"Dad, come to Africa. I am off for a month at Christmas. We can climb Mt. Kilimanjaro together!"
That was in October 2012 and is typical of my daughter’s notion of planning; she was giving me until December — two months!— to train for a climb to 19,341 feet. We have backpacked before, but not nearly to that elevation.
I had been going regularly to Toby Wells YMCA and had been losing some weight, but my workouts have been scattered and lacking focus. I did not want to go half way around the world and fail on a distant mountain without exploring my preparation options before going. I determined that I needed to have a trainer that could guide my efforts. The question: was there enough time?
I contacted the staff at Toby Wells, mentioned my goal and noted that I have weak knees. A week later, I was paired with Salim Shaikh for an evaluation session, and it was an eye-opener.
In the course of 10 minutes, Salim identified several areas that weren’t supporting my knee as they should and identified my core as the focus area for our sessions. Not only was Salim speaking as a personal trainer – he was also speaking from his experience mountaineering. I had the ideal trainer who was interested in a program that would increase my odds of success on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Six pack abs and the like were not the goal. The summit and the long-term health of my knees were the goals. Again, was there enough time? I signed up for 10 sessions over the five weeks that I had left in San Diego.
(Editor's note: For information about hiring a personal trainer, click here).
Ten sessions; five weeks
At the first session, Salim and I went over briefly the cardio work that I was doing: stair climber, treadmill, swimming and weekend hikes. That seemed to be reasonable. He thought that his time was more valuably spent introducing me to static stretches (and later active movements) designed to “awaken” my dormant muscles rather than watch me do cardio. This was a departure from my preconceptions, but it made sense. Much of my work with Salim, while obviously involving muscle movement, has required me to think about the movement, engage the brain and have the brain help generate sensations. There were a total of about six positions that first day. After the stretches, I did what is to be the common thread throughout my 10 sessions – stand on one leg. This first day, just trying to hold the stand was difficult. I was beginning to see the wisdom in concentrating on improvement of motion as much as concentrating on just raw cardio work.
To help with my work between sessions, Salim told me to register at a website where he placed descriptions of 19 different stretches he wanted me to work on. These descriptions came with still pictures and a video. Salim could add comments to the stretches and indicate how many sets of each to work through. I used these to build a routine that I go through each day, including other exercises like the leg press, playing toss while kneeling on a half bosu, planks and walk-outs.
What has been invaluable also, besides the training, is Salim’s interest in my Mt. Kilimanjaro trek’s success. As a mountaineer, he has been able and willing to offer advice in the clothes to take and the types of food to eat to maximize the chance for success. Before I started my training, one of my doubts was getting a trainer that would “go through the motions” and kinda not want to be there during the training session. That has not been the case with Salim, and for that I am very grateful.
On December 16, my daughter and I started the Mt. Kilimanjaro trek with 13 support people. You are not allowed to just hike up the mountain without a guide, assistant guide, cook and porters. Our trek lasted eight days and seven nights on what is known as the Lemosho route. We hiked through several climate zones. Each day varied, but we averaged about 5 miles a day up 2,000 ft; sleeping in designated campsites. These numbers are tame for the Sierra, but on Mt. Kilimanjaro the guide’s main focus is to go very slowly. “Pole, pole,” (Swahili for slowly) he would say 20 times a day. Altitude is what stops those who do not make it, and we wanted to acclimatize the best we could. There was really no reason to rush. Everything was new; the flora and fauna.
The porters would have camp set up for us when we reached the end of a day’s hike, complete with a 3 p.m. tea and popcorn. Throughout the whole trek, the food was great and very plentiful. I am amazed at the amount of supplies that the porters carried on their backs and heads.
Summit day started at 11:30 p.m., leaving the 15,300-foot Barafu camp in the clear, star-filled night. We were the fifth group to start, and you could see the headlamps of the other groups strung along the trail. We lucked out in that it snowed during the day before the ascent. That meant our footfalls would be on fresh snow without the slide back that would have happened if we hiked up loose scree. Putting your feet into the footsteps of the guide in front of you does not sound glamorous, but by keeping his very deliberate pace, not seeing the trail beyond the headlamps and focusing on our rhythm, we made it to the top as the first group on our route before sunrise without too much difficulty.
The Roof of Africa was a snow-filled vista of craters, ice fields and glaciers. We looked down onto the clouds that covered the African plain as the day dawned. Our day was just half over, in that we had to hike down 10,000 feet to camp. But the hour and a half that we had at the top was a time that I will never forget. All told, we covered 26,000 feet of elevation gain and loss on the trip. I finished the trip strong, without any of the knee problems that I have experienced on other hikes. I am sure that my Toby Wells training with Salim contributed greatly to being able to complete this trip of a lifetime.
Images from the journey
Ted Lorenzen shares some images from his trek up Mount Kilimanjaro. He was kind enough to take the Y along (in the form a T-shirt) for a photo op.
Images courtesy of Ted Lorenzen — 12/12
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