A mountain of clothing, courage and commitment needed to climb Kilimanjaro

There’s a helluva lot of kit to climb Kilimanjaro. It’s hot in Joburg, even hotter in the middle of Sandton City, it’s difficult to think that in four months time – almost to the day – I should be at the highest point of Africa.

It’s all very surreal – the prospect of the climb, and the fitting session. One thing’s for sure, I won’t be freezing my backside off, at least not under four sets of pants, if you count the long johns or – in the parlance of the modern outdoors enthusiast – ‘thermal underwear’.

On top of that will go the hiking pants, wicked to help you sweat and then dry. I’m sweating at the exertion of getting what looks like fleece tracksuit pants over them and then a pair of padded summit trousers. There’ll be three sets of socks under the boots, which I’m pleased to see are the normal hiking boots beloved of those who navigate malls on Saturdays or stand around braais afterwards.  

Up top, there’s a grandpa vest (thermal underwear, once again), a nylon long sleeved t-shirt and then a three in one jacket. There are inner gloves that go into mittens, which wouldn’t have looked out of place on Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic. There’s a beanie. We’ll get scarves too.

I know that whatever happens, I will never ever get cold – or wet – sitting in the stands at Ellis Park in the middle of a Highveld winter.

We will also be carrying backpacks – courtesy of manufacturers Thule who have come on board the Trek4Mandela Centenary edition as bag sponsors. The backpacks carry your food, your water bottles and all the kit that you’re wearing. The truth of the matter is that when you climb, you’re perennially moderating your temperature, taking top layers off, putting them on.

Kilimanjaro lies close to the equator. We’ll probably start in trial running shoes with the legs actually zipped off the pants. By Day 5 we’ll look like Teletubbies  – at least I will – to avoid frostbite at -20degC, 5895m above sea level. By Day 6 we’ll almost be back in takkies, t-shirts and shorts, fighting off mosquitoes as we go through the tropical rain forest. 

It’s all a bit bewildering. Luckily I’ve met William Tsoai, who works at the Sandton branch of Cape Union Mart, where we are getting most of our kit.

Tsoai is that rare outdoors outfitter who’s not spouting book learning, but speaking from experience. He’s been up Kili himself, as well as going to Everest base camp – courtesy of winning the company’s salesman of the year award twice.

He’s full of useful tips, like storing your water bottle upside down on the last night – because the water will freeze at the top. Like making sure that everything fits and that you are fit for purpose.

You’ve got to be fit, he says. 

“Respect the mountain, respect yourself, communicate with your fellow climbers, don’t lie.

“Listen to your body, tell your tent mates how you feel because altitude can get to anyone.”

He knows. When he climbed Kilimanjaro, he was sick the first day, but the weight of expectation that he put on himself, not to leat his colleagues and his friends down was so great, that he pushed through to the summit.

When he got back to Joburg, he got rid of his kit. Every last bit.

Six months later, he started climbing again from scratch.

“I think you need about four months to train,” he says. “You can go to the gym, but the best is to be outdoors as much as possible, hiking and doing the Westcliff Stairs. They’re the best, because when you’re on Kili, your knees go. Most people get as far as Stella Point (5756m), they can’t go the next couple of hundred metres up to Uhuru peak.

“Look at (Everest legend) Sibusiso Vilane, he doesn’t go to the gym. He climbs and he runs.”

 Fitness is a big issue for Tsoai. He will do Kilimanjaro again, but now he wants to climb Mount Aconcagua in the Andes, the highest point outside the Himalayas at 6 960m. First though he has to prove he’s fit enough – by running at least 22kms.

To do Kili, he reckons, you should be able to run 5kms as well as master the Westcliff Stairs.

I gulp. I haven’t even done a fun run or a Park Run.

“Don’t worry,” he says, “that mountain (Kilimanjaro) is here to stay. It’s not leaving Africa any time soon. If you don’t make it for whatever reason, you can do it again.

“Wear warm, eat well, sleep well, know your body and listen to your guides.”

  • Kevin Ritchie is part of this year’s Trek4Mandela Centenary expedition to raise awareness and money for sanitary pads to keep girl children in school. If you would like to support Caring4Girls SMS Kevin to 42513 to pledge R30 towards this cause.

Originally published in the Saturday Star on 5 April 2018