Trekking Kilimanjaro: Standing Alone Among the Seven Summits
Many have said that trekking to the summit of Kilimanjaro is like going from the equator to Antarctica. That is precisely the idea that propelled me to become a mountain guide.
The first time I went trekking up Kilimanjaro wasn’t as a guide or a hiker eager to reach the summit, but as an interpreter translating Swahili to English. We had set out on the Machame Route, typically a week-long journey, and after the first day I already wanted to give up. Why did they bring me up here? I just want to go back. I was perfectly fine without this, I kept thinking. But there was something inside that just kept pushing me up the tallest mountain in Africa. After a lifetime of living in its shadow, engaging with porters and guides, seeing hikers with smiles returning from the summit, I needed to experience first-hand what all this excitement was about—and prove to myself that I, as well, was capable of such a feat. By the time we got to the summit, I was in awe: the always changing ecological zones, the thousands of different plants; this, I knew, was the next step in my life. I was going to become a mountain guide.
Pros and Cons of Trekking in Kilimanjaro
Seven different routes to choose from
Hike through five different climate zones
Be well on your way to the Seven Summits by reaching the highest point in Africa
Need to pack a lot of gear because of dramatic changes in the climate
Some of the routes can get crowded in the peak season
Volcanic Power Underlying KilimanjaroMillions of years ago, three volcanic cones erupted on the east coast of Africa, about halfway between the Indian Ocean and what is now Lake Victoria (an area which spans Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania). The first to show activity, 2.3 m.y.a., was Shira, which eventually collapsed in on itself, followed by Mawenzi and Kibo. Together, they form the distinctly flat-topped Kilimanjaro. While Shira and Mawenzi went extinct, Kibo continued to rise and is now the summit at 5,895m (19,341 ft).
The way I heard it: Why Kibo is white on the topI grew up around Kilimanjaro, went to school in the area, and remember hearing old stories from my grandparents about why Kibo was white on the top. As they told it, once upon a time Mawenzi and Uhuru were good friends until Mawenzi got angry and threw a stiff porridge atop of Uhuru—which solidified and stayed put. These stories accompanied me through my adult years as I worked odd jobs, guiding coffee tours, and driving tourists around town. The stories and the mountain’s towering presence over my everyday life (it is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world after all) is ultimately what kept me curious about the mountain and grew my desire to climb it one day.
Trekking Kilimanjaro: “From the Equator to Antarctica”I think one of the most magnificent things about Mount Kilimanjaro is the terrain. Only 300 kilometers (190 miles) or so south of the equator, the summit is home to some of Africa’s most magnificent glaciers. In fact, the top used to be covered by a 100 meter deep ice cap. In part, this is due to elevation: the mountain is 5,895m (19,341 ft) tall, and 4,900 meters (16,100 feet) above its plateau base. That is some serious elevation gain.
Five distinct ecological climate zonesOn your way up, you pass through five distinct ecological climate zones: Cultivation, Forest, Heather-Moorland, Alpine Desert, and Arctic Summit, where, unfortunately, you’ll only find about 15% of the ice cap remaining. The changes occur roughly every 3-4,000 feet, each region with its own flora and fauna. According to a study from 2002 by Lambrechts et al., there are about 2,500 plant species on Kilimanjaro, while there is also an abundance of endangered mammals.
Kilimanjaro’s Impact on the Economy, the People, and MeThe tourism Mount Kilimanjaro brings to Tanzania is beneficial to the economy:
- Around 30,000 people attempt to summit each year, and this employs roughly 400 guides, 10,000 porters, and 500 cooks.
- In 2013, the World Bank published a report stating that Kilimanjaro contributes to 13% of Tanzania’s GDP with an annual revenue of US$50 million.
I believe in ethical tourismWhen I started Eco-Africa Climbing, one of my main goals was to always have ethical treks and treat the locals who work on the mountain with the utmost respect and professionalism. I will never offer my clients cheap climbs because cheap climbs exploit porters, the very people who ensure things go smoothly during a trek. I cherish our team and treating them the way I would want to be treated will always be my priority. That is why we partner with the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP). We have more than ten treatment criteria to ensure that we act responsibly towards our mountain crew. KPAP reviews each climb to verify that we are complying to their standards. Some of these include:
- Salaries must be paid within two days of the descent of a climb
- A transparent tipping procedure so porters receive the full tip amount intended for them
- Loads carried by the porter should not exceed 20 kg (44 lbs.) for the company, excluding the porter’s personal kit
- Porters are provided with three meals per day, have proper shelters and sleeping equipment, and are outfitted with the quality gear
- Sick or injured porters are properly cared for
If you are considering trekking Mount Kilimanjaro, here are just two pieces of advice:
- Work with a guide from the community so that you support the local economy. You can review a list of Partners for Responsible Travel who partner with KPAP, so make sure to check before you book!
- Research if the guide is committed to fair treatment of porters and all other mountain staff. The importance of creating workforce equity for porters is vital around the globe, from Tanzania to Nepal to Ecuador and Peru. Marinel offers some important steps to help you evaluate tour operators.
Trekking Kilimanjaro’s Many RoutesThere are eight itineraries up Kilimanjaro:
- Northern Circuit
- Western Breach
Map of Mount Kilimanjaro
Lemosho Route: The Road Less TraveledQuick facts:
- Starts at 7,742 ft (2,360m)
- The route is 70km (42 mi) total, and most days involve hiking between 4 to 17km (2.5 to 10.5 mi)
- Balance of low traffic, beautiful scenery and a high summit success rate
- Minimum number of days required for this route is seven days, although eight days is best
The push to the summitUhuru means Freedom in Swahili. There is something empowering about the name of the top of the mountain: Uhuru Peak. But you have to get there first, and sometimes you wake up and it’s raining or windy. I often talk to myself, repeating, I can do it. I have to do it. Find whatever helps you because today is the day everyone has been working towards. Bill Allen says climbing Denali’s West Buttress is “suffering with a smile,” and I’d agree when it comes to trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro. By the time you reach Stella Point (5,750m), you will start seeing glimpses of the sunrise coming over Mawenzi Peak and the magnificent views will most definitely be a confidence boost. About an hour longer and you are on the highest point in all of Africa. Overall, you do not need any technical experience or equipment to climb Mount Kilimanjaro via Lemosho, just a good level of fitness.
Machame Route: The Road More TraveledQuick facts:
- Starts at 1,640m (5,381 ft)
- The route is 62km (38.5 mi) in total, and most days involve hiking between 5 to 12km (3 to 7.5 mi)
- Panoramic view of Shira Plateau but lower wildlife given the higher traffic
- Minimum number of days required for this route is six days, although seven days is best