By Octavia Drughi
Each year, around 25,000 people travel to Tanzania in the hope of reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. It is on top of many adventure seekers’ bucket-list. Is it on yours as well?
The symmetrical snow-capped volcanic cone is synonymous with Africa and is all about superlatives – the world’s largest freestanding mountain rises in perfect isolation above Tanzania’s open plains and savannas. You’d be surprised that Mount Kilimanjaro is not considered a technical climb. This is because you don’t need an oxygen tank, ropes or prior technical climbing experience. Especially when compared to the world’s tallest and deadliest mountains, it is fairly accessible for the average trekker. But it’s not exactly a walk in the park either! You might want to think twice before taking on the challenge, so here are some aspects to consider before deciding whether climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is an adventure you ought to pursue:
An introduction to Mount Kilimanjaro
Photo by Kyle Taylor
In northern Tanzania, at the border with Kenya, the Kilimanjaro National Park is home to the largest freestanding volcanic mass in the world. Rising 19,341 ft (5,895 m), Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain on the African continent, which also makes it one of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each of the seven continents). It consists of three volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. The summit, Uhuru Peak, is found on Kibo, a dormant but not extinct volcano, its last volcanic activity having occurred some 200 years ago.
Uhuru Peak, Mount Kilimanjaro
There are seven major routes to the summit, which take anywhere between four to eight days. However, the success rate depends on the number of days spent on the trek. The more days, the better you will be acclimatized. Five-day routes have a far lower success rate than eight-day routes.
The Marangu Route is the only route on the mountain with hut accommodation, which makes it one of the most popular. It is also the shortest and the most crowded. It can be completed in five days, but climbers are advised to take an extra day to acclimatize at Horombo Hut in order to increase their chances of reaching the summit.
According to statistics from the Kilimanjaro National Park, around 50 percent of climbers choose the Machame Route to get to Uhuru Peak. The route is indeed scenic, passing through varying landscapes. It is, however, more difficult than others, as climbers are faced with the Barranco Wall, which they must climb on day four of the trek. No climbing skills are required, as the wall is often described as climbing a staircase, but a good fitness level and mental preparation will help you feel much more at ease during the climb.
Foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro – Photo by Katie (alaskahokie)
As with most high mountains, training, planning and careful preparation are key. Before the 1990s, you could just head down to the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro with nothing but a good old pair of boots, a backpack and some crackers, and attempt the summit on your own. Since 1991, it is compulsory to sign up with an agency if you wish to climb Kili, as it is affectionately called. The agency will provide a guide, porters and a cook. Food is usually healthy and wholesome, and vegans/vegetarians can easily be catered for as long as they give the agency notice in advance. The national language is Swahili, but up on the mountain, you will hear Kichagga, spoken by the Chagga people. English is spoken among the guides and the more educated crewmembers.
Porters on Mount Kilimanjaro – Photo by Mouser Williams
Kindly note that signing up with a company does not guarantee your success. The average time to complete the trek is six days, which is quite short for a mountain this tall, but the trails are steep and you should prepare yourself months in advance, both physically and mentally. Physical endurance is a must, but mental stamina is even more important. After all, you will be trekking 5 to 10 miles (8 to 16 km) each day.
You don’t have to be a marathoner, but you should be an active person. Short runs through the park, long walks, a little bit of mountaineering will help you get prepared for the challenge ahead. The idea is to increase lung capacity. Still, being fit does not mean you will not have trouble with altitude sickness. That’s a whole different story…
The Milky Way from Barranco Camp, 12,795 ft (3,900 m) – Photo by sama093
The altitude is not to be messed with. In fact, it is the thin air that often stands between mountaineers and the summit. Acute mountain sickness (AMS), also known as altitude sickness, is triggered when going too fast to high altitudes, not giving the body enough time to acclimatize and adapt. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea and nasty headaches, all caused by the lack of oxygen. Walking slowly and spending more time in each camp helps prevent acute symptoms. Altitude sickness is nothing to joke about, as it can lead to pulmonary or cerebral edema, which can prove fatal.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – Photo by Fredi Bach
I’m sure we all associate Africa with sunny days and warm weather. Mount Kilimanjaro is here to tell you otherwise. It inspired Ernest Hemingway’s short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, written 1938 after having been on a safari in Tanzania, in which he questions morality and philosophy, even his own existence as a writer. Contrary to the title, it is not as snow-covered as one would expect. Nevertheless, the weather can be tricky.
Changing weather on Mount Kilimanjaro – Photo by Fredi Bach
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro will take you from 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) to under 20 Fahrenheit (-7 Celsius) up on its alpine meadows, with strong winds making matters even worse. This will make you put on layers over layers of clothes. Still, you must make sure you don’t pack too many, as there is a limited weight and volume porters will carry.
Best months for trekking are January through mid-March and June to October. March, April and November are the wettest months. The cold season usually lasts between December and May, and snow levels are at their highest between November and May.
Why climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
Sunset on Mount Kilimanjaro – Photo by Fredi Bach
This is a matter of personal choice and you are the only one fit to answer this question. If you are a mountaineer, climber, or simply someone who has always dreamed of reaching the summit, then, by all means, go for it! Other things you might enjoy, or at least find interesting, are:
- Encountering strange animals that are simply out of this world.
- Experiencing four different seasons in one week.
- Reaching a serious altitude.
- Taking amazing photographs while crossing farmlands, lush rainforests, alpine meadows and lunar landscapes.
- Watching incredible sunsets.
Should you think twice?
Barafu Huts camp, 15,357 ft (4,681m) – Photo by Stig Nygaard
Yes! No matter your training and dreams, you should think twice. Adventure-addicts might think of it as a perfect getaway, but remember this is not your average holiday. If you’re looking to relax, forget about it! It might not be a difficult summit, but you will have to fight for it!
It is estimated that between three to seven people die each year on Mount Kilimanjaro, mainly due to acute mountain sickness, falls and hypothermia. Altitude sickness and poor physical and mental training cause hundreds to abandon the trails each year. Not to mention the air will get thinner as you go higher, it will be uncomfortable, even painful at times, and you may have second thoughts.
Glacier on Mount Kilimanjaro – Photo by Mouser Williams
You might not reach the summit, and you have to be okay with that. Most people who do not make it to Uhuru claim they still enjoyed the trek. But disappointment can easily creep in, and you must be prepared to face it. Even if you do reach the summit, you might still experience nausea, dizziness, dehydration, diarrhea and other nasty symptoms that can make the experience pretty painful.
Reaching the summit of a baffling natural wonder, a snow-capped mountain at the Equator can become more than just a dream. As long as you do not underestimate the challenge and are ready to step out of your comfort zone, you too can place your foot on the roof of Africa.
Octavia is a travel writer for BookAllSafaris.com. She is a passionate mountaineer, tree hugger and adventure addict who believes every living creature deserves care and respect.