Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for Dummies
Getting to the top without any prior experience
Blood, sweat and some tears, is what it took in my case. To reach the summit of the Kilimanjaro, that is. Although I did eventually make it to the top, there were many times that I didn’t actually think I would make it – and there are quite a few people that have to turn around before making it all the way to the summit. For someone like me, who doesn’t particularly like sports but definitely enjoys a challenge, it was quite the undertaking. I was looking for a new adventure, and Mount Kilimanjaro definitely brought me one! Are you ready for the challenge?
It all starts by making a decision. The decision that you’re going to climb that mountain, up to the highest point in Africa at an altitude of 5896 meters / 19.344 feet. Without determination, I would have never made it. But when I finally reached the top and witnessed the most beautiful sunrise I’ve seen in my life, I knew it was all worth it. So, first of all: make the decision that you want to get to the top, and don’t look back.
Great, now you know that you need to get ready. How are you going to prepare for this? Here is a list of things you need to know;
- You can book flights to Kilimanjaro International Airport from various international airports, for example from Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Doha and Istanbul, as well as from numerous African cities. The airport is located about 45 kilometers / 28 miles from Moshi, the town where you will stay awaiting your scheduled departure for Kilimanjaro National Park. The best time to go is from June until October, and from December until February.
- There are many, many companies out there that will offer you guided trips to the mountain. You will need a guide the entire way, in fact you will be escorted by guides, cooks and porters – an entourage that may seem exaggerated, but will prove to be necessary (especially for the Dummies climbing). When choosing a company, I didn’t look at the price as much as I focused on the company’s reputation, as there are a lot of local companies that are known for exploiting their staff. Ultimately, I ended up going with Brendafrica Travels.
- Another important choice to make, is which route you’re going to take. There are a couple routes that all lead to the top, some are more challenging than others, some take longer than others. Keep in mind that the more time you allow yourself, the higher the chances are that you’ll actually make it to the top.
The Six Main Routes to the Summit
- Marangu – This one is considered to be the ‘easiest’, as it can be done in five days and allows for overnights in huts rather than tents. Due to the little time given for acclimatisation, and its appeal to the inexperienced amongst us, its success rate is lower.
- Machame – I ended up choosing this one, as it seemed to be the one with the nicest scenery along the way, and the one that allows for more acclimatisation. I never regretted my choice for a second.
- Umbwe – This route is very steep and short, and the success rate is much lower.
- Rongai – The only route that approaches Mount Kilimanjaro from the north. Offers the highest chance of seeing wildlife during the first few days of the climb.
- Shira / Lemosho – This route traditionally takes longer and allows for better acclimatisation, and therefore it has a higher success rate. It has beautiful views and merges with the Machame route after day 4.
- Northern Circuit – This route takes about 8 to 9 days and due to its length, it has the highest success rate.
- Put yourself on a strict exercising plan. Lots of walking, steep walking, and running. Try to expand your lung capacity and work on your calves, as you will be doing a lot of steep walking for many hours in a row. If you’re like me and you don’t like going to the gym, try to do as much outdoor walking as possible, and stick to your exercising plan – no matter what happens. No excuses!
- You can rent certain things from your tour company, such as sleeping bags and walking sticks. You will still need some equipment to keep you warm, like thermal underwear, waterproof jackets, gloves and hats. Bring medication to battle the inevitable headaches, vomiting and other unpleasant consequences of mountaineering. Most importantly, get a good pair of hiking shoes! They will be your best friends or your worst enemies, so try to find shoes that fit properly and test them in advance.
- In total, expect to pay between $2,500 – $3,500 for the trip and necessary supplies. Keep in mind that tips are expected for the staff that accompanies you on the mountain, 10% of what you paid for the trip is generally a good guideline.
During the Climb
- Don’t forget to use sunblock, even if you’re feeling freezing cold. I forgot to use it for one day and turned out looking like Rudolph (the Red Nosed Reindeer).
- Try to get some sleep, but expect to lie awake. The altitude tends to do that to people.
- Although I completely lost my appetite and struggled to even eat a single peanut, focus on eating enough. You will need the energy.
- Drink a lot of water, a LOT of water – at least 3 liters a day.
- Don’t walk too fast – “pole, pole” is what they say in Swahili. Don’t expect to run up, for inexperienced climbers it’s more like you’re crawling up that mountain.
- Be ready for the most minimal personal hygiene you can imagine, as showers are not available and bathrooms are a disaster.
- Wear a lot of layers, because you will be cold.
- Bring your iPod. You won’t have the energy to chat with other people, especially at the higher altitudes, and the music will keep you entertained and motivated to keep going.
The Moment of Truth
On the day of the summit attempt you get up around midnight to start walking the most difficult and steepest part of the mountain. It will take around 6 hours to reach the top, and you’re walking at night. With all the suffering it took to even get to this point, I never thought I would actually be able to make it through the most difficult part of the climb. But somehow, knowing that the moment of victory was within reach, I suddenly got a rush of adrenaline and energy that made me walk straight up. It actually turned out to be one of the best parts of the trip, as I was lucky enough to have a beautiful full moon shining some light our way.
The last hour to the highest point was the most exhausting walk in my life, or maybe just a preview of what it will be like to walk to the supermarket when I’m 95 years old. At that altitude, you can’t breathe properly. You’re exhausted. You’ll have many physical discomforts. Taking small steps forward seems like the most difficult thing in the world. The cold is unbearable, at -20 Celsius / -4 Fahrenheit.
But when you eventually make it to the point that you’ve been envisioning yourself at for months, there is nothing that could have prepared you for what you’ll see. The sunrise is like something out of this world. To stand there, see the sun come up over the clouds and the glaciers – it simply puts everything in perspective.
Getting Back Safely
Walking down is done within a day and a half. I felt like I was buzzing from the adrenaline rush, and in spite of all physical challenges I had acquired by that time, it was a fairly easy walk. Getting back to the hostel and finally being able to use a shower and a bathroom was a fantastic feeling. But realizing that I had done it, I had made it to the top – it was the best feeling in the world. It changed the way I look at things and I will never forget that moment standing there, looking at the sunrise.