The Barefoot Kilimanjaro Challenge

21 Jan 2012 Posted by
Only 3 days to go before I jet off to Kilimanjaro to tackle Africa’s highest summit, and the world’s highest free-standing mountain…barefoot…

Let me start off by pointing out that doing this climb has NOTHING to do with advocacy for barefoot running (or living) and nor is it even related to the whole barefoot running debate, which I’ve covered quite a lot lately here on The Science of Sport (you can read the most recent posts here if you’re interested in my position!)

No, this trip is all about a) the challenge, b) the charity and c) the quite fascinating problem-solving approach required to combat the terrain, the altitude and the cold, and how these three “foes” interact with one another.  Basically, it’s an exploratory trip, which I think is possible, but I readily accept may not be! (It has been done before, reportedly – local guides report that an Italian man did it, and a woman from Colorado has done it, but wearing cycling booties to cover the top of the feet, apparently).  We can only control every variable possible and then hope for best on the day!  My mission is to help get ONE person to the top barefoot, and to do it safely.  I’d obviously love to be that person, or one of many to do it barefoot, but I accept that given the time-frames, it may not be possible for me.  Only time will tell, but as I say, the goal is to get one person, minimum, to the top of Africa.

The bottom line is that people’s first response is “Impossible” or “Outrageous”.  And maybe that’s the truth, but it’s also the best reason to try, because just maybe, if you think about the challenges, then you start to see potential solutions.  And if you can overcome then, then you do the impossible, and that’s what I’m looking forward to exploring!

But before I get into that, this trip is also aimed at raising money for a great cause – the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in South Africa.  It’s a world class facility, with some great doctors doing among the best medical work you’ll find anywhere.  They are the beneficiaries of this trip, and I’d love to help raise them money through your donations.  Visit the expedition homepage for more information and to donate!

The start of the journey

To take you back to the very beginning of this particular story (for me, anyway), I met a group of guys last year in September who asked me for some assistance in their preparation for an attempt to become the first people to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro without shoes.  They’d been doing pretty much everything barefoot since July 2011 and wanted to know more about altitude and the cold.

I gave them some advice, stayed in touch, until in about November, the expedition organizer, Matt Botha floated a proposal that was simply too good to ignore: “Come with us, help us on the mountain and not just before”.  I took about 5 seconds to say yes, and another 5 minutes to decide that I didn’t want to merely think about the challenges facing these “nutters”, to rationalize and intellectualize the effects of cold, altitude and sharp rocks on the team’s chance of success – I wanted to feel it.  And so I decided in November that I would also try to do this barefoot.  I’m willing to accept that in the 6 weeks since that I decision, I may not have had the time to get my feet ready.  Much will depend on the surface and on the speed at which we walk (try run on gravel and then walk slowly to see what I mean).  So I am, as I type this, a mixture of confident, hopeful, and anxious.  But therein lies the challenge…

A set of problems: Terrain, altitude and cold – which one gets you first?

Hiking to 5,895m brings with it a quite fascinating set of problems to solve.  Some are obvious, some less so.  The obvious ones are the altitude (not unique to being barefoot of course), the cold (a particular problem for us) and the terrain.  Kilimanjaro is known for it’s sharp, jagged shale and the prospect of many hours on that surface is an anxiety-inducing one!

The terrain and nature’s outsole

Getting the feet tough enough is just a matter of being habitually barefoot.  It means walking on tar, gravel, off-road at every possible opportunity until “nature’s outsole” becomes so thick that those small stones feel like pressure, and not pain.  There’s not too much to say about this, other than that everyone (barring me) has done it for six months and should be ready in this regard.  We’ve sent an experienced guide up our planed route (the Rongai route from the north-east) armed with a camera to film the various stages.  We’ve scouted it through a collection of photographs, testimonials and videos, and we’ve walked on surfaces that simulate what we’ll encounter, but of course, we will only truly know when we feel it for ourselves.  And that’s about as well prepared as we can be for now!


The altitude is equally difficult to predict.  It’s impossible to know who will thrive at altitude, and who will suffer.  The physiological response to arrival at altitude (even the lower slopes of Kili are high enough to be classified as altitude) is to hyperventilate.  We breathe more deeply and more often, and the result is that we breathe of carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is known as a volatile acid, because it combines with water to produce carbonic acid. As a result, breathing off CO2 causes our blood pH to rise – we develop what is called respiratory alkalosis.  That’s not necessarily good news, because as our pH rises, it actually blunts the ventilatory response.  So in the very situation where we would want to breathe more, this physiological response kind of dampens it – we breathe with “the handbrake” on.

The next step is that the kidneys kick in, and help to correct this alkalosis by excreting more bicarbonate.  The result is a corrected alkalosis, which bascially removes the “handbrake” and allows hyperventilation to help us keep our pO2 and oxygen delivery to the tissues normal.  The problem is that this takes time, particularly the metabolic correction, and so when the altitude continues to increase without this adaptation, we are unable to adapt and can, in severe cases, develop acute mountain sickness, the worst symptoms of which are pulmonary and cerebral oedema.  If you get those, you’re having a bad day out.

Predicting who this will be is a difficult, if not impossible task.  Individuals with the highest alveolar ventilation and highest oxygen saturation levels tend to do better at altitude, but there is little correlation to fitness or to training, and so the fact that the team is fit and well-trained has only limited relevance in this case.  We’ll only really know about the altitude once we’re up above 4,000m.

We have a set of plans in place to minimize the effect, and they are not limited to medication.  The trip has been designed to take one day longer to ascend, which gives us a day of adaptation at 4000m.  We also have a day where the change in altitude is minimal (from 4300 to 4700m, so only 400 m ascent) and so these are two “buffer days” that we are optimistic will allow us to get above 5,000m feeling strong for that final push.

And this will be vital.  One of the “combination problem” we face is that the cold is going to force us to stop often in order to warm our feet up (see below).  Therefore, we’ll be losing time, and for every 10 minutes, we’ll only be walking about 7 minutes.  The ability to walk faster than normal in order to get this lost time back is going to be crucial.  That means that we need to not only adapt, but do well at altitude, and this a crucial success factor.

The cold – not an endurance test, but physiology

And finally, we have the cold.  This is probably the biggest concern, and has been the main source of worry for me (there have been sleepless nights in the last month!)

The temperature at the summit has remained relatively constant over the last month, at around -5 to -6 degrees celsius (23F).  At night, it drops to around -8 (18F).  The wind chill factor is worth another 4 to 5 degrees, so we are looking at a temperature of around -9 to -10 degrees at the summit when we go up (we will not go up at night).  That’s cold enough to keep you up at night with worry, I’m sure you’d agree!

I won’t bore you with discussions of frostbite, other than to say that it’s not fun, and equals a very bad day out.  I say this from experience… I hope, and will spend every ounce of my energy on the climb to make sure of this, that I will not see a case of frostbite in either my feet of those of the other 6 teams members.  This is all about prevention, and not treatment. If anyone develops symptoms, their expedition is over, for safety’s sake, and I’ve worked hard at emphasizing this – there cannot be any “macho” toughing it out, or pushing through the pain.  As I said, I’ll do everything I can to ensure that we stay well below the limits of freezing our tissues.  It’s a big challenge.

To prepare, we have been testing the limits of tolerance to various cold temperatures.  That is, I’ve been taking some of the team into a cold room, at temperatures ranging from -6 C to – 18 C and testing how long we can walk for, and how long it to rewarm the feet to allow us to continue.  It has been a fascinating experience, but not without peril.  I guess the only way to truly know what the “limit” is is to exceed it, which I did on myself.  Just over a week ago, I developed mild frostbite in both feet as a result of staying at -10 C for too long without rewarming.

It was a valuable lesson, for me, and for the team, because it drummed home how cautious we will have to be (you can read more about the experience and my thoughts on the cold at this article which I wrote for the Barefoot Impi website).  It also finally confirmed for me what the schedule will be on the mountain.  The plan at this stage (and it is a flexible plan, that’s for sure) is to walk for 7 minutes, then stop for 3 minutes to actively warm our feet.  That will be repeated for an hour, followed by a 20 minute stop to properly re-warm.  Seven “repeats” of this hour equals the summit.  No one said it would be easy…but the idea is that by stopping every 7 minutes, we never allow the tissue to freeze, and then return to baseline every hour with a long heating stop.

There is more to it than this, but I’ll share the details with you from the mountain, as the expedition evolves.  The other thing that we have in our favour is that we ascend gradually, and the temperature drops along with our ascent. Therefore, on our third day when we are an Mawenzi Tarn (4300m), we expect the temperature to be around + 5 C (41 F).  That is cold, but safe, and so we’ll have a good idea of what the mountain is throwing at us BEFORE we hit those sub-zero temperatures. On our rest day at 4,700m, we plan to hike up to the rim (partly for altitude adaptation) and return to camp later, and during this day-hike, we’ll wear shoes, but check the terrain and temperatures to get an idea of what waits the next day.   Learning and adapting on the go will be the name of the game.

Ground temperature – a key factor

And finally, the key factor, the one that is probably going to make or break the expedition, will be the ground temperature.  It’s one thing for the air temperature to be -5 C, but it’s another thing to be walking on a solid surface at -5 C.  The cold room we have trained in has a steel floor that is probably -10 C, and that was a huge factor in my own case of frost-bite last week.  Walking on freezing ground would be a very, very difficult ask. Probably impossible.  However, having viewed countless videos on Kilimanjaro at this time of the year (Jan and Feb are the warmest monthson the mountain, by the way), I am confident that there is no ice on the path.  That means the ground temperature is above zero for a good portion of the day, even if the air is -5 C, and that’s cause for optimism.  If the ground, heated by the sun, reaches anything in the range of positive temperatures, our task will be made exponentially easier.  In fact, based on the cold room tests, I’d say that air temperatures of -10 with a ground temperature of +2 C is easier than air temps of -5 and ground temps of -5.

To capitalize on this ppssibility, we will not hike at night.  The normal procedure is to start for the summit from the Kibo camp at midnight, so that you get to the top for the sunrise (they allocate 7 hours for these 4.6 km, so steep is the climb and so inhibiting is the effect of the altitude).  We have modified this plan – we will start a few hours after sunrise, summit just before sunset, and then put shoes on and head down at night.  We are hoping that the addition of radiant heating of the ground does us a big favour.  Let’s hope for the Africa sun to work its magic.!

Finally, other reasons for confidence… when you are walking 4.6 km in 7 hours, you are taking 9 minutes per 100m.  Try walking that slowly.  Now, the good thing about this is that if you walk as slowly as that, you can get away with walking on quite sharp, rough ground.  Try it.  Find some gravel and walk your normal speed (about 1 to 1.5 min per 100m), and then repeat at 5 min per 100m pace.  Feel that difference.  We are optimistic that this will be in our favour on the shale slopes of Kilimanjaro.

Impossible?  Possibly, but delve deeper

Having said this, I remain anxious. Optimistically anxious, I guess you could call it. There is a lot that we cannot predict.  We don’t know how altitude, or cold (air and ground), or the ground will affect us independently, let alone how they may interact with one another. I am also worried about the time on my feet – 6 to 8 hours, five days, that’s a tough ask to repeat barefoot.

Then there are other, more subtle issues to worry about as well.  Sore feet mean adapted walking, and so we may end up with overuse injuries as a result of compensating how we walk. Cuts are a factor. Broken toes. So certainly, I’m nervous. We will take no risks – at the first sign of problems like frostbite or acute mountain sickness, we will act decisively to prevent long-term problems. But we are still committed, and I still believe that it is possible. Only time will tell.

Finally, I realise that the first response to this is often “impossible”.  And perhaps we will return on Jan 31st saying “yes, it is”.  But what I hope emerges, apart from achieving the first barefoot summit of the mountain, is the realization that when we dismiss something as impossible, we might be blinding ourselves to the fact that all it takes is some planning, preparation and deeper thought before potential solutions emerge.  For example, people have told me it’s crazy because the temperatures at night are -18 degrees celsius when they did the summit.  Well, we’re not doing it at night, and the temperatures don’t drop that low in January.  It’s actually quite disheartening how easily people dismiss things based purely on their experience.  It’s almost as though they believe that if they got cold then it will be impossible for everyone else.

The point is that there may be solutions to every possible problem you can think of.  Imagine if people stopped to think about them and solve them instead of labelling ideas outrageous and never making that second, third and fourth step.  Those steps may still fail, of course, but until you take them, you never know.

I’ve briefly discussed some of the steps we’ll be taking in the post above.  Over the course of the next 8 days, I will be filming videos from the summit, talking you through what we are doing to combat the three issues mentioned above in more detail.  I don’t know if I will be able to post these videos “live”, but the worst case scenario is that when I return to South Africa on Jan 31st, I’ll upload all the videos, and you can watch the trip evolve and hear me talk you through how difficult it is!

Also, I’ll try to provide progress updates on Facebook and Twitter.  So if you haven’t joined those communities, do so now!

And again, any donations to the Children’s Hospital are greatly appreciated!


P.S.  As a final comment on Kilimanjaro, have a look at the video at this link (or scroll down).  It shows Killian Jornet breaking the record for summitting Kilimanjaro – 7 hours 14 minutes return trip from the bottom.  Incredible performance.  But specifically, have a look at what he wears, on his hands and his head.  And yes, I realize that he is running up the climb and generating a lot more heat than we will, but anyone who has ever run at anything close to -10 C knows that your head and hands still get cold.  Jornet also doesn’t wrap up at the summit when he stops for a break.  Look also at his team waiting for him on the summit, warmly dressed but without gloves.  There are many other videos of the summit where people are not in gloves at this time of the year.  This is basically to make the point that all the nay-sayers who point out that it’s -20 at the summit are probably recalling the wrong time of year!  Let’s hope so anyway!  And besides, it’s the ground temperature that really matters!

The video also shows the terrain quite nicely – at 1:50, when Jornet gets onto the rim, there’s a great close-up of what we’ll be walking on.  It’s a great video, educational and impressive!