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Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro
World traveler reaches the summit — stays healthy with homeopathy
I had just turned 49. One more year, and I would be a half-century old. I wanted
both celebration and adventure. How about taking a major international trip to
mark the occasion? I mentioned my plan to a few friends. They liked the idea,
but for me, not for them. A few days later, an acquaintance gave me a new pair
of waterproof hiking boots. Perhaps the trip would involve hiking...
The next day, my best friend Bill from graduate school called. It had been 20
years since we’d seen each other. “Want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?” he
asked. Perfect! Mr. Kilimanjaro would be my 50th birthday celebration trip. I
even had new boots.
We made three agreements: we would train for 12
months prior to our climb; Bill would make the travel arrangements; and I would
take charge of keeping us healthy during training and on the trip.
Mt. Kilimanjaro, located near the equator in Tanzania,
Africa, is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world—almost four miles
high! The climb begins as a walk through farmland, followed by equatorial rainforest,
then heath and moorland, alpine desert, and finally arctic landscape near the
20,000-ft summit. The good news is that most of the trip is a walk and does not
require technical climbing gear. The bad news is that the path to the top is
approximately 60 miles long! Also, temperatures range from 20° below zero
to 90° above. Winds can gust to 70 miles per hour with a danger of sandstorms
or snow white-out. We would encounter brilliant sunshine, fog, driving rain,
sleet, and snow.
Preparing for the climb
I decided to train by hiking, lifting weights, and cycling. The hiking would
be primary and would increase to daily 4-mile walks plus twice-weekly treks of
10-15 miles, wearing a pack of gradually increasing weight.
I quickly learned that wearing two pairs of socks
is critical to avoiding blisters. When I did develop “hot spots” (a
reddening of the skin, prior to blister formation), a dose of Natrum mur 6c
plus external application of Lavender essential oil provided immediate relief. Arnica 6c
and Ruta grav 6c were always in my pocket for general aches and knee pain.
The shorter walks did not require remedies, but the 10+ mile walks did. Arnica cleared
the aches and pains and seemed to boost my energy. In later months, Arnica 30c
and Lactic acid 30c post-workout effectively eliminated stiffness.
For Tanzanian travel, the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control recommends vaccination for yellow fever and typhoid. Because the yellow
fever vaccine is known for causing side effects like muscle aches, pain at the
injection site, and fever, I took one globule of the homeopathic remedy Thuja 30c
as a general preventative before receiving the vaccine; I suffered no apparent
vaccine side effects. Before getting the typhoid vaccine I also took a dose of Thuja 30c,
but this time I found myself suffering from what seemed to be vaccine side effects,
including acute anxiety. Another dose of Thuja provided no relief. A local
homeopath recommended that I try Silicea 30c because of its reputation
for relieving the ill effects of vaccination: one globule did the job.
One of our concerns for the trip was the possibility
of diarrhea, which is at best uncomfortable and at worst life threatening. I
decided that we would take one capsule of grapefruit seed extract daily as a
preventative. We also decided to follow the PBS rule: Peel, Boil or Skip. That
means no salad and only boiled or bottled water. Mosquitoes in the Mt. Kilimanjaro
area carry the malaria parasite for which there is no vaccine. After consulting
Lessell’s book, The World Traveller’s Manual of Homoeopathy, we
elected to use the homeopathic remedy Malaria 30c daily as a preventative
while on our climb.
Bill arranged for our trip with the African Walking
Company. They explained that treks up the mountain followed rigid schedules and
that a team of guides and porters would accompany us. We decided to take the
Rongai trail up Kilimanjaro and the Marengu trail down. Rongai is remote with
few hikers; Marengu is more popular. Our trip would take seven days. On the ascent,
we expected to see very few people.
Susan Kramer dines in view of Mt. Kilimanjaro’s peak.
The adventure begins
Day 1. Bill and I arrive at 9:30 a.m. and find that we are the only tourists
on this trip. We start out in a Land Rover on an extremely bumpy and dusty road.
Our driver provides Tanzanian flag kerchiefs, which we quickly tie over our noses
and behind our heads. Despite the closed windows, dust forms a cloud inside the
vehicle, and it’s difficult to breathe. Nobody talks. After a 21?2-hour
ride, we arrive at the trailhead. There we meet our 11-member crew including
our guide Happy Son, assistant guide Paul, helping porter/chef Rama, helping
porter/waiter Godwin, and ordinary porter/future assistant guide Michael. The
organizational system is hierarchical with a guide having authority similar to
that of a ship captain. Helping porters carry gear and have a specific duty such
as cooking. Ordinary porters carry gear and have non-specific duties.
Kilimanjaro is a Tanzanian national park, so we
fill out Tanzanian government forms while our crew reorganizes our gear. We are
at approximately 6,000 feet. Standing still, my breathing is labored.
We begin by walking through corn and potato fields,
and then enter the rain forest at an elevation of 7,595 feet. After several hours
on this dirt trail, the forest abruptly ends and we emerge to see giant heather.
When we come to a crossroad, Paul tells us this is an elephant trail. The elephants
avoid humans and we won’t see them except at dawn or dusk.
We arrive in camp at 3:15 p.m. after a 4-hour hike.
My legs burn. Our guide suggests that we rest for a few moments and then take
an acclimatization hike. He tells us to “climb high, sleep low,” so
we are to hike at least 200 to 500 feet above where we will sleep (8,530 feet
elevation). After a short snack, Bill and I set off alone for another hour of
On our return to camp, we meet a British couple
who are descending after two days. The woman is suffering from altitude sickness,
looks green, and has vomiting and diarrhea. Wondering if she has eaten spoiled
food, I offer her Arsenicum 30c. After 2 doses 15 minutes apart, her vomiting
and diarrhea stop. Later, a single dose of Ipecac 30c clears her nausea.
Breakfast with a view
Day 2. Our official wake-up is at 6:30 a.m. Our team gives us water for
washing, tea at 7:30, and breakfast at 8:00. This is our first view of the mountain,
and we take several pictures. Breakfast is fantastic. It looks like a scene from
an old movie. We sit outside at a cloth-covered table (wearing our jackets and
hats because of the cold), while porters serve us oatmeal from scratch, scrambled
eggs, bacon, and slices of tomato, cucumber, watermelon, banana, papaya, and
mango—and, of course, coffee, tea, Ovaltine, and hot chocolate. Bill and
I decide that we will stick to hot chocolate to avoid the diuretic effect of
coffee or tea. I have trouble eating.
At 8:40 a.m. we begin a prolonged upward climb
towards the Kikelewa caves that lasts for five hours. It is tough. I have barely
slept the past three nights in a row. I am also beginning to suffer from dehydration.
I am thrilled to stop for lunch at Second Cave but have little appetite. I lie
down for 15 minutes, and this is wonderfully helpful. I am determined not to
After more hiking, we stop to camp near the Third
Cave at 11,320 feet. I look for our assistant guide, Paul. Happy Son explains
that Paul has altitude sickness with headache, nausea, and vomiting, and he’s
had to descend. I wonder to myself why someone so experienced has trouble with
Masai warrior guide, Happy Son, at Mawenzi Tarn.
Eating is a challenge
Day 3. I try to force myself to eat breakfast but can’t do it. Our
chef Rama is concerned and tempts me with banana fritters made especially for
me—but I cannot eat a bite. We resume hiking and I struggle to keep up
at the end of our group. I feel a crushing weariness and keep stopping. I vomit
repeatedly at the side of the trail hoping that no one sees me. I can be sent
down the mountain for illness. I feel guilty that I have not prepared well enough
and ashamed of my failure and weakness. I continue taking Arnica 6c every
30 minutes for the physical boost and find myself craving the next pellet. I
don’t think to take anything else.
We reach 14,210 feet and trudge into camp at Mawenzi
Tarn. It is little more than sky, dirt, rock, and the occasional dry grey plant
that rustles in the cold wind. A second group establishes camp. Their leader,
a marathon runner from Canada who has climbed Kilimanjaro before, asks how my
climb is going. I admit I am miserable and describe my symptoms. She questions
me about my training and our group’s daily schedule. She assures me my
training is fine but that my group is traveling too fast. She concludes that
I have altitude sickness, from ascending faster than my body can adjust.
Altitude sickness! I knew it on some level but
had not been willing to admit it—nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite, shortness
of breath, fatigue. I reach into my pocket and take a dose of Coca 30c, a homeopathic
remedy frequently indicated for altitude sickness. Immediately, I experience
the “healing sigh” as my body relaxes. She recommends new rules for
my group: at this altitude, the slowest person leads. She teaches me “pole,
pole” (Swahili for “slowly, slowly”), demonstrates a much slower
rocking snail’s pace, and watches me practice my new gait.
At dinner, I resume eating and have no nausea.
That night, Bill has trouble falling asleep. After
finally dozing off, he awakens gasping for air and coughing. He also suffers
from the altitude! Despite his protests (“I don’t believe in homeopathy”),
I give him a single dose of Coca 30c. Moments later, he is lightly snoring.
Top row from right to left, Bill Coleman and Susan Kramer with African
A beauty of a campsite
Day 4. We awaken to a spectacular, cloudless morning and can see why this
has been described as one of the most beautiful campsites in the world. Looking
up at the peaks, we see the moon setting over the lake, Mawenzi Tarn. Our waiter
serves us hot cocoa in bed!
I successfully eat more food at breakfast. Sometimes
it takes five minutes between bites, but I am determined. I feel woozy and tired
after eating. Fortunately, today is a rest and training day, with no change of
camp. Bill and Happy Son set off for the top of Mawenzi Tarn ridge at a steady,
A few hours later I begin my walk, rocking from
right to left, taking 10-inch steps as I’ve been shown. I breathe easily,
drink water, and maintain a steady pace. Thirty minutes later, I find myself
at the top of a 300-foot hill, looking down at our campsite. It works!
I happily take photographs, something I haven’t
done in days, and soon Bill and Happy Son appear from the other side of the ridge.
Happy Son looks surprised to see me. He makes quite a picture, silhouetted in
his red Masai blanket against the sky and Mawenzi peak. Bill is doing well—no
nausea and no headache. I am thrilled that I feel so much better and will be
able to proceed.
Happy Son tells us that the temperature last night
was --13?, and Mawenzi Tarn froze. Yes, we were cold last night, but we still
slept. We are surviving.
Day 5. Today dawns much warmer than yesterday, although there is frost
on the ground. The sky is azure blue. We slept only about three hours. Bill’s
appetite is decreasing; my appetite has improved, but I still fight to eat enough.
When we break camp, Happy Son takes my pack. What
a relief! I wonder whether the Canadian group’s guide told Happy Son about
my nausea because his attitude is very supportive and he sets a slow
We walk steadily for eight hours through a high
desert plateau with no vegetation. Our clear skies turn to light sleet and then
a driving sleet storm with 45 mph winds. I don’t like the sound of Bill’s
cough, and presuming it’s related to altitude sickness, I give him Coca 30c.
His cough stops.
That evening’s snowy Camp Kibo at 15,580
feet is the staging area for the final ascent for most Kilimanjaro trails. This
is exciting! There are other campers, some staying in a stone hut, and toilets,
the first we’ve seen. Hikers and guides will leave for the summit between
11:00 pm and 1:00 am.
Our entire crew is inside the cook tent pretending
to help Rama cook. We’re really trying to stay warm and keep each other
company as we all know the danger of our journey ahead. Although we have been
in camp now for three hours, I am still shivering and unsteady on my feet. It
must be the altitude. Coca 30c deepens my breathing, but a single dose
of Aconite 30c stops the shivering. (Aconite indications include
anxiety, worry, complaints from cold weather, and marked chilliness.) Bill coughs
and I give him Coca 30c and herbal Osha tincture (Ligusticum porteri—commonly
used for altitude sickness and to improve respiration).
We have from 7:30 p.m. until midnight to sleep.
After a light dinner, we slip into our sleeping bags, wish each other sweet dreams,
and fall asleep. Four hours later, we are ready to go. The moment we’ve
been thinking about for so long is finally here!
Happy to have made it to the top!
The final ascent
Day 6. After tea and porridge in the mess tent, Happy Son, Michael, Bill,
and I begin the final ascent at 1:15 a.m. under clear skies and a half moon.
The temperature drops from 22? to 0?, and the wind rises to 20 miles per hour.
We soon split into two teams, with Happy Son and Bill ascending rapidly and Michael
and I proceeding at my measured pace.
Arriving at the volcanic scree slopes, a sort of
deep, black gravel, we find that with each six-inch step on scree, we slide back
three inches. So, in addition to cold, wind, darkness, altitude, and 50% of sea
level oxygen, we now have scree. Suddenly, we are pelted with heavy sleet. To
my relief, the sleet freezes the scree and provides us with firmer footing.
There is energy only for walking. I was advised
to stay in the moment, and I find this critically important. I discover that
my thoughts immediately affect my physiology. Thoughts of the future or of my
pain instantly weaken me and I stumble. I hike through sleet for an hour, thinking
the mantra, “I am strong” with every step. As the utility of “I
am strong” fades, I think “I am walking” for several hours.
Eventually, that takes too much mental energy, and I shift to “walking,” and
later simply to “step ... step ... step.”
The sleet has ended but the air feels sharp and
cutting as it enters my nose and mouth—it’s 20? below zero! I can
barely see Michael, only a few feet away. As the dawn breaks, I see clouds sharply
outlined beneath us, with the sky, rocks, and mountain in stark contrast.
Arriving at the Jamaica Rocks, large red rocks
named after a Jamaican climber who suffered a fatal injury here, we can see the
top! The “trail” to the summit is 300 feet of climbing through these
rocks. I want to protest, “Kilimanjaro is supposed to be a walk, not a
climb.” Michael stands above me, coaching my hand and foot-holds and encouraging
me. After each step, I wonder if I can take another.
Finally, Michael takes my hand and pulls me on
my final step over the rim. We have arrived! A sign reads, “Welcome to
Gilman’s Point, 5681 M, Tanzania, Welcome and Congratulations.” I
burst into tears and then laugh. I feel great! I want to stay, but Michael says
we have to leave before the storms come up.
We ski down the scree slopes in our hiking boots,
bending our knees and hoping not to slam into a boulder or skid off the path.
I am so tired that I no longer feel the cold. We have no water and only one chocolate
It begins to snow, and we are surrounded by mist.
Everything is white and I can’t see more than ten feet. Suddenly, we are
surprised by laughter, and Rama steps out of the mist! He is joined by Godwin
and a rescue-trained member of another crew. Happy Son has sent them in case
we need help. We laugh and hug, but Rama urges us to hurry because of approaching
Arriving back at Kibo camp in two-and-a-half-hours,
I enter my tent, greet Bill, and fall asleep. Thirty minutes later at 12:30 p.m.,
we must begin our descent. Our 6-1/2 hour trek through mist and rain is an exhausted
blur. We arrive at Horombu camp at 7:00 p.m. and are surprised at all the people
Susan and Bill celebrate on the evening after descending Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Day 7. Today’s final hike is like a forced march—a 7-hour
downhill fast walk through rolling hills, moors, and rainforest with just a 15-minute
break for lunch.
Our clothes, shoes, and socks are damp from yesterday,
and Bill and I develop hot spots on our feet. Against our better judgment, we
don’t tend to them, and the continued downhill pounding results in blisters.
Bill looks increasingly uncomfortable, walking on his toes to take pressure off
the blisters building on his heels. Every downward step brings stabbing pain
to my left ankle.
We make it to the park exit at 2:30 p.m. and are
required to climb three steps to sign out in the logbook. We try to hide our
pain and dismay at this tiny climb—we have pushed our limits and have nothing
left. Happy Son presents us with our summit certificates, and we bid our guide
and crew a fond farewell.
After a few hours drive to the lodge, Bill proceeds
to our cottage while I make dinner reservations. Heading back to the cottage,
I see that I must descend a single step. I look around for a banister, as my
legs aren’t bending properly. Finally, I ask a gentleman for assistance,
and still I almost fall.
After a seemingly endless two-minute walk, I arrive
to see Bill slumped in a chair surrounded by our gear. He winces as I remove
his shoes to reveal quarter-sized blisters on his heels. Coating the blisters
with Lavender essential oil, I dress them with gauze and moleskin, and then give
him Natrum mur 30c. When he stands, he is surprised to find his feet no
longer hurt. I take Natrum mur for my own blisters, too. (It’s one
of a number of possible blister remedies, but since we both have the characteristic
Natrum mur mid-line lip crack and are aggravated by consolation, this remedy
seems like a good choice.) We both take Arnica 200c for our exhaustion
and trauma. My left ankle is blue, swollen, and aggravated by heat, yet it feels
cold—classic indications for Ledum. Ledum 200c immediately
reduces the swelling and the pain.
We stroll to dinner that night without limping. Toasting our adventure, we speak
of future trips: Antarctica, Alaska, Mongolia. I’m bringing Arnica!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan W. Kramer, PhD, AHG, Esq, is a therapeutic herbalist in private practice
in Atlanta, Georgia.
An NCH member, she is an avid traveler and is the author of the award winning
book, The Healthy Traveler: A Handbook of Easy Solutions for Common Travel
Our First-Aid Kit
We carried a kit designed to keep us healthy in wilderness or less developed
areas, from sea level to 20,000 feet, where outbreaks of malaria, typhoid, and
dengue fever were likely.
It included the following 36 homeopathic remedies in
Aconite, Apis, Argent nit, Arnica, Arsenicum, Belladonna, Bellis, Bryonia,
Camphor, Cantharis, Carbo veg, Chamomilla, Chelidonium, China, Coca, Cocculus,
Cuprum met, Eupatorium perf, Gelsemium, Hepar sulph, Hypericum, Ignatia, Ipecac,
Lathyrus sat, Ledum, Manganum, Merc viv, Natrum mur, Nux vomica, Podophyllum,
Pulsatilla, Rhus tox, Ruta, Silica, Staphisagria, Veratrum. I purchased them
in a travel kit from www.homeopathyworld.com.
They were made by Helios pharmacy in the UK and came with a mini-materia medica
and mini-repertory written by Mary Aspinwall.
I supplemented the above with:
includes relatively low potencies of Argentum nit, Arnica, Radix, Arsenicum,
Belladonna, Bryonia, Dulcamara, Echinacea, Hepar sulph, Influenzinum, Lachesis,
Mercurius, Phytolacca, Pulsatilla, Pyrogen, Rhus tox, Staphylococcinum, Streptococcinum, and Thuja (recommended
to me by James Berryhill, ND, for its value with a wide range of infections
including flu, strep, and staph, and also because its commercial-style packaging
was likely to survive stringent customs review)
a prophylactic for malaria); Echinacea tincture (immune booster, lymphatic,
antiseptic); Ligusticum porteri tincture (Osha, North American remedy for altitude
sickness, immune booster, and for colds); Rhamnus purshiana (Cascara Sagrada,
a laxative and hepatic)
capsules (styptic, anti-hemorrhage)
for spider bites and blisters, antibiotic, antiviral, anti-fungal, and anti-parasite);
Thyme (potent anti-viral and anti-bacterial, good for toothaches)
tape, eye cup, moleskin, plastic gloves, insect repellent, lip balm, sunscreen,
sunglasses, Swiss Army knife with tweezers, soft-sided, waterproof carry case.
Altitude Sickness Conundrum
For centuries, a tea made from coca leaves has been used by the Indians of the
Peruvian Andes to prevent altitude sickness. A mild stimulant, it is drunk much
like we might drink black tea or coffee here. Homeopaths have long known that
a homeopathic (highly diluted) preparation of the leaves of this plant is effective
for symptoms of altitude sickness. A study published in the Complementary
Health Practice Review (Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall 2000) showed that Mt. Everest
climbers taking Coca 200c experienced less altitude sickness than those
taking a placebo.
Unfortunately, however, the Coca plant is also the source of cocaine. And even
though there is very little cocaine in the plant leaves—and even less in
a highly diluted homeopathic preparation (most scientific authorities would say
there is none)—U.S. drug law considers any form of Coca a controlled substance
and prohibits its use. Health providers with DEA licenses may legally obtain
homeopathically prepared Coca from a U.S. company called Remedy Makers (www.remedymakers.com).
You also may be able to obtain it from your homeopath or from overseas pharmacies—but
beware that some international customs or federal authorities may look unkindly
on your possession of this remedy! Some travelers have reported that customs
officials have confiscated it.