Kilimanjaro is one of the last great challenges left on the planet that can be accomplished without special equipment or knowledge, by anybody between the ages of 10 and 80, and when you reach the top you will know what it is to have the world at your feet.
"You never climb the same mountain twice, not even in memory. Memory rebuilds the mountain, changes the weather, retells the jokes, remakes all the moves," said mountaineer, writer, and filmmaker Lito Tejada-Flores. For me, this is particularly true when it comes to Kilimanjaro, a mountain I have climbed many, many times, both on my own and as a guide, and where no two expeditions have ever been the same.
Mount Kilimanjaro, at 19,341 feet, is Africa’s tallest mountain, the world’s highest free-standing peak, and one of the famed Seven Summits (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents). Kilimanjaro is one of the great wonders of the natural world, a snow- and ice-capped mountain straddling the equator.
Every year, over 35,000 people set foot in Tanzania specifically to climb Kili. Why do they come? What possesses them to travel from all corners of the globe, spend large sums of money, put commitment and time into preparation and training, and to endure what for many is the discomfort and unfamiliarity of “roughing it” for days on the mountain?
There is no one easy answer to those questions. For every climber on the mountain, there is a different reason. Some come for adventure, others because friends talked them into it. Some climb for charity, whilst others have deeply personal reasons relating to landmarks in their lives, perhaps losing a loved one or a retirement, marriage, or divorce. Some come to prove that disabilities can be overcome with determination and perseverance, and others are on the mountain to challenge themselves and prove they have what it takes to rise to the physical and mental challenge.
This is not a walk in the park. Climbing Kilimanjaro presents considerable physical challenges -- the oxygen level at the summit is only 50 percent of that at sea level, so altitude sickness is a threat. The summit is ice-capped with five glaciers carrying snow down the mountain’s flanks. Only 60 to 70 percent of climbers attempting Kilimanjaro will reach the top, and if you want to be one of these successful climbers, there are a number of factors to take into consideration. You need to come fully prepared.
With so many climbs up Kilimanjaro, I have a number of experiences that have stood out along the way. One climb, a client proposed to his girlfriend on the summit (knowing his plan in advance, I’d carried up champagne for the special moment). Another trip, two clients came so unprepared that they apparently expected to summit, in the dark, knee-deep in snow, wearing running shoes and without headlamps. One particularly memorable climb, my clients sang Bollywood songs nearly to the top -- until they finally ran out of energy and breath! I have been a motivator, a bully, and a shoulder to cry on. I have tied people’s shoelaces, put candy in their mouths, and helped them blow their noses when they had no energy left to do it by themselves. I’ve seen people at their best and at their worst. My clients have come in all shapes and sizes, all ages and backgrounds, and with a huge variety of experiences, expectations, and ambitions. I have seen teams made up of friends, lovers, acquaintances, and total strangers all come together and bond over the experience of the climb ... and along the way I have made lasting friends and met people from all different walks of life that, were it not for the mountain, would likely never have crossed my path.
Here are the things you need to take into consideration when planning or considering a trip to Kilimanjaro.
1. Choosing Your Route
There are six usual routes up Kilimanjaro. These routes not only vary in length, cost, and scenery but also in difficulty and success rates. Selecting a Kilimanjaro climb route is one of the most important decisions you need to make. There is no single “best” route up Kili; rather, the best route for you depends on a number of factors, including the availability of time and money, previous experience, fitness level, the time of year, and, of course, personal preference.
The Marangu Route
This is the only route that offers hut accommodation and a short ascent, which can have negative repercussions on some climbers when it comes to acclimatization. Mistakenly thought of as an easy route, this is a serious climb with only roughly 30 percent of climbers reaching the summit (usually due to altitude problems). But if you simply can’t face sleeping in a tent, this could be the route for you. A word of warning though: The huts are very basic, so do not expect any creature comforts.
The Machame Route
This is the most popular and therefore the most crowded climbing route. This is a scenic route that offers good opportunities for acclimatization, but be prepared for crowds, especially on summit night. Approximately 60 percent of climbers reach the summit.
The Rongai Route
With arguably the best acclimatization opportunities, this is probably the easiest route. Rongai has an excellent success rate (roughly 70 percent), is away from the crowds, and has great scenery and a real wilderness feel. This is my personal favorite, and I choose it whenever I can.
The Shira Route
This route takes you into some serious altitude (11,480 feet), from Day 1, which can be tough, especially if you live at sea level and haven’t had time to acclimatize. Shira merges with the Machame route, and so everything said above about that route also applies here.
The Lemosho Route
This is probably the most beautiful route, but because it is a little longer in duration, it is the most expensive. Like the Shira route, this one also merges with Machame, so everything said about that route remains relevant here. Because the Lemosho route is a little longer, it allows time for good acclimatization, and so the success rate is good. This is the route for those who want a wilderness experience, but for whom cost is not the main consideration.
The Umbwe Route
This is the most difficult and demanding route on Kilimanjaro, and the most spectacular. This is not a technical route, but it is very direct, very steep, very tough, and, in parts, very exposed. Again, this route joins the Machame. Umbwe is the most difficult and demanding of the usual climbing routes, so please don’t even think about it unless you have experience climbing mountains.
Aside from choosing your route up Kilimanjaro, there are a number of other factors to think about ...
2. Best Time Of Year To Climb
Although it’s technically possible to tackle the mountain all year round, I would advise the best times of year are during the warmer and drier months, from December till mid-March, or from mid-June till the end of October. Whilst these are considered the best times of year to climb in terms of weather, they are also the busiest months.
3. What To Pack And Carry
Keep it light! All you are expected to carry during the day is a small pack containing things you might need throughout the day (e.g. camera, spare batteries, water bottle, packed lunch, snacks, waterproofs, fleece/jacket).
The rest of your trekking gear should be packed in a tough duffle bag. Duffle bags are carried on the porters’ heads, so not the best place for a fragile bag! The packed weight of your duffle bag should be no more than 33 pounds, and you should be given a packing list by your trekking company.
A good pair of boots is important. Few things will make your climb more miserable than blisters, and these are certain to occur if your boots are not broken in. If buying new boots, buy them as soon as possible and wear them as much as possible before the trek.
All that is usually needed during the day is a T-shirt and trousers. Warm clothes will be needed in the mornings and evenings as you ascend and temperatures drop. A good base layer with a T-shirt on top will keep you warm and dry. Mid layers, for example, a fleece, provide insulation. If you really feel the cold, then substitute the fleece with a down jacket. A down jacket is essential for the summit. The outer layer is the final layer between you and the elements and must be capable of keeping out wind, rain, sleet, and snow. Any good waterproof, windproof jacket should do the job. For your legs, thermal long johns are invaluable for summit night. A good sun hat is essential. Sunglasses with good UV protection are important.
A good quality sleeping bag ensures a good night’s sleep, so don’t compromise. Carrying a light one will give you many sleepless nights! A 5F bag is recommended.
Your group should be led by an experienced mountain guide with the help of a local Tanzanian guide who has considerable experience. Each group would typically have a head guide, a local lead guide, assistant guides, cook, assistant cooks, and three porters per client.
Food on the mountain is usually a mix of local and European dishes, all cooked by the team cook. Emphasis is on a high carbohydrate, largely vegetarian diet, which has been found to be easily digestible, especially at high altitudes.
6. Altitude Considerations
The principal difficulty for anyone aspiring to climb Kilimanjaro is the mountain’s great height, rising abruptly from the plains. The process of acclimatization takes time, and the most important rule is to gain height slowly. If you have suffered serious problems at altitude before, you should seek the advice of your doctor or a specialist. I strongly recommended that you take the medication Diamox (acetazolamide) to help you acclimatize (though it is not suitable for people who are allergic to sulfur drugs).
7. Training For The Climb
Some days you will only be walking for three to five hours, whilst on the longest day, the summit day, you can expect to have a 12- to 15-hour day. As the duration of the climb is fairly short, you need to be in good shape right from the start. Training for at least two months before the climb is essential. People with poor fitness levels will find the trip extremely tough, if not impossible.
Language is something that can initially keep people apart but, with a little effort, it can be the perfect thing to bring us together. About 126 languages are spoken in Tanzania, though only English and Swahili are official languages. Whilst your guide will speak English, most of your porters and helpers will not, so a few phrases of Swahili will go a long way in establishing a bond with your support crew.
“Pole, pole,” or Slowly, slowly are probably the most-spoken words on Kilimanjaro. This is an important reminder to take it easy, and the words will definitely get stuck in your head! Don’t be surprised if you’re still saying them weeks after you’ve returned home!
Please find some more useful Swahili words and phrases below.
- Hello -- Jambo / Salama
- How are you? -- Habari yako?
- Fine -- Nzuri
- What’s up? (slang) -- Mambo
- Fine (slang) Poa
- Thank you (very much) -- Asante (sana)
- Good night -- Lala salama
- You’re welcome -- Karibu
- Friend -- Rafiki
- Let’s go -- Twende
- Water -- Maji
- Danger -- Hatari
- I’m tired -- Nimechoka
Now you have read all that, it's time to get packing for Kilimanjaro!