Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru

Made it! Uhuru Peak!
Marcos and Arusha, top of Kili

I recently had the opportunity to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru with my friend Anne and his dad. For Kilimanjaro, we hiked the Machame route, know also as the Whisky route. The hike took six days, and we successfully reached the summit! I want to share some thoughts about the experience here with regards to equipment, the mountains, Tanzania and human matters. However, before I get to that, I thought of some general rules for climbing Kilimanjaro.

Three General Rules

  1. Don’t skimp on equipment: buying cheap equipment will likely come back and bite you hard. Equipment is intended to keep you alive, so if you value your health, then get good equipment (see my equipment list below).
  2. The mountain will try to kill you: ok, this is a little over dramatic, but if you pretend it is, you will have much more fun. The mountain does, in fact, kill a lot of people per year. According to Wikipedia, nearly 35 people die on average on the mountain per annum (around 15 tourist, 20 porters).
  3. Always carry your wet weather gear with your because nothing dries on the mountain: Kili is a massive mountain surrounded by tropical rainforest. It creates it’s own weather system, which is extremely unpredictable. Expect rain, snow, high winds and blistering hot sun – all in one day! Despite all the crazy weather, there is a general pattern however: nights and mornings are usually clear and quite cold, particularly the higher you get. As the day heats up, the forests below releases moisture and soon you will find yourself in cloud. By mid afternoon it will likely be raining. When it rains, you need to have your wet weather gear handy. Don’t be an idiot and leave it in your backpack, as it is unlikely you will see your porter throughout the day. You and your equipment will get wet. But how wet you get is up to you. If you don’t protect your backpack and your sleeping bag gets wet, you risk pneumonia or worst. If your boots get wet, you risk blisters and infection. Also, you need to be prepared to drink 3-4 of water liters a day to keep hydrated. And, on the final ascend, protect your water from the cold (which can be extreme, we had at least -10c to -15c). If exposed, your water will freeze or you will end up drinking extremely cold water, which will cool your body temperature and make you feel unwell.
  4. “Polé Polé,” is the key: Polé Polé means something like “slowly slowly”, which is the key to getting up the mountain (but seems to be a way of life in Tanzania). If you go too quickly, you will quickly be overcome with altitude sickness and you’ll find yourself with you head between your legs vomiting up your lunch and with a massive altitude headache. Not nice. Quite a few keen hikers found themselves in this predicament and promptly had to turn back. Also, don’t let anyone rush you. Go at your own pace, particularly as you get closer to the summit. People experience hallucinations as they get closer to 5000 meters. One of the groups we were with started seeing hands on their shoulders and the felling they were being followed by people that were not there… perhaps Kili is haunted by the hundreds of people that have died there over the years; Alas, as an atheist, I’m not allowed to believe in such things 😉
  5. Don’t be an asshole, your are there as a team. Porters are not your slaves! Just because you pay the tour company to provide you with porters, it does not mean you should not help them carry things. Remember, porters get paid to what basically amounts to less then US$5 per days. The first day is the hardest for everyone, so do everyone a favor and carry your own pack up the mountain. If you see a porter struggling to carry food, then help them! don’t just stand there like an asshole saying “oh! they should not carry so much stuff! that is really sad.” If it starts raining, don’t be an asshole and just stand there while the porters get wet. Help them put up the tent. Help them with the dishes. Help them with whatever you can. And give them a good tip (see end of this post for tipping info) 🙂

What we paid

We went with a company called Victoria Tours. The team they assigned to use were ok for Mt. Meru and excellent for Kilimanjaro. More on that later. We paid US$4000 for both walks for 3 people, excluding tips for porters and guides (which totaled around 10%). The money also paid for 3 nights accommodation at a 1 star hotel (they cost about TZ$15,000 per night). We stayed at the Mt. Meru House, where Victoria Tour’s office is located.

Mt. Meru

Mt Meru
Mt Meru

I strongly recommend you hike Mt. Meru before you hike Kilimanjaro.

Not only is Mt. Meru more challenging than kili, it also offers a great opportunity to see wildlife (particularly on day 1 – we saw all the usual suspects: giraffes, zebra, buffalo, gnus, baboons, etc. which you don’t see on Kili), get fit and acclimatized, and provides some amazing views of Kilimanjaro, which just makes you want to climb it more.

Equipment for Kilimanjaro

Prior to going on the trip, I spent a lot of time trying to find the appropriate equipment to take. I spent nearly 1000 Euros (AU$2000) on new equipment, which complimented some old equipment I had. If you are considering getting into hiking, you probably need close to 2000 Euros worth of equipment (see list below). Yes! hiking equipment is expensive, but there is a good reason for that: it’s purpose is to keep you alive in extreme conditions. This is not so relevant on Kilimajaro, where you are usually hiking with a lot of people; but more so if you are planning to hike at other locations alone (as I sometimes like to do).

If you intend to climb Kilimanjaro, tour companies will tell you that they will provide you with the equipment you need. DON’T USE THEIR EQUIPMENT, IT’S MOSTLY CRAP! You SHOULD take your own equipment. The equipment that the companies in Tanzania have are mostly unsuitable for Kilimanjaro and will likely fail you. By fail, I mean, for instance, that any water proof jacket they give you will not be water proof or the tent they give you will leak, etc.

Equipment (MUST take, and by MUST I mean MUST in the RFC2119 sense!)

  • day pack (~20-35 liter backpack)
  • Plastic (or synthetic) pack cover for day pack and for backpack.
  • 1 set of thermal underwear (top & bottom)
  • 1 sleeping bag (rating 0 C or four seasons)
  • 1 silk liner for sleeping bag
  • 1 warm jersey/sweater
  • 1 sleeping mat
  • 1 pair of track suit top & bottom (for sleeping)
  • 1 light towel
  • 1 polar fleece/down vest
  • 2 pair of light loose fitting cordura nylon (quick dry) trousers
  • 1 waterproof jacket and pants
  • 1 short sleeves shirt (quick drying synthetic material, no cotton – you will wear this for 3 days!)
  • 1 long sleeves shirt (quick drying synthetic material, no cotton – you will wear this for 3 days!)
  • 4-6 pairs of good quality hiking socks
  • 1 t-shirt (spare, cotton ok)
  • 1 pair of hiking boots (waterproof/goretex)
  • 1 pair of sneakers (or sandals)
  • 1 pair of warm heavy weight gloves/mittens
  • 1 pair of gaiters
  • 1 pair of light weight gloves (inner gloves)
  • 1 pair of cycling gloves
  • 1 bandana (good for first day, and when it gets hot)
  • 1 wide brim hat
  • 1 pair of sunglasses
  • 1 balaclava
  • 1 wool hat
  • 1 warm scarf
  • 2 x 1.5 litres water bottles or camel bag (4 liters)
  • 1 head lamp (plus spare batteries & bulb)
  • 1 pair of walking poles
  • 1 pocket swiss army knife (or better)
  • 1 travel pillow (optional)
  • 1 small first aid kit (it is unlikely that your guide will carry a first aid kit)
  • 1 toiletries bag (what to put in it is below!)
  • 3 Large black garbage bags
  • 8 small plastic bags

In toiletries bag you MUST bring:

  • antibacterial soap
  • antiseptic cream
  • deodorant (roll on)
  • sunscreen (35+, but 50+ preferred as you get burned really easily at high altitude)
  • anti-fungal talc powder (for feet and to stop any crotch-rot)
  • 12 imodium tables (Liperamide HCI BP 2mg) – diarrhea pills
  • Malaria pills
  • Moleskin (or some kind of blister protection)
  • Insect repellent (only for first day)
  • Leukoplast – Natural rubber adhesive medical tape (2.5cm x 5meters)
  • toothpaste/toothbrush/dental floss
  • water purification tablets
  • antibiotics (if you have trouble getting them from your GP, just get ’em in Tanzania at any pharmacy; they are happy to sell you anything there! 🙂 )
  • 40 panadol/aspirin/ibuprofen (even if you don’t need them, there is always someone who does!)

Equipment you MAY want to bring

  • Tent (4 season): We had a tent from the company. It leaked and generally sucked. Don’t go bringing a 5Kg, 10 person tent! get a light tent that weights no more than 2 kilos!
  • Purely Optional

    • mobile phone – There is reception on the whole mountain. Txt your love ones and let them know your progress and that you are OK.
    • mp3 player – loaded with music and audio books: like all hiking, it is a good time to do some soul searching and pondering while listening to your favorite tunes. It’s also a great time to get in some reading. My favorite book to listen to on walks is Neil Stepherson’s Snowcrash. The book made new sense to me in Tanzania: where the rules of the society and commerce are governed by monetary corruption and turbo capitalism, which has led to widespread poverty as a result of IMF/World bank imposed deregulation and the selling off of state assets to foreign interests. Essentially, Tanzania has no industry so the general economy seems to be made of up of people just selling little bits of food, clothing, and daily necessities to each other. In a lot of ways,
    • gps – always fun to know how high you are, especially if you don’t take drugs.

    Some useful suggestions for when you are hiking

    • Wear two pairs of socks all the time: this will stop you from getting blisters.
    • Always wear pants: shorts suck.
    • Always wear your gaiters: this will stop little stones and sticks getting into your boots. It will also protect your if it suddenly starts to rain or snow.
    • Clean your water bottles every few days as they may become septic (you will know this because they will smell bad). If bottles become septic, it’s your fault. Don’t blame your porters. Your mouth is full of bacteria and other nasty stuff, which, if you are not careful, will contaminate your bottle and can make you sick.

    Tipping on the walks

    Tip 10% of what your group paid. But at the same time, if you can, give a little more. Unemployment rate in Tanzania is over 60%. In the areas that supply the porters it can be as high as 80% unemployment. Remember, these poor dudes get about US$5 a day to carry all your shit up the mountain. That’s what most westerners on the mountain make in like 20 minutes of work per day. The least you can do is honestly ask your self, “how much would they have to pay me to carry my own stuff up the mountain?”. Ask yourself that on the last day, when you are up above 4000 meters and then you will get a sense of how hard-core being a porter or a guide is.

    Having mentioned tipping, I really hate tipping. I think that Tanzanian companies should just include the tip into the price and standardize their prices and compete on features, etc. I think the whole way Tanzania’s do business is really fucking backwards and really fucking stupid (I have no kinder words for it). All the bullshit about not having standardized prices reinforces the corruption in the society. All the bargaining for everything is an absolute waste of time and seem to be motivated by infantile greed. I’m sure it can be shown to be universally detrimental to the economy as a whole.