What greater adventure can there be than to summit the continent’s highest peak? David Bristow reveals everything you need to know about planning this epic climb. Photographs by Laura Griffith-Jones
At 5895 metres (or 19,341ft) high, Kilimanjaro — or kilima-njaro (meaning ‘mountain’ of ‘whiteness’) — is famously the highest peak in Africa and the world’s tallest freestanding mountain. As a result, it is also one of the most climbed, and you can expect to see troops of other trekkers just about every day of the year. Given the human pressure on the delicate montane ecosystem, it is as important to be gentle on your surroundings as it is to look after yourself. Climbing to the summit is no mean feat: it’s a challenging hike and a great (if not the greatest) African adventure.
Routes and scenery
The most popular paths up to the crater rim are the Marangu (or Coca-Cola) and the Machame (or Champagne) routes. The former has huts but the latter does not; instead, it’s camping all the way.
Unless you are a sucker for punishment, porters carry all your equipment and food, and guides lead the group. These guys have each climbed the mountain hundreds (if not thousands) of times and not only know the way but also the metaphorical ‘ropes’. Their mantra is ‘pole-pole’ (meaning ‘slowly’, not ‘slowly, slowly’). The more time you take, the better you will acclimatise. For more on this, turn to the Altitude and Attitude section.
The trek usually takes five days up and two down, and since the shape of the mountain is a parabola it becomes steeper as you ascend. You start above the skirt of farmlands at the park gate (around 1000m) and trek through the afro-montane forest zone for the whole of the first day. Take it in leisurely, as it is a truly magical, otherworldly ecosystem. By evening you enter the heathlands (at 2800m), often covered in mist – cloud really. Above these moorlands comes the afro-alpine zone (up to 4000m), with short heaths and giant lobelias and groundsels; this is known as botanical gigantism and is pretty weird but wonderful, especially in the shadowy light.
Next comes the alpine desert (up to 5000m), extremely dry and covered by glacial ice in times past, where very little lives. The highest bivouac is known as Barafu (meaning ‘ice’) Camp. There is no longer ice there, but it is definitely icy. For the final ascent, you will be woken before midnight. Try to eat and drink something before setting off in the penumbral light of an army of head torches, crunching on the frozen ground.
It’s a tough haul from there to the crater rim (at around 5000m), which you are scheduled to reach at the magical hour of sunrise, altitude sickness dependent. This is not Uhuru Peak, however, which is another hour or two away, depending on your route.
Clothing and kit
Preparing for my first Kilimanjaro trek, I read in an English guidebook that in good conditions you could reach the top in just a few sweaters and a tweed jacket. Well, I’ve been there and I nearly froze my mealie off, as we say in Africa. I found one woman who was wearing fair-weather gloves sitting in the snow crying. I lent her a pair of proper mountaineering gloves and she summited with me. My point being, do not underestimate this or any other high mountain. Some days on Uhuru Peak might be temperate but others can be downright polar.
You also need to be prepared for desiccating humidity and heat on the first day, until you reach the heath zone, which is similar to the Scottish Highlands. Beyond that, you need to start layering. Be sure to wear modern performance fabrics that wick away moisture or you’ll end up a frozen icicle. You need a good thermal base layer — top and bottom — and over that another thermal top and tough trousers. I’d suggest a third layer, such as a down jacket, and a windproof, and preferably also waterproof, outer shell. When I was up there we were in a whiteout with buffeting gales and a severe wind-chill factor. I wore a balaclava, ski goggles and inner and outer gloves, and needed every performance fibre in them. Gaiters and proper mountain boots are also recommended and double socks are a must. Don’t risk not summiting for want of an extra pair of socks!
Altitude and attitude
Altitude sickness is serious. The people most likely not to make it to the summit are endurance athletes. They can barely stop themselves racing up the lower slopes, thus preventing their bodies from adjusting.
Everyone will experience it to some degree, once they get above around 3000m. Typically, you will have a nagging headache, lose your appetite and might feel nauseous. The best way to combat this is to climb slowly, allowing yourself time to acclimatise — so relax and enjoy the stunning beauty of the mountain.
Another option is drugs. There are various pharmaceuticals available that either mask or reduce the effects, starting with the humble headache pill. So long as you don’t overdo the dosage this will make the journey more enjoyable. Diamox is an antidiuretic that alleviates the cause, which is liquid build-up in places such as your lungs, your eyes (the cause of the headaches) and your brain. These little pills can turn a laborious experience into an uplifting one. Beyond that there are steroids such as Decadron that do much the same thing, but consult a doctor before venturing into that realm.
Although climbing Kilimanjaro is accessible to anyone, some level of fitness is required so training is recommended, although it is not compulsory. People die on the mountain just about every year, so listen to your body and trust your guides. They are well trained and will keep a close eye on you.
In the past Kilimanjaro has been one of the most abused mountains in the world, with wanton forest clearing for firewood and no adequate toilet facilities or means of waste disposal. However, starting around two decades ago, outfitters such as Wild Frontiers, in conjunction with Tanzanian National Parks, began to organise and pay for a slow cleanup, which has had an amazing effect on the area. This, along with the banning of fires for cooking and warmth, as well as the education of trekkers and staff, has led to effective management. Today, all rubbish taken up must come down. National Parks provides basic long-drop toilets at the campsites but all supplies, including water, have to be carried up. Generally, a ‘basin wash’ has to suffice, although some companies do provide private chemical toilets at extra cost.
Logistics and crews
There are many operators to choose from, so you need to ensure they are bona fide. Ask other climbers, check reviews online and ask the company leading questions, such as what conservation or community organisation they support.
Moreover, the price can be a give-away: any operator offering ascents for less than around US$120 per day (over and above the statutory park fees) must be cutting corners. Climbs are potentially dangerous so you want to know that your crew is well paid, looked after and happy. As someone wisely said, no one buys a cheap parachute. Unfortunately, porters are often underpaid and overworked so be sure not to contribute to this problem.
A good way of knowing whether your company treats its staff well is if it is a member of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP). This worthy organisation is committed to improving the working conditions of the crews on Kilimanjaro: it selects its partners carefully and monitors them to ensure they are following the Guidelines for Proper Porter Treatment. Read more about this in Kili Voices below.
Tips are not meant to replace fair salaries but are a reward for service. Any decent operator can supply a breakdown of how the team should be thanked and the money should be given in an open manner at the end of the climb. It is worth noting that being a guide, cook or porter is regarded as a well-paid, honourable career and many of the crews have done this job for more than fifteen years. Generally speaking, a stronger, happier, more responsible and reliable bunch of people is hard to find. Of course, if you don’t want to lug your kit home, donations of gear will certainly be welcomed.
John Addison, Wild Frontiers
“Climbing Kilimanjaro is not just an adventure. It may start off as this, but for many it is a spiritual quest. It is said that ‘God lives in the mountains’. The feeling of being above the clouds, high enough to see the curvature of Earth, is humbling and levelling.”
Gavin Bate, Adventure Alternative
“Described as the Everyman’s Everest, Kilimanjaro is the most achievable of the Seven Summits. But what an inspiring introduction to trekking at altitude! There are many routes through the cultivated lower slopes, forest, across the lava plateau and above the clouds. The great views of the smaller Mount Meru and glaciers from the summit make the climb to Uhuru Peak even more worthwhile.”
Ake Lindstrom, Hoopoe Safaris
“Climbing Kilimanjaro is one of the definitive mountain experiences, but my advice is to acclimatise. This can be done on Mount Meru or in the Ngorongoro Highlands if you’d like to turn your adventure into something more than just ‘bagging’ a summit.”
Karen Valenti, KPAP
“With so many tour companies, choosing one can be daunting. The International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC), a US nonprofit organisation, created the Partnership for Responsible Travel Program to recognise those operators truly committed to the fair treatment of mountain crews. All are invited to participate in the program and work with IMEC’s local initiative, the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), to ensure proper practices. KPAP’s partners consistently perform better in meeting the treatment guidelines. So play your part by booking through a socially responsible company.”
• Getting there Kenya Airways, Turkish Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines all fly to Kilimanjaro Airport from the UK, with a stopover in Nairobi, Istanbul or Addis Ababa. From there it’s an hour’s drive to the mountain.
• Where to stay Depending on which route you do and which operator you pick you will be staying in huts or sleeping in tents. There are also several hotels and campsites in the village of Marangu and the nearby town of Moshi.
• When to go The clearest and warmest conditions are from December to February. The months of July to September are also dry but expect
it to be bitterly cold at altitude.
• Further reading Good books to read before, during or after your climb include Kilimanjaro: The Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain by Henry Stedman, Bradt’s Tanzania Safari Guide (7th Edition) by Chris McIntyre and Kilimanjaro by John Reader.