Updated: Jan 6
It's a combination of building both mental and physical strength and endurance whilst knowing that how your body reacts to altitude will trump everything.
Whilst fitness alone is not enough to succeed in summiting a high mountain, you really don’t want to turn up without it. The frustrating part of mountaineering, is that in order to make it to the top and reach your ultimate goal, you have to be able to withstand the challenges of high altitude first and foremost. If you can’t do that, then no matter how fit you are, you’re likely not going to make it. On the flip side, if your body does respond well enough with altitude, then it is the training and fitness plus mental strength that will get you to the summit.
Kilimanjaro is a mountain with multiple routes that give the hiker time to acclimatise appropriately and where the pace of ascent is very slow, so you can argue that a super high level of fitness is not essential; probably why it appeals to many people who would not typically see themselves as capable of summiting a mountain of this size. For this reason it has a high summit rate and is a very popular expedition, however my personal view is that the level of fitness will always correlate to the level of enjoyment of the journey, not to mention helping you deal with the freezing temperatures, sleeping in tents on rocky ground for multiple days and push on even when your muscles hurt and you want to give up.
Each mountain has it’s nuances and I myself have learned from my own failures to appreciate just how important being fit is - not only to make the summit, but to actually enjoy the experience along the way.
My experience of climbing Kilimanjaro was overall very positive. I found the pace and expectation of the climb really manageable day by day. The summit (day 6) was by far the toughest and there were multiple times when I had to dig deep to keep my legs moving forward and beat away negative thoughts about how far we had to go and how much at times my legs were aching. I had very brief, yet multiple flashes of thoughts that I might not make it, however I counteracted these as quickly as they came. Not summiting was not an option….
So how did I prepare for for a successful summit?
We’ll talk about the fitness programme I implemented in a short while. First it’s important to go back a few years and for me to share some of my other mountain experiences, as these all had a huge bearing on why I trained hard for Kilimanjaro.
The first point is that I had attempted other mountains before. These were not as big, but they each had their own challenges, so at least I had an idea of what to expect, both physically and with the altitude.
When I was 30, I was back-packing through South America when my friend and I decided we would climb an Andean Peak in Bolivia for charity; it was Pequeño Alpamayo, a snow capped mountain at 5,370m high. We took one day to hike to base camp where we slept in below freezing temperatures at 4,700m. We then set off to summit in the night with crampons, ice axes and a confidence that did not match our capabilities. My friend turned back quite early on due to heart palpitations and whilst I carried on for hours more, pushing upwards in steep snow, I was grimacing and moaning out loud as each footstep felt like torture. The pain in the back of my calf muscles was excruciating and I was traveling like a snail, to the point where my guide finally pulled the plug and said we needed to return to camp as he decided we didn’t have enough time left to make the summit and descend safely.
It was a failure - but one that unknowingly to us at the time, was written in the cards before we even set off. Neither of us were fit and we had seriously mis-underestimated the size of the challenge we had signed up for. You could argue too that we were naive and irresponsible to even try something like that. The memory of the pain I felt on that mountain put me off wanting to try another climb again for a long time. When I did start training for Kili however, I categorically knew that I had to work my calf muscles hard and prepare them for the hill climbs so that I didn't suffer the same ending again.
Fast forward six years and my brother asked me and some friends to help raise some money for a charity. We opted to do the three peaks challenge - climb the highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales within 24 hours. Six of us started, three of us finished successfully; myself and my two friends. Needless to say we three had trained, the others hadn’t and they ended up disappointed and a little embarrassed.
In these situations, where you need to be strong physically, then you also need to be strong mentally. It’s the brain that’s going to negotiate with you, that will say ‘stop, this is too painful’, or ‘I can’t’, so you need to be able to manage those negative thoughts and get past them. The best way I have found to do that though is to get physically fit and train effectively for the occasion. When I was battling with those thoughts on Kilimanjaro, I was able to respond to that gremlin on my shoulder with ‘yes, I can do this. I have trained for this and I’m ready. This is what all those hours in the gym were for and the extra hikes at the weekend.’ The other response I was able to give myself was ‘you’re not the same person now that failed in Bolivia, you learned from that and you prepared, so GO!’. Believe me it works very well!
So let’s talk about the training programme… I’ll break it down to endurance and strength as they require different strategies.
3 times per week of at least an hour of cardio activity. This could be the following:
a run, a cycle, the stepper machine, a fast walk
a combination of a couple of the above. One of my personal favourites was a combination of running and fast walking on a gradient on the treadmill. That would look like: 5 minutes running on a 5 incline at a pace of 8-9km/h, followed by 5 minutes of fast walking on a 9 incline at a pace of 5-6km/h. Depending on your fitness levels you may want to start with lower numbers of incline and speed, but the concept remains the same as you build up stamina.
Trying different combinations of exercises is great, as it means you do not become accustomed to one exercise and build up a broad level of endurance across different types of resistance.
Remember that endurance is not about sprinting or going as fast as you can. It is about building the stamina to go at a steady pace for long periods of time. On a mountain you could be hiking for 7-8 hours per day or longer. The summit to Kilimanjaro from base camp takes 6-7 hours all uphill in challenging terrain. Then it’s 2-3 hours to come back down. This is why we train endurance in the heart rate zone of very light to moderate or aerobic (57%-76% of max heart rate), with only occasional vigorous bursts in anaerobic (77-95% of max heart rate).
Once a week
A long walk (ideally hilly) for at least 3 hours. I live in London so it’s quite hard to do this as in general it’s quite flat. We would drive down to Box Hill or I would walk the full circumference of Richmond Park plus the walk up Richmond hill.
Additional Investments that pay off significantly:
Pre Kilimanjaro, my partner and I went up to the Lake District for a few days and did a couple of the bigger hikes (Fairfield Horseshoe was excellent. Scafell pike is another). 2 months prior to leaving for Kilimanjaro, we took a holiday to the Sierra Ronda in Andalucia, hiking at least 2-3 hours a day. Even though the altitude there is not high enough to help acclimatisation, the terrain and the physical challenge really built up our endurance levels and mental strength of hiking for long periods of time up and down hills.
Strength - 2 days per week
I personally chose 4 core lower body exercises and stuck to these. They were squats, Bulgarian split lunges, box step-ups, deadlifts.
I used very heavy weights - to build strength it is 3-4 reps of each exercise (not to max but close) and 4 sets of each. Weights will vary depending on the individual.
The key here is to build muscle strength without building muscle mass. The ideal mountain physique is lean and strong. The more you weigh, the more you have to carry up the mountain. The more muscle mass you have, the more oxygen you need to provide to those muscles and when oxygen is in short supply, the muscles will fatigue quickly and you will struggle, hurt and blow out.
Pilates twice per week - core and stabiliser strength.
Leaving this bad boy till last as it is the final piece of the puzzle and yet the most important. It’s such a shame that something that is ultimately completely out of an individuals control is the one thing that can scupper the whole expedition. But that’s the reality of altitude. Until you’ve spent time at altitude you won’t know how your body will respond and the other pain about it is that on one trip you may feel unaffected, the next trip you could be debilitated by it.
The symptoms of altitude sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) are:
shortness of breath
loss of appetite
The way to handle AMS, depending on the severity, is to go back down to a lower height where there is more oxygen. If you stay up high for too long when your body is showing these signs, it can be hazardous to your health. In severe cases it can be fatal.
Check in with your team mates and if anyone is showing these signs then don’t ignore them. We also used our Apple Watch to check for blood oxygen levels which is also a good barometer. At sea level our blood oxygen should be between 95-100%. At altitude it will drop but anything under 75% is dangerous; do not go up higher. Naturally our bloody oxygen levels drop as we go high, but ideally it should be in the 80% plus range at least.
Unfortunately on our trip my boyfriend Ray did not make the summit. He did amazingly well to even get to use camp, but ultimately his reaction to the altitude was too extreme. The headache, projectile vomiting, inability to walk far without having to stop and catch his breath meant he was not fit to summit and needed to descend the mountain. He’s the perfect example of someone who’s fit as a fiddle, has all the mental determination and strength in the world, but succumbed to the pain of AMS.
SO….. Good luck if you are about to go on mountain adventure or are thinking of doing one. Please reach out if you have any questions or are interested in learning more about how Life Body Health can help you prepare for a physical event.