After seeing a documentary about climbing Kilimanjaro back in early 2010 and being inspired to make the attempt, I decided to see if I too could muster up enough confidence to take on Africa’s highest mountain.
I made plans to attempt the majestic climb and began preparing myself both mentally and physically for what would become one of the most rewarding adventures of my life.
Not only is Kilimanjaro the tallest peak in Africa, it also just so happens to be the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Situated in Tanzania along the Kenyan border, the mountain overlooks the Serengeti and Maasai Mara Reserve to the northwest and Tsavo National Park to the northeast.
Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s seven summits, a collection of the tallest peaks on each continent. That puts Kilimanjaro in the company of legendary peaks like Asia’s Everest and South America’s Aconcagua. The great thing about Kilimanjaro though is that unlike Everest or Aconcagua, it doesn’t require technical climbing skills or specialized equipment such as ice picks or crampons.
While Kilimanjaro may be one of the easier seven summits to climb, it still requires a great deal of fitness and determination to reach the summit. Here’s how to plan out the trek.
Planning a Vacation to the Highest Mountain in Africa
Mount Kilimanjaro Hiking Routes
Hiking Kilimanjaro usually takes anywhere from 6-9 days depending on the route you take. There are six main hiking routes to the summit and each requires you to book with a tour operator and climb with a licensed guide since there are no options to climb the mountain alone.
I personally chose the Machame route. Nicknamed the “Whisky Route”, the Machame trail sadly doesn’t feature any whisky along the way but it does offer optimal altitude acclimatization and one of the best chances for summiting Uhuru Peak.
The Lemosho Route
Along with the Machame Route, the Lemosho Route is another one of the most popular routes up Kilimanjaro. I was told by other climbers that the Lemosho is probably the most scenic of the routes and offers good chances of spotting rare wildlife during the initial days of the climb.
Lemosho is a bit steeper of a route and therefore more demanding for some climbers, but it eventually merges with the Machame Route on day four when you reach the famous Barranco Wall.
The longer Lemosho also takes a day or more to complete, equating to an 8-day hike as opposed to a 6-7 day hike via the Machame Route. The trek up Kilimanjaro passes through a variety of habitats starting with rainforest and alpine zones and then culminating in an arctic-like zone near the summit.
Other available routes include Rongai, the only northerly approach to the summit, as well as the steep and short trek along the Umbwe route. The cheapest and easiest route is the touristy Marangu Route.
Nicknamed the “Coca Cola” route because you can actually purchase bottles of soda along the way, the route allows you to stay in dorm-style huts with cooking/dining areas and bathrooms as opposed to primitive outdoor camping with tents like the other routes force you to do.
Whichever route you choose, you’ll be accompanied by supportive guides and porters that will assist you both physically and mentally along the way, carrying your tent, food, and other necessities as well as giving you words of encouragement while also ensuring you don’t push yourself too far.
Reaching the Peak
I have heard many estimates of around 30,000-50,000 people attempt to summit Kilimanjaro every year. Of these hikers, less than two-thirds will be successful in reaching Uhuru Peak, the tallest point on Kilimanjaro’s Kibo volcanic cone.
While it may be one of the easier mountains to climb, there are still dangers to be aware of, keeping in mind that around 1,000 people are evacuated off the mountain each year.
This is why it is important to really do your research in choosing a quality tour company and selecting a route that is matched to your fitness level which will in turn give you the best chance of successfully summiting.
Kilimanjaro’s peak is just shy of 5,900 meters above sea level. Up here, there’s not much oxygen, making each step you take feel like a struggle. Reaching the summit requires not only physical strength, but mental fortitude as well.
That being said, many people who are both physically and mentally fit fail to reach the top thanks to altitude sickness which can seemingly strike anyone without prejudice. Most people fail to reach the summit for altitude-related problems.
The Mental Fortitude
Not knowing if you will reach the top is part of the adventure though. It makes it all that more rewarding for those who do manage to make it. And knowing that people of all ages and backgrounds have been able to summit Kilimanjaro gives you confidence that you to may be able to conquer the mountain yourself.
Kids as young as six all the way through adults in their late 80s have managed to add their names to the list of people that have reached the summit. People with disabilities have also been able to reach the summit through the use of prosthetics or modified wheelchairs.
Being that you’re attempting this challenge with others of varying abilities (you will always climb as part of a group), I found it to be a unique form of social therapy; regardless of our life experiences, backgrounds, or history, the mountain strips you bare and you all develop as a group.
The life lessons we all learned on the mountain, for successfully functioning in everyday life were quite profound, and actually improved our mental fortitude.
For more about social therapy check www.betterhelp.com/advice/therapy/an-overview-of-social-therapy-history-and-applications/
The First Explorers
While there no doubt must have been locals that have climbed Kilimanjaro long before visitors started arriving, the first European credited with reaching the summit is Hans Meyer in 1889.
Back then, during the age of colonialism, Tanzania was known as German East Africa and the mountain was called Kilima-Ndscharo. Upon reaching the top, Meyer would end up honoring Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor, by naming the peak after him, “Kaiser Wilhelm Peak”.
Although Meyer may have ultimately been successful, even he encountered difficulties. He actually failed to summit during his first two attempts, once because of the conditions and lack of equipment and the second time because he was captured and imprisoned by rebels.
While I didn’t encounter nearly as harsh conditions during my climb, I did find the last day’s hike to the summit very challenging, as will most people. Humans just simply aren’t used to being up that high.
At this altitude, you have to stop every few steps to gasp for air and you feel as though you may black out at any moment. What keeps you going is seeing the summit straight ahead. Uhuru Peak actually stares at you for days as you climb, almost taunting you to reach it.
What it Feels Like to Reach the Top
The final push to the summit usually commences at midnight, allowing you to reach the summit just as the sun begins to rise. In the beginning, all you can see is a line of head torches in front of you, along with the stars in the sky.
Once you reach Stella Point, the hard part is over and it’s just a 30-minute slow walk to the summit.
I think most people shed a few tears of joy at the top. I know I certainly did.
I still find it funny how you can feel so exhausted from the final push to the top but then somehow manage to get a burst of energy upon reaching the top, allowing you the ability to scream triumphantly at the top of your lungs and take photos at the summit sign.
My best advice is to really take in every second you are up at the summit, because it goes quick. Trekkers are not allowed to stay up in this danger zone long and you have a long descent ahead of you.
As proud of myself as I was for managing to conquer Kili in a week, I was humbled when I heard an Italian man once managed to reach the summit in less than six hours. That being said, climbing Kilimanjaro isn’t a race and is more of a personal challenge to see how you cope with adversity.
Mount Kilimanjaro has long captivated travelers. Ernest Hemingway wrote about it in his short story titled The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Sadly Kilimanjaro’s snow and ice is disappearing thanks to climate change.
The snow and ice caps have reduced in size by as much as 80% according to some studies and it is estimated that the mountain may be completely free of ice within the next few decades. I encourage you to witness Kili while it still has its Rebmann Glacier, as it’s a sight to behold.
Not only did climbing Mount Kilimanjaro change my perspective on life, it allowed me to make friendships with people from all around the world. I, an Aussie girl, met people from Finland, Canada, Sweden, and South Africa. I would also end up meeting an American guy at the base of the mountain who I would end up marrying.
Climbing Kilimanjaro gives you the confidence you can overcome anything in life. It was definitely one of the most difficult challenges I have ever faced.
Although there were many moments where I wanted to throw myself off the mountain out of exhaustion, there was never a part of me that didn’t think I could make it to the top. You need this confidence in yourself to succeed and reaching the top will only further instill this sense of self confidence going forward.
Out of the seven people in my climbing group, only four of us would make it. Reaching the summit is never a guarantee but it isn’t necessarily a sign of success or failure. Simply taking on the mountain is rewarding and the true feeling of success is knowing you didn’t back down from the challenge.
If you are considering climbing Kilimanjaro, I highly recommend you get a health checkup beforehand to make sure you are in adequate shape to take on the challenge.
I have also put together a guide on what to pack if you’re climbing Kilimanjaro to further assist you in your endeavor.