Nolizwi Magwagwa - Story of My Jacket

Nolizwi Magwagwa shares her heartwarming, and at times nail-biting, experience of summitting Kilimanjaro, and the jackets that got her there.



We arrived in Tanzania on 18 February 2023. I really went through all sorts of emotions on our arrival in Kilimanjaro. It was totally unbelievable that I was finally in Tanzania after months of planning and extreme training – that my dream of touching the rooftop of Africa was about to become a reality. I was also excited, I must say. I felt ready mentally, fitness wise and very confident that I had all the appropriate gear and nutrition to help me tackle the highest mountain in Africa and the only free-standing mountain in the world with an altitude of 5895 metres above sea level. I was ready for the climb, one day at a time.

My biggest concern was the altitude. I honestly didn't know what to expect in that regard, as statistics say more than 50% of climbers suffer from altitude sickness. However, I had done all possible in terms of getting the appropriate altitude medication and even had my own first aid kit. I also received a clean bill of health from a medical practitioner for the climb, after undertaking all the necessary medical tests.

First Ascent Peak 3 Person 4 Season Hiking Tent


Seven official routes lead to the Kilimanjaro Uhuru Peak. However, there is only one descending route called Mweka. The routes are Machame, Lemosho, Umbwe, Marangu, Rongai, Northern Circuit and Shira.  Each of the routes has its own advantages and disadvantages in terms of summit success rate and varies in the scenery, difficulty, popularity, acclimatization profile, costs, accommodation options etc.

We chose to do the Machame which is also known as “The Whiskey Route” due to its steep, difficult and challenging profile. The entire climb up and down is 62 km and takes about 6 or 7 days. This route was our favourite because of its excellent acclimatisation. We literally climbed high and slept lower due to the positioning of the campsites. One extra bonus is that the trail is very scenic with incredible landscapes and beautiful views all-round. Our training prepared us very well for this tough route. We chose the 6-day itinerary and the four days leading up to the summit night felt like any other multi-day hike. However, the summit night on day 5 was a different ball game – a mammoth climb to conquer.


Firstly, Kili has very unpredictable weather conditions. Trekking on Kilimanjaro takes you through different climatic zones. The weather ranges from warm and tropical at the base of the mountain, to extremely freezing temperatures on the summit.

Temperatures and the weather in general vary significantly by day, night and altitude, ranging between 0 to - 20 degrees Celsius on the mountain. As hikers, we had to be prepared for these big changes in temperature, as we ascended the altitude.


We had to make sure that we had all the appropriate gear. The company we were using to lead our trek up Kilimanjaro had provided us with a comprehensive Kili gear list that we had to get, to help us stay comfortable and warm throughout the journey. The appropriate technical gear catered for all conditions, including snow, storm, rain etc. The gear was all highly technical, with maximum moisture wicking and excellent body heat retention - cotton was simply not allowed, especially on the extremely cold summit night.

 I had to make sure to understand the critical concept of layering with appropriate clothing, to remain perfectly warm and comfortable. Layering up and layering down when the weather changes is very important, particularly on Kili and this can only be thoroughly achieved when the appropriate technical gear is used. The concept of layering works perfectly if each individual layer or item of clothing supports the wicking process – each item has to transfer moisture to the next layer – that means all items must be highly moisture-wicking. The main layers are the base layer, mid-layer-one, mid-layer-two and the outer layer. The critical gear included extreme and moderate baselayers, thermal fleece jackets, insulated down jackets, a hard waterproof/wind shell jacket, a soft waterproof shell jacket, heavyweight gloves, insulated ski pants, hiking pants, fleece pants, light rain pants, small liner gloves, thermal beanies, a thermal balaclava, moisture-wicking underwear, wool ski socks, gaiters, and trekking poles.

First Ascent Ladies Arctic Down Jacket


The first of the six-day Kilimanjaro journey started on 19 February 2023. Our guides informed us that we would leave the hotel at 11 am. This was great news. This gave us an opportunity to prepare for the journey in a relaxed manner. We had to make sure that all our necessities were in place for the duration of the climb and that the weight of the duffle bags was within the 15kg permitted limit - a very strict requirement for hikers. The duffel bag is one of the most necessary items for Kili. They are carried by porters who transport them from one camp to the next. They carry them on their heads – so it is very important to use a good quality, water-resistant and lightweight duffel bag, as it carries all the essential hiking items. We had a support crew of about 25 personnel, consisting of guides, porters, a chef, a waiter etc.

This was a beautiful sunny day. The drive from our hotel to Mount Kilimanjaro National Park was very enjoyable. It was so refreshing to pass through the villages of Machame. We arrived at a packed Machame gate, full of climbers and their supporters all gearing up to hit the trail. Our company managed all the registrations and then called us for a scrumptious lunch before we started the hike. The spirits were high as we started the 11 km trek to the Machame Camp. The trail winds through a rainforest with some sneaky inclines. Our lead guide instructed us to ‘polepole’ – meaning slowly-slowly in Swahili. The pole pace helped us to manage the heavy breathing, which was due to the rising altitude. We marvelled at the beauty of the dense mountain forest and green vegetation with the beautiful sounds of birds chirping. Weather conditions started changing and we soon had to take out our rain gear to protect ourselves. My Thunderclap Rain Jacket came in handy at this point, because the weather was not freezing, but still raining - temperatures were still high. We arrived at a very wet Machame Camp with a 2835m elevation at 18:30. The guides took us to our warm tents. Hot water in small basins was ready for us to bathe. We were then informed that popcorn was ready for us in the dining tent. Followed by a starter - the yummiest soup. The starter was always a variety of vegetable soups, every evening. These were the tastiest, most mouth-watering and most soothing after a gruelling day and freezing evenings. The main cause was always a good balance of delicious carbs, protein and veggies.


We woke up at 05:30 am daily for ginger tea and had breakfast at 6 am. The hike started at 7 am after breakfast and warm beverages. The hike to the Shira Camp was a challenging 5km climb, which was just not ending. The weather was a bit chilly in the morning. I made sure to wear a Moderate Baselayer underneath and also wore my Purple Touch Down Jacket. The rain started again before we reached the Shira Camp and my Thunderclap Rain Jacket protected me very well once again. This trail was very scenic. The first part was a continuation of the rainforest, but it soon opened up revealing a beautiful landscape and Mount Meru from a distance, which is the second-highest mountain in Tanzania. We arrived at Shira Camp at 3750 m elevation at 13:15. Our guides then took us on an hour's walk to the famous Shira caves for acclimatization. The caves are located on higher ground just below 4000 m elevation. We saw one of the caves where climbers used to sleep in the past, but the use of caves as accommodation has since been banned for security reasons.


As usual, we left the camp at 7 am, just after breakfast – heading to Barranco Camp which is 10 km away. The morning was overcast, however, for the first time, we could see the snow-covered Mount Kilimanjaro. It was a beautiful sight to witness. It looked very close, but in reality, it was still 2 days away. We climbed up to an elevation of 4600 m to the Lava Tower. The ascent up to the Tower was gradual but challenging, breathing became a problem. Our guides soon led us with the ‘polepole’ pace. The 4600 elevation was indeed not child’s play. Mother nature also showered us with hail on the way. I had to take out my Thunderclap Rain Jacket and it handled the hail very well. I did not get cold or wet. We rested for lunch at Lava Tower and descended to 3900 m, the Barranco Camp, where we spent day 3. The trek to Barranco Wall dropped down steeply at the beginning, but the rest of it was manageable – following the trail into Barranco Valley. We trekked past a forest of giant Dendrosenecio, very attractive trees which are only endemic to Mt Kilimanjaro. We arrived at Barranco camp at 5 pm.


We woke up to a very chilly morning. Temperatures at Barranco were very low. I had to wear many layers and had to pack away my rain jacket and the down jacket. The weather called for the Vertex Expedition Jacket and the big Arctic Down Jacket. The trek down the Barranco Valley in freezing weather was manageable. We soon climbed the infamous Barranco Wall, a steep ridge halfway up the South slope of Kilimanjaro. It is 257m above the Barranco Valley. It is not technical, but some sessions do require the use of all four limbs. The views around the Wall were to die for. They made the Barranco Wall scramble more worthwhile.

The trek continued to the Karanga Camp where we rested for lunch after tackling a steep incline. The 4 km climb to Barafu Camp, the main base, started immediately after an hour’s break. We were now attacking the final stretch. The summit attempt was less than 12 hours away. The climb took us across a desolate scree slope with no vegetation, but there were spectacular views. It was a tough steep walk, which was made more difficult by the altitude. Efforts became more and more difficult on the steep inclines with heavy breathing.

We arrived at Barafu Camp, which is the main base of Kilimanjaro, at 5 pm - having trekked 9 km from 7 am. We had no issues, just fatigued from tackling the series of hills from Barranco Camp. Breathing was a challenge due to the high elevation at this point. We were at 4673m above sea level. We rested, recharged and prepared our minds and bodies for the last stretch of the trek to Uhuru Peak. This was the day we were due to attempt the big summit, a 5km climb was waiting for us at 11 pm.  We had an early supper and our guides were all ready to brief us. We could see that this was a different day. They checked our oxygen levels and heart rates and all was well. This was done every evening and the guides do make a call to end one's journey when levels are unacceptably low. They briefed us on how we should dress, stressing the need for one to wear the appropriate layers - as the weather was extremely cold. They instructed us to go straight to our tents to sleep. We had to dress in all those layers, except the waterproof jacket before we slept. But, honestly, that sleep did not happen. I was not anxious or anything. I was ok, but my body just wouldn’t shut down. Everything was an effort at this point. One was constantly out of breath. 

The hike started at exactly 11 pm. Unzipping the tent after the call for departure revealed a freezing cold and dark Barafu Camp. However, the gear layers kept me warm throughout the climb to Uhuru Peak. I held on to the layers until I reached the peak. All I did whenever I felt too warm was to open the pit zip for ventilation. The temperatures on summit night were indeed very low. We were advised to keep our water bottles upside down in our backpacks, as water freezes from top to bottom. This technique ensures that one has water to drink even if the top part freezes. We had to keep our energy bars safely wrapped and warm inside the backpacks as well to avoid freezing, but some of the bars were still frozen inside the packs.  I didn’t feel an inch of the extreme weather condition. Below is how I was dressed standing on the rooftop of Africa on 24 February 2023.

First Ascent Men's Vertex Expedition Jacket

Base Layer

Top: High-Performance Bamboo Ladies Long Sleeve Baselayer and the Moderate Performance Baselayer (the high performance was underneath. It managed moisture very well and helped to regulate my body temperature – wicking off all moist to the moderate baselayer)

Bottom:High Performance Bamboo Long John and Moderate Long John Baselayer, fleece pants, Trip Zip Hiking Pants and Avalanche Ski Pants.

Mid Layer 1: (fleece insulation)

The Rove Fleece Pullover Top, Ladies Stromfleece Jacket, and the Venture Cowl Fleece (I wore all three fleece tops on summit night)

 Mid Layer 2: (Insulated Down Jacket)

Arctic Down Jacket

 Outer Layer: (Waterproof with breathability)

Vertex Expedition Jacket

Hands gear:

Liner Tech Touch Gloves and heavyweight Velocity Gloves.

Head Gear:

Thermal Bamboo Fleece Balaclava, a fleece buff, and a thermal Windpro Beanie

Was it tough to summit or manageable?  What kept me going? What motivated me when the going was tough?

As indicated, the first five days of the climb were very much manageable. There was nothing we had not done before. We had prepared very well for the beast called the Machame route.

We departed for the summit exactly at 11 pm. The guides carried our day bags this time. I only had my trekking poles in my hands. I prayed as we were lining up on a single trail leaving the campsite, asking God for protection, and a successful summit. I was in good spirits once again until I started feeling nauseous, probably two hours into the hike. My stomach became too uncomfortable. I took pills for nausea, but they did not work. I whispered to my guide that I feel like I will be better if I can stick my two fingers inside my throat to induce some vomiting. The guy just dragged me back into the trail saying I will be wasting the same energy we need to push to Uhuru. I must let whatever it is come out naturally – but chances are there is nothing – it’s just the effects of altitude. All I needed was to drink water, but I could not stomach it at that point. And nothing came out throughout that hike.

The climb became harder and harder. It was just a relentless and unending incline in the dark. All one could see was a long chain of lights (headlamps) going up and up. The stretch of the lights was too long and demotivating at times, with no end in sight. It felt like we were hiking a 100 km trail. The guides kept on advising us not to look at the demotivating hill and to just focus on the feet of the person in front of you. They really tried their level best to keep us motivated  – singing and chanting beautiful songs. The walk was becoming more and more impossible. I was tired and hungry with no strength at all. I still could not eat due to nausea. This was the most frustrating and the most difficult activity I have ever done in my life. It rendered me completely powerless. I felt dizzy and out of balance at times. All I could hear was my guide’s voice: “We have to keep going. Put one foot in front of the other. The summit is just there”. He held my hand throughout and there were moments where he had to hold me tight not to fall, with eyes constantly closing – sleepwalking basically. I felt like I was in a war zone, fighting for survival. I recited the prayer I made before our departure over and over again in my mind.

 I pushed until I heard my guide asking “Do you see the sun is about to rise”? He took out his phone and started taking pictures. He kept me motivated throughout, holding my hand, pulling and pushing me up the unending incline. The uphill was relentless. He stopped and showed me the glaciers to our left. I don’t think my mind fully registered the natural wonder he was showing me. I only looked once and matched forward.  We continued until we reached Stella Point – which is at 5756 m. Reaching this point was a huge achievement. I still cannot fathom how I managed to reach that far with no strength and way more than half of my brain not functioning – there is really so much that happens on the summit that is way beyond one's control. The air was at its thinnest. All my body wanted to do was sleep. I was finished. My guide had to beg me to look strong for a picture. We could see the final destination, Uhuru Peak from Stella. However, that did not help because all I could see was another hill to tackle with no strength for it. I had to dig really deep to continue. My guide literally tried to feed me and got me to sip ginger and energy drinks. We pushed and finally reached that roof of Africa just after 9 am. Oh! I can’t describe the feeling. Tears just started rolling down my face. I could not believe that I was finally on top – that I had made it in the midst of all the challenges.  I thank God for the wonderful guide who would not let go of my hand throughout the torturous 5 km. He was hungry to see me summit Uhuru. He kept on asking me to visualize myself on top of that mountain – on top of Africa - when the going got extremely tough. Finally, there I was on top for real. It felt like a dream, but this time it was a fulfilled one.  This was indeed a mammoth task. It tested me physically and mentally.

How did I prepare my body for the summit?

I made sure to hit the Kilimanjaro shores with adequate fitness for the task ahead. The kind of training that we embarked upon really boosted my confidence. Cape Town’s Table Mountain National Park, specifically the Platteklip Gorge, was our playground for training. The training started gradually in December 2022 and intensified to include a 5-day challenge, as well as double summits of the 2.5 km Platteklip (650m elevation). We had also done the Drakensberg and the most difficult trail in the Western Cape called Arrangieskop. I felt a great deal of confidence throughout the preparatory phase. I think I felt more confident because I’m also a long-distance runner. I was highly active on the road in 2022. I believe that I started the actual Kilimanjaro training from a strong fitness base, as I ran the 90 km Comrades Marathon in August, followed by the Cape Town Marathon in October, and the Cape Winelands Marathon towards the end of November. Furthermore, I made sure to read as much as I could about Kili. I spent an immeasurable time reading, watching YouTube videos and seeking advice from friends who have successfully summited the Uhuru peak. I must say, I thank them all for their valuable input. They all contributed immensely towards my mental strength. I arrived in Kili fully armed mentally, physically and gear-wise. I can now boldly say fitness and gear took me to day 5 of the trek, and the mental strength and gear pushed me to the rooftop of Africa.

First Ascent Ladies Kinetic Running Jacket

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