Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kilimanjaro - mostly on conditioning

I saw someone's blog posting re Kilimanjaro training a couple of days ago, and realized that we had never posted anything on our Kilimanjaro experience. I guess that is because it was a guided trip (mandatory), and we normally write on hiking/backpacking experiences that we have done entirely on our own.

In retrospect, the training we did for Kilimanjaro, and our physical experiences while doing that climb could help others training for a similar high altitude climb (20,000 feet).

Of all our trips, this is the one where we trained most rigorously, and did not slack off. We were afraid that if we didn't do the training, we just would not be able to complete the climb. To do the climb, you are required to have a guide, and the company we used, Tusker Trails, sent out sent out training requirements that made it clear this was not a thing to be taken casually.

At this point, I didn't remember their exact instructions, so dug them up again. They had a very thorough set of workouts:

Mon Weds Fri Aerobic - walking, jogging, stair climbing 30 to 40 min, try for 70% of max heart rate.
Every weekend at least one three hour hike up and down hills with full equipment..
Tues and Thurs - Strength
incline leg press 3x15
leg extension 3x15
walking lunges 3x15
rear lunges 3x15
standing calf raises 3x15
Upper Body
reverse grip pull down
Daily stretches

What we ended up doing was an hour walk around our hilly neighborhood daily, and a couple of long walks (7 to 10 miles) per week. We have a steep local trail (Claremont Canyon for you locals) that rises about 800 feet in about half a mile, and then climbs more gradually for another 30 minutes or so. Up and back was a real workout. Even this climb didn't do much for my cardio, though. Susan's pulse would be up to 145, but mine would get to about 100 and just settle there. The result was that I was not getting much cardio training and I think it did cause me some problems on Kilimanjaro later
Our route was the Lemosho route, which is 10 days, 8 up and 2 down. We chose this to get the longest adaptation time.

When we did the climb, Tusker Trails was very safety conscious. They carried a portable high altitude chamber (gamow bag) for severe cases of altitude sickness, and bottled oxygen. However, if you needed oxygen, that meant you were going down right then (with a guide). It was not to let you continue up. They measured your blood oxygen several times a day, and also grilled you re how much water you drank, diarrhea, color of pee, etc.

Everyone had to have a prescription for Diamox. That lessened the effect of the elevation but caused stomach upset, diarrhea and so on. The dose that Tusker Trails recommended, 125mg twice a day, is less than your doctor's handbook will say, but it worked for me. At one point my blood oxygen was about 70%, which is almost the send down level. Luckily it popped back up as I adapted to the altitude. I think that if my cardio training had been better, I would have been able to pump blood fast enough to keep myself properly oxygenated. I did make it to the top, but after about 14000 feet, I was the slowest of the group. Of course I was older than most of the rest of the group by 20 years, though only a little older than Susan and our friend Grace. Because I was the slowest, the guides put me at the head of the line. It gave everyone else a break. You would think I would feel some social pressure, but at that point I was so focused on getting my feet up the mountain that I didn't care about anything else. The guides have a mantra which translates to slowly, slowly. They don't want you to ever stop, but keep inching up the mountain. My style was to set a goal, such as a rock 20 feet up the trail, and stop for a moment when I got there. It worked for me.

Someone asked me about toilet facilities. It is like normal backpacking - step off the trail and go. You  are drinking a lot of water. It helps you adjust to the elevation. Peeing adjusts your electrolytes so you are drinking and peeing all the way up. In camp they have a tent with a toilet seat over a bucket. Don't sit too far forward.

Clothing - for the most part I and the rest of the group wore normal backpacking garb. Disclosure - if you actually buy thru these links, I get a small commission.  Synthetic pants, Ex Officio shirt, and sometimes my Marmot Precip Jacket. Part of the time I wore a long sleeved synthetic Patagonia tee shirt. For the day we reached the summit I had a full winter puffy down jacket and a Charlie Brown type hat with ear flaps and a brim. I think a down sweater under my Precip would have been just as good. I also had prescription glacier glasses just for that day. Normally my transition darkening glasses were fine. We were required to wear boots, so I wore my Lowa Renegade Gortex GTX boots which have been in the closet since I started hiking the PCT. Otherwise I would have worn my trail runners, and on the last day used my waterproof Seal Skinz socks. I carried my fleece pants, but just wore them one evening. We rented sleeping bags and gaiters from Tusker Trails. I found the gaiters unnecessary and stopped wearing them after the first day. They might keep some gravel out of your shoes on the way down.

The down - we were most worried about this, as it is a huge descent and Susan's knees have sometimes had problems. It was better than expected. There was a long stretch of deep gravelly slope - almost like going down a sand dune, not the dangerous pebbles on a hard surface. After that, there was a long downhill trail that was fine going at a normal pace. The younger set could just about run down it, so we reached the bottom about an hour after the first arrivers, but we made it with knees intact.

I put together a YouTube video of the trip. It was made mainly for the other group members, so has a lot of people shots, but take a look closely at what they are wearing and you will have a better idea of what is needed. It also will give you a flavor of the experience.


  1. How did you feel during your descent? Was there a disparity between the effort level between your descent vs. your ascent? I will post some fitness tips based upon your response. My company prepares all of the pre-departure fitness programs for

  2. We both felt fine during the descent - it seemed effortless compared to the ascent. We were just careful of our knees. We were using hiking poles, and they helped minimize the impact on the knees.

  3. I agree with what Ralph said; the descent was effortless. It really is down, down, down! I had read a lot about knee pain going down, so I was relieved that we had part of an extra day for our descent since we had ascended in one less day than scheduled.

    I went slowly and cautiously because I didn't want to have leg cramps, knee pain, etc. I figured I could take my time because they weren't going to leave me on the mountain. It worked!

    It was an incredible trip.

  4. Good post. My friend Laurie Bagley guided a group to the summit of Kilimanjaro summer before last and spoke highly of the trek.