Kilimanjaro Summit Success – What Worked

“Keep climbing, Keep climbing,” our guide shouts on Mount Kilimanjaro Summit Day, August 20, 2013. I tell myself, “If I hear him say that one more time….” He did. And I screamed out at the top of my lungs, “I’M NOT GIVING UP!”

The guide’s promptings were probably warranted. Nine months earlier I had had a wound the size of a quarter in the bottom of my right heel; three months before the climb I’d undergone a mastectomy – my second. And in fact, fourteen years before, I had faced a life-threatening lung condition severe enough that doctors told me I would never climb a mountain again. So much for that prognosis!

What follows is the story of my successful recent summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, along with recommendations that will greatly increase your likelihood of success on Kili as well.

Every climber knows that it’s important to check with your healthcare provider for guidance and decisions on what to incorporate. In my case, first I contacted Fit for Trips, where Marcus Shapiro designed a personalized 12-week fitness program for me, specifically for trekking Kilimanjaro. I followed it to a T and then repeated it. And at some point on the climb I used EVERY recommended exercise.

Next I visited the pulmonologist at National Jewish Health. Bicycle stress tests and pulmonary function were accompanied by a cardiologist reading an EKG. Once I cleared those hurdles, I added repeated incantations such as “mental toughness, mental toughness” while trying to hold my bladder six hours on a weighted-pack hike. I also used computer passwords at work that were designed to subliminally reinforce success. I even had my surgical team – the anesthesiologist, a med student, and the surgeon – repeat a mantra while I was under the knife: “You will heal quickly. You will be strong. You will make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro in August. You can do it. You love chocolate. Hakuna matata” (a Swahili phrase which roughly translates “no worries”).

When I was ready to make my trip, my process was as follows (yours should be tailored to your own needs: climbing prowess and experience, overall condition, particular health issues, etc.):

As soon as I boarded the plane I set my watch to my destination time zone. On the plane I wore Mack’s Pillow Soft Silicone Earplugs, a sleep mask, ThermaCare HeatWraps and TED Knee Length Open Toe Anti-Embolism Stockings to prevent blood clots and swelling. I took No-Jet-Lag tablets along with ibuprofen, melatonin, Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime tea, and Epic 100% Xylitol Sweetened Cinnamon Gum. Thera Tears Lubricant Eye Drop vials and Ocean Spray nasal mist kept mucus membranes moist in the airline cabin; I would also take them on my climb. I drank liters of water, chewed on some Airborne chewable tablets, and walked about the cabin several times to stretch. One-half hour before breakfast was served I drank a cup of strong black Starbucks’ Via Ready Brew Italian coffee – and then none until the next morning.

I flew through nine time zones, so on arrival I stayed at Planet Lodge in Arusha for three nights to rest and acclimatize to new circadian cycles and climate. Doing literally almost nothing during that period enhanced my awareness of the surrounding environment. I also met and listened to others who had made the summit successfully and absorbed tales from their journeys.

All climbers are encouraged to walk slowly. It ensures acclimatization as does hiking up and then descending some for the night. Drinking lots of water is key: the oxygen in water is important. Following these recommendations helped prepare me for my climb, as would the supplements, medications, and drinks that had proven effective during my training. Here are some of the important items I brought with me.

Preventative medications:

A travel clinic prescribed a course of Azithromycin for any onset of diarrhea, and Malarone malaria tablets necessary for the first two of five climate zones on the mountain. My lung doctor prescribed Medrol Dosepak to counteract any difficulty breathing, as well as a Ventolin rescue inhaler. Diamox (acetazolamide), which is what Kili climbers usually use to prevent pulmonary and cerebral edema, did not work for me: due to a sulfa allergy I started to have an anaphylactic reaction. I quickly took my last Benadryl before it became full blown.

Food additives:

To help flavor the water I used Powdered Gatorade, Green tea (Celestial Seasonings or Kilimanjaro infusions), and one Emergen–C. (However, one night, while taking sips to break dry mouth in the middle of the night, it registered that someone must have peed into it.) Chocolate-covered expresso beans, Extreme Edge pre-workout mix, and a vitaSciences B-12 patch placed behind my ear weekly helped provide mental clarity.

All the daily supplements were packed in small plastic med envelopes at Amazon.com or purchased from Walgreens. Each daily packet included ginkgo, Life Extension’s products Super Ubiquinol CoQ10 with Enhanced Mitochondrial Support 100 mg, Two-per-Day multivitamin capsules, Mitochondrial Energy Optimizer with Bio PQQ, Cardio Peak and Extraordinary Enzymes, Kyolic aged garlic extract, some Millennium Sport Technologies Cordygen5, vitamin B-complex, vitamin D-3 (5000 Units), glucosamine, Nature’s Life amino acids 1000 mg and a chewable wild cherry anti-nausea tab.

Optional supplement packets contained Senocot-S Natural Vegetable Laxative, more Airborne, Now Sports Chewable D-Ribose Tablets, Excedrin Migraine (taken prophylactically), Pepto Bismol (to prevent H-pylori), enteric coated aspirin tablets, Acti Fruit Cranberry Chews and Acai Berry chews, walnuts, and Ricola Original Natural Herb Cough Drops or Ricola Original Swiss Herb Cough Drops (with individual wrappers removed to nestle neatly together).

Night-time packets held Nature’s Life Easy-to-Swallow SoftMag 500 mg capsules to prevent leg cramps; Life Extension’s No Flush Niacin 800 mg to give my heart energy and keep warm; ibuprofen, and melatonin. In addition to Sleepytime tea after supper, I would swig a teaspoon amount of Gaia Black Elderberry Nighttime Syrup just before drifting off to sleep.

As noted above, drinking lots of water is important. Drinking 3-5 liters per day, coupled with the changing atmospheric pressure on your kidneys, meant that every night I had to get up 1-5 times to void. When I was too exhausted or it was bitterly cold, I used TravelJohn disposable urinal bags. Remember: the porters have to pack these out after your summit.

Other tips and helpful items:

Crystal Essence Mineral Deodorant Towelettes Pomegranate were excellent for keeping the plantar side of my feet dry and fresh – and when water was scarce, they were used on the peri area as well. I kept my toenails clipped short and painted Medline’s “Marathon Sticks” on potential foot hotspots. To help minimize knee pain, particularly on the trip down, I wore boots 1/2-inch to 1 inch longer than my normal size; I also used Kneedit Knee Support.

I bought (and used as needed) Anti-Monkey Butt diaper rash cream; Boiron Arnicare Gel for sore muscles; lamb’s wool or vintage “Johnson & Johnson” 100% lamb’s wool to use in glove fingertips and boot toe beds; Toasty Feet NASA shoe inserts (by Polar Wrap LLC); Sawyer SPF 50 high altitude sunscreen and Liptect SPF UVA/UVB Ultra High Sun Protection lip balm.

A very useful bring-along for times when I couldn’t sleep was a Grundig pocket-size world band radio; I listened using ear muff headphones from Amazon.com or www.hammacher.com. Alternatively, I would put on a head-lamp and write in my journal with a Stowaway Space pen, since regular pens do not work at high altitude.

It was not until the very last night that I figured out how to stay warm! I placed toe warmers at the front of each foot between the Tilley (fast drying ankle socks) and SmartWool socks. I wore the thickest long underwear top and bottoms New Zealand Ice Breaker or SmartWool; REI “Fleece Windbreaker” pants, Patagonia Down Sweater Vest, and an Eddie Bauer First Ascent Hooded Down Coat. A sleep mask kept my face warm. Gloves were optional: I wore SmartWool liners or Manzella Windstopper glove shells. I topped all with a fleece hat or Patagonia balaclava under the hood from the Eddie Bauer coat.

I also placed a REI down travel pillow between my knees to help restore them overnight. And a Nalgene liter bottle filled with hot water is somewhat useful in the sleeping bag – though it will always be cold by morning. And for cold asthmatic reactions I quickly donned a ColdAvenger cold weather mask.

Thomson Safaris provided porters for the trip, and because several climbers decided not to make the climb, there were more porters per person than there might have been. Our porters provided extra enthusiasm to the expedition: they would rush past us energetically, carrying our gear, and at one point they shared an animated episode of Kilimanjaro work songs. It was amazing to watch these guys as they worked above the clouds.

At sunrise every morning Adam (the cook’s assistant) brought unsweetened Cadbury hot chocolate: that was always a motivator to get out of bed, to be followed by push-ups and sit-ups while still in the tent. The best heat packs I used were ThermaCare neck and ThermaCare lumbar ones; the latter I wore all the way from Outward Bound Camp to the summit and on to Barafu Camp. And because I have cold hands, one that includes surgical hardware, I purchased heated gloves and tested them beforehand. The best are from Hammacher Schlemmer, but note this critical instruction: to ensure battery life, connect the batteries to the glove wires only on Summit Day, not before.

One experience, after six days up, was unnerving. At Mawenzi Tarn Camp I forgot to open the tent flaps, got up in the middle of the night, and experienced something similar to “the bends” that deep-sea divers undergo. If I did not pray the first six days, I certainly did then.

Summit Day started out in the cold and dark. I ran “Shaun the Sheep” cartoons through my head for distraction while controlling my breathing in a relaxed manner. As dawn appeared, I began a pattern of inhaling quickly through my nose and exhaling forcefully, though slowly, through my mouth.

Summiting Kilimanjaro is as much a spiritual experience as a physical one; when you reach the top, you are as close as a human can be to the sun, because the mountain’s location at the equator.

Once a bone-marrow transplant patient with a low immune system, told by doctors I’d never climb again, I brought along many things that would likely be over-kill for a more “typical” climber. But by making proper and appropriate preparations for my individual needs, I never got sick on Kili and I came home well and strong.

Kilimanjaro was the most incredible adventure of my life. All the training and preparation, the personalized fitness program, and the careful choice of what to bring, have kept it so to this day. With your focus on the goal, it can be the most incredible experience for you too!

Links List

On the plane ride to Africa consider taking these items with you:

A travel clinic or doctor must prescribe just about all of these for Kilimanjaro (consult doctor):

  • Azithromycin for  diarrhea
  • Malarone malaria tablets (the first two Kili climate zones are semi-tropical and rainforest)
  • Medrol Dosepak for difficulty breathing
  • Ventolin rescue inhaler
  • Diamox (acetazolamide) (used by most Kili climbers use to prevent pulmonary and cerebral edema; not for those with Sulfa allergy)
  • Benadryl

Additional items to bring to Kilimanjaro:

Daily and night-time supplements (pack in small plastic med envelopes):

       Daily packet consisted of:

       Night-time packets:

After supper:

Optional supplement packets:

Night-time items:

Night-time stuff to stay warm and comfortable:

Morning prep for the day:

Items to keep handy at all times:

*Mentioned twice in Links List so you don’t double up on purchases

Written by Karen Getzel [one of Fit For Trips’ favorite clients ;-)]

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