With its peak at 5 895 metres above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is the highest mountain in Africa. It rises approximately 4 900 metres from its base, and its ascent is on many a Bucket List.
Kilimanjaro consists of three volcanic cones – Mawenzi, Shira and Kibo. While Mawenzi (5 149 m) and Shira (4 005 m) are dormant, Kibo (5 895 m) is still active, meaning it could erupt again. The last volcanic activity of Kibo is thought to have been 150 000 to 200 000 years ago.
The highest point, Uhuru Peak, is the aim for trekkers wanting to see the ‘Roof of Africa’.
Despite its proximity to the equator, the upper reaches of Kilimanjaro remain icy throughout the year, so careful packing of the correct gear for both the tropical base and the arctic temperatures of the summit is necessary.
The long rains usually fall between March and May and the short rains around November/December. Ascending Kili during the rainy season is generally not advised as it can be more risky and very uncomfortable and cold.
As you climb, the weather changes. Starting at the base in humid, tropical forest (average daytime temp: 30°C), you quickly emerge onto higher ground and the plateau with its (seasonal) wild flowers and pleasantly cool temperatures (5-15°C). Soon the temperature drops and the vegetation becomes sparse. The summit can reach temperatures of as low as -20°C. Talk about four seasons in one day!
Who Can Climb Kili
Anyone can climb Kili with the right preparation, level of fitness and determination. While you don’t need to be an elite athlete, a good level of fitness is required – you’ll be covering 50 to 60 km uphill, walking at least five to seven hours per day (and up to 16 hours on the day of summit!) through highly variable weather conditions, so it’s not a trip to be taken lightly.
Unguided climbs of Kili are not allowed and the trips offered by ABS include porters who will carry your backpack up the mountain, leaving you to carry only your day pack. There are strict limits to the weight of your luggage as it''ll all be carried up by people! Don’t forget to bring enough money to tip these incredibly fit and strong men. See our Tipping Guide.
One of the hardest things about climbing Kili is the very real risk of Altitude Sickness (also called Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS). As you ascend to greater altitudes, the air gets ‘thinner’. Basically, there’s less oxygen and air pressure is lower. This leads to increased respiratory rate and may, in extreme cases, lead to pulmonary and/or cardiac oedema (build-up of fluid in the lungs and/or heart), which can be fatal.
There is no way to predict whether or not you’ll suffer from AMS. The main way of preventing it is to ascend relatively slowly, giving your body time to acclimatise. If you start developing symptoms, which include headache, nausea, lack of appetite, increased pulse rate, insomnia, swelling of the hands and feet, reduced urine output and weakness or exhaustion, the guide needs to be notified immediately. Descending to a lower altitude can reverse AMS in its beginning stages.
Other measures to minimise the risk of AMS include:
- Maintain a slow and steady pace from day one i.e. ‘climb high, sleep low’
- Include an extra day for acclimatisation
- Drink plenty of water while climbing
- Preventative medicine is available and may be considered. Consult your doctor before leaving
Mount Kilimanjaro has seven main routes of ascent. These are all well-established. ABS currently offers trips that ascend three of the routes – Machame, Lemosho and Marangu – but we’ll cover all seven in this blog.
All of the routes are incredible, and each has its own pro’s and con’s. The decision as to which one to take must be made taking a number of factors into consideration. These include:
- Physical ability and fitness level
- Aptitude and hiking/mountaineering skill
- Comfort level
- What you’re wanting to get out of the climb
Relatively new, this beautiful and remote route starts at the Londorossi Gate on the western slopes of Kili. It goes up to the Shira Plateau and, on day three, joins the Machame Route, transversing the Barranco Wall and summiting from Barafu Camp.
While the Barranco Wall looks incredibly daunting, with 257 m of rocky wall to climb, slow and careful 4-limbed scrambling is all that’s needed to climb it. Depending on your fitness level, it’ll take about an hour or two.
Ascent is from Barafu Camp and the descent is made down the Mweka Route.
This is the only route that may be accompanied by armed guides for the first day as you may be lucky enough to see wild animals, including elephant and buffalo.
One of the more popular routes – 50% of people use it, according to Kilimanjaro National Park stats – it’s very scenic and offers spectacular views and hiking through incredibly varied habitats. Like the Lemosho route, it includes the challenging Barranco Wall.
Ascent is usually done from the Barafu Camp and descent is down the Mweka Route.
Often referred to as the ‘Coca Cola Route’, this is the oldest and busiest route up Kili. The main reasons for this are two-fold: firstly, the ascent and descent are the same, and secondly, it’s the only route offering accommodation in huts.
The communal huts in the camps on this route sleep between 60 and 120 people in comfortable bunk beds with sponge mattresses and pillows. Sleeping bags must be brought with you. Meals can be fun and lively as groups from all over the world eat together in the dining huts.
Relatively speaking, this route has slightly more ‘creature comforts’, with bottled water, soft drinks, and even beer and chocolate available at the huts. Equipment is carried by porters and meals cooked by the staff at the camps.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is an easy stroll in the park, though, there’s still some strenuous climbing to do, especially the ascent from Kibo Hut!
This is the most ‘remote’ route and starts on the northern side of Kili (the Kenyan border side). It is, therefore one of the most uncrowded routes. Here, too, it is possible to see wildlife like elephant and buffalo at the beginning of the climb.
The ascent is steep on this route, and more climbers suffer from Altitude Sickness, because one can’t ‘climb high, sleep low’ due to the topography of the slope. An advantage of this route is that it’s on the ‘dry’ side of the mountain, so gets less rain and clouds and more chance for unclouded views.
Ascent is via Kibo and descent is on the Marangu Route.
This used to be the most direct, shortest and steepest route up Kili via the treacherous Western Breach and Arrow Glacier Path. The tragic death of three trekkers in 2006, due to a rockfall here, resulted in the rerouting of this path to join the Machame Route, with ascent from the Barafu Camp and descent down the Mweka Route.
Although the route via the Western Breach was reopened in 2007, only specialised tours with expert operators use it, due to its difficulty and safety risks.
This route differs from the others in that you drive (in off-road vehicles) to the starting point, which is above the rain forest region. The main problem with this is that you go from the altitude of Moshi or Arusha to that of Shira Gate (3 600 m), which means a high risk of developing Altitude Sickness. It is due to this high risk that the succesful summit rates for this route are low.
The Shira Route basically joins the Lemosho Route, ascending from Barafu Camp and descending via the Mweka Route. While the route crosses the beautiful Shira Plateau, it’s a pity to miss out on the magic of the rain forest.
Northern Circuit Route
The newest kid on Kilimanjaro’s route block, this is also the longest, requiring at least nine days. Starting on the Lemosho Route, trekkers veer to the north after reaching Lava Tower and walk along the northern slopes of Kili almost circling it completely before ascending from School Hut. Descent is via the Mweka Route.
While long and difficult, this route has the bonus of having the best acclimatisation profile and being the most uncrowded.
Standing On Top of Kilimanjaro
Whichever route you take, climbing Kili is an incredible experience. It’s tough, but it’s rewarding. It’s rough, but it’s an achievement of a lifetime. It ca be gruelling, but you’re amply repaid with spectacular surroundings and scenery.
And when you reach the peak, if you have any breath left, you can sing along with Johnny Clegg & Juluka …