A beginner’s guide to climbing a mountain…
In September I will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. At 5895m above sea level it’s the highest point in the African continent, and certainly WAY higher than anything I’ve ever scaled before. I’m not an experienced hiker: I live in London, which is pretty much entirely flat, and the only walking I ever do is to and from the tube station. So I basically have no clue, and am trying to navigate my way through the surprisingly complicated process of preparing for this. As a control freak and over-thinker, this is going to be a challenge all on its own…
I’m travelling with Exodus, and I’m doing the 8-day Lemosho route.
There are a number of things that I need to deal with and plan for. In no particular order, they are:
- Altitude. The main reason people fail to reach the summit, or sometimes even die in the attempt, is due to altitude sickness. Here’s a fun fact, fact fans! At sea level there is 20.9% oxygen in the air. At 6000m, it’s around 9.5%. So in the approach to the summit, I’ll be getting less than half the oxygen I’m used to in London (though the air will no doubt be cleaner!). How do I prepare for that?
- Gear. Right now I have very little of the right gear. But what IS the right gear, and how much of it should I take? We’re allowed to take one bag weighing 15kg, and one 30-40l daysack (which I also don’t currently own). I’ve been into a few outdoor stores and the choice of brands and types is overwhelming. And how many t-shirts, layers, pairs of socks should I take? I don’t want to not have enough, but nor do I want to be the idiot who brought way too much…
- Training. This is the big one. I’m reasonably fit and exercise in the gym about 3 times a week, plus I do a fair bit of walking around London. But I’m not a hiker, and the longest I usually walk for is about half an hour. This expedition is going to be eight days of walking. Up a steep hill. At altitude. Hmmm.
- Hygiene. Not quite as pressing, but still something to think about. How can I best prepare for 8 days without washing. I’m pretty sure wet wipes and dry shampoo will be at least part of the answer.
- Weather. Kilimanjaro is in Africa. But the top of it is in the clouds. That means you pass through every climate zone on the way up, from 30 degrees plus at the bottom, to -20 and below at the top. Layers are going to be key here. And a big warm jacket.
So this post will be a week by week journey of discovery. I’ll update it regularly, and hopefully in the future it may be of some help to others.
NINE WEEKS TO GO
So first up, time to start thinking about training. I have printed off the Exodus training guide (which is here in case anyone else wants it), and so far I’ve done nothing with it. It seems enormously demanding (not just physically, but also in terms of time commitment), and I’m just not sure I’m going to be able to stick to it. That’s not to say I won’t train, I just might have to do my own thing and hope it’s good enough!
So in that spirit, I started off by walking home from work. It’s 11.5 km from the office in Waterloo to my home in East Acton, and it took me about 2 hours 15 minutes. I was surprised to discover, even after living in London for 13 years, just how green the city centre is: for a whole hour of the trip I was walking on grass (through the Royal Parks). I was wearing my new boots which I bought back in January (Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX) but still need proper breaking in, and they did ok, though my legs were pretty tired by the time I got home, and, weirdly, the joint of my big toe hurt! Not sure what that’s about, though when I googled it, the internet did of course tell me that it’s probably early-onset osteoarthritis. The joys of self-diagnosis…
But I need to find some hills to walk up, and that means leaving London. So I’ve asked a few of my more energetic friends to do day hikes with me or even, hopefully, weekends away stomping up hills. Let’s see how that goes…
Gear. The first thing I need is a decent set of waterproofs. I don’t own any trousers and my jacket is 18 years old! After lots of research I came to the conclusion that Gore-Tex might be pretty essential, though other brands of waterproofing are available, and decent Gore-Tex jackets cost a fortune! Because of the cost I started off by buying a Mountain Equipment Drilite one, but after speaking to a friend who got rained on copiously on Kilimanjaro, I worried that it wouldn’t be up to the job. So I took it back and swapped it for this very lovely Arcteryx Zeta LT jacket, which although expensive, was on sale, so a bargain! Well, that’s what I’m telling myself, and at least I have confidence it’ll keep me dry…
As for trousers, I got these Mountain Equipment Aeon Pants in the sale, they are only Drilite and not Gore-Tex, but they should be ok.
EIGHT WEEKS TO GO
Training update. I persuaded my friend to do a day walk with me on the South Downs. He’s from round there so planned a route from Polegate to Eastbourne. We walked for about 18 km in glorious sunshine and had excellent fish and chips at the end. If this it what training’s like then I could get used to it!
Gear. The next thing I thought I’d look at is baselayers. Research tells me that I should have merino, as it’s really warm, moisture wicking, and doesn’t smell (as much). Unfortunately I’m allergic to wool, so merino is out. Since I’m now a sucker for Arcteryx, I’ve got two of their synthetic long-sleeved tops: one thick one, one thinner. Meanwhile for the hotter days I went out and bought a bunch of technical t-shirts, or ‘tech tees’ (yep, getting into the lingo already!), and I need to decide which ones to hang onto and which to take back.
SEVEN WEEKS TO GO
Training update. I discovered that the Virgin Active gym at Walbrook near Bank Station has an altitude training studio. Since I’ve been a member of VA gyms for over 10 years, I contacted them and asked if I could use it for my training, even though I’m not a member at that branch (and it’s one of their swanky top-tier gyms). They very kindly said yes! I had to go for an induction to make sure I don’t die when I use it unsupervised, and I’m ready to go. It’s set to 3000m above sea level where the oxygen level is around 14%. I started off by walking uphill on the maximum incline (15%) for half an hour, and then did some running intervals (one minute fast running, one minute walking). To be honest, at first I didn’t really notice much of a difference, but I did find on the intervals it was much harder catch my breath at the end.
Gear. The backpack you can see in the photos above is just a standard, and very old, North Face one. It’s definitely not good enough for Kilimanjaro. I need one with good padded hip support, lightweight, and ideally with a raincover and loops for trekking poles. The advice was that the daysack should be 30-40l, so I was hoping for something in the middle. I feel like if I get 40l I might be tempted to overfill it, but 30l might not be big enough. But then the guy persuaded me that this Osprey Tempest 30 was just the thing… and I like the colour (can’t help it, it still matters!) So I’ve ordered it online, and am waiting for it to arrive.
SIX WEEKS TO GO
Time to think about health. I’m doing my best to prepare for altitude with the training but there’s only so much you can do! Altitude sickness (or AMS, acute mountain sickness) can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, insomnia, loss of appetite… and in extreme cases death! I’m slightly freaking out because in July a South African racing driver called Gugu Zulu died on the mountain, apparently from the effects of altitude… gulp! Many people take the drug Diamox to help with the symptoms, but it’s controversial because if you mask the symptoms then you might not notice when you get seriously ill. But plenty of people swear by it. So this week I went to see the doctor to get a prescription. It turned out all my jabs were up to date except for Typhoid, so I had that (the jab, not the disease!). My arm hurt for 48 hours.
While I was there, the doctor decided to give me a bit of extra travel health advice. You know: use suncream, wear a hat, don’t drink the tap water, that kind of thing… And then there was the ‘safe sex’ chat. I didn’t like to rain on her parade, but I’m pretty confident the chances of me catching anything, from any kind of sex, safe or otherwise, are pretty negligible. It’s certainly not something I’m going to be worrying about!
And while I’m getting personal… there was one other thing that’s been bothering me. I’ve heard that Diamox is a diuretic, so it makes you pee an awful lot more than normal. And I’ve read that for a girl having a wee on Kilimanjaro can be tricky: there are no bushes to hide behind, you’re wearing loads of layers, you’re suffering from altitude sickness, it’s freezing cold… So lots of people have advised buying a Sheewee. Not being a festival goer, I’ve never even seen one, let alone used one, so I’m not quite sure what it’s going to involve. But I’ve ordered one online, and will update later with how I get on!
Meanwhile… The Osprey Tempest 30 backpack arrived… and it’s too small! It would probably be fine for most people, but I’m doing a safari after the climb and will be taking a lot of camera gear, which all needs to fit into the same backpack that I’ll be taking up the mountain (even though I’ll be leaving the camera gear in the hotel). So back it goes, and the research continues.
FIVE WEEKS TO GO
The Sheewee arrived. It’s a lot neater than I expected! It comes in three parts: a funnel that is, *ahem*, ergonomically-shaped; a spout or tube; and a case to put them in. You simply attach the tube to the funnel and then pee into it. Simple! Well, not really. It’s going to take some practice!
For one thing, the very act of peeing standing up is *really* weird, so I don’t know about anyone else but I got something akin to performance anxiety (I imagine this is what it’s like for some guys trying to use a urinal with someone standing next to them). Also, there’s the fear of not pressing it against you hard enough and ending up peeing down your leg which makes it quite hard to ‘perform’. I practised in the bathroom with some success, but I think it will take a bit more practice till I’m Sheweeing like a seasoned festival-goer. Did you know they actually have ladies’ urinals for that now? The things they think of…
Training. This weekend I managed to persuade two friends to come with for a walking weekend in the Peak District. We walked 25 km over 6 hours on the Saturday, and 15 km over 4 hours on the Sunday before heading back. It was great to get some proper ups and downs in – what passes for hills around London isn’t all that satisfactory! And I feel like my legs are getting used to all the walking now too. I certainly won’t need to do anything like the distances I’m doing at the moment when it comes to the real thing… but it’s reassuring to know that whatever other challenges I’m going to face, hopefully the actual physical walking up the mountain part shouldn’t be a problem.
Click here to see what happened next…