Kilimanjaro is one of the most popular big mountains around, and is one of the most summited 5000m peaks on Earth. It requires little in the way of mountaineering experience, but is one of those mountains that everyone has heard of. Even Toto, in their song “Africa”, said “sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti”. And sitting in Moshi staring at the excessively large stratovolcano, one can easily take their point, even if Kilimanjaro is nowhere near the Serengeti.
Kilimanjaro as seen from the Shira side.
Before we look at what is required to get up this mountain, let’s look at some interesting facts about it:
- At 5895m, the Uhuru summit of the Kibo volcano is the highest point in Africa.
- Kilimanjaro is actually made up of three volcanoes. Kibo is the highest, while Mawenzi and Shira are considerably lower.
- While often quoted as the highest free-standing mountain on earth, Kilimanjaro is actually not free-standing. The highest summit of Mawenzi, at 5149m, is in fact the third highest mountain in Africa, and forms part of the same mini-range.
- Kilimanjaro rates fourth on the list of world mountains by topographical prominence, only exceeded by Everest, Aconcagua and Dinali/Mount McKinley.
- The name was Anglicised by English missionaries, and comes from the local names “’Kilema” and “Kyaro”, roughly translating to “difficult mountain with ice”.
- The glaciers on the mountains have been melting away at an alarming rate. It is likely that they will be entirely gone in the next decade or so.
- While Mawenzi and Kibo are extinct volcanoes, Kibo is only dormant – so it could possibly erupt again someday.
- The youngest person to climb Kilimanjaro was 9 years old, while the oldest was 84.
- Only Kilimanjaro and Elbrus form part of both the Seven Summits and the Volcanic Seven Summits.
Fitness and preparation
By most of its routes, Kilimanjaro doesn’t require any technical climbing, meaning that many of the attempts on it are by people with no prior mountain ascents and/or limited fitness. This mountain is not to be underestimated, and even a bit of prior-mountain experience will help with your preparations, even if it will only give you an idea of what gear to use and what gear to leave at home.
Some of the surviving glaciers near the summit
While the mountain is “easy” when compared to some of the more famous mountains around the world, it is still no walk-in-the-park (actually, it is in the Kilimanjaro National Park, so I guess it is technically a walk in the park). Train hard for it. Being fitter means you will enjoy the experience more.
Mount Meru – used by some to acclimatise before heading up Kilimanjaro
Make sure you go with a good group of people. At times things might get tense, it is best if you know your team well. I met my team the day before we started, but I was lucky to have joined a great group of people. The wrong group could ruin your experience.
Our team at the start of the trip
Don’t just use any tour company, research them well, ask for recommendations and have a look at online reviews. If things go wrong, the quality of your guide could be the difference between life and death, so don’t take this lightly.
Dickson – our legend of guide, with over 20 years experience on the mountain
It is possible to arrange to do this mountain with little or no local support – but remember that the regional economy is driven by the funds brought into the region through this mountain.
Our team, lead by Dickson and his 2ic Isaiah – these guys were amazing!
If you believe that the use of porters is cheating, you can always give your porters some gear to carry, and simply not use it. Make sure you communicate your plans to the tour operator beforehand so that this doesn’t cause problems on the trip.
If you don’t spend much time at significant altitudes, you probably won’t know what to expect. Having clocked up many nights above 3000m before heading to Kilimanjaro, this wasn’t an issue for me, but it was for my team mates.
Go into the trip with a goal to enjoy yourself, but don’t pin all your hopes on summitting. Some teams don’t make it up because of bad weather, others due to altitude sickness, and some due to the lack of ability to stay awake while walking at 3AM. If your guide tells you to turn around, listen to him – his job is to ensure you survive the trip, summitting is only his secondary objective.
Also, be honest with your guide – if you have a headache, tell him, if you feel like you are getting sick, tell him. Too many people die on this mountain every year because they are too proud to admit that they aren’t feeling well.
If you can, start your acclimatisation programme before leaving. I spent an hour on top of one of the highest peaks in my general region a week before flying out. Even though it was only 3431m, it still helped.
When going to a high altitude, you will need to drink a lot of water. The guides usually suggest 5 litres per day. This may seem excessive, but it is necessary.
On a day where your highest altitude is at the end of the day, your guide will take you to a slightly higher spot to sit for a few minutes. Don’t underestimate the value of this. I personally went a further vertical 100m above the acclimatisation stop near Lava Tower on Machame Route just for fun. Sadly someone had recently died trying to climb the Lava Tower, so they would not allow me to climb it.
Lots of routes are listed, but they all boil down to one of three passes:
- The Western Breach/Arrow Glacier
- Stella Pass
- Gilson’s Pass
All routes will join the contour path around the mountain and will head up one of these.
The most popular route, the Marangu Route (or Coca Cola Route) uses Gilson’s Pass. The second most popular route, the Machame Route (or Whiskey Route) uses Stella Pass. Most guides will be reluctant to take you up the Western Breach, although since the glacier that used to mark its top is long gone, there is nothing technical about this route – it just tops out on the other side of the summit. The main issue with the Western Breach is that rock falls are common, which renders it a dangerous route.
Some flowers between Baranco and Karanga Camp
I would recommend the Machame Route for two reasons – it takes you to 4600m on day 3, but you only go to the summit on day 5 or 6 (depending on whether or not you use Karanga Camp), meaning that your odds of getting up are much higher. It also takes you through Baranco Camp, which was the most spectacular part of the hike for me.
The Lava Tower
Everyone talks about “pole, pole” (slowly, slowly in Swahili) – it is no joke. Don’t underestimate how much slower your will be above 5000m.
I once read about oxygen cylinders being sold for some ridiculous amount of money at the Balcony on Everest – simply because they can ask any amount of money and people will pay because they have to. When buying mountain equipment, I have a saying: “good gear is cheaper than a coffin”.
Don’t mess around with cheap gear – the summit of this mountain is cold and usually windy, the high camps are also reasonably cold. Buy good warm gear, especially your sleeping bag. I used a -2c down sleeping bag on the mountain (supposedly designed specially for Kilimanjaro), and was cold most nights. On the summit, my hands and feet were very cold, as was my nose – fortunately the rest of my gear held up perfectly.
To give context of what I wore on the summit, here’s a list:
- Two buffs
- A beanie
- A thermal vest
- A thermal shirt
- A thermal fleece
- A down jacket
- A heavy rain jacket
- Triple layer gloves with a windproof outer
- Thermal long-johns
- Technical pants
- Fleece pants
- Waterproof pants
- Thin inner socks
- Thick marino wool outer socks
- Heavy hiking boots
On the summit – the wind made getting a good shot with a flag reasonably difficult!
If I did the mountain again, I would switch out some of my gear. Notably:
- Sleeping bag – the one I used was supposedly rated for Killimanjaro, but was not warm enough.
- Backpack – the one I used was designed for Kilimanjaro, but was poorly designed when loaded with the weight of the daypack. The amount of water you have to carry is heavier than standard for a daypack, so ensure your pack has sufficient padding and good weight distribution.
- Shoes/boots – I would do the mountain in trail shoes if I did it again. I used to be a firm believer in hiking boots, but have since changed my mind on this one.
- Gloves – get a good warm pair of ski gloves for this mountain.
- Socks – double socks are a must, but make sure your outer socks are very warm.
- Water bottles – they say you should keep your bottles upside-down and in a sock on summit night. Well, I did and they still froze! Use a bottle with a lid that unscrews as this is less likely to freeze, and easier to remedy if it does.
Preparing for summit night
Most people who climb Kilimanjaro won’t have woken up at 11PM and hiked through what remains of the night. The problem with such an early start is that it is difficult to stay awake. Consider a practice run of this before setting out – somewhere where it is safe to do this, of course.
Sunrise over Mawenzi from Stella Point
If you can time it appropriately, try to summit at full moon. The moon is so bright that you can tuck your headlamp away and just enjoy the mountain under natural light. To this day, one of the most special experiences I have ever had was watching the full-moon rise over Baranco Camp.
The view from Baranco Camp
You will be told that you don’t need to bring any food. Ignore this – bring some snacks for the trip. Some “morale food” helps too – I used fudge. If the day hasn’t gone well, at least you have something to look forward to at the end, never underestimate the value of that.
The most important tip for this is that you must enjoy the trip. Take photos of your team in wacky poses, laugh, do handstands – whatever, just remember that you are there to have fun. You won’t enjoy every minute of the trip, so be prepared for ups and downs (not just literally).