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What’s it like climbing Kilimanjaro?

Before climbing Kilimanjaro, it's worth hearing a few words of wisdom from someone who's done it before, from the gruelling early mornings to what to bring

What’s it like climbing Kilimanjaro?
Image: Getty

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I spent about four or five months training for the six-day trek. I already considered myself fairly active, but I became the fittest I’ve ever been, spending hours each week cycling, walking and doing cardio- and strength-focused gym workouts. I also visited a specialist centre to train in a low-oxygen room, to simulate being at high altitude.

The first few days of the climb followed a similar pattern: an early start, then a few hours of hiking before arriving at our next camp. We’d be overtaken by porters, who’d set up camp ahead of us, so on arrival we could rest and fuel up before an acclimatisation walk in preparation for the next day’s ascent.

Kilimanjaro had been crying out to me for years; that image of the mountain poking up through the clouds really appealed, so I decided to go for it, both as a personal challenge and to raise money for charity.

Summit night was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Most of the hiking up until then had been long but not steep, whereas this time we were ascending more than 3,000ft in seven hours — a huge distance, considering the mountain is just shy of 20,000ft high. We were sent to our tents at around 5pm to sleep, and set off at midnight. We all felt incredibly nauseous, exhausted and breathless, and at one point I couldn’t walk more than a few feet before needing to catch my breath.

Those seven hours of scrambling through the night suddenly became completely worth it. The sun rose on the final approach to Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro’s highest point. The ground is blissfully flat — it’s a volcanic crater rim. Glaciers and clouds lay beneath us as we walked towards ‘that sign’, which told us we’d reached 19,341ft. All six of us burst into tears, hugging each other and our guides.

As well as the old cliche of ‘you can do anything you put your mind to’, I learnt that even extensive research and training doesn’t prepare you for the reality of Kilimanjaro. In some ways it was harder than I’d expected — but it was also so much better. A lot depends on the people you meet along the way, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of strangers to share the experience with.

Tips for first-time climbers

Pack carefully
Baby wipes? Sweets? Essential. Clean socks each day? Forget it.

Wear your boots
Wear new boots while training to reduce the risk of blisters. And carry them on the plane in case your hold bag goes missing.

Enjoy downtime
Bring cards and a book — there are several hours each day when you aren’t doing much.

Respect porters
They do an incredible job, so tip generously at the end, and donate unwanted gear.

How to do it
Intrepid Travel has an eight-day Kilimanjaro Rongai Route starting at £2,280, all inclusive, excluding flights. Airlines offering flights to Kilimanjaro include Kenya Airways, KLM and Qatar Airways

Published in the Trips of a Lifetime guide, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)