Preparation: Key #1 to Summiting Kilimanjaro

“Luck favors the prepared.”

In my last post, Summiting Kilimanjaro: 10 Keys to Success, I said that I consider my pre-trip preparation critical to my success. If I had to rank those 10 keys, I would consider preparation to be THE most important.

My preparation happened in two stages.

The first stage was my research stage, where I did a bunch of reading about how people successfully manage the climb, and started reading up on altitude sickness (knowing this is what knocks out most climbers). I had a theory that I could actually train for it, but knew I’d have to start early since I have a long history of asthma and lousy breathing patterns. I’ll talk a lot more about the breathing in a later post.

The second stage started about 10 weeks before my trip. The training hikes were my foundation — not only for the conditioning, but also how I was going to test out my gear and snacks/supplementation.

Physical Training

I started by sitting down one Saturday with a guide book to hikes that are a day trip from Seattle. Knowing my schedule didn’t allow for overnights and weekend training hikes, I had to find everything within a few hours of Seattle (fortunately, Seattle is one of the better places to live if that is a requirement).

I planned out 8 different hikes (although only did 6, but don’t tell anyone), all in the 10-13 mile range with an elevation gain of at least 3,000 feet. Both the elevation gain and distance were greater that I was supposed to be doing on the mountain, but that was on purpose. By intentionally doing more than was expected of me on Kilimanjaro, the shorter distances and lesser elevation gains would not seem as daunting.

This was important to me both mentally and physically. Mentally, when our guides would tell us about the next day’s trek, I could tell myself, “been there, done that” and not be intimidated. Physically, I was hoping the extra mileage and elevation at sea level would be a bit of a defense against the altitude challenges I expected to encounter on the mountain.

But, my hikes were only once a week, which was not going to provide enough conditioning, and. I needed to do something to prepare for the fact that I wasn’t going to be climbing on fresh legs every day. So, I added in stairs and running a couple days of week. The stairs were done interval style, 8 seconds hard, 12 second easy, for 20 minutes. My running was largely meant to help with my respiration training and to induce oxygen debt that my body could adapt to.

Towards the end of my training I also did a few runs the night before my long trek to intentionally see how I would respond to tired legs. In case you were wondering, that part of my training sucked.

I want to thank mc Schraefel, RKC, Z-Health Master Trainer Candidate (among many other things) for working with me to come up with much of the training program. I had several different coaches help me prep for this trip, and she was one of them.

Gear

60 miles in gear that doesn’t work for you and doesn’t fit properly is a recipe for disaster.

Blisters were one of my largest concerns, so the first thing I did was start with socks. I already had a decent pair of hiking boots that were broken in, but I was having problems with blisters while hiking. At this point I still didn’t understand the whole sock liner thing, even though I read about them everywhere. Realizing that perhaps the rest of the universe just might know something I don’t, I finally decided to listen to conventional wisdom and buy a pair of sock liners to test out. Next hike, blister problem went away — problem solved. I tested out a few different types of liners and socks to see what I liked the best and only took the ones I liked with me.

I continued down the road of assess/re-assess for every piece of equipment I had. Shirts, pants, shorts, undergarments, hats – you name it. I wasn’t about to leave anything to chance (well, I refused to find a place to sleep in freezing temps so I could test my sleeping bag).

My general MO for each hike was:

  • Catalog what I was taking with me.
  • Once home, note what problems I had solved. One more thing ready. Happy dance!
  • Once home, note what problems I still had (bugs, chafing, sunburn, cut myself, etc), researched the answer to it, and then made my bazillionth trip to REI for said item(s). Added said items to the pack for the next outing.
  • Re-assess the following week. Lather, rinse, repeat until it was dialed in.

And, when I say note, I literally mean that I took notes. Each trip I would come home afterwards and that same night document what worked and what had not. I didn’t trust my memory to get me through the week.

Snacks & Supplementation

My first training hike of the season I was so sore the next two days I had to crawl up and down the stairs in my house. (Note to self: That is what I get for running down Mt. Si.) That experience brought on a whole new level of hiking concerns I hadn’t really thought of until that point. That was when I had my “if I get really sore on day 2, I’ve got 7 days to go and that would really suck” thought, and I knew I needed professional help.

So, I called my favorite endurance athlete and Ironman Triathlete, Z-Health Master Trainer Shannon Mauck. I told him what I had done — to which his response was, “well, Jen, that was basically 4 miles of deceleration training, of course you are sore. That wasn’t very bright.”

I then asked what supplements I could take to help in the future (after promising not to do something like that again any time soon.)

There were two basic classes of supplementation that he tutored me in — electrolyte imbalance and recovery drinks.

For electrolyte imbalance, lots of people use Gatorade or something similar. I can’t stand Gatorade (nor do I actually think it’s good for you since most people don’t really work hard enough to warrant it), and wanted something with a lot less sugar. I tested out a few different options and settled on Nuun tablets in my Camelback.

For post-hike recovery, most drinks are a mix of carbohydrates for energy and proteins (amino acids) for muscle rebuilding. After testing a few things out, I settled on Accelerade as well as a separate amino acid supplement. Necessary? I don’t know. Was I sore? No.

Snacks were an easier part of the mix. We had been told to bring 3-4 snack bars a day for the trip (over 9 days, that is 30+ snack bars). I’m gluten intolerant and also don’t tolerate soy well, so I couldn’t just buy a box of Clif or Luna bars and call it a day. And, I don’t eat many snack bars at home, except Perfect Foods Bars, so I had to go experimenting. I ended up settling on a bunch of Perfect Foods Bars (which actually did OK un-refrigerated), and Zing snack bars (which are awesome, but Seattle only — for now). Plus, some good, old-fashioned candy bars thrown in the mix.


Overall, I think I was adequately prepared. I remember calling my brother one Sunday as I got to the trailhead for a training hike. The trailhead – and trail – were buried in fog, but I was being indecisive about whether I should hike that day. After his not-so-subtle, “well, if you get lost in the fog and die you’ll never make it to Kilimanjaro anyway” statement, he patiently explained to me that I’d been working really hard for the trip and not having problems being sore, so one less training hike was likely to be a dealbreaker. He, of course, was right. I had spent months diligently preparing. And, it paid off when I could genuinely enjoy my entire time on the mountain.

Comments

  1. Cecilia Tom says

    Hey Jen,

    What hiking boots would you recommend for someone who has worn nothing but VFF’s and other “barefoot” shoes for the last four years, even for hiking? I am thinking of doing the climb, and was overjoyed to find out that you have done it. I have less than three months to prepare and gear up if I want to seize on the only open window of time that I have … Probably not very wise but life is short! If you could tell me what brands of socks, liners, clothing, etc. you got, that would be super awesome. (I don’t even wear socks normally, so am totally clueless.) Thanks for this blog and for generously sharing your knowledge. I’m picking Shannon’s brain too :)

    Cecilia

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