Kilimanjaro: preparations, practical stuff, arrival

This is a post about sum-up of the preparations and fixing up practical stuff before a fully self-sufficient Kilimanjaro climb through Lemosho Route. To read about the climbing days, click here: Forest Camp to Shira Plateau, Barranco, Barafu, and Summit Day. To skip to sum-up and lessons learned, click here.

How did it all start? This was a long-time planning adventure. In 2017, I got several inquiries to lead a mountaineering trip to Kilimanjaro, 5895 meters above sea level. This is Africa’s highest mountain, one of the Seven Summits, and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, so naturally it is on top of the mind for many mountaineering lovers. I pursued the task and started planning. A group was formed in November 2017, consisting of 8 people - of which a total of 5 including me actually partook, the rest cancelling the trip because of financial reasons, it turned out that the local companies’ provision is much higher than expected for a self-sufficient hike. The youngest of the group that went to the peak was aged 35, the oldest 48. Of the total, 40% of the members were female.

I organised a training program for the group, helped out with info about gear and preparations, and arranged the booking. We also did a climb of Mont Blanc (4810 m) together, as a training or a warm-up for the ultimate target. One of the members hadclimbed Elbrus with me earlier, and two others had been up to Kebnekaise and Galdhøpiggen in various weather states (both a sunny walk from Spiterstulen and a bit more chilly glacier walk from Juvasshytte through snow, rain, gale and thick fog, also with me as a guide.

Our objective was to do a self-sufficient Kilimanjaro climb. Almost all that attempt Kilimanjaro - regardless of route - rely on porters, cooks and other staff to carry and arrange their tents, and bring and cook their food, equipment and all needful gear. That means that as a tourist, you only need to carry a daypack with your personal belongings, maybe a camera, and do not need to do anything except walk, feed and sleep. The paths are full of porters, running up with huge bags full with tents, food, kitchens, toilets, and all kinds of stuff to be used by the tourists. This would be a highly surrealistic sight in Alps or Scandinavian Mountains, however more normal in countries where a day’s wage is on the lowest end. For me, there’s a huge difference between the purist way of handling everything yourself - and involving workforce which would mean that it’s not much of alpinism anymore, only high-altitude tourism.

My aim was therefore to do the climb the classical way, without the use of porters and cooks – that is, to bring and carry our gear and food ourselves. There are strict rules in Kilimanjaro National Park about the number of guides and porters every person should have, which both helps to maintain a safe and secure summit for the tourists - and help the national economy and employment. Naturally, we followed the rules dictating the minimum numbers of staff, and paid for all the staff needed. Only that they carried up their own gear, and not ours. This was a bit hard to arrange, since it’s not “normal” for the mountain and the organizers want to make things comfortable for tourists and offer as much service as possible - so there was a lot of communication sent back and forth, sometimes less understood by either part than what could have been optimal (see the “Lessons Learned” post). But at the end, the dates were decided, the booking was made, and the flights were booked. On 6th of February, we boarded the planes in three different locations (two persons in Copenhagen, two in Gothenburg and one in Oslo), and headed South.

Landing in Kilimanjaro Airport two hours late due to my delayed Qatar flight caused the rest of the group to wait for several hours, which was unfortunate and stressful for me – but the rest of the members seemed to take it in the most constructive way, chilling in an open-air cafe and imbibing the local atmosphere. It was hot, but not as torturous as one could expect when you exchange sub-zero temperatures to 35+C.

We were met up directly at the JRO airport by several people, some of them being involved in the booking, some in the mountaineering and some only in driving to the hotel. Here, it’s important to create a personal connection to the customers - and be present in person to secure the impression and control.

Moshi Downtown. Tanzania.
Everyone in our five-person mountaineering group was munching on malaria pills, because their effect is post-infection instead of preventive. That means you cannot stop taking them even if there are no mosquitoes in the high mountains! The disease may break out within one to four weeks, and if it happens when you’re in a high altitude camp, away from medical care, then it could be highly risky. Malaria is best combated if it happens as early as possible. The group of 5 used three different sorts of medicine. Despite the often-mentioned side effects, nobody suffered anything worth mentioning. Now, in the start, we did not know that, and were a bit worried about both side effects and a bit jumpy when it came to mosquitoes (or any insects, frankly). That would wear out considerably towards the end, where we figured that there was no reason to be overly nervous about anything like this. We did not encounter mosquitoes on the trail, even as low as 2100. May be that was luck – or maybe there is a scientific upper limit for the bloodsuckers after which they get too cold, or start suffering from AMS.

The hotel we were transported to had mozzie nets, fans, and some AC. The restaurant served a mix of continental cuisine, Indian food and pizza. It turned out that most restaurants aimed at the tourist crowd in Moshi do the same. Now, prior to the summit was definitely not a good time to go for the fresh salads, sea food or anything that could make the stomachs upset, so we ordered some pizza. In hindsight, nobody suffered from bad food or hygiene even when we switched to drinking fruit juices, eating fruits and fresh veg, and enjoying all kinds of local food from stews to sandwiches and grilled chicken, as we were done with the mountaineering part. Overall, it seems that the problem’s worse in tropical Asia, for instance. But for now, it was stupid to take any chances. And pizza is always appreciated, right?

We had all the gear we needed, and of though it’s possible to buy or rent things locally, we decided to bring all our private stuff. It’s always best to use gear that’s your own, customized and proven. We also received fuel from the organizers, kerosene instead of the preferred chemically pure gasoline, nevertheless still suitable for our burners. There are no regular gas canisters to be bought here! Your choice is either to purchase small gas bottles and a local gas burner to fit them (which will cost you a considerable amount of money), or get a huge semi-industrial canister that will add you about 10 kg which you cannot distribute throughout the group. Luckily, both stoves that we had were Primus Omnifuel (two different models), so they could also run on vehicle gasoline or even diesel. Kerosene was a bit of a pain to prime, also it was burning with a lot of soot and required frequent cleaning – but it did work beautifully during the whole trip. We used apprx 2 liter for 5 persons and 8 days (most of it being boiled water for the freeze-dried food, and for the thermal flasks. We did also have filters and purification tablets which saved us a lot of fuel.) It’s important to bear in mind that plastic bottles (PET bottles) are forbidden in the park! The canister that we got the kerosene in was leaking, and could only be carried by hand which is not a good choice when walking with poles, so we needed to be creative. If I could have known, I’d bring several very safe one-liter or half-liter vessels for an equal distribution of the fuel.

The next day, we got up as early as 06:30, had a quick breakfast at the hotel and a short briefing with the head guide. Then, a few hours of waiting followed, where we wished we could catch up on sleep from the long-haul flights - but needed to stay awake due to lack of precise time indications. The cash that we paid yesterday was to be transferred online to get our permits for the park, and we could go as soon as the payment was confirmed. To use that waiting time wisely, I headed to the city of Moshi to do the last errands. I wanted to get a SIM with mobile data, in order to be able to download the weather report. The organiser told me specifically “you will have internet on the mountain”, but in hindsight I should not have gone for as much data because the internet was present only at a couple of spots, and with a very low speed. I think that during those 8 days, I could only use a few MB, and only during two or three specific times. It felt like a miracle every time there was a connection. At any rate, you need local cash to buy a SIM card, so the first step was to go to an exchange point because we only brought USD. Passport is needed both for exchange and for buying a SIM card.
Some three hours later, the payment confirmation was announced to have arrived, and we could start rolling. The drive was long, hot and dusty, and we had to stop for lunch for the staff. Then we turned North and the road started climbing, past pine plantations where locals were cultivating root crops and picking firewood. First, we drove to Londorossi Gate where the check-in procedure is arranged, and then to Lemosho gate where the actual climb was to start.

The place for the staff's lunch. We alpinists kept us to the freeze-dried food.
At Londorossi Gate, there was a long line of porters waiting to have their bags weighted, which added more time to the procedure. The absolute majority of people attempting to climb Kilimanjaro are using porters for carrying all the gear, food etc except for 5-10 kg of personal belongings. It’s forbidden for the porters to carry more than 20 kg each, and there is a scale at the start and in every camp, but the rigorous checks only suggest the fact that it’s still a problem that the porters are being forced to carry more.

As we were leaving, the guides were approached by a Park Ranger, and I was told to have a chat with the person. I was asked how much we had in our bags. I did know that the backpack weight was ranging from a couple of kilo under 20 kg, to a few kilo above 20. Add some extra water and fuel and I’d have just below 30. Knowing this, I was concerned that the Ranger would not allow us to carry the bags if they were too heavy, precisely as the porters (however illogical that might seem – I had no idea!) so I said that the bags were about 20 kg. After a bit of hesitation, the Ranger let me go. What I learned later was that the reason they asked was because they would not believe that we did not use any porters, and were checking that we actually brought everything by ourselves. I could have happily said that I carried almost 30, assuring them properly. Nevertheless, no further questions were asked, and we headed off to Lemosho gate.

The weight checking procedure for the porters. The amount of people carrying others' stuff is incredible.
The fact that we carried all of our stuff ourselves made us a bit of a mountain legend. We were “the first group this year” to do a self-sufficient climb. Many guides were curious and asked about or gear, the cookers, the food (“do you only eat cookies?”) and the weight of the backpacks. We showed off the kerosene stoves, let them taste the freeze-dried stews, and explained that this was normal in other parts of the world.

Many tourists reacted as well. We did not get any negative reactions, though I was prepared for such things too. The locals called this “alpine style”, however it’s not the correct name because we did not strive for the lightest backpack or the shortest time on the mountain, on the contrary we wanted to go slowly with extra acclimatization and proper gear. But contrary to “expedition style” we wanted to have as little unnecessary staff as possible, do not use external help for carrying or cooking, and be self-sufficient. I think the closest name for that is “Scandinavian Style”, which I learned since I started mountaineering. Anyway, the rumor about us spread fast, and we were the exotic group all the way up.

(See next Kili post here)