How to climb Kilimanjaro? Kelly Donegan pushes past the pain barrier to climb Africa's iconic mountain.
I’ve just faced my greatest ever challenge.
Looking down at my feet, waving goodbye to four black toenails, a 5,895m mountain in Tanzania has pushed me to the limits of what I thought I was capable of.
That’s not something I say lightly. I’ve written a 50,000-word book, battled depression and ripped bodybuilding competitions. But none compete with Kilimanjaro.
My battle wounds are a sign of how hard I had to push my body to reach the illustrious Uhuru Peak - sitting at a glorious 19,341 feet above sea level. There were moments of true hardship during the hike. I dug deeper than I’ve ever done, but it was worth it. That sweet and glorious feeling of reaching the top will always be with me.
I made it! I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania!
My adventure began months beforehand. Every year, the Irish Cancer Society reaches out to the public, asking them to take its Trek4life challenge (cancer.ie/trek4life), raising vital funds for cancer research while undertaking a personal test like no other.
The Society receives just 2pc of its funds from the Irish Government, and relies on fundraising to deliver its services, including a number of free supports to people on their cancer journey.
In total, the Trek4Life challenge requires you to raise funds of €5,599 or more – which includes your costs and a €2,000 donation to cancer research.
As a total fundraising target, that sounds like quite the task, but I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime trip that would do some good. I signed up, took the giant leap of faith, and quickly became fanatical about the campaign.
How to climb Kilimanjaro? This is no easy feat.
It requires a good level of fitness – the climb itself takes seven days of a 12-day trip - so you need to train beforehand. As a certified personal trainer, I recommend doing as much cardiovascular activity as possible prior to the big hike. Forget about weightlifting or resistance training and focus on becoming fitter and improving lung function. Try regular walks, cycling and jogging.
Ireland is blessed with beautiful mountain hikes, and Earth’s Edge, the Irish-owned company operating the Trek4Life Kilimanjaro trips, also hosts brilliant training weekends that prepare you both in terms of exercise requirements and packing.
But don’t fear - Kilimanjaro isn't just for the experienced hiker or typical outdoorsy sports type. It's for everyone and anyone who dares to take on the challenge. The mountain may be intimidating, but it doesn’t discriminate in that regard.
Day One seemed so innocent!
Leaving the Machame Gates on the southern base of Kilimanjaro and heading for camps like Shira and Lava, we got closer to the mountain. The Machame Route, nicknamed The Whiskey Route, is renowned for its steep hills and long days. In total, we would be walking for over 50 hours, leaving us plenty of time to get to know our new teammates and enjoy plenty of sing songs.
Along the way, as we gained in altitude, there were tears, smiles and smelly socks with dirty nails, greasy hair and blisters. There were infectious laughs, endless toilet jokes, and views that took my breath away every single morning, afternoon and evening.
Sleeping above the clouds, I could make out mammoth mountain peaks and big, African baobab trees that looked like pineapples.
The climb is tough, but you feel so alive and love the fact that you can't contact the world and the world can't contact you. It is total freedom to enjoy being present in that very moment, realizing that you can, in fact, live without your phone and social media.
Climbing Kilimanjaro, I learned that life in the real world looks more astonishing in that very moment than through a photo on an iPhone.
Along the way, landscapes change from warm and tropical jungles with families of Columbus Monkeys to a moonscape of lava fields and desolate, rock-filled plains. There are times when you are so cold your water freezes to ice and you’re surrounded by glaciers. At others, you become deliriously exhausted, but full of a sense of life and energy that can only be described or understood by those who have made it to the roof of Africa.
The trek isn’t all hardship. Earth’s Edge times the seven-day hike to allow for acclimatization, offering a hassle-free and safe way to take the challenge as well as significantly increasing your chances of making it to Uhuru Peak.
There is a doctor and team leader on hand. Every morning we are greeted with a fresh coffee and hot basin of water. Packed lunches are provided and our tents are pitched for us every single day. Warm popcorn and hot chocolate await after each long day of hiking, followed by a warm dinner and motivational chat from our team leader.
Summit night really knocked me for six. After five days of lovely scenic walks with gradual slopes and bubbly conversations, the final ascent felt like an outer body experience from the moment I left my tent. It kicks off at 12 midnight under cover of darkness. The only thing you can see is the flicker of head torches. All you can hear is the sound of your team layering up for the coming chill of -15 degrees.
Waving goodbye to base camp, we began clambering up sheer rock faces in single file - a zigzag line of tiny lights. I couldn’t help noticing that the lights were obscenely steep… how was I going to make it? As we climbed, oxygen levels dipped and we saw victims of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) literally being dragged down like zombies. Altitude can hit even the fittest of climbers, requiring them to return to the safety of Base Camp.
After six hours of walking in total darkness, my energy levels dropped so low I could barely talk (that's a big deal for me). But then, just as you think you want to quit, the sun comes up and reveals the most breath-taking view.
In order to make the nine-hour ascent more manageable, the day is split into three – giving climbers, us, goals and targets to reach. The first is sunrise, the second Stella Point and the third Uhuru Peak itself. After surviving sunrise, I find the push to Stella Point (5,685m) the most difficult part of the entire trip.
I have NEVER experienced exhaustion quite like trying to get to Stella, which we eventually refer to as a woman that we all hate with every inch of our bodies. I had nothing left to give, but for some reason my feet kept moving.
Reaching Stella Point was personally a bigger victory than the summit, because I simply didn’t think I was going to make it. Without the support of our wonderful team and Brian, our team leader, I don’t think I could have done it. We had “one last push” (a phrase I never want to hear again). People were crying, emotional, in state of shock.
We made it!
The roof of Africa was everything I hoped it would be. A triumph that filled me with pride. A victory so huge I realised that I could do anything and can get through any obstacle that life may throw at me.
The scenery was mind-blowing - like I was on a different planet with random, gigantic glaciers. We spent 15 glorious minutes taking photographs and hugging our fellow climbers… with nothing but admiration for each other.
The hike included five and a half days ascending and one and a half days descending, but in total, we spent 12 days in Africa.
Not only did we have our week on the mountain, but we also enjoyed time in the hectic town of Arusha, exploring markets and buying trinkets for loved ones. You can also do one full day in the epic Tarangire National Park surrounded by wild elephants and prides of lions that are so close you could touch them.
If you’re like me and hate travel that only involves a sandy beach, bikini and cocktail, then consider climbing the world's highest free standing mountain.
You might come home with black toenails like me, but it’s worth it!
Kilimanjaro trips with Earths Edge (earths-edge.com) start from €3,599pp. Prices include flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and drinking water, park fees and staff costs, but not equipment, personal expenses, insurance, visa or medical vaccinations.
Travellers taking the Irish Cancer Society’s Trek4life challenge fundraise €5,599pp or more, €2,000 of which goes to cancer research. Several Kilimanjaro trips are scheduled for 2017. Call 01 231-6636 or visit cancer.ie/trek4life for details.
Tourists should bring US$50 to pay for a visa on arrival in Tanzania, and full vaccination information is available from The Tropical Medical Bureau at tmb.ie. It is also recommended to tip porters $150 each after the climb.