To Climb the Highest Mountain in Africa

Mount Kilimanjaro.

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The highest mountain on the African continent, and one of the world's Seven Summits.

With its peak residing at a soaring altitude of 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro has beckoned thousands of trekkers to attempt to reach its summit, surrounded by a amphitheaters of glacier, monstrous rock, and oceans of clouds thousands of feet below where the summit looms. 

Routes

The climb up Kilimanjaro can take anywhere between five to nine days, depending on the route you choose to take. Deciding on the right route can either make or break your climb, depending on how much time you allow yourself to acclimatize to the altitude (the #1 reason why people turn around on the mountain isn't because it's a difficult hike, but because they ascended too quickly and became sick from the altitude).

Each route varies, depending on rate of ascent, scenery, crowds, and, of course, price. The run down for each route follows:

Marangu
Duration: 5 days
Crowds: Extremely high (most popular route)
Scenery: Considered least scenic route
Accommodation: Sleeping huts
Recommended for: No one, honestly. The quick ascent, crowds, and packed sleeping huts make this an unsuccessful and unenjoyable route, despite it being the cheapest choice.

Machame
Duration: 6-7 days
Crowds: High
Scenery: Extremely scenic with varying landscape
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: Budget travelers who are confident in their ability to have long days at rapidly increasing high altitude

Lemosho
Duration: 8-9 days
Crowds: Low until route joins with Machame
Scenery: Considered overall most beautiful
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to spend ample time enjoying the views, generally low crowds, and is hellbent on reaching the summit (highest success rate)

Shira
Duration: 7-8 days
Crowds: Low
Scenery: Varied and beautiful
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: People who want to do Lemosho but don't have the time. It's essentially the same route as Lemosho except you begin the trek at 11,000 ft, which causes the rate of success (and risk of altitude sickness) to increase significantly.

Rongai
Duration: 6-7
Crowds: Low
Scenery: Vastly different from other routes (it's the only path that begins in the north)
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: People climbing in the rainy season, or people who want a similar climb to Marangu (long uphill slog) but want to avoid the crowds and prefer remoteness.

Finding the Right Company
(and paying the right price)

Like most mountains of this magnitude, to climb Kilimanjaro you'll need to go with a licensed guide, porter, and pay a park entrance fee. However, because Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain and a staggering 50,000 people attempt the mountain each year, there is a large amount of bootleg "companies" aimed towards budget travelers that offer attractively cheap prices. But the thing with Kilimanjaro -- as with any guide or company anywhere in the world -- is this simple truth:

You get what you pay for.

When you are spending over a week climbing one of the tallest peaks in the world, you will want to fork over extra money to ensure that you have a safe climb. When you find a company that has an attractive, low price, get in touch with them and ask them some very important questions, such as:

  • How many times has the guide(s) summitted the mountain?
  • Does he have a license (and can you see it)?
  • What kind of food should you expect? How will your meals be prepared? How do they keep the food fresh? Are they willing to accommodate to any dietary restrictions?
  • Will drinking water be provided, or will you be required to carry your own water purification system (such as iodine or a SteriPEN)?
  • What camping gear will they provide? What's the quality of the tent? What about the sleeping mattresses (if you're not carrying your own)? A good company will have strong, functional equipment. 
  • How is their safety record? Do they know how to care for a client who may become sick with altitude? Do they know what to look for? (Altitude sickness is more common than you may think; read about it more here).

If they seem to skirt certain questions, are unsure of specifics, or are more interested in signing you up instead of answering all your inquiries in detail, odds are they're more interested in grabbing clients rather than ensuring a safe and successful climb.

Picking a Budget Company

You can either hunt for budget companies online (but again, be extremely vigilant about frauds and ask the questions I listed above), or you can wait until you arrive in Tanzania to do the hunting, depending on how comfortable and lenient with time you are.

Fly into Tanzania's Arusha Kilimanjaro airport (JRO) and spend a few days visiting tour operators in Arusha to talk to guides in person and compare prices. You can also take the cheap two-hour bus from Arusha to Moshi (the town at the base of Kilimanjaro) to speak to operators there. Either way, it will only take you a few days to pick a company out, as Tanzania's tourism industry thrives on climbers, so advertisements and operators will practically be flinging themselves at you.

In the end, expect to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 for a safe budget climb. 

While it's possible to go under $1,000 if you do the Marangu or Machame route, tips will most likely bring your Kilimanjaro experience to over a grand. 

And although, like I said, it is important to pay for what you want to get, there are some ways to keep the cost down, such as carrying your own sleeping bag and sleeping pad as opposed to renting them, bringing your own durable (and broken in!) hiking boots, and opting for a company that safely cuts costs by not carrying extra luxuries: such as a dining tent, private toilet, or chairs.

A budget climb up Machame route meant no communal dining tent; instead, the four of us on the climb piled into one sleeping tent to eat our dinners and breakfasts

A budget climb up Machame route meant no communal dining tent; instead, the four of us on the climb piled into one sleeping tent to eat our dinners and breakfasts

What Can I do to Help Raise My Odds of Reaching the Summit?

Unlike the other Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain; meaning that there aren't any ropes, any rock or ice climbing, or any need for past mountaineering experience. Simply, Kilimanjaro is a multi-day trek. 

So why the low success rate of only 45% ? Even as low as 27% on the 5-day routes, such as Marangu, which happens to be the most popular?

There is no need for a climber to have any skills to climb Kilimanjaro, so tourists of any age, health, and fitness flood through the Kilimanjaro gates every year with hardly any training or concept of the danger they're putting themselves into. While Kili isn't technically challenging, it still holds an estimated 3-7 deaths per year due to altitude sickness and unfit tourists underestimating the strength that it takes to climb thousands of feet for hours on end.

The best way to ensure a safe, successful, and enjoyable summit is to train. In the months leading up to your climb, focus on working out 3-4 days a week. When I was training for my climb, my favorite strengthening workouts consisted of several hours on the stair master during the busy work week, and then taking a day on the weekend to go for a hike where I'd carry a backpack with weights in it (anywhere between 10 to 20 pounds). The key to enjoying an uphill slog trek, such as Kilimanjaro, is to be fit enough to not feel shaky and out of breath within a few hours, or even minutes. A successful climb coincides greatly with how much you enjoy it, because if you feel physically unwell, then you're going to become physically unwell, leaving you more susceptible to the effects of high altitude backpacking. Preparing for Kilimanjaro doesn't have to be back-breaking, but you want to depart knowing that your physical capabilities won't limit your chances to summit; after all, you paid a lot of money to get to East Africa and to attempt this magnificent peak. Every day training is putting more odds for a summit in your favor.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a right of passage for any backpacker, trekker, or person with a love of getting up close and personal with one of the most iconic peaks in the world. While the crowds can be deterring, the mountain makes up for it in its sheer magnitude and beauty, whether you make it to the summit or not.

Walk on.

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To read more about the super-specifics of climbing Kilimanjaro, and to learn more about each of the routes, visit the website Ultimate Kilimanjaro.