame, and Umbwe ), three western (Lemosho, Shira and Northern Circuit) and one Northern (Rongai route). The Mweka Route on the south side is used only for descent. The choice for ascent depends upon factors like acclimatization level, budget, weather, personal preference, success rates, scenery, foot traffic and difficulty level.
The most popular, Marangu Route, also known as Coca Cola Route is easy yet the success rate is low. Our choice was the comparatively tougher Machame Route (known as the Whiskey route), due to its higher success rate.
Listen to what your body is trying to tell you
Pay heed to the slightest messages being sent by your body. A cramped calf muscle, pulsating headache, blurring eyes, sore feet, blisters, over sweating, fever and any other signs should not be ignored just because you’re blindly following your goal. Your body’s sending constant feedback and if something feels wrong it needs to be addressed. Of course, there may be things that you know can be ignored but unusual indicators need to be taken seriously as with each step uphill you are making your recovery downhill difficult for yourself and others.
So, as a gift to your body, KEEPY YOURSELF HYDRATED. Its importance increases dramatically on a long non-technical climb like Kilimanjaro. Proper water intake keeps body fluids in balance and is helpful against altitude sickness. Whether it’s in the form of electrolytes or plain mineral water, almost four to five liters is a must for a full day’s hike. Sure you may “suffer from” frequent urinating but it’s worth it. Also note that soda or artificial juices are not water.
During the third day I chose juice for a half day hike and by the time I reached the camp it was as if this is the end of the mission for me due to dehydration.
Choose your guide wisely
On Kilimanjaro as matter of law you cannot go without a guide. With so many climbers going, there is a large variety of guides available. One needs to choose carefully, though. Your guide can literally make or break your expedition. In our case, 31 year old Abel claimed to have been on Kilimanjaro for about 200 times yet on the summit night he repeatedly, due to our slow speed, suggested to return. So at times your most trusted person can panic and create problems.
We all are humans and have limitations. On Kilimanjaro you need to set your own limits and achieve them.
If ascent is tough remember that the descent is tougher
The idea of descending being easy is one of the greatest myths of mountaineering which needs to be busted. The main reason behind this myth is probably the consideration that body weight helps push you down easily, under the enhanced effect of gravity and thus makes the task easier and faster.
However the fact that most of the climbers die or face accidents while on the descent holds true for Kilimanjaro which is no exception from the universal rule of danger on descent. In our case, due to delayed summit attempt a night time, it was one full day of descending from Camp IV (Barafu Camp) to Base Camp via Mweka Route and hence it proved to be a risky affair. My knees on this long journey became the most important body part after eyes and a pumping heart.
Thus if one wants to descend on their own feet rather than those clumsy looking wheel barrow type ambulances the rule of “poley poley” becomes all the more important. A bid for fast descent should be left to times if you are being recovered on those ambulances.
For me, PAF academy training came in handy at the most surprising of times
Once I look back from the comfort of my home to the ordeal of climbing Kilimanjaro, many things seem decisive. However the hardest decision was neither the choice of an inexperienced guide, nor choosing the route. In fact, the hardest decision was made exactly six days before the start of my climb. After I heard of the recent death of an Australian-Pakistani while trying to climb the mountain, close friends flooded me with texts messages to take it as a divine warning and abandon the plan.
The first few hours were really tough to make the decision. However soon a flash of inspiration came from the most unlikely place – PAF Academy, Risalpur. Once an air crash or accident happens at the academy, the very next day orders for maximum flying are issued, so that fear of death or accidents can be eliminated then and there from the minds of under training pilots.
Thereafter, things were simplified and I switched off my cell phone and decided to fly high.
Once you reach back down at the gate there are many important things to be done. Getting your official certificate, rushing back to your hotel for a long overdue shower and finally the celebration dinner. Preferring to remain vegetarian throughout the trail barbecue chicken never tasted so good to me. Was it the taste of success or the recipe itself still remains a mystery.
So there you have it. I reached the “roof of Africa” and you can do it too.
About the author: ibn Azhar is a Computer Engineer, MBA, a mountain enthusiast and father of one son. He is a founder of pakpeaks.com