My wife and I recently attempted a Kilimanjaro summit. She made it, I did not due to an onset of altitude sickness at about 14,000 feet. As someone who was stricken with altitude sickness and subsequently did not make it to the top, I have a few ideas about the mistakes I made, and a list of things that I would do differently next time I go (if indeed I ever go again).
I was fine until I got to about 14,000 feet, which is where I started to exhibit symptoms. For me it was a constant headache, and constant nausea and (complete) lack of appetite, which I am guessing is tied to the nausea. I vomited several times, and when I ate at those altitudes I had to eat sparingly and slowly lest I immediately vomit up whatever it was I was trying to eat.
It was the nausea that beat me. The headaches I can deal with, even strong ones, but if you have not consumed any calories for a couple days it is virtually impossible to climb a mountain. So being able to eat, and hold down what you've eaten is essential. As it was, after 2 days of camping at Mawenzi Tarn (4310 meters) I had little strength and it was all I could do to descend the mountain on my own two feet. The infuriating thing is this: descending the mountain is the cure for altitude sickness, so once you are down even as far as Horombo you feel fine and start to become plagued by doubt: "Should I have stuck it out?", or, "Did I give up too easily?"
Here are my mistakes as I see them. Some are money related, some are packing and equipment related, but the biggest ones relate directly to the issues of nausea and food.
1. I failed to bring strong nausea medication. I do not know what is the strongest stuff on the planet but whatever it is, I should have brought enough for five days of constant dosing. The nausea is really what forced me off the mountain as I couldn't hold any food down, so this was my biggest fail. The completely useless "travel nurse" which Kaiser required me to see was obviously running off a script. They got the Diamox wrong, they got the Malarone wrong, and it wasn't in their range of experience to recommend nausea medication, which I wish they had. They even knew that I planned to ascend the tallest free standing mountain on Earth. Still, I do not blame that nurse. I blame myself for not preparing for the possibility of altitude sickness.
2. I failed to bring nearly enough Excedrin and Ibuprofen for the constant headaches. I brought some, but not enough. Next time I am bringing an entire bottle of each. After all, they weigh next to nothing and there was plenty of room in my duffle for them.
3. I didn't bring enough cash for tipping. The owner of the tour company we used was a state-side woman who may not have had much experience planning Kilimanjaro treks. She originally sent a highly detailed email discussing tipping, and the summary was that we could expect to have 8, maybe 9 people in the crew total that we would need to tip. She was way off. There were 14 total needed to take my wife and I up the mountain. Two guides, a cook, and 11 porters. As such, we were $350 short in tipping money if we wanted to tip them all generously (we did). So the solution was to have one of the guides take us to the bank after the trek and withdraw 1,000,000 Tanzanian Shillings. I shit you not. It is the only time in my life I have had in my possession 1 million of any currency bulging in my pockets. But even this is an imperfect solution. The reason the guides and porters like to be tipped in USD is because it is a more stable currency than the Tanzanian Shilling. US dollars hold their value (much) longer. So having to tip in a mix of currencies is not the best. And let me tell you this: those porters work HARD. By the time the trek is over you will be happy to tip generously and you will wish you had brought more cash for tipping than you did. Prepare to feel incredibly fucking grateful to the crew that takes you up the mountain.
4. I wasn't prepared for the tent to be less than what was advertized. Here is the description of the tent we were supposed to get:
"Mountain Hardwear EV3 tents are designed for the most challenging alpine conditions. EV3 tents are the standard for refined base camp shelters on mountaineering expeditions around the world.
Each tent with a capacity of 3 people will comfortably accommodate two climbers and their equipment. The interior space is 46 square feet, with an integrated vestibule, two doors and mesh interior pockets. The EV3 is a single- walled tent with adjustable zippered vents, welded zipper flaps and a waterproof zipper."
What we actually got was this:
The tent had two issues as far as I am concerned: the tent was smaller inside than we would have liked, and there was no "integrated vestibule" that we could leverage when it was raining to shed our wet clothings and keep the inside of the tent dry. When it was raining you basically climbed into the tent wet, subsequently getting the interior wet as well. If the tent were as spacious as they claimed this would have been less of an issue since we could disrobe the wet stuff by the door of the tent and keep our bags dry. But the tent was short. I am a 6'0" guy and either my head or my feet were always touching tent wall (or door in the case of my feet). Even when it was not raining, just rolling up the exterior flap caused dew to drop into the tent and onto your sleeping bags. And for the record, the claim that the tent "can fit two climbers and their gear comfortably", is false. The duffles shared our sleeping mats with us. It was crowded in there.
So what was my mistake? I should not have trusted the description of the tent in the literature, and I should have brought a lightweight supplement to the tent that would have allowed us to keep wetness from getting inside the tent provided. I don't know what it would have been. But next time I am going to figure it out and bring it.
5. The food situation is problematic. Next time I will negotiate for one hot meal a day and rely on energy bars and pop tarts (or whatever) for breakfast and lunch. The amount of food they try to feed you is not realistic. It is way too much. I brought two dozen energy bars with me but never ate one of them because I was always afraid they would decrease my appetite and then I wouldn't be able to eat the food they made for us. Multi-course hot breakfast everyday. Multi-course hot lunch everyday. Multi-course hot dinner everyday, and in between lunch and dinner? You guessed it: a snack of some sort. Way too much. Worse even, they do not seem to grok how nausea works. When you are nauseous the sight and smell of food just makes the nausea worse, not better, but they do not get that. If you do get nauseous, they seem to think that putting a steaming plate of hot food in front of you is the solution. I really loved our porters, the cook, and the assistant guide, don't get me wrong, but not everyone can (or needs to) eat like an olympic athlete.
I think the rest of the mistakes are all equipment and packing related.
6. My day packed lacked a hip-belt. A lot of the things you read online about what you will be carrying on the mountain promote the myth that you are hardly carrying anything, and that the porters are really carrying almost everything for you. The porters carry a lot, no doubt, but do not buy into the bullshit myth that you don't personally have to carry much. You will be carrying rain pants and a rain jacket, a rain cover for your pack, a light-weight coat, a beanie and a sun hat, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, insect repellent (at low altitudes), a headlamp and batteries (in case you get caught trekking after dark), and three liters of water. Three-fucking-liters. If your pack doesn't have a hip-belt you will regret it. All that weight will be on your shoulders and after six hours of hiking you will be sore and possibly have a headache just from the tension in your neck and shoulders. Don't make the mistake I did in thinking that a lightweight day pack will do the job. It won't.
7. Summit night requires a fresh set of clothes. I did not realize this, but during the equipment inspection at the hotel before we started the climb the guides were quick to point out that when you got to summit night, due to the freezing temps at the summit (and on the way up) you do not want to risk having to put anything on that is even remotely wet. As such, you will need brand new undies, tee, long thermal uppers and lowers, inner and outer socks that are reserved just for the summit attempt. I never made it that far, but removing all of this from my rotation for the rest of the 7 day excursion reduced my available clothes. Next time I will prepare for this and pack away all the summit gear into a separate (large) stuff sack and then make sure I have enough clothes for the rest of the adventure.
8. No alarm clock or altimeter. The porters will wake you up if you need to get up early, but it is nice not to have to rely on them. We had our phones with us but they were powered down and in our packs with the idea that we could use them in an emergency if we happened to find any coverage. Since phones have crappy battery life we didn't relish the idea of turning one on at night to use as an alarm but we did anyway, a few times. Also, there were times when I really would have liked to know what the elevation was. For example, on our acclimatization day we hiked up to a scenic overlook west of Mawenzi Tarn. I do believe that was the highest I climbed during the trek as I basically descended the day after but that scenic overlook's elevation is a mystery to me. The guide said it was "about 4400 meters" but to me it seemed higher. I'll never know, because I did not have an altimeter. So next time I go, I will include a small device I can clip to my pack that can serve as both an altimeter and an alarm clock (assuming I can find such a device).
9. Separate "camp clothes" would have been nice. At the end of a long day of hiking it would have been nice and smart to have some "comfy" camp cloths that were fresh to wear. As it was I basically just had an extra pair of socks and camp shoes but the rest was all hiking cloths. There was plenty of room in the duffle, and it would not have added much weight, so next time I will account for the idea of changing into fresh camp-only cloths when we get to camp. We brought baby wipes with us to give ourselves a "wipe bath" in the mornings and after hiking (there are no showers on the mountain) so we did good there, but I lacked the cozy comfort of the camp-only cloths. Next time!
10. I should have made a stronger effort to learn a bit of Swahili before arriving to Tanzania. As it is they teach you a few words and phrases, but it would have been nice to know a lot more than I did. I felt like I was completely unable to communicate with the porters who carried our stuff up the mountain (only one or two of them had any English) which was isolating in a way. If you go, impress your guides by responding to "mambo?" with this: "Poa chizi cama dizi quenye fridgy" (it means "cool as a green banana in a fridge").
11. I should have brought a better map of the mountain and all its trails. The ridiculously high-level maps of the routes that go up the mountain that you get from the various tour operator websites do little more than assure you that there are indeed routes up the mountain. However, the highly specific trail maps that I am used to are harder to find. I did not take the time to track one down before we left (I am thinking like a "Green Trails" style map) but I wished I had by the first day of hiking and I realized that I was following the guide blind with no concept of where were were headed other than the name of our next camp. Another item to add to the list for the next attempt at the summit. Curiously I did bring a compass with me, but a compass without a map is of little value.
The rest I think are specific to the safari portion of the trip:
12. I should have studied the animals better, and got a guide book for the parks. Such guide books for the safari parks are available in abundance that not only detail out all the animals you will encounter but will also provide highly details maps of the parks too. When I found myself struggling to tell a Thompsons Gazelle form a Grants Gazelle I realized that my younger self would have known this stuff cold. I think that my safari experience would have been enhanced by studying up on the parks and their inhabitants before we left.
13. I regretted not having more, and better, safari cloths. My wife was smart and bought an Ex-officio anti-bug, anti-sun shirt that had pockets and everything. All I had was an SPF long sleeve tee for the three days. And it was white so it got pretty dirty :P . Next time I will bring multiple sets of safari-appropriate clothings that are separate from the hiking cloths I used on the mountain.
So anyway. There are my mistakes summed up. If I think of more I'll add them!