Set yourself a challenge by getting to the top of Africa's highest mountain. Here's a practical guide for making the climb
It's 4am on a black African night powdered with stars and a dewdrop is dangling from your nose. To leave it there is unsightly. But to remove it would mean prising your hand from the warmth of your down-jacket pocket and into the biting air.
You may be less than two hours from one of the greatest achievements of your life but the cold is all you can think about. It’s a cold that has already insinuated itself between your (many) layers, penetrating your skin, chilling your bones until, finally, it seems to be freezing your very soul.
So you let it hang there – a small, mucus teardrop crystallising on your upper lip, 5,400m-ish up Africa’s highest mountain.
Besides, the dewdrop is but a minor inconvenience compared to the pounding headache you’ve been enduring for the best part of three hours. A headache that you decide, in a moment of clarity, would be best alleviated by a swig of water. Only you can’t even do that – because your bottle, too, has frozen solid.
It’s then that you contemplate telling your guide you’ve had enough, and savour the thought of yomping back down the scree slopes towards a land of warm showers, cold beer – and the previously unappreciated joy of sweet, oxygen-rich air.
Which begs the question: why bother attempting to climb Kilimanjaro at all? Why go to all the time, expense and sheer physical effort, especially as there’s no guarantee you’re going to make it – one in five people that head for the summit are said to ‘fail’.
The answer to that question only becomes apparent when, much struggling, swearing and crying later, you stand on the Roof of Africa, 5,895m above sea level. It is then, amid all the hugging and hand-shaking, that you can finally appreciate the other pleasures of ‘doing Kili’.
The joys of strolling through the mountain’s four main eco-zones, from sultry forest to windswept alpine desert. The blissful evenings spent scoffing popcorn and gazing at the stars with your fellow trekkers. And the esprit de corps that builds between you and your crew as you progress up the slopes. It is for these reasons that 40,000 people a year attempt to climb Kilimanjaro.
So here’s our guide to taking it on, from the choice of routes to the summit, to getting physically and mentally fit for the task ahead. Deep breath... OK, let’s go.
Pick the right time and route
Your attempt to climb Kilimanjaro should begin months before you set foot in Africa. The success of your trip depends to a large degree on making the right decisions from the get-go – and to make the right decisions, you need to learn about the mountain.
Decide when you want to climb. In terms of weather, January to February and June to October are the best months, with February and September particularly fine (though the latter can be very busy, too). April-May and November are the months to avoid, corresponding with Tanzania’s two rainy seasons – though it’s still possible to climb at these times.
Next, decide which route you want to take up the mountain, by researching online and reading guidebooks (try Trailblazer’s Kilimanjaro Trekking Guide). There are six main routes, each with their own character, plus a few variations such as a final ascent via the notorious Western Breach Route. The options vary in length, cost and scenery – pick the one that’s right for you.
Marangu Route | Approximate length: 70km | Days: 5-6
Marangu is one of the shorter ways up, allowing less time for acclimatisation. It has a reputation for being ‘easy’ (it’s not) but success rates are comparably low (perhaps because the more ill-prepared flock to it).
It’s the only route with dormitory-style hut accommodation – all the others are camping only – which makes it cheaper as fewer porters are required.
Lemosho & Shira Routes | Length: 70km/56k | Days: 7-8
Lemosho is the longest and arguably most beautiful route, with sumptuous forest on the lower slopes and great views across the Shira Plateau to the Kibo summit on days two to four. It was designed to replace the almost defunct Shira Route, now largely a 4WD track used by emergency vehicles.
Machame Route | Length: 62km | Days: 6-7
Machame is now the busiest route – indeed, too busy – but has a good success rate (about 80% plus). The extra day (when compared to Marangu) allows for better acclimatisation. It’s an attractive route, traversing Kili’s flanks, climbing from the mountain’s lush south-western side. In clear weather, the peak is a constant, looming companion from the end of the first day. Like Lemosho and Umbwe, on Machame you could choose to reach the summit from Kibo’s Western side on the Western Breach Route.
Umbwe Route | Length: 53km | Days: 5-6
Umbwe is steeper than Machame, and renowned as both the quietest and hardest route on the mountain. The views are incredible, and there are pretty sections through flower-scattered woodland. Despite the difficulty, it has a descent summit success rate – but perhaps because its difficulty deters all but the hardiest of trekkers.
Rongai Route | Length: 80km | Days: 6-7
Formerly little-used, the Rongai route is growing ever more popular. It’s unique in coming from the north and the border with Kenya, as opposed to the south, though this makes the start-point a long way from the Kili hub towns of Moshi and Arusha. It offers different – and stunning – mountain views, as well as better wildlife-spotting.
Your trekking crew is all-important
Take your time when choosing who to travel with – and it’s compulsory to find a tour operator, as you’re not permitted to climb Kilimanjaro independently. Read online reviews, ask lots of questions, and find out as much as you can about what the company will provide, what their service is like and their safety procedures. Ask if they can put you in touch with previous trekkers.
Don’t go for the cheaper companies: they have to make a profit somehow, which usually means cutting costs by reducing the quality of service they provide or by exploiting the people that work for them.
Climbing means legwork
First, the good news: you don’t actually need to be super-fit to climb Kilimanjaro. The main reason why people fail to reach the summit is due to altitude sickness (see below) rather than a lack of necessary strength or stamina.
That said, the trek will be more enjoyable for you the fitter you are, so pre-trip training will help. A typical daily exercise programme for Kilimanjaro should be started about four months before your climb and include plenty of aerobic exercise such as jogging, cycling, climbing stairs or brisk walking. Start off with 30 minutes a day if possible, and build from there.
Leg-strengthening exercises are useful (see box, right, for examples). However, nothing is better preparation than going for a long walk – it’s excellent aerobic exercise, great for strengthening leg muscles and, if the walk is long enough and involves uphills, can be great for improving stamina too.
Even better, take a walk in a mountain region. This will give you a good idea of how your body copes with the lack of air pressure. If you do this a couple of weeks before climbing Kili, it will aid with the acclimatisation process. Many people climb Mount Meru – Tanzania’s second-highest mountain at 4,566m and only 60km from Kili – for this very reason; it’s a beautiful three/four day hike, too.
Coping with the lows of the highs
Read up on altitude illnesses so you’re able to spot the symptoms. Most people will suffer from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) to some degree, whether it be ‘just’ a headache or nausea/vomiting, or more serious symptoms such as a loss of coordination, or difficulty with breathing, even at rest.
Acetazolamide (brand name: Diamox) is a drug that fights altitude illnesses. Many medical experts were initially sceptical about Diamox, unsure if it actually helped to fight AMS or merely masked the symptoms. Various clinical trials in the Himalayas and Andes have shown that it is an effective drug for combating AMS, though it does not work if people ascend at crazy rates. You'll need to consult a doctor to obtain a prescription for Diamox and can then discuss the risks and benefits; people who are allergic to sulphur drugs will also be allergic to Diamox.
You should also pack some throat pastilles (sore throats are common on Kili), antiseptic and plasters (including blister plasters), painkillers, rehydration powders, sunscreen, lip salve or chapstick, antiseptic handwash and a small bar of soap. Although your crew should boil all drinking water, take some water purification tablets, too.
Bye-bye comfort zone...
You need to prepare yourself mentally for climbing Kilimanjaro. It’s one thing to fail to reach the summit due to altitude sickness, but quite another to fail from attitude sickness. Are you ready for the hardships? The cold, cold nights sleeping under canvas, the changeable weather, the exhaustion, the lack of creature comforts, the horror of the long-drop loos? If you’re going to reach the summit you need to be ready to embrace all of these.
Exercise those ears
You’ve booked your trek, bought your flights, got all the gear and spent months in the gym honing your body into its current supreme physical condition – don’t undo all that good work by being careless on the trail. Listen to your mountain guide and do what he tells you.
The most common phrase you’ll hear on Kili is polé polé – ‘slowly slowly’ in Swahili – a mantra repeated regularly to ensure people walk as slowly as possible, in order to give their bodies a chance to acclimatise to the rarefied air.
Eat plenty, too, particularly carbohydrates and high-protein food, and drink at least three litres of water a day – even if you don’t feel like doing either. This will help you to stave off AMS and increase your chances of getting to the summit.
Remember to enjoy yourself
While there are plenty of hardships to endure – and even some danger to avoid – there’s also an enormous amount of pleasure to derive from climbing Africa’s highest mountain. Concentrating on the positives will not only make the trek more enjoyable, it will also help to spur you on to the summit.
You’ll have the opportunity to spot some unique flora and fauna, from monkeys and mice to elephants and eland. You’ll get sumptuous views, both towards the summit and down towards the plains of Kenya and Tanzania. And you’ll feel a warm sense of camaraderie, spending an intense few days with people from different cultures, be it your fellow trekkers or the hard-working guides and porters. Lastly, the overwhelming sense of achievement you’ll feel, should you reach the summit, will make it perhaps the most memorable – and, yes, even enjoyable – trip of your life.
Yes, the climb up Kibo – the snow-topped crater that is the highest point of Kilimanjaro – is steep. It’s also bitterly cold. But it’s a unique chance to test yourself against all that nature can throw at you.
The final summit push is usually undertaken during the night – expect to set off around midnight. Unless you book your trek to coincide your summit attempt with the full moon (a good idea), the only thing you’ll see for much of the ascent is the circle of ground lit up by your headtorch.
The altitude will account for some trekkers, exhaustion and injury for others. But all being well, at around 5am you’ll arrive on the crater rim, and the actual summit itself, Uhuru Peak, finally hoves into view.
Your work isn’t quite done – there are several false summits to negotiate. But, all being well, by the time the sun appears, you’ll be standing at Uhuru Peak, by that famous old wooden sign, 5,895m above sea level, with an overwhelming sense of pride, wearing the biggest grin of your life.
Henry Stedman is the author of Kilimanjaro: The Trekking Guide (Trailblazer, 2009).