Having climbed Kilimanjaro a few summers ago and written a book about it, I'm often asked by people on their way to climb Africa's highest peak, what I would have done differently if I were to do it again. While thinking about my answers, I consulted Shawn Richards, Expedition Coordinator of the outfitter I climbed with, Ultimate Kilimanjaro (www.ultimatekilimanjaro.com)
1. Read up on the volcano in advance of my trip. Kilimanjaro has no information boards along the way. It's a genuine wilderness. Our guides were our only source of information during the trek. While they knew a lot about the wildlife and climbing, they didn't know much about the geology or history of the world's tallest free-standing mountain. So my advice would be read up in advance (my book, Zombies on Kilimanjaro is a great place to start).
2. Weighed my bag before getting on the plane. I knew that our outfitter had a weight limit of 15 kg (33 pounds) per climber. It's a rule strictly enforced. They put our bags on a scale when we arrived, and both my son and my bags were more than 5 kilos over! As a result we spent the night before our trip emptying bags, doing triage and repacking. It put a lot of unnecessary stress on our departure day. Shawn told me the weight rule was in force to protect the porters from being forced to carry too much: "Though climbers tend to view the weight limit as an inconvenience, the park sets limits to protect the porters from abuse. Using fewer porters and overloading them is one of the many ways that crooked Kilimanjaro companies cut costs."
3. Packed fewer clothes. I wish I had realized I could wash socks, tee-shirts and underwear along the way. There were a few times during the trip when it was possible to get an extra basin of water for washing. In the desert-like atmosphere clothes dry surprisingly fast. On the other hand, all my warmer clothes were vital to have on the final ascent to the crater. We both wore every layer we possessed.
4. Brought powerful binoculars. I took only a pair of mini binoculars with me, because I thought my large ones were too heavy. I ended up regretting not having closer views of the ice-ringed summit and the amazing stars at night.
5. Planned how to stay clean where there's no running water. All we got to wash in was a tiny basin of warm water in the morning and at night. By day 4 of our 7 day trek, we looked and smelled pretty awful. All I had with me was a package of large wet-wipes, which helped wipe off the dust and sweat.
6. Brought more chocolate and power bars. The food in camp is plentiful, but at higher altitudes you need all the calories you can get while climbing. I thought I brought enough bars for Josh and I - two each a day - but I did not factor in that we would be walking with our guides, and it was only decent to share. I should have brought twice as much.
7. Stayed an extra day on the mountain. My son and I chose one of the longer trails, the Lemosho Route, which can be done in 6-8 days. We opted for six days up and one day down, and I would have definitely added on another day, so that we could have better adapted to the altitude. Josh suffered from altitude induced migraine headaches on our ascent. Taking Diamox, which reduces altitude sickness, helped him, but it would have been much easier had we acclimatized more slowly. The sad fact is that most people try to climb Kilimanjaro in 5 or even 4 days to save money, and fewer than half make it to the top as a result.
8. Climbed down slower. After the exhilaration of the summit, we climbed down the steep, scree slope of the volcano then walked several hours down to our final campsite. My feet were sore with blisters, and both of us were near to exhaustion. Shawn said a slow descent is not best: "It's normal for people to develop symptoms of altitude sickness during the summit ascent. We try to get people down quickly because it is far easier for the body to recover at lower altitudes. The higher concentration of oxygen helps people feel better very quickly."
9. Not risked our porters getting scammed out of their tips. At the end of the trek I turned my tip money over in a lump sum to our chief guide for distribution to the porters. Later I learned some guides keep all the tips for themselves! Shawn told me there's an easier way for trekkers to make sure their porters don't get abused. The best Kilimanjaro operators comply with the guidelines set by the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), an independent organization that monitors porter treatment. He told me "by operating under KPAP's recommended procedures, partner operators not only abide by their fair treatment standards for tipping, but also for wages, food, shelter, clothing, and porter loads." Go to www.kiliporters.org to find a list of companies that have signed the KPAP pledge.
10. Planned more time in Tanzania for wildlife safaris. After the climb, I regretted not taking an extra week to go to the Serengeti. We only booked a short trip to the Ngorongoro Crater, a mini-Serengeti just a few hours drive away from Kilimanjaro, where for two days we watched lions, elephants, wildebeests, hyenas, hippos, zebra and rhinos. It was not enough. "Tanzania is a mecca for wildlife safaris," Shawn enthuses. "We recommend a five day safari to properly enjoy the main parks. Afterwards, a few days on the beaches of Zanzibar, a beautiful island off Tanzania's coast, is the perfect way to end your trip."
Tim Ward is the author of Zombies on Kilimanjaro: a Father-Son Journey Above the Clouds, a literary narrative of climbing Kilimanjaro. www.zombiesonkilimanjaro.com