Climbing Africa's highest mountain, Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro

The summit Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain, from Karanga Camp, the stopping point for the fourth night of the climb. 
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Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro at Age 66: FITNESS MATTERS!

What does it take to stand atop Africa's highest mountain in your seventh decade on the planet?  

Travel Boldly asked Sally McKinney to interview a man that knows. Billy Giles has climbed Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, or "Kili" as it affectionately known, three times since he topped 60 years of age. Billy's feats certainly give me hope of summiting at least one of Seven Summits during my seventh decade. Read Billy's interview and get yourself motivated for your own Kilimanjaro climbing adventure. 

                                                                       Jerome Shaw Publisher of Travel Boldly

Sally's other inspiring stories of travel for Travel Boldly

Questions by Sally McKinney   Answers by Billy Giles

In July, 2014, Billy Giles climbed Africa’s highest mountain. For the third time.

While Billy walked uphill for days to reach 19, 385 feet, Sally took it easy and read: “Kilimanjaro: A Photographic Journey to the Roof of Africa”.

After Billy (BEG) came home to Indiana, he answered Sally’s (SMK) many questions:

All photos by Billy Giles

Map of climbing Kilimanjaro on the Machame Route, courtesy
SMK   You’ve done this twice before. What makes climbing Kili so special?
BEG   The first time, it was because I thought it was a real adventure and something I could possibly do. It was a reason to go somewhere that was not like anywhere I’d ever been. I could also go with someone from that place. After I went once, I wanted to go back to see more and to see friends I’d made in Tanzania. When friends and family have approached me about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, I’ve jumped at the chance. And, at 19,385 feet, Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa.

SMK   Which route did you take?
BEG   I took the Machame route for all thee climbs. Marangu route uses huts for sleeping. For Machame, the porters bring tents, so you don’t have to reserve hut space. The weather is said to be better and more scenic on Machame. The Machame route is less direct, so there’s more time to acclimate to altitude, therefore a greater success rate.

Mt. Meru can be seen in the distance to the west from Shira 

camp. It is the second highest mountain in Tanzania at just 

under 15,000 feet. The Shira Cathedral, one of the three 

volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro, is on the right.
SMK How many miles (kilometers) is your route up-and-down Kili?
BEG   One source says from Machame Gate up to Uhuru summit and down to Mweka Gate is 37 miles (62 kilometers). But I have found that different sources give different distances for the trails and different altitudes for the camps on Mt. Kilimanjaro.

SMK   You spent six nights sleeping in tents on the mountain. Tell me more. . .
BEG   Walter (a long-time Tanzania friend) and I shared a tent. I had a sleeping pad, a bag and a pillow, but my coat was a pillow most nights. We’d often sleep on a slope, heads up, feet down, so I’d have to pull myself up again--several times a night--whenever I slipped down!

SMK   When you climbed Kili  the first and second times. . .how old were you?
BEG 61 and 63.

Shira Camp at the eastern edge of the Shira Plateau is the 
stopping point for the second night. The summit of Kilimanjaro 
is in the clouds in the background.
SMC  How did you get started climbing?
BEG I read Edmund Hillary’s account of the first climb of Mt. Everest in the fifth grade. A few years later, I read a book on the history of climbing Mt. Everest, including George Mallory’s tragic attempt. And I knew that climbing Everest was something I would never do.  My first experience in climbing came much later when my cousin, Pete, and I climbed in Rocky Mountain National Park. Then I saw a documentary on PBS about a scientist with a neuromuscular disease who tried to climb Kilimanjaro. After this, climbing Kili seemed like something I could do. In 2004, when I met Walter Miya (former ranger for Tanzania National Park), I knew this could become a reality.

SMK   What made your third climb different?
Alpine chats are common along the middle portion of the 
Machame Route.
BEG Even though I was 66 years old, climbing was easier than when I was younger! I owe it all to working out at the YMCA.  This time, I wasn’t the last one to reach camp. I could actually walk around in each camp at the end of the day’s hike and not just collapse into my tent. On summit day, I actually made it to the crater rim before sunrise. I had never made it to the summit of any mountain before sunrise. The porters still called me “Babu” (Swahili for “old man” or “grandfather”).

SMK   What else motivated you?
BEG   It was there! It was an adventure! It was a reason to travel!

Looking down on one of the glaciers on the flanks of Kilimanjaro 
from the crater rim. The glaciers look much larger from above than 
from below.
SMK Tell me more about how you trained for Climb Number Three?
BEG   In 2011 during the second climb, I was in bad shape, weighed more than I had ever weighed before and had a very, very difficult time. I swore I’d never climb it again. It was time to take action, to do something about my lack of fitness. For me, joining the YMCA was that action. After joining in January, 2012, I spent 2 ½ years working out on treadmills, stairs, steppers, free weights and resistance machines. The first six months, a personal trainer was very helpful. Every day I was in Bloomington, I tried to work out at the Y. In 2013, I went for a streak of 50 days in a row! Gradually, I’ve gotten in much better shape and feel much better, much healthier. This transformation has been without drastically changing my diet. . .except for drinking less beer.

The summit of Kilimanjaro from Shira Camp. Small glaciers 
can be seen on the flanks of the mountain.
SMK   What was the weather like?
BEG Weather was good. It rained lightly the first night, then for about an hour into the morning hike. After that, we were above the clouds!

SMK   When I was in Tanzania, we walked around outside Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park. We walked along dirt roads past “shambas” (Swahili for small farms). I saw small block houses, chickens in the yard, banana trees, big family gardens, avocados hanging on branches. What did you find just inside the park?
BEG From Machame gate to Machame camp we walked through montane rainforest. We saw some blue monkeys near the gate, but wildlife is difficult to see in the forest. You can hear birds, like turacos; usually, we only get fleeting glimpses of them.

White-necked ravens are common once you get above the tree line. 
They are opportunistic and will attempt to pilfer food while you 
eat your lunch.
SMK The zone from about 9,200 to 15,000 feet has been called heath and moorland zone. What did
you find there?
BEG  The second day the trail is much rockier and the vegetation more sparse. The trees become smaller and eventually are no more than shrubs. There are numerous flowering plants, a lot of which are called “everlasting” by the guide. We start to see white-necked ravens and alpine chats. The ravens have very imposing beaks and have been known to take a climber’s chicken-leg out of the lunch box.

The second night is spent at one of the Shira camps on the eastern edge of the Shira Plateau. From here, if you are above the clouds, you have good views of the summit and good views of Mt. Meru to the west. Shira Camp can be a very windy place and sleeping can be difficult.

The morning half of the third day we spent climbing from Shira Camp toward the Lava Tower, a landmark on the southwest slope of Kilimanjaro. This time, I climbed up the Lava Tower over a shear, rock face.

SMK Oh, sounds scary!
The Lava Tower is a landmark that becomes the highest point 
on the third day of the climb.
BEG  This is one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done. If I had known how risky it was, I would not have done it. Climbing along vertical rock surfaces (without technical equipment) is not something 66-year-olds should be doing!

From the Lava Tower into the Barranco Valley, you walk downhill through senecio forests. There’s a great view of the summit and some of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers above the Barranco Wall on your left.

Climbers descending from the summit of the 
Lava Tower.

SMK How much oxygen is there at 19,385 feet compared to sea level?
BEG The density of air at sea level is about twice what it is at 20,000 feet. So there’s roughly half the oxygen at the Kilimanjaro summit as there is on the Tanzania coast.

SMK I’ve read it takes twice the energy to do something if you have half the oxygen to breathe. How did you sustain your energy when you climbed?
BEG I would sit on a rock to rest, or just lean on my poles. I didn’t eat much on the mountain. No appetite.

SMK   Some people who start this climb don’t make the summit. Did you ever consider quitting?
BEG No. Continuing to climb seemed the easier thing to do. On the mountain anyone who quit had to walk down, or be carried on a stretcher—if there were carriers to do this. In a real emergency helicopters could land at some of the camps to evacuate climbers, but I have never seen that happen.

Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.This was
a new sign since my last climb
in 2011, but already
well adorned with
commercial messages.
SMK We were all excited to get your “summit” Email! Later, you wrote that after you came down to Camp, you could not walk.
BEG The descent from the summit to the highest camp, Barafu, left me with very weak and sore legs. Barafu is so rocky, it is difficult to walk at any time, but now my legs were too weak to walk at all. Eventually, I rested in my tent for an hour or two and recovered somewhat.

SMK How did your third climb end?
BEG On the last day we walked from Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate in 2 ½ hours. This has taken me 4 hours before. Since this was my last time (to climb Kili), I gave my walking poles to the guides. I was not sick after the climb as before, even though it had been a very difficult seven days. We were back at the hotel in Arusha by early afternoon. The water was shut off, so I did not get a shower until next morning.

The climbers, guides and porters celebrating the last day on the mountain.

SMK What advice would you give about climbing Mt. Kili?
BEG  You gotta want to do it!


Sally McKinney has been a travel writer and photographer for 4 decades and has hundreds of travel
stories in magazines and newspapers.  She has also written several guide books. You can read another of Sally's travel adventures here on Travel Boldly about her learning how to travel in her 80s in Peru and Tanzania.

Sally McKinney on Travel Boldly
The moon rising in the east next to Mount Kilimanjaro.

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