When I was ten years old I went to hang out at a friend’s place which, unbeknownst to me, would be the ‘moment of impact’ that started this adventure with Mt Kilimanjaro.
I lived in a small town in a remote part of Zambia, in Southern Africa, where I was born and raised and didn’t have exposure to much outside of what happened in our town. On arrival at my friend’s house, I had noticed their hallway was cluttered with curious looking equipment, completely foreign to anything I’d ever seen before; brightly coloured bags, chunky boots, metal sticks, sleeping bags and so on. I was mesmerised.
At dinner that night, her parents told me they were going to hike up Mt Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. I had never heard of it but, as they described the mountain and what the expedition entailed, I was captivated and made up my mind that very day, that one day I too would make my way to the summit of this majestic mountain.
“I wanted to see the sunrise from the top of the mountain on the morning of my birthday and I would spend the next eight months training and preparing to achieve this life-long dream of mine”
Fast forward to 2016 in my (now) hometown of Sydney in Australia, I decided I would make the journey to Mt Kilimanjaro and attempt to reach the summit to celebrate my fortieth birthday. I wanted to see the sunrise from the top of the mountain on the morning of my birthday and I would spend the next eight months training and preparing to achieve this life-long dream of mine.
In the first week of the new year, I spent my days off work trawling the internet reading blogs and articles on climbing Kilimanjaro. I wanted to get my head around what was actually involved, from a training perspective as well as what type of equipment and gear I needed and the logistics of getting from my home to the summit.
I bought the comprehensive guide to Kilimanjaro written by Henry Stedman which had just about every bit of information I needed and then read every inch of his website, www.climbkilimanjaro.com which supplements the book, including facts on Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), kit lists, pictures from all routes on the mountain and so much more.
I also emailed Henry to ask him if he’d heard of a particular trekking company I was considering and he gave me really frank, objective advice which I really appreciated.
“I was effectively going to walk for eight consecutive days on the mountain so walking needed to be the main focus of my training program”
The Training Begins
I realised very early on that I needed to start training immediately as I hadn’t done any real exercise for over two years so my fitness was pretty poor, particularly my endurance fitness. Having some background in exercise and fitness, I knew that being specific with your training is so important.
I was effectively going to walk for eight consecutive days on the mountain so walking needed to be the main focus of my training program, to build endurance as well as strength. As a result, the main components of my training regime were walking and building functional strength and cardio-respiratory endurance. Lots of squats, lunges, push-ups, step-ups, plyometric style body-weight exercises and some walk/run combinations.
Kilimanjaro is either walking up long steep stretches of boulder-filled hills or walking down them! Either way, there is plenty of strain placed on your quads and hip stabilising muscles so ensuring these and your gluteus muscles are nice and strong and have plenty of endurance is crucial.
Additionally, having a strong core is also important as it will help to fortify your back as you carry your 30L pack all day as well as provide balance and stability for all the uphill and downhill walking.
“If you’re a creature of comfort, I strongly recommend you do some weekend hikes where you don’t have the warm comforts to soothe you from one day to the next”
My weekly training regime consisted of two strength training days at the gym, three days of a combination of running and walking on the days in between and then a challenging bush hike with my Black Wolf Tempo 30 day pack, loaded with 3 litres of water every Saturday.
I started off with long but relatively easy walks for the first few weeks but then by week four, I started doing hills, including four straight weeks of walking up and down one super steep hill for three hours. Once I mastered the hill, I progressed to longer, more challenging hikes until I was hiking up to 36km in one stretch over 4-5 hours.
Creatures of Comfort, be Warned!
In hindsight, although I did plenty of long challenging day hikes, I didn’t do any overnight hikes where I had to sleep in a tent and then back up the next day to hike again and this is definitely something I regret. I did do a few consecutive long day hikes but I went home and had a hot bath, a hot meal and slept in my warm bed so getting up to do it again the next day was not an issue. This is not how it goes on the mountain, let me assure you!!
If you’re a creature of comfort, I strongly recommend you do some weekend hikes where you don’t have the warm comforts to soothe you from one day to the next, that way you will get a much more authentic experience in preparation for the mountain.
If you can do these in the middle of winter, even better because the average night temperature on Kilimanjaro is -5deg C, often lower, after the second day of the trek so adjusting to sleeping in sub-zero temperatures is also an advantage, and helps you test out your sleeping bag!
“I learned a powerful lesson today, that your body will tell you what it needs but you must quieten all the loud useless chatter to hear it speak”
Ebb and Flow
That said, rest and recovery are just as important as the training itself, not just for physiological reasons, but for your mindset. Life is one big ebb and flow as is any long-term training preparation. You’ve got to allow yourself the ebb so that you can muster up the strength to ride the next flow.
A Diary Excerpt…
As my final comment on my training, I’ll share an excerpt from my training diary to highlight my point:
“Yesterday was the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, one of my favourite wellness initiatives.. but yesterday I couldn’t truly find my happy. I decided to take a trip to the beach, bask in the glorious autumn sunshine and sip on a coffee as I watched the waves and the world go by. By rights, I should’ve been in my very happy place but instead, I was tired, irritable and emotional. I went to bed early but tossed and turned most of the night so when my alarm sounded at 6 am I groaned with dismay!
I dragged my butt out of bed and into the car and realised as I drove to the gym that my body and mind are exhausted. My stomach was in knots, I felt dizzy and my senses felt overloaded, on high alert for no reason. But the voice in my head, the relentless, heartless despot, ordered me to shut up and push through it… “Imagine this is summit day of Kilimanjaro, you can’t give up”… Except that, on summit day I’ll have 6 months of training behind me and I imagine the adrenaline and excitement will play an integral part in my summit attempt.
Right now I’m still only beginning, I’m at the start of my training with two years of inactivity behind me! Luckily when I arrived at the gym my best mate and training buddy took one look at me and said: “let’s go have breakfast, you’re an idiot if you even think about training in that state!”
I’m so grateful for her orders because it was just what I needed but couldn’t find it in me to permit it because that’s ‘weak’. I learned a powerful lesson today, that your body will tell you what it needs but you must quieten all the loud useless chatter to hear it speak.
Rest is crucial, an integral part of progress and denying that is only counter-productive. Push yourself when you’ve got the reserves to rise to the challenge, not when you’re so tired your personality deserts you along with rationality and functionality. And anyway, get a bit of perspective Henny Penny, the sky is NOT falling down because you took a day off! Sheesh.”