Preparing for a Quest to Conquer Kilimanjaro

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By Mary Lyons

Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the continent of Africa and thousands of people summit Uhuru Peak at 19,300 feet every year. My dream to summit Kilimanjaro was born about ten years ago after I had been living overseas for a year. For the first time in my life, I actually had a disposable income to use for travel. For some reason, my dream to summit Kilimanjaro got put on the back burner for several years, perhaps because it is an expensive venture and I also wanted to include a safari and a trip to Zanzibar.

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Sign at our first camp – Every camp has a sign like this

About two years ago, I decided to bite the bullet, or break the bank I guess, and go to Tanzania to conquer Kilimanjaro. I booked the trip in May 2015, but my departure date was January 2016. The travel company I used in the UK had told me a year before when I contacted them, that I needed to book early because January is peak season for climbing because of the optimal weather.

After I booked the trip, the tour company sent me all the information I needed to prepare, but there were some things that were not clear to me, like who was going to carry what. I was used to carrying everything myself and their info made it sound like I would carry my own clothing, but that wasn’t the case. Other things were abundantly clear, like the bill! High altitude trekking does not come cheap, no matter what company you book with.

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Day 1 Starting our climb at 9000 feet – Everyone was thinking, -This is easy!-

Here are some tips that I hope will help you to prepare for any high-altitude trek should you decided to undertake such an adventure. I feel I should include a disclaimer here. I actually did not make it to Uhuru. Altitude sickness got the best of me, as did lack of sleep due to a snoring tent mate and headaches due to altitude. I did make it to Gilman’s Point, at 18,500 feet, and I’m proud of that, although it wasn’t my goal.

Getting Your Gear On

One of the things I needed to do in the States was buy clothing. I lived in Kuwait during the school year, and it’s impossible to find adequate gear there for such cold temperatures. Temperatures on Kilimanjaro are at zero (Celsius) or below once you get above 12,000 feet, and during the big push on the last day, it’s about -20C. I spend my year between two deserts where I can wear flip flops in winter. I was not prepared for -20C!

This is a list of what I took with me, based on recommendations from the travel company. I did the Rongai Route which was advertised as five days, but the 19km descent from 12,000 feet on the last day meant it was actually 6 days.

CLOTHING AND GEAR

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Me with Meru in the distance on Day 2

Four season Gortex coat with removable fleece inside from North Face (Gortex is NOT necessary! It’s just what I already had.)

Pullover fleece

Long-sleeve Climadry shirt for hiking during the day

Patagonia thermal underwear – 2 pairs, one for hiking on the last 2-3 days + one for camp and sleeping

Short sleeve Climadry shirt for hiking on the first day, starting altitude 9000 feet

Patagonia zip-off leg trekking pants

Marmot rain jacket and pants (you’ll need the pants to keep warm on the last day)

Fleece pants (for the last day where you have four layers on bottom, five on top, ski pants also work)

 

2 pair Smartwool socks (I wore both on the last day)

2 pair sock liners

2 pair Exofficio underwear

2 sportbras

 

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Mustafa and Jonas, both amazing guides – Mustafa got me to Gilman’s Point

1 wool scarf (only used it for the final climb, but actually took it off halfway up)

1 wool hat (in addition to the hood on my North Face coat)

1 pair thin gloves

1 pair insulated ski gloves (only used during the final climb)

Vasque hiking boots (again, Gortex is NOT necessary, do not spend the money on it)

 

Rented a sleeping bag from The African Walking Company for about 40 dollars

Therma-rest ¾ length ¾ inch thick mattress (most companies do not rent mattresses)

 

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Unique vegetation on Kili makes for great pictures

Headlamp

Rain cover for my day pack

Journal and pen

Nikon pocket digital camera (with extra battery – sleep with both to prevent batteries from dying, and carry close to your body during the day)

Two bandanas

Quick-dry pack towel

Facial wipes/toothbrush and toothpaste/sunscreen/night cream and eye cream (Hey, I’m a woman in her 40s! Gimme a break!)

Others in my group carried mosquito repellent. IMO, it is not necessary. The altitude is too high, you’re fully clothed all the time, and malaria is not a concern in Tanzania.

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Kilimanjaro in the distance – I believe this was taken on Day 3 of our climb

2L water bladder with insulated tube to go inside my daypack – In my opinion, there is a significant advantage to carrying a bladder as opposed to water bottles. There were 8 people in my group, and everyone except me carried bottles. Every time they wanted water, they had to take their packs off. I didn’t. During the climb on the last day, their water froze in the bottles. Mine didn’t because it was in my pack next to my body, even though I had five layers between me and the bladder.

 

Weighing In

It sounds like a lot of weight, but your porter will carry everything except your day pack which contains your rain coat and pants, camera and batteries, gloves, hat, scarf if you want, sunscreen, snacks, water, and I carried my journal and a small book.

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The porters passed us every day carrying 27kg each – Here they come!

You will most likely be limited to 15 kg total, not including your day pack contents. I left clothes and anything I didn’t need at the hotel. The hotel where you stay the night before your climb is the same hotel you will return to after you finish.

 

Kilimanjaro – The Air Sure Is Thin Up Here!

Preparing for altitude sickness is foremost on everyone’s mind before they climb Kilimanjaro, but there is no way to predict how your body will react. That said, I do think there are some things you can do to prepare. There was an expert climber in my group who was preparing to climb Mt Everest. I talked to him a lot about altitude. He was also a spinal surgeon from New York. You never know who you’ll meet in Africa. He was also married 🙁

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Kibo Hut at Day 4 Camp

One way to prepare yourself for high altitudes is to expose yourself to them. If you have access to an area with peaks above 12,000 feet, climb them and see how your body reacts. If camping is available at those high elevations, spend the night. I had the worst headaches at night.

Mustafa and Me at Gilman’s Point

To prevent and combat the effects of altitude, drink at least 3 – 5 liters of water a day. Ibuprofen was my friend and when my headaches were persistent, I took 2 every 4-6 hours. Drink when you’re not thirsty and eat when you’re not hungry.

I lost my appetite completely on Day 4, before our midnight ascent on Day 5. I ate some soup at our early dinner, and went to sleep at 6PM, but by midnight, I was running on empty and couldn’t get anything to go down. If I were to attempt it again, I would ask for plain white rice and maybe take saltine crackers with me to eat before ascending at midnight.

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The descent from Gilman’s Point at 18000 feet, looking down at camp at 15000 feet

There’s a medicine called Diamox that is supposed to help with altitude sickness. Make sure you investigate this option thoroughly before deciding whether or not to use it. There’s a reason a prescription is required to take it. It can also have the same side effects as altitude sickness, which is ultimately the reason I decided not to use it.

Most companies offer the option of using oxygen for the final ascent only, for an extra cost.

 

Let’s Make This Happen!

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We saw several of these on our last day after we got back down to 10000 feet
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Jonas was our contemplative guide with a smile like the sun

Peak season for climbing Kilimanjaro is January to March and June to October. January to March means you have a better chance of seeing snow, although you likely won’t see snow until your final ascent. The glacier atop Kilimanjaro is shrinking at an alarming rate. There’s also less chance of rain during these months I have mentioned.

Peak season means it can get crowded on some of the routes, although I didn’t think the Rongai 5-day route was crowded in January. It was busy, but not crowded.

Booking several months in advance is critical if you’re going during either of these peak seasons. If you are planning to hike the Coca-Cola route (Marangu Route) it is especially important to book many months in advance. This is the most popular route, partially because sleeping huts with dormitory style accommodation are used for accommodation along the way. People who prefer not to camp (and not use a camp toilet!) choose this option, but they book up many months in advance.

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Hans was voted most photogenic out of all the guides. You can see why.

Choosing a tour company can be daunting and some people feel it isn’t necessary. I have met people who just went to Tanzania and hired a guide and porter, and started trekking. It can be done and can cost a lot less than booking through a tour company. However, you won’t know what you’re going to get, or how qualified and experienced those guides and porters are. I wasn’t comfortable doing that, especially when I had never hiked at such altitudes before.

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Day 4 trek – Looks easy, right- Clean, flat. Ha! We were near 15000 feet and moving at a snail’s pace

Do thorough research on tour companies before deciding. Prices and departure dates can vary, although not as much as you might think. Tour companies outside of Tanzania are well-connected to companies within Tanzania. You pay the tour company, say in the UK, and they pay the local company who in turn, pays their guides and porters.

The cost of a Kilimanjaro climb will vary, but to give you some idea of costs, they could run from between $200 – $500 a day for a climb depending on season, route, number of people in your group, and the tour company you choose. Mine was expensive, but the quality and level of service cannot be beat.

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This is both a starting and ending point, depending on which route you take. It was our end.

 

It’s Not Glamping, But It’s Pretty Darn Close!

Accommodation on Kilimanjaro can vary widely, depending on the route and tour company you use. But overall, unless you book the Coca-Cola route, you’re going to be sleeping in a two-man tent with a tent mate. Most tour operators will try to discourage one person in a tent because porters are limited to carrying 27kg. They carry these tents from camp to camp, so when someone books a private tent, they actually put a burden on the porters.

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Our tents were the orange ones, spacious and functional

The tents are spacious, and the porters will carry your air mattress and sleeping bag. When you arrive at camp, your tent, mattress, and sleeping bag will be all set up for you and any personal belongings they carry will be inside the tent. Now that’s service! The African Walking Company also provided a toilet tent so that we didn’t have to use the gross park toilets. This was much appreciated!

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Me with our Chief Guide, Florence, who was so charasmatic and born to do this job

Tour operators also provide a dining tent. The meals are amazing. Three hot three-course meals a day are standard with most tour companies. They want you to eat as much as you can because it helps ensure your success in reaching the peak. We were also served tea and coffee in our tent in the morning, but I have some tent rules I follow that I also made my friend follow. They are:

1) no shoes inside the tent

2) no trekking poles inside the tent

3) no uncovered liquids in the tent!

We kept our tea and coffee outside the tent for the most part, but I eventually declined it altogether.

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Meru Peak was visible for much of our trek up Kilimanjaro and was just as photogenic

Tipping the People that Helped You Get There

One of the things I liked most about this adventure was that we were given an actual guide to tipping the guides and porters. There are different levels of porters and guides, as well as the cook and chief guide. The tipping scale gave us a range of how much to tip and luckily, we had a mathematician in our group who could figure out how much we should all put in the pot. These 33 guides and porters were so amazing, we gave them the maximum amount.

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All 33 guides and porters as well as my group of 8 at the tipping ceremony on the last night

I want to include a word about over-tipping. Over-tipping is not beneficial to those who receive it or to climbers who come after you. It instills unrealistic expectations in the guides and porters, and disappointment when the group after you doesn’t over-tip. Please stick to the guidelines supplied by the tour company.

Now You Know

A good tour company will provide you with all the information you need before making a decision about whether or not to book a tour and climb Kilimanjaro. It’s a serious endeavor that takes planning and preparation. Hopefully my two cents worth can help you do just that. I’d love to hear from you! Leave comments and questions below and I’ll be sure to answer them!

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View of Meru Peak from our camp on Day 3

 

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56 thoughts on “Preparing for a Quest to Conquer Kilimanjaro

  • July 6, 2017 at 7:03 am
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    I’ve always wanted to go hiking and camping in Africa but I’m so in love with nature but hate nature at the same time. I hate the snakes and the bugs that are all around. yuck!

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    • July 11, 2017 at 4:36 am
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      Well, Kili may be the place for you! There aren’t any snakes and the altitude means there aren’t many bugs! lol!

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  • July 6, 2017 at 2:40 am
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    I thought this article was very engaging. The pictures really made your life journey stand out. I am now wanting to go to some of these places!

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    • July 11, 2017 at 4:37 am
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      Thanks, Jim! Africa is certainly a place worth exploring. I’ve been fortunate to visit several countries in Africa and have never been disappointed.

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  • July 5, 2017 at 4:54 pm
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    what a great place to go investigate I love visiting new areas in the outdoor world!

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  • July 4, 2017 at 4:57 pm
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    Having the right clothing and gear is a must for a big expedition like this one. The photos of your adventure are simply breathtaking.

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    • July 11, 2017 at 4:40 am
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      Thank you, Maria. I’m glad you enjoy the photos. I took those with a little Nikon digital camera that fit in my pocket. You’re right about the clothing and gear. I knew it would be cold, especially the last climb in the dark, so I followed all the advice of the tour company. Glad I did because it was -20C on the last day!

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  • July 4, 2017 at 12:01 pm
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    I really have solid respect for guys who are into extreme sports. Kudos to you for doing the Kilimanjaro trek. I so wanna do it. It’s a fantastic guide for anyone planning to hike to Kilimanjaro. And go you mentioned January is a peak season. I didn’t know that. I would definitely bookmark it. Maybe next year I get to do it.

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    • July 11, 2017 at 4:42 am
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      Thank you, Archana. I’m a “gal” by the way. 🙂 It was an amazing experience. January is high season because it rarely rains during that month, and it is still quite warm in Tanzania, although as you climb it gets very cold.

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  • July 4, 2017 at 7:44 am
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    I bet you had a great time! so much fun!! It’s such a beautiful place!! keep it up, well done!!

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  • July 4, 2017 at 6:10 am
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    Wow that is amazing, what a great adventure and sounds like you had fun. congrats on your accomplishment! I was not aware you can get sick when climbing high places. I have done a few small hikes and when I reach altitude my ears hurt from the pressure. These are some great tips, thanks for sharing!

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    • July 11, 2017 at 4:44 am
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      I didn’t have problems with my ears, but that can also happen at high altitude. I think because we were hiking, our ears had time to adjust, unlike in an airplane. But the loss of appetite for me was a killer. No one else seemed to experience that. But we all had headaches to varying degrees. But it was fun anyway!

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  • July 3, 2017 at 6:30 pm
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    This would have been an amazing trip to Kilimanjaro. I know that someday I would love to do camping like this. At least when my daughter is grown up anyway. Love backpacking and seeing such amazing sights.

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    • July 4, 2017 at 3:31 am
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      David, when your daughter is old enough, hopefully she will want to join you. I don’t know why it’s so rewarding to climb something that tall, but it is a great sense of accomplishment. Keep it on your list!

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  • July 3, 2017 at 4:57 pm
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    I wouldn’t know what to expect this is awesome and it’s definitely something you want to do in your lifetime! I really appreciate the tips, I never would have known what to bring or what to do!

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    • July 4, 2017 at 3:38 am
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      Carol, if you do decide to do it, don’t worry. Your tour company will guide you through the entire process and you’ll get quite the packing list from them. I couldn’t believe my bag was less than 15kg. lol! It is definitely worth the effort.

      Reply
  • July 3, 2017 at 2:09 pm
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    Love those places!. I’m assuming you really had a great time.

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    • July 4, 2017 at 3:39 am
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      Yes, amazing time, and met some great people. The people were the best part of the entire experience.

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  • July 3, 2017 at 12:57 pm
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    What a beautiful time. I love being able to conquer quests like this, so much fun. We enjoy hiking up Mt Washington here, long trail but you can cheat by taking the auto road too 😉 Glad you had a good time doing this!

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    • July 4, 2017 at 3:42 am
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      Mt Washington is very challenging! The weather alone makes it challenging! I have only climbed it once, when I did the AT, and after I got my picture taken, I was ready to get off that mountain. At least on Kili I could see where I was going!

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  • July 3, 2017 at 10:37 am
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    Kilimanjaro is such a beautiful place and having something this big and exciting on your list is amazing. I am not sure that I could do it, but you definitely make it look like something I should add to my bucket list.

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    • July 4, 2017 at 3:43 am
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      Aida, Kilimanjaro is beautiful. It has a stark, harsh beauty to it that is hard to describe. It is a bucket list item for a lot of people, and that’s understandable. Very rewarding experience, and the people I met were a big part of that.

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  • July 3, 2017 at 9:46 am
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    I have so much admiration for people like you who get to these mountains. I told my husband I would want to be at the summit of Mt. Everest, but I would just have to ride a chopper so I can just rappel down. My husband said that the air is too thin at that height that chopper cannot fly there. Oh well. It was just nice to daydream. 🙂 Congratulations on your achievement!

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    • July 4, 2017 at 3:49 am
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      Thank you, Kristine. Daydreaming is wonderful. It’s the beginning of a goal. You could always try Everest Base Camp. I haven’t done it, but my friend did, and she said it’s the most rewarding thing she’s ever done. That climb to base camp inspired her to go to do many other things. She just went paragliding in Ecuador! You never know what can be accomplished if you put your mind to it.

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  • July 3, 2017 at 3:25 am
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    Good to see you live your dreams! The list of what to bring is helpful. I am not quite sure if I can achieve something like this but feels really good to read about achievements like this.
    Wish you more such success!

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    • July 4, 2017 at 11:59 am
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      Thank you, Indrani. I hope you will keep reading about the many successes of the women on this site. We all have little successes every day.

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  • July 3, 2017 at 2:03 am
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    Glad that you pursued your goal of conquering Kilimanjaro! It must have been such a rewarding experience! Great tip on bringing the water bladder instead of the water bottles – such small thing can make a big difference!

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    • July 4, 2017 at 3:51 am
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      Thanks, Cat! It was so rewarding, even though I didn’t quite make it to Uhuru. I have always used a bladder for water. It kind of makes the water taste like rubber or plastic, but after a while I don’t really notice it. It’s just so convenient.

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  • July 2, 2017 at 4:11 pm
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    I enjoy exploring mountains with my kiddos. Kilimanjaro looks like an absolutely amazing place to visit and explore! Wonderful photos too!

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    • July 11, 2017 at 4:46 am
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      Heather, I think the youngest person to climb Kili was 9 or 10 years old? I’m not 100% sure. I didn’t see any kids during my trek, but I did see teenagers who were having a blast. Maybe because they are young, the altitude didn’t seem to affect them at all!

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  • July 2, 2017 at 12:44 pm
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    Oh wow. Mountain hiking is the least thing that I can do. Am afraid of long walks and height.

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  • July 2, 2017 at 10:20 am
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    Wow what an achievement!! This is all such great information, although due to health issues it wouldn’t be possible for me to do this climb!

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  • July 2, 2017 at 8:18 am
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    I am a high altitude trekker. Summiting Kilimanjaro is one of my long pending dreams. I know it’s an arduous trek and not easy to climb. But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming. Maybe someday!

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    • July 4, 2017 at 12:01 pm
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      Yes, Abhinav, you can do it! Dreaming is a good thing. Dreams turn into goals and goals turn into success.

      Reply
  • July 2, 2017 at 12:14 am
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    OK, I have to say that I am in awe of your adventure. I live in Florida, so I can only imagine the weight of your body at the level of altitude, SO COOL! This is such an amazing experience and I applaud you for taking the leap toward conquering Kilimanjaro.

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    • July 11, 2017 at 4:48 am
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      Thank you, Carlee. It was a great experience, one I think about doing again. You’re right, it cannot compare to anything in Florida. lol!

      Reply
  • July 1, 2017 at 8:24 pm
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    This is such a fab post. So much details and great tips. It is wonderful that you are writing from personal experience too. This is certainly a trip of a lifetime.

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    • July 4, 2017 at 12:03 pm
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      Thanks, Melanie! My sister is named Melanie. 🙂 I have been fortunate to have several trips of a lifetime. Being an expat in the Middle East has provided me with a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

      Reply
  • July 1, 2017 at 8:17 pm
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    Wow this looks like an incredible adventure!! Congratulations!! I don’t know if I would be able to do that, it seems so difficult too! The views of the mountains ara awesome too!

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  • July 1, 2017 at 7:21 pm
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    OMG! This is awesome! You went on a trek to climb Kilimanjaro?? Whoa! Awesome! Congrats!!! I’m so happy for you!!! So very cool.
    I’m always amazed by the porters and guides and sherpas! For them climbing something like Everest or Kilimanjaro is just like an everyday job!!!

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    • July 4, 2017 at 12:05 pm
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      Yes! The porters were amazing. They would blaze right past us carrying 27kg on their heads! They were just unbelievable. I noticed they did wear trekking shoes or boots though, not flip flops like I’ve seen the porters in Nepal wear. lol!

      Reply
  • July 1, 2017 at 7:03 pm
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    I doubt I would be able to climb this or any mountain for that matter. Lovely post though, really liked it.

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  • July 1, 2017 at 5:50 pm
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    I would love to attempt to climb Kilimanjaro but it’s has not yet reached the top of my list. There are some memorable tips here but the hardest part seems to be the altitude sickness as you get higher. The photo up there looks so beautiful it’s hard to imagine how it really feels though going at snails pace with a headache. Good tip about there not being mosquitoes or malaria, I’d hate to carry something up I didn’t need to. The porters and team were huge, I’m glad you chose a good company, it’s a once in a lifetime event….. unless you make a second attempt?

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    • July 4, 2017 at 12:09 pm
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      Honestly, James, I think about a second attempt almost every day. Part of me says, “I did it. Move on to something else.” But another part of me feels I failed. Gilman’s Point was not my goal. I’m still deciding if another attempt is in my future. If I did do it again, I would want to go with the African Walking Company again, with Florence as my fearless leader. He, and all of the guides, were so competent, and such a joy to spend a day with, even with a headache. Ha! Although my headaches subsided during the day, and were only a problem on day 3 and 4 really.

      Reply
  • July 1, 2017 at 4:56 pm
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    What.an.achievment! Tanzania sounds so cool and the vegetation so unique! Congratulations I would love to do this !

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  • July 1, 2017 at 3:57 pm
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    This is so cool. Camping for Women contributors always surprise me with their capabilities. Kilimanjaro… just wow!

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    • July 4, 2017 at 12:11 pm
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      Natasha, there are indeed some amazing contributors to this site. I wanted to contribute because I love the sense of community Nicole has created with this site, and there is so much good information on here.

      Reply
  • July 1, 2017 at 11:10 am
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    Wow, you’re really brave and yes, I’m pretty jealous. I’m not as intrepid as you are to do something like this. I already know, I would suffer greatly from altitude sickness, so I wouldn’t even attempt a climb. I did see Kilimanjaro while in Tanzania a few years ago, but from the comfort of my plane seat! Great and informative post.

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    • July 1, 2017 at 6:31 pm
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      I saw Everest from the comfort of a plane, and I must admit, that’s good enough for me! I have a friend who climbed to Everest base camp and I followed her experience on social media. It looked like work. Pass. LOL! My experience on Kilimanjaro was mostly fun, but that last climb was real work.

      Reply
  • July 1, 2017 at 9:25 am
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    Whoah! That’s a pretty awesome achievement. I haven’t tried this type of adventure though. Great that you had fun with your rewarding experience.

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  • July 1, 2017 at 7:56 am
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    What an achievement!!!! This has never been on my bucket list because it’s not something I’m interested in but what an achievement!!!! I know many people that would just die to do that.

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  • July 1, 2017 at 4:55 am
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    Thank you, Chelsea. I’m so glad you found it helpful and I hope others do as well. Blog posts were just as helpful to me as the information sent by the tour company. Although nothing could have prepared me for a complete loss of appetite. That was definitely a first for me. Ha!

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  • July 1, 2017 at 1:28 am
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    19300 feet. That’s a big adventure. I did few volcano and mountain hiking here in Bali island but definitely Kilimanjaro is one on my bucket list. When ever I can afford it.

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    • July 1, 2017 at 4:51 am
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      I think it is definitely worth saving for. It was such a great experience and I met some wonderful people, including our guides.

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  • June 30, 2017 at 9:20 pm
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    Killimanjaro is absolutely on my list of things I need to do! I love mountains. Honestly just waiting until I have enough money to join an expedition.

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  • June 30, 2017 at 9:09 pm
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    I’m not the physical type at all and would never dream of attempting this but I imagine the sense of achievement so be huge! Very helpful for those thinking of doing this or something similar

    Reply

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