Kilimanjaro and the Prouty Mountaineering Team
Ten Tips for a Successful Summit
Wes Chapman, Jill & Gary Rogers
November 1, 2012
Seke Godson and Wes Chapman, successful and healthy at the summit,
Preface: Kilimanjaro is one of my favorite mountains – it is the only one of the seven summits that middle-aged people who hold down a job can reasonably hope to climb. While Kilimanjaro is not a technical climb, it is the highest mountain that most who attempt it will ever climb. The trick to a successful outcome is to arrive at the summit healthy, comfortable, and in control. Listed below are ten suggestions compiled with the help of a bunch of my climbing friends who have reached Kili’s summit and descended in good health. I’m climbing Africa’s highest peak again this December, and you can bet that I’ll be checking this list twice.
1. Polepole (slowly, in Swahili): Seke Godson, head guide for East Africa Voyages, tells all his clients that moving “polepole” is the single most important key to success for Kilimanjaro, or any other high altitude adventure. This is the most common phrase that you will hear from all the guides and porters as you move up Kili. Polepole. Heed it! Let’s face it, most of the folks that take on this climb are driven, Type A personalities and need to be constantly reminded to slow down. Moving fast can create a physiological oxygen deficit, which your body has a very difficult time filling at high altitude. If this shoe fits you – like it does me – take a page from the Eagles, and Take it Easy.
Guide Seke Godson
2. Special Clothing: Wes Chapman is a dedicated fan of two small and inexpensive, but incredibly useful pieces of clothing – the buff and the sun hoodie. The buff is a simple stretchy sleeve, useful as a neck gaiter, breathing filter, hat or whatever. I first saw a sun hoodie in action on Cotopaxi a couple of years ago, and I was sold immediately. They keep out the sun, and weigh nothing. I use a sun hoodie on all high altitude climbs – it is far and away the best protection from high altitude tropical sun. You can buy both of these for less than $50, and you’ll use them until they are worn out. If your high-altitude climbing career ends with Kilimanjaro, attractive young women may find that the buff is a valuable and appreciated top for beachwear. Similarly, the hoodie is appreciated beachwear for old guys like me.
The many uses of a buff – great in dust storms and hold-ups
3. Gaiters and well-tested Footwear: Gary Rogers remembers that gaiters are essential on the mountain. Though there is little snow any longer on Kili, there are plenty of small stones and dust on the trail. Gaiters will help to keep this detritus out of your hiking boots and enable you to avoid the discomfort and potential blisters it may cause. Jill Rogers advises to make sure you have tested all your sock, liner, and boot combinations on hikes of ten miles or more. If you feel the slightest hot spot anywhere on your feet, ankles, or shins take care of it immediately! Your climbing mates will wait. Besides, they should be moving “polepole” anyway. Carry an assortment of blister bandages and moleskin in your own backpack, stuff that you know sticks and works on you. And don’t forget to pack a little scissors. If you’re certain to get blisters in specific spots, use the bandages preventively.
Gary Rogers sporting gaiters
Jill Rogers with happy feet
4. Eat with care: Gary Rogers knows from experience that many people have problems eating at high elevation. These problems come in two varieties, and you may suffer from either or both when above 10,000 feet. One problem is loss of appetite. The other is a slowing of the digestive process. Since you will be hiking many hours each day, it is important to eat and drink aplenty. So even if you don’t feel like it, eat every meal. But don’t overdo it by putting a large burden on your belly. Small meals and many snacks throughout the day are my strong recommendation. Also, you may want to carry some medication like Pepto-Bismol to treat minor digestive system upset.
Lunch on the trail
5. Personal hygiene: Wes Chapman is highly recommends three practical items – Baby Wipes, Vaseline and Bag Balm. Baby Wipes sound like a fairly disgusting article for the uninitiated, but are simply wonderful on a trip like Kilimanjaro. Remember, you will be eight days without a shower, and there is simply no substitute for cleanliness. Bring and use Baby Wipes and the whole world will look rosier! Vaseline and Bag Balm are both synthetic topical lubricants, with Bag Balm a Vermont concoction for sore cow udders – and it works beautifully.
Toilet tent with a view
6. Tent Activity: Jill Rogers recalls that the nights in the tent on Kilimanjaro were quite cold and very long. Given the mountain’s location very near the equator, the sun goes down around 6:00 pm at all times of the year. Typically, we went into dinner having our headlights with us and came out in the dark. Then it was off to our tents until sometime after sunrise at 6:00 am. So, make sure to have plenty to read (I recommend a light-weight Kindle) and a few crosswords to tackle, while zippered into your sleeping bag. That’s unless you can sleep straight for ten hours or so. Hot water in a Nalgene can help warm up the inside of your sleeping bag, and if your feet are cold, zip up your parka and pull it up over the bottom of your sleeping bag to cut the cold breezes. Wes and Gary both recommend a Big Agnes sleeping bag and pad system for a good night’s sleep.
Camp II at 12,500 ft.
7. Pack a flannel pillow case: Elizabeth Spencer advises to bring along a flannel pillow case, fill it with your down outerwear, and enjoy a pleasant night’s sleep. She did this, but had her treasure usurped by the benefactor funding the expedition – her older brother. If you are at risk for confiscation via primogeniture, bring two flannel pillowcases – it’s nice to have a comfortable pillow that feels like a piece of home.
8. Summit Night: Jill Rogers advises to organize your pack well for summit night. You’ll endure many long hours of exertion in the dark and it will likely be very cold. You’ll certainly need to intake energy, but may not feel much like eating. Prepare by having hard candies or packets of GU in an easy-to-reach outside pocket of your coat or front pocket of your pack belt. These items are quick and easy to suck on. Protein bars get too hard in the cold and you’ll get out of breath trying to chew them. Other items to have easily available include a couple of hand warmers, extra batteries for your headlamp, lip balm, toilet paper, and your camera as sunrise approaches. Gary Rogers recommends you keep your shirt on at the summit. The temperatures during your trek to the top on “summit day” may be near or below zero degrees Fahrenheit. At the summit, though you may be tempted, it is advisable to stay dressed for the photographs.
Dawn near Stella Point
Jill prefers a puffy down parka on summit day,
Cotopaxi, July 2011
Gary goes shirtless on Kili’s Uhuru Peak,
9. Use the “rest step”: Seke Godson and the other Kili guides will teach you a valuable technique for climbing the steeper portions of the trail that will help you to preserve energy. It is called the rest step. It may be slow, but it really works. Use it! Especially on summit night. Emily Wroe commented about her Kili climb, “I never knew I could walk so slowly and still get somewhere.”
Practicing the “rest step” on Day 5
Emily Wroe in the mountains of Alaska
Mt. Meru framed by glaciers in the crater on Kili
10. Tipping: Wes Chapman, climber and trip leader, knows that tipping on expeditions is an art form, and the simple application of percentage mark-ups from restaurant service doesn’t work at all. From a practical perspective, I figure that $30-40 per person per day is in the “just right” sweet spot. For multi-day trips, another practical method is using a lower and upper limit for the trip of $250 and $500 respectively. US dollars or Euros are usually preferred, but any major currency is normally well received. Bring enough cash! And pass it directly to the head guide for distribution among the assistant guides, cooks, porters, etc. The support teams have fairly detailed pre-arranged distribution plans, and direct distribution will only produce discord. The only exception is a small additional amount may be given directly to the porter who is responsible for your comfort – caring for your tent, gear, breakfast tea, and the like. Also, it is standard practice and thoughtful to leave behind unwanted clothing and gear with the crew, but this should never be considered as a substitute for a cash tip. Often groups have a fun lottery for the guys on the last day and everyone goes home with some useful item for their next trip up the mountain, as well as their tip.
Seke Godson (left) and porters singing to clients
Wes Chapman in the crater on Kilimanjaro