Every year thousands of people visit Tanzania to climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro but not all those attempting this formidable challenge make it to the top. According to official figures obtained from KINAPA, the Kilimanjaro National Park Authority, 47232 people attempted to climb Kilimanjaro in 2016 of which, just over 5000 were from the UK.
Unfortunately there are no official statistics to show how many people actually make it to the summit but it is estimated that roughly 40% drop out early due to a variety of reasons. Of those that do make it to the top, anecdotal evidence suggests that, whilst it may have been truly memorable to have stood on the roof of Africa, many people doing so suffered during the ascent and did not enjoy the overall experience.
From my perspective this is shocking – you’ve saved up, you’ve taken time off work and probably been looking forward to the trip for weeks. It should be a once in a lifetime experience standing on the summit of Kilimanjaro feeling like you are on top of the world. In this article I’m going to describe my approach to climbing Kilimanjaro. An approach that’s been tried and tested and should give you the best chance of summiting whilst also enjoying the whole experience.
With most mountaineering expeditions, I wouldn’t normally define success as standing on the summit as there are many environmental and technical factors which contribute to making the summit difficult to achieve. Kilimanjaro is different. At 5985m above sea level, Kilimanjaro is a big mountain making the altitude a significant challenge but the most popular routes to its summit are not technical in nature. The tips in this article will help you, weather permitting, to enjoy standing on top of Uhuru Peak without having to suffer on the journey.
There are five key factors that contribute to making your journey to the roof of Africa memorable for the right reasons and they are all very closely linked. These factors are:
- Careful selection of the provider for your trip.
- Pre-trip training.
Before I examine these factors individually it’s worth briefly talking about route selection. There are six main routes up Kilimanjaro all of varying length in terms of days required, these are:
- Marangu Route. This route is generally offered over 5 days and has a shockingly low success rate. It is often referred to as the ‘tourist route’ or ‘coca cola route’. It is the only route that uses hutted accommodation. I used this route way back in 1995 and although my wife and I both summited, it was not enjoyable at the time!
- Rongai Route. A 6 day route, the Rongai route is the only route to approach Kilimanjaro from the North. Some people claim this is the easiest route on the mountain.
- Machame Route. This route normally takes 7 days but some providers offer it as a 6 day package and there are options to extend it to 8 days. Sometimes this route is referred to as the ‘whiskey route’. It is probably fair to say that this is the most popular route.
- Shira Route. This route can be done in 6 days but the best operators offer longer versions. It is a quiet route but expensive (probably why it gets less traffic!).
- Lemosho Route. An 8 day route the Lemosho is often considered the most beautiful route, it is quieter than the Machame but not the cheapest option.
- Umbwe Route. This route is considered to be the most difficult due to its steep profile. It can be done in 5 days but success rates are low for this option. Most good operators would only offer this on a minimum of 6 days with a 7 day trek being better.
Although not the cheapest or the shortest option I always recommend the Lemosho Route due to the fact that it offers a very good ascent profile allowing plenty of time for acclimatisation and has very good success rates. That said, you can choose any route you like but if you don’t select the right provider you may still suffer on your ascent.
Choosing a Provider. There are literally hundreds of providers offering treks up Kili from the cheap and cheerful to fully supported luxury camping. Choosing a provider can be a challenge and often, with so much choice the decision is made based on cost. This can be the first contributory factor to suffering on the trip. There are certain costs involved with climbing Kilimanjaro such as the National Park Entry Fee and Camping Fee’s that cannot be reduced. Providers offering cheap packages therefore have to make savings in other areas, normally this results in poor treatment of the porters and mountain crew. It is not uncommon for porters to be paid a pittance for their hard work, to be without boots and proper clothing, without adequate sleeping accommodation and only receiving one meal per day as a result of a cheap deal. This results in an un-happy mountain crew who have to work extremely hard to support clients to the summit. In choosing a provider it is much better to pay extra and use the services of a Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) Partner. KPAP is committed to fair treatment of all those working on the mountain and all Partner Company’s ensure that their mountain crews have the correct clothing and equipment, that porter loads are moderated and that they all receive three meals per day as well as having dedicated sleeping accommodation and are paid a minimum wage. This ethical and responsible behaviour results in a well-motivated, happy mountain crew who will then go the extra mile to help you on your way to the summit. Monkey Mountaineering is one of 18 UK KPAP Partner Companies, the full list can be found here. Having chosen a provider the next thing to focus on is some pre-trip training.
Pre-Trip Training. There will always be people who can just turn up and climb Kilimanjaro without even thinking about training but that doesn’t apply to me and if you want to give yourself the best chance of success I would recommend some training. I have always been of the opinion that any training should be representative of the activity you are planning. For a trek up the Lemosho route to the summit of Kilimanjaro you will need to be able to walk over undulating, rugged ground carrying a light rucksack for five to six hours per day for 8 days (excluding the summit day which can be anywhere from 12 to 15 hours). To prepare for this, there’s no better way than to get out walking in the hills and mountains of the UK before your departure. A good plan would be to try and get out for a good walk at least once a week for about 10 weeks prior to your departure, more if you have the time. This will help to prepare your body for what’s to come and it will also be an opportunity to check that your boots are properly broken in and that your clothing and equipment is fit for purpose. Arriving in Tanzania fit and in good shape is a great way to start your Lemosho route trek and should underpin your success. Fitness is not the only factor to contribute to success though and it is essential that you take the time to acclimatise whilst on the trek.
Acclimatisation. Oxygen makes up 21% of the air that we breathe and this percentage does not change as we climb higher. The problem for people ascending to altitude is that the air pressure falls as we climb and as a result the air is less dense and as a consequence there are less oxygen molecules available for us to breathe in. This reduction of available oxygen can result in acute mountain sickness (AMS – commonly called altitude sickness) which has symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. Fortunately our bodies can adapt and acclimatise allowing us to continue to function whilst at altitude but we need to allow sufficient time and be mindful of the process if it is to be successful. The key to this is to follow the ‘Golden Rules’ put forward by the Wilderness Medical Society, which suggest that after ascending past 3000m you should not sleep more than 500m higher per day and that you should take 1 rest day every 3 to 4 days. There are always terrain factors that affect our ability to plan routes within these guidelines but any responsible provider will ensure that their routes are as close as possible to these ‘Golden Rules’. The ‘Golden Rules’ are only part of the solution though, in order to acclimatise you need to allow your body sufficient time to adapt. This can be achieved by walking slowly whilst on the trail. The Guides working for a responsible provider should encourage this and you will often hear “polepole” whilst on the trail which is Swahili for “slowly”. This does actually mean walk slowly. You should keep to a pace where you can hold a conversation without getting out of breath, avoid excessive sweating and remember, it’s ok to stop and admire the views, ask your guide about flora and fauna and take photographs – slow it right down, there’s no rush!
Hydration. Conditions on Kilimanjaro are almost perfect for promoting dehydration; trekking up its slopes is physically demanding, it makes you sweat and, on the lower parts of the mountain it is often hot and sunny. Dehydration will degrade your ability to cope with the physical requirements for climbing the mountain, making you feel tired and detracting from your enjoyment. If that wasn’t enough, the symptoms of dehydration are similar to those of AMS. There is, however, a simple way to avoid these problems; drink plenty of water whilst trekking! You don’t need to go overboard with it and in fact, drinking too much can also be bad for you. As a rule, I normally try to drink about three litres of fluid per day. This starts at breakfast with tea and juice and continues on the trek with water. I use a bladder type container with a drinking straw so that I can drink on the move but a bottle will do equally well assuming that you remember to get it out and drink. My drinking continues into the evening with hot and cold drinks and, plenty of soup if it is served with the evening meal. From my perspective, there is no magic formula for how much you should drink and we are all different so to gauge my hydration levels I simply check the colour of my urine. Clear urine equals adequately hydrated, dark urine suggests I should drink more. Whilst we are on the subject of drinking, it is also worth mentioning eating. Trekking requires large amounts of energy and so you need to ensure you are eating plenty of food. This is especially important as you climb higher as one effect of altitude is a loss of appetite. If you have chosen a responsible provider for your trek, there should be plenty of food available so make sure you eat a good amount, even if you don’t feel hungry, to ensure you have sufficient energy to make it to the summit. Once you have filled your belly and are adequately hydrated you should go and get some rest.
Rest. Getting a good night’s sleep is an important part of recharging your batteries in preparation for the next day but getting good sleep at altitude is often difficult. Waking up feeling tired isn’t good and won’t help you to enjoy your ascent of Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately I don’t have any magic solution to this problem. The best advice I can give is to take every opportunity to relax. When you have finished your trek for the day, make yourself comfy, read your book or play cards with your companions etc. but stay warm and be as inactive as possible. If you have a mild headache, take some headache tablets and have a lie down for a while. Hopefully your headache will subside. Assuming you have followed the earlier advice in this article then hopefully you will feel fine but a responsible trek provider will use Guides who actively want to help you to the summit. This will involve them asking you how you are feeling (they normally do this whilst waiting for dinner to be served) and measuring your blood/oxygen saturation and pulse rate. It is important that you are honest with them during these sessions as they will be able to gauge how well you are acclimatising and offer a wealth of advice to help you along, detecting and dealing with any symptoms of AMS before they can develop into something more serious. To sum this section up, rest and relax even if you don’t feel tired!
Bringing these five factors together, selecting a responsible trek provider will result in a well looked after, happy and professional mountain crew to support your trek. This will set the right positive mind set required for success. Prepare well before leaving home and take your time whilst on the trek ensuring that you stay hydrated and eat well. Get plenty of rest when you can and keep warm. All these factors work together to help ensure you have the best chance of acclimatising, enjoying your trek and, importantly, standing on that magnificent summit and looking out over the whole of Africa. If you are about to depart then I hope reading this article will help you to enjoy your trip and make it to the summit. It’d be great to hear how you get on and even better if you wanted to share your top tips with us.