Health on the Mountain – The Yucky Truth
So you are dreaming of climbing Kilimanjaro ... you could be considering to climb to the roof of Africa to see an equatorial glacier before they disappear, or because it is considered one of the Top Ten climbs in the world, or you are a beginner climber looking for an incredible challenge in one of the most unique ecosystems in the world.
If you are a beginner climber, the idea of climbing to almost 6,000 m or over 19,000 ft may feel daunting and you of course will worry about your health. What do you have to worry about and how can you make sure you reach that summit? So here’s what you need to know before you climb:
- Cut those toenails – If you are a runner or an experienced hiker you will get this. It is a good idea to cut your toenails as short as comfortably possible. Your feet are going to get battered on your 6-7 day climb and any foot pain will have a hobbling affect. If your toenails are even just a little too long there is a chance that the constant bashing from each step could pull a toenail or 2 off. Or if a toenail is a little too long, especially on the sides, the sharp edges of the nail could cut up the toes next door. And all of this leads to pain and when your main objective is walking, this creates a problem!
- Bring a balaclava… for the cold? – No, for your constantly running nose – Your nose will run, from the cold, from the exertion, from the change in altitude and it will be difficult to wipe it on your way to the summit. You will be concentrating on each step, you will have gloves and mittens and maybe even poles keeping your hands tied up. How can you wipe a constantly running nose? You can’t, so in order to hide the freezing snot dripping from your nose wear a balaclava! And consider an extra bandana or two to have tied around your wrist so if your nose starts before it is too cold to hide behind a balaclava you don’t have to use your sleeves.
- Get ready to talk about poop – There are unfortunately going to be poop problems and in order to make sure you are in good health your guide is going to want to talk about it. While diarrhea can be an issue when you travel, we are extra careful to make sure there are no food hygiene causes. Still you could be sensitive to a change in water and diet and … there are not that many toilets on the side of the mountain. Time to suck up that pride. However, it is more likely you will suffer from the opposite problem, constipation. As you get higher in elevation, the air gets thinner, which means there is less oxygen available to your body. Because of this, you slow down … all parts of your body slow down, including your intestines. But hey, maybe that’s a positive thing, one less reason to have to leave your tent at those freezing temps. Just have those prunes, apricots and dates on hand for your descent!
- That magical moment as you are climbing to see the most beautiful sunrise from the highest point in Africa … with vomit or maybe just retching – When we begin that last climb to the summit, let’s face it you may not feel amazing. Appetite suppression at altitude is one way to put it, another way to put it is everything will seem gross, yes even that Snickers or Cliff bar! You need to eat to give your body the energy to get through that last day so stick to things you like, with high carbs. This is the time for mega-carbo-loading and not high fat snacking. Fat requires more oxygen for metabolism than carbohydrates and at altitude your body is not getting as much oxygen. And stick to high carb liquids as they will go down easier. Some things you will be tempted to pack, like jerky, nuts and candy bars will take up too much energy to chew, swallow and digest. Each person needs to find out what suits their body best as they get to higher altitudes and stick with it. But even that yummy hot cocoa or warming soup may not settle in your tummy and there’s a chance you’ll be puking between your smiling summit shots.
- Test out your clothes, especially around those delicate places – Chafing is uncomfortable, not only how it feels but having to talk about it and the places it effects. When not treated properly it gets worse and when you don’t have the time to stop and heal, the right supplies can be essential to you being able to keep walking. The biggest tips are: avoid cotton and look for wicking and quick dry fabrics … especially when it come to your underwear. You can keep a look out for hiking underwear and definitely get some recommendations for the right fabric for hiking long underwear. Make sure you wash your delicate parts every day and clean the salt and sweat off, and rinse out your sweaty clothes when you can; quick dry fabrics will make this possible. Take lots of practice hikes with the clothes you plan on wearing to see if you get any chafing. Bring Body Glide or just plain zinc oxide – diaper rash cream – and pre apply it to your problem areas. If you wait until after the skin is irritated and scraped up it will sting and you will still be uncomfortable.
Not the best things to look forward to as you are imagining your triumphant feat of reaching the roof of Africa … but while these things can and do happen to some climbers, some don’t have any of these worries. If you come prepared, you will be less likely to have lots of yucky stories about your climb, or at least you’ll be able to smile about them because they didn’t stop you from reaching the summit.