Barefoot Kili attempt

Reportedly, an Italian man and a woman from Colorado have climbed Mt Kilimanjaro barefoot – but it is not official. This time the attempt, by five barefoot hikers, will be properly documented by a film and medical team. Sport scientist Ross Tucker is one of the team members (see Ross’ talk from FEAT Jo’burg, October 2011).

In a pre-departure post on his ‘The Science of Sport’ blog, Ross gives some insight into the team’s preparations for walking on the sharp and jagged shale and dealing with the toe-freezing cold. Indeed, the three gremlins that the team has to deal with are altitude, cold and terrain.

Well, at 5,898m Kili is a big ol’ mountain and many an affected climber has had to skip the summit and return to a more comfortable elevation. As Ross says, “It’s impossible to know who will thrive at altitude, and who will suffer”.

The trip has been designed to take one day longer to ascend, which gives the team 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,” he adds.

The sharp and jagged shale is the team’s big worry. They’ve all been walking and running barefoot for six months to build up the skin on their soles. “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,” Ross says.

Unlike the rest, Ross only joined the expedition three months ago as a participant so his feet haven’t had the same period of time to toughen.

To deal with the sharp terrain they’ll be walking really slowly. Ross explains: “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.”

The ground on the mountain is cold; there’s no escaping this reality. To escape frostbite the team has designed a disciplined foot-warming regime, which was developed during cold chamber training sessions. Their current plan (flexible and dependent on conditions) is to walk for seven minutes and then to actively warm their feet for three minutes. They’ll repeat this for an hour and then stop for 20 minutes to properly re-warm.

They’re expecting a daytime ground temperature of -5C at higher altitudes. At night this drops further so they’ll start their summit day after sunrise to reach the summit before sunset. With the summit attained they’ll don shoes for the descent.

Ross’ teammates include Andrew King, Hedley Young, Camilla Howard and Clyde Barendse. Sean Disney is their lead guide. They’re also joined by some media people (camera/video).

Ross’ blog posts are always informative and educational and he’ll be sending out content during the expedition. His website is Also keep an eye on the expedition website for any news during the seven-day expedition.

[They plan to be back in South Africa on 31 January so they may have started hiking today.]