Mount Kilimanjaro: the tallest mountain on the African continent, and one of the world's Seven Summits.
Surrounded by glacier, black rock, and an ocean of clouds thousands of feet below the 19,341 foot summit, it's clear why Kilimanjaro has drawn thousands of trekkers for over one hundred years. Kilimanjaro stands like an imposing mirage above the dry Tanzanian savanna, a talisman of white ice camouflaging itself into the clouds. Its mystique and beauty has long been the subject of books, poems, artwork, and stories.
While it's not the tallest mountain the world by any means, it's still nothing short of stunning; and the walk to the top is not one to take lightly.
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. A nutshell 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: Very scenic with varying landscape Accommodation: Camping Recommended for: Budget travelers who are confident in their ability to hike for 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)
SHIRE 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 days Crowds: Low Scenery: The Rongai Route is the only route that approaches Mount Kilimanjaro from the north, near Kenya's border. It's the only route with a chance to see large wildlife in the first few days. 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)
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 are a large amount of budget companies aimed towards budget travelers that offer attractively cheap prices. However, it's important to keep in mind that when on the mountain, you truly get what you pay for.
If you're already heading to Tanzania with the goal to summit Kili, I highly recommend forking out the extra costs to ensure that you have a safe and successful climb. When you find a company that has an attractively low, almost too-good-to-be-true price, get in touch with them and ask them some very important questions, such as:
How many times has the guide(s) summited the mountain?
Does the company have a legitimate climbing license (and can you see it)?
What kind of meals can you expect? How will your meals be prepared? Can you get examples of the meals? Are they willing to accommodate to any dietary restrictions? Adequate, nutritious meals are critical when hiking long days at ever-increasing altitude.
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.
Most importantly: Do they know how to care for a client who may become sick with altitude? Do they know what to look for, and what are their plans if you come down with altitude sickness? (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, 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 for under $1,000 if you do the Marangu or Machame route, tips will most likely bring your Kilimanjaro climb 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.
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 put, Kilimanjaro is a multi-day trek with an emphasis on altitude gain in a short amount of time.
So, why is the success rate of summiting Kilimanjaro only 45%? Or even as low as 27% on the 5-day routes, such as Marangu, which happens to be the most popular?
There's no requirement for someone to have any climbing skills or prerequisites to attempt Kilimanjaro, so tourists of all ages, health statuses, and fitness levels flood through the Kilimanjaro gates every year with hardly any training or concept of the danger they're putting themselves in. While Kilimanjaro 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 building your strength and cardio as much as possible. 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 while carrying a weighted backpack.
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 mentally feel physically unwell, then you're likely 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 where you can train increases your odds for a successful summit.