Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
At 5895 metres, Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa. Situated in the far north of Tanzania, close to the Kenyan border, Mount Kilimanjaro dominates the surrounding terrain. With its permanently snow-capped summit, it has long been a source of fascination for travellers.
The first recorded sighting of the mountain dates back some seven hundred years. Chinese fisherman wrote of a white peak on the African coastline. By the 17th Century, Europeans were using the mountain as a navigational aid. Even so, reports by the East India Company in the 1880s of a glacial summit existing in an equatorial zone were treated with some scepticism in Britain. Only when an expedition was launched in 1889 were the original reports confirmed, as the first Europeans ascended the mountain. One hundred years later, in 1989, a celebration was held to mark the centenary of this event. Incredibly, the guest of honour was the original local guide. He was 118 years old.
After Tanzania achieved its independence in 1961, Kilimanjaro was transformed into a National Park. Covering some 7500 square kilometres, it is now listed as a World Heritage Site. Thousands of tourists flock to the park each year determined to conquer the most famous mountain on the African continent. For many of them, it will be the hardest thing they ever do.
Kilimanjaro is not a climbing mountain. That is what makes it so appealing to the amateur. There are very few places on the conventional route which require you to use your hands as well as your feet. Mostly, it is just an uphill trek and any reasonably fit person stands an even chance of reaching the summit. Of those who set out, roughly two thirds reach Gilman's Point, at 5681 metres, and about half reach Uhuru, the actual summit. Altitude is largely responsible for the high number of failures. It is this which makes climbing Mount Kilimanjaro such a challenge.
The effects of altitude are well documented. Lack of air pressure causes tiredness and breathing difficulties. Reduced amounts of oxygen in the blood starve the brain, causing headaches, nausea and - in extreme circumstances - death. To minimize these effects, it is important to give the body time to acclimatize. It may technically be possible to run up and down the mountain in less than a day, but it would be extremely foolish to do so. A few people die each year on Kilimanjaro through underestimating the dangers of altitude. The golden rule is take your time. If you begin to feel sick, come down. As long as you are prepared to heed the warnings of your own body, you are unlikely to come to any harm.
There are several different routes to the summit. The Marangu trail (also known as the 'coca cola' route) is by far the easiest. This is the way most people choose to go. It is a five-day trek, up and down, but there are three purpose-built camps along the way.
Another, more difficult route, is the Mauau. This meets up with the Marangu path at the highest camp. There are no facilities available for the first two days on the Mauau trail. You will have to sleep rough, under canvas. Luckily, porters will be on hand to carry and set up the tents.
You are not permitted to climb Kilimanjaro independently.
First Things First
Before setting off for the mountain, you will need to obtain a permit. There are numerous tour companies in Arusha and Moshi1 that can arrange this on your behalf. You can contact them directly on arrival in Tanzania, or you can go through a travel agent at home. The tour company will arrange a guide and porters on your behalf. They can often arrange trips at very short notice, but if you want to be sure of a place it is better to book in advance. There are strict limits on the number of people allowed on the mountain at any one time.
When To Go
The greatest number of tourists visit Kilimanjaro during the dry season, in July and August. At this time, tropical rainfall is scarce and the temperature is tolerable by equatorial standards. If you wish to avoid the crowds, June and September are also ideal.
Clothing is very important. As your guide will tell you, Mount Kilimanjaro National Park contains practically every environment known to man. You may start the ascent in shorts and a t-shirt but you will finish it dressed for an Antarctic expedition. Some kind of hat or balaclava is therefore essential. You will need thick woollen socks, warm gloves and a decent pair of hiking boots. Trousers and overcoats for the latter stages need to be waterproof and wind resistant as well as comfortable and warm. Sunglasses are also a must, or skiing goggles if you prefer.
All this need not cost an arm and a leg. Most local tour companies will happily loan you clothing, for a small fee. And don't worry about carrying it all. The porters will transport most of your luggage for you. That said, be careful not to over-pack - the porters have a hard enough job as it is. You can usually leave valuables and unnecessary clothing at your hotel or with the tour company. All you need carry yourself is a water bottle, some lunch and a camera to take photographs along the way. A small day-pack will suffice to carry these, and if you get too hot and need to take off some clothing, it will you give somewhere to store them.
A good torch is a necessity. You will also need plenty of sun block. This might seem bizarre in a near polar environment, when temperatures can be -20° or lower, but the sun is a real hazard. The higher you get, the more damage it can do. By the time of your final ascent, most of your body will be covered up in any case, but parts of your face will still be on show, and if you do not protect your skin you may suffer severe burns. One h2g2 Researcher ignored this advice and was in agony for days afterwards.
Arriving at Marangu Gate - assuming you are travelling the Marangu route - your baggage is separated into what you will be carrying and what the porters will be carrying. You can rent climbing sticks here, which many people find useful. A short introduction to the mountain is given and then you will be officially signed in to the park - a written record is kept of everyone who climbs the mountain, to make sure no-one gets lost along the way.
The first camp is approximately seven kilometres from Marangu Gate. The trail here passes through dense tropical rain forest. The gradient varies from almost flat to 45°, but it is a comfortable walk and good practice if you are not as fit as you would like to be. There is no need to rush, though. As said, the slower you go, the more easily your body adjusts to the change in altitude.
The first day's trek will take between three and five hours. You begin the ascent at around 2000 metres and rise approximately 700 more to the primary camp.
Mandara Hut is a collection of triangular buildings on a gentle gradient. These are quite basic and collectively can sleep about 80 people. There is also a communal dining area. You will need to sign in on arrival and show your permits. A useful trick, if you are worried about altitude, is to move on past the camp a little and climb back down. This is supposed to aid acclimatization. At the very least, it improves your chances of getting a good night's sleep.
Wrap up warm when you go to bed. It can get bitterly cold, even at this low level. If there are any clouds in the sky, you are probably already above them.
Mandara to Horombo. This is an 11-kilometre trek. The rain forest here gradually gives way to burnt grassland, speckled with darkened bushes and the husks of fire-ravaged trees. The trail is slightly easier here than on the first day, though it will take longer - between five and seven hours for most people. You will catch your first sight of the summit along the way, so make sure you have your camera with you in your day-pack.
The altitude will probably have begun to affect you by the time you reach Horombo camp, which is 3700 metres above sea level. If you are lucky, you will not be suffering from headaches or giddiness, but the tiredness you feel on arrival is far greater than you would experience covering a similar distance in Snowdonia.
Some people opt to stay in Horombo for more than one night. This is to aid acclimatization. You will have to decide in advance whether you wish to do this. There is not much to do at the camp for an extra day, besides a brief trip to see a volcanic crater, but the extra time at this level will certainly increase your chances of reaching the top. If your group splits, it will also give you the pleasure of seeing your companions coming back down as you are preparing to make your final ascent. Try to ignore the haunted look in their eyes.
The next and final camp is Kibo. It is a ten-kilometre walk from the second camp and is another thousand metres up. The journey to Kibo is probably the easiest of the treks so far. The rocky, bush-speckled terrain that leads up to the last water pointn (the point where the plumbing gives out because of the sheer cold) soon gives way to open desert and the gradient here is barely noticeable. Do not be tempted to increase your pace. Take it easy. If altitude has not affected you so far, this is where it will begin to kick in.
In comparison to Horomobo, Kibo is a very small camp. There is basically one large building with several dormitories, and a lodge for the porters. After dinner you retire early. You will need all your strength for the next part of the climb.
This is the difficult one. At midnight, barely five hours after you have gone to bed, your guide will enter the dormitory and wake the group. Not that you will be asleep. The cold and the altitude make that virtually impossible.
After some sweet tea and popcorn - the ideal energy givers - the group will make its way out into the freezing night and begin the final ascent. This is where you will need your torch. The head guide leads the way. A second guide usually brings up the rear of the group. The porters will be spaced at regular intervals along the rest of the line. For the next six or seven hours, virtually the only thing you will see is the feet of the person in front of you.
A long train of people begins to snake its way up the steep scree. This is far, far steeper than anything that has come before. Your ascent will be an elongated zigzag, not just because of the difficulty in finding a footing in the fine dust but again to minimize the dangers of altitude.
The higher you climb, the more each step begins to take out of you. It quickly becomes a real test of endurance. Even if you are one of the lucky ones who does not suffer from headaches or nausea, you will still need determination and sheer bloody-mindedness to continue as the physical exertion begins to take it toll. And though there are plenty of stops to help you catch your breath, these are a double edged sword. The temperature at this altitude is difficult to describe. Any heat you build up through moving will vanish completely the instant you stand still. Those foolish enough to sit down have real difficulty standing back up again. If you can find a rock, prop yourself up against that instead. As the minutes stretch into hours and the hours seem to stretch into days, the urge to simply give up becomes almost unbearable. Your head will be throbbing and your body will be screaming at you to stop. Understandably, some people in the group will not be able to bear this and will decide to call it a day. When the sickness strikes, there is no sensible alternative. The porters are on hand to escort people back to Kibo hut when necessary.
As the night gives way to the light of early morning, you begin to notice the streaks of ice stretching down the mountain either side of you. You are closing in on the glacial area. As the sun pokes its head above the horizon, you can at last gaze back down at the speck in the distance which you left some hours before. But the day has only just begun, and now - for practically the first time - you have to do some real climbing. The scree is coming to an end and huge boulders loom above you.
Pulling yourself up onto Gilman's Point a while later, you will rightfully feel a sense of achievement and euphoria. Reaching here, you have officially climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and will receive a certificate saying so. It is a perfectly rational thing to take your photographs, shake the guide by the hand and make your way back down the mountain. There is only ice in any other direction, and the water in your bottle has probably already frozen solid; you are unlikely to get another swig out of it until you begin your descent.
However, Gilman's Point is not the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Uhuru is only some 300 metres higher up, but it also lies a couple of kilometres around the rim of a crater. It can take up to an hour to reach. This may not sound like much, but the sheer exhaustion you will feel on reaching Gilman's Point will be a strong incentive to discontinue. And it is important to remember that you also have to come all the way back. Occasionally, if some of the group decide to descend, the guide will exaggerate the time it will take to reach Uhuru, to dissuade you from carrying on. Do not let this put you off. It may seem insane at the time, but if you are up to it, you are unlikely to regret the decision. And not many people get a second chance.
It is all ice from hereon in. The terrain goes down as much as up - meaning an equally difficult journey back to Gilman's. At this stage it is sheer will power that keeps your body moving. You will have long since ceased to feel anything. The remainder of your group will be shambling forwards like zombies.
When you finally reach Uhuru - a disappointing gravel tennis court amidst the beauty of the ice - you are unlikely to experience anything except a deep desire to lie down and have a rest. Whatever you do, don't. Your guide will have a panic attack. People have been known to fall asleep at these altitudes and not wake up. You will go through the motions, taking photographs of the signpost, writing your name in a rather tatty book stored in a metal box in the centre of the gravel, and will stare dazedly at the horizon.
Before you know it you are beginning your descent.
This is not a short climb back to Kibo, the small camp you left eight or nine hours previously. You will be descending all the way to Horombo, the second camp, which is more than two thousand metres below Uhuru. There is no choice in this. There are not enough beds at Kibo to support people coming down as well as going up. So having risen at midnight, having had no sleep, you will have to continue walking well into the afternoon.
Descending the scree is the easiest part. It is like moon-walking, dust and all, though it can be a little hard on your ankles. But you will be too tired to enjoy it. By the time you reach Kibo, and have had something to drink, all you will want to do is sleep. Feel free to miss the evening meal.
A leisurely descent to the bottom of the mountain. You will sign out at the gate and be presented with your certificate. It is customary to tip the guide and the porters - and thoughtful, as the porters in particular are very badly paid. Do not feel obliged, however. It is a matter for the individual. Then, in your delirium, you might wish to buy an 'I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro' t-shirt before piling into a minibus and returning to your hotel. If you are staying in a hostel there might be a fight for the showers, to wash off the accumulated dust and grime of several days, before you are able to descend at last into a long, dreamless sleep.
Like many of the most worthwhile activities in life, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is not easy or pleasant. It is a test of endurance, which is far more enjoyable in retrospect than it is at the time. But do not be put off. If you want to climb a real mountain but have no knowledge of mountaineering, give Kilimanjaro a go. If nothing else, it will give you something to boast about for years afterwards.