Sunday 12 January 2020

Kilimanjaro with Bad Weather and Altitude Sickness Advice for Women

I successfully summitted Kilimanjaro in October 2019 with Kandoo Adventures on the 8 Day Lemosho RouteI was 36 years old5 ft 7 Inches52 kilos had done six months of training was in the best shape of my life, never been at altitude before, prone to sickness, bad knees, second youngest in my group and got the worst altitude sickness with the worst wet weather conditions, sleet and freezing temperatures to ascend in (apart from summit night!). It certainly was the challenge I was after! 

''But its always seems impossible until it is done'', once said Nelson Mandela and it is possible, with no technical mountaineering skills needed, just gutsy determination!   

With climate change now, the weather is unpredictable on the mountain and shifts moment to moment. We thought we were going in the 'second driest month' of the year but were hit by a curveball when we got 5 days of torrential rain, sleet and freezing temperatures! You don't know whether its going to be wet, dusty, snow, sleet, windy, sun, so you just have to prepare for all weather and for the worse if it happens so you can enjoy the challenge so much more.    

I'm no expert, but you're here because you're taking on the highest free-standing mountain in the world or thinking about the adventure of getting to the 'Roof of Africa' and just want some pre-trip advice about surviving it and what I've learnt from my own personal experience when I did Kilimanjaro. The packing lists for most companies are the same but they can't prepare you totally for days of continuous wet weather on an extreme mountain! So these are extras to think about to try and make things a little less stressful for yourself on the adventure! 

    Photo credit : 

1. Arrive at Kilimanjaro two days before your trek starts.

In case your luggage goes missing on a connecting flight (like mine did!) it will give you an extra day to get your luggage to you otherwise you'd have to rent stuff from the local shop in Moshi. Too much stress! Make sure you wear your boots (make sure they are well worn in and sturdy) on the plane and that your carry-on day pack has enough to at least start the trek. I got a great deal on flights to Kilimanjaro from London on Skyscanner 6 months prior to departure.

2. Hardest physical and mental part of Kilimanjaro is Summit Night.

I did the 8 day Lemosho Route, which covered less distances a day and was a slow gradual ascent. You 'climb high' 'sleep low' to give yourself the best chance of acclimatising. I did six months of training which I don't think was necessary and maybe I was 'too fit' but you need a good level of fitness and I think a minimum of three months training is okay if that's what you're comfortable with. I just wanted to use it as an excuse to be in the best physical shape of my life and to discipline myself. The summit night is a steep ascent up the side of the final peak Kibo and you need to be used to walking 5-6 hours continuously a day, with the summit night being 17 hours of walking! Its very much 'walking on moon' pace - it took me 9.5 hours to do the final 5km! 

3. Expect all weather types, including rain the whole time.

 You need a 80 - 92L waterproof duffel bag for your main luggage with combination locks for the porter to carry 15kg max. (I took a large North Face one) but none of our bags were Kilimanjaro proof! The rain in Africa is thick and gloopy and will get through the bags seams; the porters will put it in an overlapping waterproof bag but everything still got saturated in the damp humidity of the mountain  and if you don't have the blessing of the hot sun to dry it out you will have nasty wet gear as it will not dry (which you don't want as you ascend higher into cold temperatures). Pack everything in DRY BAGS incase it rains for days. If you can, have several dry bags (Osprey are good) for each day of the trek of dry base clothing in so you don't have to open the same bag twice. You are also allowed Zip Loc Bags to keep things in too. Have two waterproof jackets, and a Poncho (some of my team felt it was a good call) one jacket can get absolutely saturated and won't dry so you have the other one as a reserve - its also good to have this second one as a final layer over your down jacket on summit night incase it rains! Have a pair of mittens (ski gloves) for summit night and also TWO pairs of outdoor gloves incase one gets soaked on the way up - you can get frost bite if you've got wet on your gloves. Take one extra pair of socks, even if you think you won't need it. To ward off the mist or if its really dry and dusty (it never was for me) but if your camp will have a bin take wet wipes to wash or don't leave them on the mountain. If the summit is windy you'll need a silk balaclava for the wind nipping (It wasn't windy for me summit night - it was calm as a sleeping baby!) but just in case, you never know! 

4. Keep yourself healthy. 

With the change in bacteria, its normal to get some sickness with the new environment and a change in altitude on your bodies physiology and chemical balance. (it took me several weeks to balance out again) so do expect to get some sickness. Two bottles of hand sanitiser a must! You want to limit any germs getting to you and causing you trouble. Take a Probiotic Primal Defence supplement twice a day to keep your internal system happy (your gut and stomach will thank you for it - I took Garden of Life) and also start taking Loperamide (Imodium) at the first sign of altitude stomach trouble (you know what I mean). Don't climb when you're menstruating! Altitude is enough stress on the body as it is without the added bugger of that, avoid trekking on your period or get it delayed if you're on in the middle of the trek. 

5. Take a Magnesium supplement to help muscle fatigue and tiredness but WITH a multi-vitamin

6. Leave your main luggage duffel half full. Unless you have a compact four-season sleeping bag, you'll need to rent one and they are HUGE!! leave a lot of room to fit it in. 

7. Keep your electrics warm. Keep in dry bag and put in sleeping bag at night. On summit night, you need to keep electrics close to your body for insulation (in your bra even!) if you've got a camera in a bag (I'm traditional), putting silicone little bean bags (you know the ones' that say DO NOT EAT in the pockets when you buy new clothes) if you can get hold of them and put them in your camera bag it will help absorb moisture from the lens. Wish I'd known this little titbit of information for my camera. Have an Anker Powerbank to charge battery (can take in carry-on).    

8. Take packs of soft tissue. For your nose if its windy and for unexpected toilet breaks!
9. Over budget for Porters and Guides Tip Fees after the tripEspecially if they have to get you through horrendous weather conditions, its only right to tip them that bit more generously. With Kandoo - you can keep money back at the hotel or keep it locked away or on you. There have been thefts of money going missing from tents at the base camp whilst you're gutting your way to the summit. 

10. Wear K-Tape if you have bad knees. I get inflamed tendons so K-Tape helped. 

11. Practice finishing with a cold rinse after a hot shower months before the trek. Helps to get used to cold conditions! 

12. Get your hair braided. Keeps it out the way as you won't wash it.

13. Put on 50+ SPF suncream and lip stick as soon as the sun comes out in the morning or mid day. The air is thinner and the rays much harsher at altitude and can burn you to a crisp. I got nasty altitude burn forgetting to put my suncream on at the summit. I used Piz Buin Mountain. Definitely use on your lips as mine blistered from the burn.  
14. Don't wear a thermal as your base layer on summit night. Wear a wicking base layer so you don't still swelter if the sun comes out at the summit and you can't strip off anymore! Was such a stupid idea.
15. Just be willing to be grubby for ten days! all part of the adventure. Cut your nails and toenails before heading to the mountain.
16. Have something like a magazine to protect your Summit Certificate! 


I was in the best physical shape of my life when I went and did Kilimanjaro but I still got Altitude Sickness. Its basically a lottery and if you're biologically susceptible you'll get it regardless and that's when it turns more into mental toughness. AMS most commonly occurs at the 4,500 metre mark and having never been at altitude before, I wasn't surprised I got symptoms but there are things you can try and do to manage or alleviate it. Everybody's bodies are different. You may not get any AMS symptoms the whole time and you're very blessed if you don't!  But these are tips to help you manage it or stem the effects if you're not one of the lucky ones.

1. Take Diamox

It's an Altitude Sickness Pill to help to prevent symptoms. I still got AMS whilst taking it, but I'd rather have taken it then not. Start taking 1/2 a pill (take a pill cutter with you) first thing in the morning and around 4pm in the afternoon before you get to 3,500 metres and continue after as it makes you pee alot! So don't take it before you go to bed! Make sure you do a trial weekend on it before you go to see for any side affects. I got mine at Nomads Travel Clinic.

2. Take DOUBLE Paracetomol for a headache. You can take them with Diamox but NOT Diamox with Ibuprofen. Painkillers tend to lessen the headache, but take them if you're really feeling rough.

3. Keep Drinking lots of water! Especially on Diamox! You need to drink at least 3 litres a day of water with electrolyte tablets to replace the salts.

Take a 3 litre Osprey water bladder with a bite valve cap to stop dirt and germs getting on it for each day of the trek. On summit night, I had drunk all my 3 litres by the time I got to the summit and had left nothing on the way down when the harsh sun was making me dangerously dehydrated. I had to drink my guides water, ask fellow climbers for water and have water from base camp brought up to me on the mountain. Have a full extra 1 litre wide-mouth plastic Naglene Bottle in a sock turned upside down in your bag to stop from freezing if you need it. Its better to take more water than you need to the summit as you could be gone for nearly 12 hours!
Bring a SheWee. You'll be peeing alot! Just before I left I got a SheWee from Amazon - the hard structure with a funnel and carry case, not flexi as they leak. So glad I bought it as I'm someone who needs to drink alot and I was peeing alot (every 15 minutes!) it was invaluable when there's nowhere to duck behind or on summit night when you don't want to expose your butt to everyone walking up the mountain! It was something I really needed so it was a help, you just have to put it back in the case and use hand sanitiser. Once you get the hang of it, its fine!

Have a Pee Bottle. If you decide to have the privacy of a single occupancy tent (I was lucky, I just got one) whilst camping on the mountain, a pee bottle can serve you well to save you going out into the cold to visit the toilet at night. If you're sharing, it might be easier for men to use but you might have to go out into the wilds to answer the call of nature.      

A LifeStraw Water Filter Bag. In my team, one of the guys had bought one. Water is collected from nearby streams on the mountain and treated anyway, but if someone's got one of these filter bags to hang up - the water is so much purer to drink. Plus you could be the most popular person in the team!
4. Go Slow. What's the rush? You'll hear the guides say 'Pole, Pole' meaning 'slowly, slowly' in Swahili. I intentionally stayed at the back of my group the entire expedition because I wanted to give myself the best possible chance of summiting. Be the tortoise, its not a competition - who cares if you come last? you have better opportunity to see what fascinating things are around you. Until the summit night, its all about the journey. Go at your own pace that you're comfortable with. Its your dream, your challenge. I was the ultimate slow poke and it saw me through to the top. Slow and steady wins the race.  

5. Breathe through your nose and from your belly. It sounds strange but it does help, on summit night especially. On average, women's respiratory system actually takes 18 more breaths more than men do so you're more likely to get yourself dehydrated quicker by breathing through your mouth as altitude strips moisture from your lungs.
6. Try to sleep well. Getting a good nights sleep is really important for acclimatising. I struggled with this which didn't help. Wear earplugs every night. The monkeys will wake you up in the montane forest and other sounds in the night! Take Melatonin capsules to put you into sleep (wish I'd thought of it). Have a travel pillow (Cocoon Size M are good) or a pillow lining and stuffed with your clothes to rest your head on more comfortably. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz   

7. Peppermint and Ginger to help nausea. Ginger and Peppermint sweets help if you have nausea. Pre-pare several drops of essential oil peppermint on kitchen roll, seal it in a zip loc sandwich bag to remain scented and breathing it in helps. I took bottles of essential oils and they leaked at altitude!

8. Take snacks with you that you really like! You want to try and fill your belly up with food but one symptom of AMS can be the loss of appetite as your ghrelin 'hunger hormone' levels drop which is infuriating with such nice food and the amount of calories you're burning. Eating when you're not hungry is impossible for me to do, but nausea craves sugary things and I found eating strawberry laces, chocolate, cut up mars bars more appealing, as they didn't freeze. Jelly filled sweets - disaster and too sticky and avoid anything chewy or honey as they will block freeze and you might break a tooth ahhhh!!!!. Pack a summit night snack bag.
9. Go prepare in Altitude (If you can afford it!). An obvious answer but not everyone has the opportunity or means for staying somewhere in altitude before hand. If you have got time and money The Altitude Centre in London offers a Kilimanjaro Event Training Program to prepare you for altitude in the coming weeks of your trip. I went for a taster session and was very impressed with the service. If you can afford it, sure why not. It could be a great help.

10. Try the Kilimanjaro tea - I found it lovely and brought a box home from Tanzania!

11. Do it for charity. If you're going to take on this incredible challenge for yourself, make some much needed funds for your efforts. Its also is an extra motivation to keep you pushing to the top. I raised £1,500 for Action For M.E who help my sister and thousands of others cope with living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome everyday.  

And finally......

12. Listen to your body girl. We women are better than anyone knowing what our bodies need and what we're capable of pushing on through. Kilimanjaro will show you how stubbornly tough you really are when you might not know it yourself.

13. Keep breathing and believing. Every step forward is still one less for the rest of your life. This you can do. Just keep believing you can do it through the hardship and keep pushing on to the finish! 

So that's what I learnt from my mistakes and great tips and advice I got from others and surviving Kilimanjaro in adverse weather with the obstacles of altitude sickness. It was the toughest challenge I have ever done but it was the challenge I wanted and needed to put myself through, truly empowering me for the rest of my life. 

When it comes down to it, unless you are horrendously ill or injured on the climb, it really is your true test of mettle and determined 'attitude' over 'altitude' that will see you through step by step up the 'last hard yards' to that summit. 

The first woman to summit Kilimanjaro was 22- year old Londoner Sheila McDonald in 1927 and I just followed in her footsteps 92 years later!  

I hope this advice helps you, just keep breathing and believing and be part of the Kili club 

Equipment and clothing I used were from Ultimate Outdoor and Cotswold Outdoors

Meindl Boots
North Face 
TYTNY Walking Poles
Regatta Outdoors 

You can do it girl! 

Hakuna Matata!

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