Home » What I wish I knew before climbing Kilimanjaro

What I wish I knew before climbing Kilimanjaro

written by Jen Welch October 1, 2017
Tanzania Kilimanjaro hiking

My hike to Kilimanjaro started a year before I even set foot on Tanzanian soil.

I was on a domestic flight in neighboring Kenya and the pilot announced that if we looked out the window to our right, we could see the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro – the tallest peak in Africa. I decided there and then that I would climb this iconic mountain – and I did. 

Kilimanjaro is a popular peak, taken on by many who covet the title of climbing the tallest mountain in Africa. We humans love superlatives – the biggest, the tallest, the oldest. But do not be fooled into thinking that just because many have gone before you, it will be a walk in the park. Oh no – this is the most challenging thing I have ever done. But I couldn’t recommend it more.

Tanzania Kilimanjaro hiking

The best feeling

I am a firm believer that anyone can accomplish this truly life-changing feat – I am still nudging my mum to get up there.

Here are my top tips to help you get up there too. 

Go slow 

Before I went on this trip, I read every blog going on altitude sickness – what were the symptoms, what could I do to prevent it – so to save you from all that reading, here ya go: top tip – go slow. I would wait until everyone had gone on ahead and join the line right at the back, so I knew that I couldn’t go any slower.  

The reason to go slow is that your body is working harder at altitude. The air is thinner and there is less oxygen to breathe. The porters will tell you “pole, pole” which means “slowly, slowly”. Think of The Hare and the Tortoise. Be the tortoise. Walk slower than you normally would, and your body will thank you. 

Tanzania Kilimanjaro hiking

Porters on the Kilimanjaro trek

Hikes like these are not a race. This is actually one of my favorite things about hiking – it’s not a competitive sport. It’s the opposite in fact, everyone wants everyone to succeed. So don’t be ashamed to be at the back like I was. I didn’t get altitude sickness, and I also made good friends with the porter whose job it was to bring up the rear. His grandfather was one of the first porters to work on the mountain. I wouldn’t know that if I was pacing at the front. 

WANT MORE TIPS? TREK KILIMANJARO WITH INTREPID’S LOCAL EXPERTS

Drink plenty 

Hydration will also ward off possible altitude sickness. Ensure you have a CamelPak or Platypus instead of a bottle so that water is constantly accessible as you walk. When your hands are cold you don’t want to be taking off your gloves to unscrew a bottle top. Plus, you should be drinking three liters a day, and it’s a hassle to have to stop to take a bottle out of your bag every time you take a sip.

And more than just water – take hydration salts. I put one sachet straight into my CamelPak every day just to make sure I was uber-hydrated. Diarrhea is common at altitude, and in general if your body is adjusting to being overseas, so salts like Dioralyte are your best friend. 

Tanzania Kilimanjaro hiking

A hike you need to be prepared for

Get the right gear  

I met someone recently who climbed Kilimanjaro and hated the experience – I was heartbroken – but not surprised when she explained why. The reason she doesn’t swoon nostalgically over how life-changing and magical summit night was, is because she was completely unprepared. She didn’t have enough or even the right type of clothing for the hike. And to top it off, she accidentally left her walking boots at a petrol station on the way to the starting point, and had to climb in trainers. I can’t imagine how awful it must have been.  

Even if you go to the mountain with all the physical training and mental preparation possible, without walking boots or warm clothes, you will hate every second. I wore thermal layers, two pairs of gloves, a hat, scarf, a down jacket and had a heavy-duty sleeping bag, and I still shivered at night.

So get quality thermal gear, enough layers (of appropriate materials like fleece – not cotton which gets heavy with sweat), a down jacket is a must, a four season sleeping bag and hand warmers. Stuff your clothes to the bottom of your sleeping bag each night so they’re warm(ish) in the mornings.

Tanzania Kilimanjaro hiking

Tough but beautiful hiking conditions

Also remember a sun hat and sun cream. I got sunburnt on day one and trust me, when cold winds blow against burnt skin, it’s not fun. Plus a head torch with enough batteries – for your tent, for toilet trips and for summit night. 

MACHAME OR MARANGU? WE ASK AN INTREPID LEADER WHICH KILIMANJARO ROUTE IS BEST

Sing and laugh  

These are scientifically proven ways to release endorphins and have a good time, which is so important when you’re doing something this intense.

At the beginning of day four, where some of our group were really suffering from the altitude, morale was low. It was bitterly cold when we woke because we were shaded from the sun. Trips to the toilet were, to put it lightly, brisk. But as we started walking we started singing – it was either Lose Yourself by Eminem, or Hakuna Matata from the Lion King, both appropriate for our situation – and morale soared instantly.

Whenever you have enough lung capacity, sing. 

Find allies 

One thing is for sure – you cannot climb this mountain alone. If there was ever a time that you will need other people, climbing Kilimanjaro is it. You need them to look out for you. And by look out for you I mean literally keep guard as you pee behind a rock when there are no toilets around (which is anytime you’re not in a camp).  

Tanzania Kilimanjaro hiking

New friends

You also need allies to keep you motivated. At the end of Day 4, the night before the summit, I was at a low point. The Machame Route is popular because the route aids acclimatization by climbing high and sleeping low, giving your body a chance to adapt. So though we’d gained 4000 meters since we left the town of Moshi, which is a mean feat in itself, we’d actually climbed more than that in order to come back down to sleep.

As we sat in the mess tent having dinner, I couldn’t help but cry. I wasn’t sad, I was utterly exhausted. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. And instead of making it awkward, my fellow climbers just laughed at me and got out their cameras – this is the sort of attitude you need to keep going on the mountain! 

LISTEN TO THE SWAHILI SONG THAT WILL GET YOUR TIRED LEGS UP MOUNT KILIMANJARO

Prepare physically 

I don’t say this for every hike, but for Kilimanjaro it is necessary.

Altitude sickness strikes indiscriminately – it doesn’t matter whether you’re an Olympian or reigning pie-eating champion, you could get hit. But regardless, being fit for this hike is important. Make sure you do training hikes up hills back home before heading over to Africa. 

Tanzania Kilimanjaro hikingPrepare mentally 

Summit night is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. It’s why it’s also the most amazing thing you’ll ever do. But you have to prepare. It becomes way more about your mindset than your physical strength at that point. I was literally falling asleep as I walked, a porter supporting me in case I fell. Porters will help you as much as they possibly can – and they truly are angels – but at the end of the day it is down to you.  

Knowing this, I made myself a summit playlist on my iPod Classic (may she rest in peace) full of motivating tunes. I tucked it beneath about eight layers of clothing to ensure the battery didn’t freeze (a legit concern) and pressed play. Rocketman by Elton John started me off. All good. But when the song ended, it started again. I had left the “repeat” setting turned on and I was going to either listen to Elton on repeat for the nine-hour ascent, or listen to nothing. So I pulled out the earphones and instead listened to myself say “step by step, take it step by step”. 

It sounds cliché but when you do this ascent, crawling up loose scree in the dead of night, you uncover strength that you didn’t know you had. Just take it step by step.

And make sure you stop to take in that sunrise – it’s phenomenal. 

Tempted to take on the adventure of a lifetime? Trek Kilimanjaro with Intrepid Travel.

Looking for a beach break post Kilimanjaro? Zanzibar is paradise.

Image credits from top to bottom: Ian Jones, Jen Welch, Michelle Tennant, Intrepid Travel, Ian Jones, Jen Welch, Jen Welch

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57 comments

Kambi Popote August 17, 2021 - 9:44 pm

Thanks for sharing this great post about climbing Kilimanjaro!

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Vacation Destinations June 14, 2021 - 7:16 am

Great post, Kilimanjaro is absolutely stunning. Thanks for sharing!

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Liz April 12, 2021 - 3:19 pm

Hi Jen,

Great read! Thanks for posting. I’m considering climbing Kilimanjaro next July. While I would go with a guide and whoeverelse is in that group, it would be just me and no one elsethat I know. Would you recommend bringing a friend/relative or did you find your hiking group was a good support?

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kaynewestmerch December 22, 2020 - 11:13 pm

This is a very nice blog and learned more knowledge to read this post thanks for sharing this informative post.

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Marek April 11, 2020 - 5:12 pm

Mount Kilimanjaro is one of my to-do lists in the near future. My dad was successful to reach Uhuru peak in 2010 and I hope next year I will manage too. Thank you for this article it is very detailed and inspiring for anyone who is interested to concur Mount Kilimanjaro.

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jim poole February 14, 2020 - 12:51 pm

I enjoyed each and every blog except little Wilson’s. I’m 73, don’t have many mountains in south Texas, but I do plan to do this with son#3 in 2021. Thanks to all save 1.

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Grant Noeske January 15, 2021 - 2:22 pm

We need an update, Jim. When are you going to climb Kili? What route and when?

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Matthew February 11, 2020 - 3:56 pm

Great article – thank you for sharing your experience.

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Fflur February 13, 2020 - 12:02 am

Hi Jen – I read your article before attempting to climb Kilimanjaro and I’d just like to say thank you so much for providing a perfectly accurate account. I’m almost certain that your advice helped me reach the summit. Diolch yn fawr iawn!

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Jen May 20, 2020 - 9:27 pm

Hi Fflur,

That’s so awesome!! I’m so happy I could help, it’s such an amazing experience 🙂

Hope you keep trekking!
Jen

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Andrea January 28, 2020 - 9:10 am

Hi Jen, loved reading your article. I just summited on Jan. 03, 2020 via Rongai and you describe the experience perfectly. I did deal with the effects of altitude (even taking the medication) and while physically fit, when you can’t eat or sleep, it makes the challenge much more intense. 7.5 hours to summit. We unfortunately could not make it to Uhuru peak due to extreme cold and extreme winds on the final stretch between Stella and Uhuru so I will return and will learn from the first experience!

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Marek April 11, 2020 - 5:15 pm

How about mountain sickness? Is it obvious to get sick especially for a beginner like me?

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Herbert December 30, 2019 - 1:46 am

Wilson, go back to the cave you came from…and stay there.
Thank you Jen..Nice article

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Marilou VanderGriend July 8, 2019 - 9:38 pm

My husband and I summited last week. I read blogs obsessively before we went, and found your comments very helpful. I read many blogs that said you really didn’t need to be in great shape to do this, but I heartily agree with your comments on preparation. We live in Indiana, so we found a 16 story building, and practiced going top to bottom 10 times at a pop. We figured that was about the same level of altitude gain for each day. While we could not simulate the actual altitude, I think we gained the leg strength we needed for the climb. We are both in our mid 60s, with 3 joint replacements between us (2 hips, 1 knee). This WAS one of the hardest things I have ever done! FYI we did the Lomoshu 7 day route, and used zaratours.com. My biggest tip: Pay the extra money for a toilet tent!!!

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Melissa March 25, 2019 - 11:41 pm

Dear Jen,

I had a very similar experience. I took the Lemosho route and summited the morning of my 46 birthday. I prepared for more than a year. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done and I met the most incredible people. Your article pleasantly reminds me of my time on Kili, thank you.

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Nelly January 7, 2020 - 2:39 pm

How did you prepare?

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Lydia February 28, 2019 - 1:14 am

Hi Jen, this article is well written and also helpful. So just continue and enjoy your every climb. Have a wonderful day Jen!

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Chera January 10, 2019 - 9:10 am

Great article, one thing I wish I knew before climbing was the horrible exploitation of porters by tour operators. Here is a great article that explains how to avoid companies that endanger the lives of their porters by not feeding/paying them enough and even leaving them to die on the mountain at some points: https://theuprootedrose.com/blog/responsible-kilimanjaro-climb
I feel like most climbers are unaware of how horrible the situation is and we can really do a lot to change it by educating ourselves.

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Intrepid Travel August 20, 2020 - 4:13 pm

Thanks for your concern, Chera, we share it! You can read all about our Porter welfare policy here: https://www.intrepidtravel.com/porter-policy

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Martin November 12, 2018 - 12:14 am

Very nice article. Im currently staying in Arusha, Tanzania for 2 months and really keen to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro so have been reading different blogs to better prepare myself and this one gave a lot of valuable information. I only noticed 2 topics that wasnt covered so much in depth which I found in this blog instead: https://napandasafaris.com/how-to-prepare-for-your-upcoming-mt-kilimanjaro-climb/

And that was information about acclimatization, given the height of Mt. Kilimanjaro this is something I have worried about a bit, if I will make it to the top. The other thing was a more detailed list of what to bring where that other article had a long and detailed list that was really useful.

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Aileen September 19, 2018 - 1:28 am

Great article!!! Love this!!! I hope to visit Kilimanjaro next year with my husband. This is a really very helpful read 🙂 Meanwhile, I also blogged about some Kilimanjaro basics: http://whenaiblog.com/travel/the-ultimate-kilimanjaro-guide-for-trekkers-from-all-over-the-world/ . You wouldn’t need this but I hope someone stumbles into this info and find it useful.

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Anonymous August 6, 2018 - 10:39 pm

Great article! Thanks for sharing your experience!

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Val June 18, 2018 - 4:56 am

Hello,
many thanks for sharing this article ! I’ve been looking for the best way to climb Mt Kili for a while, but the financial aspect has often held me back… May I ask how much you paid, excluding flights?

Many thanks!

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Rebecca Shapiro June 18, 2018 - 11:14 pm Reply
Sharron May 16, 2018 - 10:05 am

Thank you for sharing all of this advice! I wholeheartedly agree with it all, as I attempted Kili via the Machame Route (6 days) with 27 other women & a 100+ person crew. About 80% of us were successful, and I think my successful summit was 100% mental (my guides truly broke down some unknown barriers I never knew I stored inside prior to this trip). I wrote more about my experience here if you’re interested in reading 🙂 https://www.girlswhohike.net/news/4-things-i-learned-while-climbing-mount-kilimanjaro

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Gan May 10, 2018 - 6:09 pm

Great Article.

There was only so much preparation though! My friends encountered severe AMS even though we did the Lemosho route and prepared to the best.

You can read more on my detailed trip here:Nice details and map. I wrote a detailed itinerary and information on the Lemosho 7 day route too!

It can be seen here: http://www.yonderingsoles.com/2018/05/09/kilimanjaro-lemosho/

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Peter elphick April 16, 2018 - 1:41 am

Climbing in September some really useful tips hope it as amazing as your experience was well done you

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Bakang July 4, 2018 - 3:31 am

Please tell me how this goes.

Email me on pearcebakang@gmail.com

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Charlotte April 6, 2018 - 4:42 pm

Just sounds so incredible. I’m looking at climbing Kilimanjaro myself with a friend, just wondered is there a certain time of year that’s best and can anyone recommend good tour guides to book with? Thanks in advance

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Emily Kratzmann April 9, 2018 - 9:30 am

Hi Charlotte,

If you’re interested in climbing Mt Kili, you’ve definitely come to the right place! We offer treks along Kilimanjaro’s three different trekking routes (Machame, Rongai and Marangu) with expert local leaders and a team of local porters. January, February and September are considered the best times to climb the mountain (March to May and November/December tend to be a little wetter and more slippery than other times of year). You can check out our Kilimanjaro tours and FAQs here.

Cheers,
Emily

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Alan May 26, 2018 - 8:16 am

I did it in February and used African Scenic Safaris. They were fantastic! You’ll love It, Tanzania was excellent.

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Alan May 26, 2018 - 8:18 am

January to early March and June to Sept/Oct are considered the best times as they have least rain. July and August is considered the crazy busy time. We did it in February and it was excellent and had very few people.

Enjoy!!

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Sebrof February 19, 2018 - 9:32 pm

Thanks Jen very helpful info, I hope to climb Kili in 2019 to celebrate being cancer free and 70 so appreciate your advice.

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David Duffy July 31, 2019 - 2:17 pm

Just saw your comment on climbing Kili in 2019 at age 70. I’m 67 and considering the same. I’d welcome any conversation you have on your trip Congrats on being cancer free. Looking forward to hearing from you. Good luck. David

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Tk January 31, 2018 - 3:25 am

Hi Jen. Thank you very much for this. I am looking to take on this challenge next weekend but I have been very indecisive so I haven’t decided an operator yet.
Can you please recommended any good one? I am a solo traveler FYI.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

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Sam February 8, 2018 - 4:29 pm

Great article! I climbed Kili with my wife last June! Great experience but you must make sure you train and get your body and mind ready. It was definitely challenging but our operator took great care of us and helped us succeed. And definitely get the altitude meds for it will help. Highly recommend taking the journey for it is wonderful and I recommend the company I used Joy climbers expedition. Also would recommend donating your old hiking gear as the locals can really use it. Cheers

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Janet T January 22, 2018 - 11:02 am

Wow, Jen, well done and inspiring. I start my attempt on Kili on March 4th (just 6 weeks away!) to celebrate my 60th birthday and am filled with intrepidation and exhilaration. Hope I make it as you did.

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Peter January 31, 2018 - 3:38 pm

Go Janet! Good for you Have an awesome trek

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Victor January 7, 2019 - 3:36 am

Did you make it Jane?

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Sandequa January 8, 2018 - 4:06 pm

Thank you for sharing your experience. I am planning to hike Kili this June and love reading about how others prepared for it and succeeded. Did you take attitude pills?

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Kath January 15, 2018 - 2:09 pm

I would highly recommend having altitude pills – we waited til about 15,000 feet to take them, but it became pretty obvious that we were starting to suffer (even though, as noted, you sleep way lower than you climb) & I’m sure they helped get us up to the summit. That, and good guides. We also took our own water filtration system, as we didn’t want to have to rely on the guides (which also turned out to be a very good idea!)

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Linda March 15, 2018 - 10:17 am

Your own filtration system? I am going in June and haven’t heard about this. Please explain…..

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Emily Kratzmann March 16, 2018 - 10:48 am

Hi Linda,

Thanks so much for your comment!

Our guides provide chilled, boiled water for the duration of the trek, so there’s no need for a water filtration device. You will need to bring your own water bottles though (a couple of reusable canteens or a bladder), as no plastic is allowed on the mountain. You can also hire bottles before your trek starts.

Some passengers take tablets to help prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. The medication can decrease headache, tiredness, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath that can occur when in high altitudes, however side effects can occur. It’s best to talk to your GP about whether any medication will be required for you. However, there can be no substitute for going slow, drinking lots of water, eating lots of food, staying warm, getting plenty of sleep and listening to your body.

Hope this helps – and have a great trip!

Cheers,
Emily

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Steve Rose August 26, 2019 - 11:19 pm

Hi Emily,
Looking to do Kilimanjaro next year,

Where are you based

Cheers
Steve

Barb January 6, 2018 - 5:27 pm

Congrats a Jen! Hard to believe my friend and I reached the summit two years ago this month. We were 60 and 61. Headaches were the only problems encountered. Tough but what a thrill. It started snowing two hours into the summit climb so never saw the sunrise but amazing nonetheless. We would both do it again but othe adventures beckon. Good advice – read other climbers blogs and tips and enjoy if you go!!

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Anonymous January 6, 2018 - 12:28 pm

Great write up! Thanks for the very ‘human ‘
info – cool perspective !

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Shallan January 6, 2018 - 8:31 am

Reading this brought me back to 2007 when I climbed Kilimanjaro on a whim at 19 years old! I wish I had known these tips before I set off in rented equipment (and boots!). But I made it to the top feeling the most tired and most proud I had ever felt and have ever felt since.

Every once in a while I think…oh I should do that again. Then I remember how exhausting and long that last night was. Every step forward sliding half a step back. And I think…maybe once was enough!

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Alan Rimmer December 5, 2017 - 3:58 am

Great article Jen, very well written and containing some great advice. So glad you made it, you deserve your success as Achievements in the mountains don’t come easily.
Well done again and more of your travel adventures please…
Alan

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Lyn November 8, 2017 - 3:50 am

I’ve done a whole lot of mountain climbing too, but I never consider myself too experienced to take a read and pick up tips from someone who has done a climb. And having done a couple of Intrepids this year, and knowing the types of Intrepid explorers, your advise is on point for those travellers who want to climb Kilimanjaro but who don’t necessarily have mountain climbing experience. Good report

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Anonymous November 1, 2017 - 12:27 pm

Great piece! I did the Machame route in 2010 at the age of 63. Reached Uhuru Point without even getting a headache but you’re so right about the difficulty of the final night. You have to REALLY want to do it. One thing I’d add; be sure your boots fit and your toenails are clipped short. The pounding of coming down caused me to lose both big toenails and that hurt!
Amazing experience and the feeling of satisfaction is still with me and will be as long as I’m alive.
Thanks for the piece!

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Wilson November 1, 2017 - 10:11 am

Please, I’ve climbed mountains all over the world since my teens. Your hyperbole regarding hiking up Kili is embarrassing to read. Please stop. “Summit night is the hardest thing you’ll ever do”, epitomizes your ignorance.

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Carl November 2, 2017 - 7:38 am

Dude – not everyone is a mountaineer. You might be all talk with no game for all we know. A real mountaineer wouldn’t write a comment like yours we try to inspire others. Honey don’t listen to this jerk.

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Dane January 16, 2018 - 1:53 pm

My name is Wilson and I go out of my way to comment on other people’s (helpful) blogs to tell them how cool I am and how uncool they are. Next time you have something mean to say, keep it to yourself.

Great read Jen- hope to climb Kili myself someday!

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John January 28, 2018 - 4:01 am

What an hole thing to say. For the 99.9 percent of the world that does not climb mountains regularly this would be among the toughest physical even of their life. Enjoy your time in your own personal awesomeness

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Gina January 3, 2019 - 3:36 am

So rude. Why even comment? This was a wonderful, helpful article written for normal, everyday people who might want a little adventure in their lives, or to hit some bucket list items. It’s none of your business and you’ve made an ass of yourself, big man hiding behind your computer.

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Johnny March 12, 2019 - 2:48 am

It’s very obvious you’re not a climber. And you’re the ignorant one.

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Max March 19, 2021 - 1:32 pm

Hello dear Wilson,

It appears you need a hug. Here is a virtual one, hope you feel better soon.

Reply

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