There are many different ways to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Some couples will plan a tropical vacation, planning on sitting on the beach, drinks in hand, enjoying the sunshine. Others will opt to spend their time together in a much more low-key wait, planning a fancy dinner or ordering in to curl up together in front of the fireplace, snuggling up with their spouse.
My husband and I, however, decided to mark our first anniversary in a very different way – We climbed Mount Kilimanjaro!
Shortly after our first anniversary, we were presented with the opportunity to be part of a group from across Canada, all climbing Kili to raise awareness and funds for Ovarian Cancer Canada. As a survivor myself, we jumped at the chance to take part. There were 15 of us in total including survivors, family members, and friends, all with the same focus in mind. Ultimately, we raised approximately $75,000 and every participant involved reached the summit.
If Mount Kilimanjaro has been on your bucket list, you may have already done some research. Towering 19,340 feet above sea level, Kili is the world’s highest free-standing mountain and the highest peak in Africa. Located in Kilimanjaro National Park, it is quite a sight to behold. There are six official routes that you can take to ascend the mountain: Shira Route, Lemosho Route, Machame Route, Umbwe Route, Marangu Route and Rongai Route.
Each has its pros and cons, with various levels of difficulty and one, Marangu Route, even offers huts for those that aren’t interested in sleeping in tents at night. Each guide that you ask has their personal opinion of which route they prefer. Our climb was led by none other than Macon Dunnagan, author of the book ‘Sons of Kilimanjaro’. Dunnagan currently holds a record for climbing Kilimanjaro a total of 4 times in a 28 day period, and has summited the mountain 40 times. Following his recommendation, we ascended the Rongai route.
Preparing what to bring for the trek is an interesting experience in and of itself, as you literally travel from the African heat at the base of the mountain through to the ice and cold at the summit. You don’t want to slack on your cold weather gear – while we were up the mountain we were hit with a significant amount of sleet the one day, and it would have been a horrible experience if we weren’t all bundled up! I recommend ensuring that you have the best sleeping bag that you can find. There are some great ones out there that are specifically designed for the cold temperatures.
When you reach camp each day, you are physically exhausted and want nothing more than to curl up in your warm bed and get as much rest as you can, given your schedule. Having the best gear on hand will ensure that you are warm and comfortable, optimizing that sleep time. I also brought melatonin as there are times throughout the journey that you may struggle falling asleep, and the last sleep prior to summit day you need to go to sleep while it is still light outside (you climb in the dark in order to have the opportunity to see the sun rise over the summit). Melatonin is a safe, natural way of helping your body fall asleep.
Source: CMK The Kili Experts
Another important point to note is that you want to ensure that you find a good tour company to organize your climb. There are a number of different options, each with their own guides, porters, and experience. While the dangers associated with Mount Kilimanjaro certainly aren’t anywhere near as high as those you hear of with Mount Everest, there are definitely still concerns that need to be taken seriously. By booking your climb through an experienced and reputable company, you can ensure that your safety is a top priority.
Our trip was all booked through Zara Tours, and honestly, I can’t say enough about them! Upon arriving in Tanzania, we stayed at the Springlands Hotel, which is owned by Zara Tours. The rooms were comfortable and clean; the staff were incredibly friendly, there was a pool to lounge for when it got hot, limited Wi-Fi, delicious food and cold beer. What more could you ask for? With the hotel being part of the Zara Tours package, they stored any luggage you weren’t bringing up the mountain with you while you were waiting and provided a shuttle between the hotel and the park. Mama Zara herself came and sat with us one morning during breakfast, checking in to see that everything was going well with our stay.
When you arrive at the park, you will check in while your gear is all weighed by the porters. The first leg of the climb will take you through some forested regions. We started in a pine forest and then moved into a rainforest. Keep your eyes peeled; we were able to see monkeys up close and personal along the way. This is the point where I have to give a huge shout out to the porters! While you will carry the pack on your back, they bring up the bulk of the equipment including your tents, sleeping bags, all the cooking equipment, etc. These are locals who do these trips multiple times each year, and they do it with ease. Each day after you leave camp they pack everything up, breeze past you and have your next camp set up before you even get there.
Each morning they brought us a warm bowl of water to wash up. Early in the climb this seems frivolous , and you may shrug it off, but it will be one of your greatest comforts as you make your way up! I should also note that you will want to take medication for altitude sickness. These medications start before the climb and are taken throughout it in order to minimize the effects. We took Diamox, but you should speak with your regular physician for more information.
As you continue to make your way up the mountain you will notice that the vegetation starts to thin out, and your path becomes increasingly rocky. You will also find that the further you climb, the more you feel the loss of oxygen. At the start, the climb will seem relatively easy, especially if you are someone who hikes regularly. As you make your way up, you will find that even the easiest of tasks become much harder. By the time we were getting ready at the last camp, preparing to head up to the summit, even the act of putting on my socks was enough to leave me feeling tired and winded. This is an interesting experience unlike anything else I had experienced before.
One of the perks to climbing the Rongai route is that it is far less popular than most others. Prior to climbing I had talked with friends who had made the climb and they told me about the big crowds of people that could be found each time they reached camp. This wasn’t the experience for us. In fact, until we got near the summit where the routes all started to come together we didn’t see anyone else, it was just our group each night. This is one experience I wouldn’t trade for the world, and one reason why I would recommend this route over some of the more popular options like the Machame route.
Each day you will climb a set distance, and then settle in to relax before dinner and an early night to bed. The time you spend climbing is longer in the beginning and gets shorter as you go, accounting for how much harder the climb is on your body at greater heights. I should say, it SHOULD be that way, assuming you have booked with a credible tour group. Allow yourself to relax and take in the sights each day when you reach camp – reflect on everything that you have seen and truly enjoy the moment, it flies by! One other suggestion I will make, as you are preparing for your climb, is to take the time to put together a good playlist. There are times during the climb that it can seem monotonous, leaving you with nothing to think about other than sore muscles or the distance before you. While there are a lot of items that would be considered essential gear such as good hiking boots and a hiking backpack with proper back support, I would also add an iPod or mp3 player to the list.
Another suggestion that was made to me was to purchase an interchangeable jacket – one that can be taken apart to provide you with a rain coat or windbreaker early on, a warm jacket as the temperatures start to drop and a durable and dependable winter coat when you are nearing the summit. Personally, I picked up a Columbia jacket and it was, without question, the best money I could have spent. Unlike the days leading up to it, summit day breaks the pattern. You sleep during the day, waking up for a late dinner and then to head out at approximately 11 PM. It is pitch black at this time, and everyone climbs using a headlamp. You will pass through a couple important points on the way to the summit – Gillman’s Point, the first location to earn you a certificate for travelling this far, and Stella Point.
Finally, you will see it – the famed sign at Uhuru Peak. There are no words to explain the satisfaction and excitement of reaching this point. I have done many crazy things in my life, from completing courses as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces to earning my black belt in GoJu-Ryu, but this was different. All of the hard work and dedication all led you to this point – Enjoy it!
However, don’t enjoy it too long… You can’t stay at this high of an elevation for long without the risk of health consequences, so your guide will be moving you along so that you can make it back down far enough for your next camp. At this point you are exhausted, but rest assured, it’s easier coming back down! With every step you are moving towards more oxygen, and with that easier breathing.
When all is said and done we returned to the Springlands Hotel where we stayed for another 3 days before heading home. Complete honesty – my husband and I got back, showered (the best shower of my life) and crashed, hard. We slept right through dinner that day. We did, however, have time in the days that followed to celebrate with the rest of our group. We did it – 15 set out, 15 summited. It was a great feeling.
While my husband says he will never do anything like this again (he was a bit of a couch potato before I sprung this on him) I would jump at the opportunity to do this all over again. It was an amazing experience! If you are relatively physically fit and looking for a challenge, this is worth consideration! It will push you to new levels physically, emotionally and mentally, but at the end of the day it is SO worth it.
I will leave you with a couple other quick tips for those who are preparing for their own climb. Pack snacks, quick ones that will give you a sugar boost when needed. Hard candies, small pieces of chocolate, etc. Also, bring flavouring for your water. The little flavour shots that you squirt into your water bottles. This can be put directly into your CamelBak and will make it easier to drink the amount of water that you need to be each day. Finally, and this is GOLD when you’re up there, pack baby wipes. Seriously, just trust me on this one! You’ll thank me for it!