Climbing Kilimanjaro is one of the most rewarding experiences you might ever have the chance to do. It’s actually quite a bit different from climbing Everest or any other mountaineering experience. There are typically no mountaineering equipment involved, and most anyone in good physical shape has a great chance or reaching the summit if they plan carefully, even with no real previous climbing experience. It’s basically like a long hike.
Of course, that’s not to make it sound easy. It’s not. Climbing Kilimanjaro is a very challenging thing and a not insignificant number of people are unable to make it all the way to the summit. The most common problem is altitude sickness and no one is immune from that possibility.
The climb almost always takes between 5 and 8 days, and always with a fixed and preset itinerary. The climb up Kilimanjaro is mostly a walk. Some places – particularly summit day – are steep and grueling, but at other times you’ll be walking through flat meadows or even descending for periods along the fixed routes.
Here are the basics of the things you’ll need to consider before you find yourself standing on the top of Africa:
Choose an operator
Organizers of Kilimanjaro climbs and associated safaris are known as operators, or outfitters. Their function is retain experienced guiding and support crews and to arrange and conduct the expedition, supplying all kit, food and other climb logistics. They will also usually arrange for your transfers to and from Kilimanjaro International Airport, basic hotel accommodation before and after the climb itself, and a general flow of information and advice before, during and after the sales/climb process. The best packages are all-inclusive package except for drinks, tips and a few occasional meals at the hotel.
There are two type of operator on the market, the local Tanzanian outfitter or a foreign based western outfitter.
Local operators are much cheaper, but are unregulated, and unless working in conjunction with a western outfitter, have a reputation for sharp practice against clients and the abuse of mountain support crews, and in particular the porters. This is not universally the case, but the only way to ensure that your climb is outfitted honestly and ethically is to use a western outfitter. Long term business relationships ensure high standards of kit and logistics, and fair trade practice. The premium this attracts is rarely wasted.
Choose a route
The most common routes will take between 5 and 8 days, depending on which you choose and what you pay for in advance. In other words, you’ll decide in advance how many days your climb will be and you’ll stick to that plan unless something goes wrong and you have to descend.
Book yourself a flight to Tanzania (or Kenya)
The climbing part is sold separately from your transportation to the country and unless you are already in eastern Africa chances are this is not going to be a cheap flight. There are some ways to arrive for a bit less money, especially if you have a bit of extra time and have an adventurous spirit aside from the mountain climbing thing.
Arrive in Tanzania
You’ll likely spend a night or two in the town of Arusha, Marangu, or Moshi, which is near the base of Kilimanjaro. This is normally included with your package.
The morning of the climb you’ll be driven to the starting point for your route and a large crew of local helpers will organize all the gear they’ll be bringing up the mountain for your group. A lead guide will be in charge of everything, but there will also be assistant guides, porters, and cooks making the trip with you. If four of you are climbing you’ll be bringing a support crew of between 10 and 16 people with you.
You’ll carry just your rain gear, camera, and water, and the porters will carry the rest of your gear along with all the tents, chairs, cooking equipment, food, water, and everything else your group will need.
You’ll set off for around 5 to 8 hours each day, except for summit day, which is much, much longer. The lead guide will coordinate everything and all the support staff and will lead your group personally, but climbers in your group can go at their own pace so assistant guides will space themselves out through the group, with one at the back of the pack.
By the time you arrive at the specified camp for that night the porters will have set up tents and cooking gear. After dinner you’ll get as much sleep as you can manage and the next morning the cooks will prepare breakfast. After eating you’ll begin climbing again and the porters will pack up all the gear, pass you at some point during the day, and will be all set up again with water boiling at the next camp when you arrive.
You’ll reach the summit on the second to last day of your total climbing package. The night before summit day you’ll try to get to sleep around 7 p.m. and you’ll wake up shortly before midnight with four good hours sleep if things go well. You’ll begin climbing around midnight and will spend the next 5 or 6 hours ascending in the most challenging section of the mountain, mostly due to the extreme altitude. You’ll be near the summit around sunrise, and the final two hours are usually spent walking in snow as you approach the peak.
You reach the summit, celebrate, snap a few photos, maybe make a call or two on your mobile phone from the top of Africa (no joke, phones actually work up there) and before you know it you’ll begin descending. After about 6 hours you’ll reach camp for your last night on the mountain, making the total journey of this day around 16 hours. The following day you’ll descend for another 4 or 5 hours, and then be driven back to Moshi for at least one more night.