On Climbing Kili: This is How the Experts Know if You’re Likely to be Successful, or Fail Spectacularly
So you think you’re going to summit Kilimanajro, Africa’s highest free-standing mountain? Almost twenty thousand feet high?
We’ll see about that.
NFL Hall of Famer Ray Lewis couldn’t do it. Tennis royalty Martina Navritalova couldn’t either. By any measure both are elite athletes. You think you can do better?
You might just. And you might not.
Out of some 50,000 who attempt this mountain each year, many fail (https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/travel/article/2162717/climbing-kilimanjaro-good-bad-and-ugly-sides). Some estimates (and there are no solid stats) are up to 40% or more failures. Around 10–15 die, and at least 1000 each year are helicoptered off because of altitude sickness. The Tanzanian government is loathe to publicize actual death and injury figures because of potential bad publicity. But there are plenty.
Athletic prowess is no guarantee to reach the top of the world in Tanzania. Many other factors come to play, including what route you take (there are now eight) and how much time you’re willing to put into training, and then, on the mountain, to acclimate. Those take time, dedication and discipline. This is not an endeavor you take on spur of the moment,especially if you’re not particularly fit. Yet people try it all the time.
Even dedication and discipline aren’t surefire predictors. Let’s say you plan for eight days on the mountain. You train hard. You’re in terrific shape.
That helps. But it’s not all.
The boutique safari firm eTrip Africa has been taking folks up the mountain for a long time. Ben Jennings, the firm’s director, is a Wyoming-born mountain boy who has lived in Arusha with his French wife Aurelie for years. He has worked with a great many clients, and trained one of the best teams on the mountain.
This past November, as his top three guides, Ben and I drove to Nairobi in preparation for a summit attempt on Mt. Kenya (17,058') I had a chance to interview them to discover how these experts can tell who is likely to make it and who isn’t when it comes to Africa’s tallest mountain.
If you’re planning a summit attempt, you might want to check out their comments below. It might change what you do and how you participate, if you really want to make it to the top. I did, so I have some experience, too. But these guys are the real experts.
Ben, Bosco, Caspar and Davis were eager to fill me in on their laundry list of who makes it and who often doesn’t and why. While this isn’t comprehensive, and there are the occasional outliers, it’s instructive.
The people who have the hardest time on the mountain:
Military, especially young military. Their gung-ho attitude costs them their health, and their impatience with the slow, measured pace almost ensures failure. These folks are determined to make it no matter what, and that is what costs lives. Hoo-rah does NOT get you up the mountain. Slow, steady, thoughtful pacing does.
People who don’t prepare. Walking a few miles three times a week is no training plan for a hike like this, especially if you’re not already in VERY good shape. There are many training plans for Kilimanjaro on the web. If you don’t train seriously, you will fail. I trained four hours a day for seven months and was in ridiculously good shape, and I still ached like a bastard after we came down the mountain. It’s hard damned work.
Doctors. Medical professionals. Surprisingly (and perhaps not), this group tends to be very arrogant about being supported by the guides, and they deny help. “I know what I’m doing” is a common refrain, and they resist the idea that they, too, can succumb to altitude sickness. Humility is a bit short in supply here.
People who haven’t done a whit of research. These folks often show up with inadequate gear. They don’t take the danger seriously, as though a hike up one of the world’s seven great peaks is a walk in the park.
Women who pack a hair dryer and makeup. Really. Just…..really.
People who ask, “What happens if someone wants to come down?” This is a red flag, and identifies a person who got swept up in the trip and it wasn’t their idea. They aren’t keen, and they want an escape route.
People who pack whiskey and cigars for the summit. Their entire focus is on a big celebration as though it’s a done deal. (alcohol is illegal, btw)
People who have climbed other large peaks and assume this will be a breeze. Just because you’ve done Denali doesn’t mean you can climb Kilimanjaro. Every mountain is unique.
Interestingly, uber-athletic young men (and women) have a greater likelihood of failure for the simple fact that they overestimate their skills, don’t listen to the guides and try to race the mountain. The deadly triad.
The All Important Briefing
At any poker game, your opponents are looking for tells. That’s what allows them to know what’s in your hand. The night before you head up the mountain, your head guide will conduct a briefing at your hotel in Moshi. Here are the dead giveaway tells that these very smart guides have come to look for which indicate trouble, someone who’s going to make the trip tough for others, folks who are likely to fail:
People who brag about what they’ve already done. This lack of respect for the vagaries of each mountain, the different challenges of weather and route are guaranteed to bite these folks in the butt.
People who interrupt the briefing and tell others what to expect. They disrespect the guides and try to take over, and show off.
Know-it-alls. Those who are constantly claiming that they’ve got this, they’ve got this, I know, I know.
People who are wholly disengaged, either out of fear, or because they are desperately trying to be cool, nonchalant. I’m just so cool I don’t need to be at this briefing man. Waste of time, man. I have this handled, man.
Those who are earning money for charity and feel they HAVE to summit or the trip is a failure. People who can’t separate from their cause. If they don’t summit, they don’t earn the money- or so they believe- so they will push themselves beyond reasonable limits.
People who either are impatient or irritated with gear checks. Who absolutely insist they have everything they need and don’t want anyone going over their equipment. These are the folks who forgot something mission- critical, who are terrified to find out that perhaps they didn’t bring everything they needed, afraid of being wrong.
This egotistical insanity can cost dearly at altitude.
People who don’t listen, don’t want help, and refuse advice or guidance from the guides.
People who researched the cost of a helicopter rescue. People who already know if their insurance covers the fastest way down never had much intention of doing the climb.
So, who makes it?
In many cases, not who you might think.
For example, fitness- and being slim and athletic, and young, are not predictors. Just ask Kara Richardson Whitely, who did it three times, at 300 lbs. https://people.com/bodies/this-300-lb-woman-climbed-mount-kilimanjaro-3-times/. The guides will tell you that mental fitness has more to do with success than physical fitness, but the two go hand-in-hand.
Older folks. Why? Because they understand pacing. They’re not out to race the mountain. Recently eTrip took Dr. Fred Distelhorst (at 88) to the top of Kili. He’s the oldest yet.
People over sixty, and that includes ex-military (as am I ) better understand how to respect the mountain, slow way down, and prepare more carefully. We’re not out to prove something to the world. To ourselves, maybe, but this isn’t necessarily an ego trip.
When I came down the mountain to get my certificate of completion, the young man who was sitting next to the window where I waited for my paperwork looked horrible. He was 24, an experienced alpinist from Austria.
He had tried to race the mountain, and had to be carried out on a stretcher.
Folks who ask lots of questions at the briefing. What should I carry in my day pack? What should I wear? How are conditions going to change as we go up the mountain? What’s the best kind of jacket? They want to learn. They are eager, respectful.
People who want advice. These climbers rightfully assume that the guides know the mountain and the conditions they’ll be facing. Being willing to not know, and even more importantly to be supported during the climb, are key factors in success.
People who have carefully researched and organized their gear. During the gear check they’re eager to learn more, and if anything over-prepared. It’s far easier to leave things at the hotel in Moshe than to conjure up a headlamp that will work in freezing conditions. Hint: most won’t if the batteries are exposed.
People who can deal with adversity with humor. On any excursion like this, it’s key to be able to laugh if something goes sour. You break the zipper on your down bag in the middle of the night. You knock over your pee bottle (YES it happens). You get nasty blisters. You have to stop and rest more often than you thought. You get nauseous.
Disciplined folks who respect their guides’ expertise.
Remarkably, although not surprising when you consider it, many, many disabled folks make it. Limitations act as catalyzers, so folks with missing legs or who are blind or otherwise challenged throw their hearts and souls into preparation. (That says something about those of us with all our body parts who don’t take this climb anywhere near as seriously)
Stuff will happen. Guaranteed.
Your body telegraphs the message just what the f — do you think you’re doing here????? right about the time you reach Gilman’s point and the goal is within reach. You start down that steep scree field, pick up speed and slam your leg into a rock (I did that; OW man).
How you learn to embrace the reality of your experience, lean on the competence of your guides and learn to laugh when the toilet seat is so cold that it goes with you when you stand up are all part of the Kili experience.
It is really, really hard to be arrogant when you’re walking around. A cold campground with a plastic toilet seat frozen to your ass. But that’s just me
Perhaps the most essential piece of this is to obey the guides when and if they tell you that you may not continue up the mountain. If this happens, it’s because their medical check and/or the symptoms you’re exhibiting are telegraphing distress.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree. They are responsible for your safety, not your summit. If continuing on threatens your life, they will turn you back. If your behavior endangers the group, they will take action.
It’s not their problem if you’re not happy. It IS their problem if you die.
Altitude sickness affects each of us differently, and people can deny their symptoms out of fear of being left behind. Good guides are certified, trained, and expert at identifying the warning signals. It’s not your call. It’s theirs.
The last thing they need is some belligerent, determined idiot barrelling off up the trail long after he’s already demonstrated symptoms, only to find him coughing up blood a few hundred feet later still claiming he can make the summit.
Wanna climb Kili?
It’s both easier and harder than you think. It’s easier when you pick a competent team. Take months to train, to challenge yourself, build your endurance and gather all the right gear.
It’s easier when you put the right investment into the kind of equipment that can protect and save your life. It’s easier when you do your research, understand and plan for the risks, and begin the journey in utter humility.
It’s easier when you pick a guiding outfit that supports the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP). Do your due diligence, some organizations claim membership but it’s not a full commitment. Those who do, ensure that their porters earn a living wage so that they don’t summit in flip flops.
Nobody owes you a summit.
It’s harder because so many have done it that there’s a veritable highway all the way up, making it seem vastly easier than it appears to be. It’s harder when you overestimate your abilities and underestimate the difficulty.
And it’s incredibly difficult if you don’t respect the guides who take you up the mountain. These men- and it’s still mostly men but changing- began as porters, and earned their way to become guides.
The best outfits, like eTrip, train them extensively and get them certified to do medical checks and rescues. They are experts.
Most of them have summitted Kilimanjaro hundreds of times by the time they’re in their thirties.
So imagine what these superb mountaineers think of some arrogant jerk who wants to tell them that they have no clue about what they’re doing, or argue about their health symptoms or refuse to follow directives intended to keep them (and others on the climb) safe.
Yah. Those are the ones least likely to make it.
My successful trip to the summit was followed by a minor, but painful, knee injury on the way down. My two guides, Ignas and August, combined to “chairlift” me to the base, where the porters were waiting with cold mango juice. That assistance didn’t cost me a thing. What it did do was teach me to accept help when I need it.
That trip changed the direction of my life. Big summits can do that, or they can be a source of pain and exhaustion. Choosing an uber-competent team, training responsibly, and being willing to not know all have a great deal to do with a successful summit.
These guides want everyone to succeed- but not at the cost of your health.
Wanna climb Kilimanjaro? I highly recommend it. It’s pretty spectacular. Just plan to make it both safe and fun. It really can be that trip of a lifetime as promised. Enjoy the hike!