Adventure Destination: Mt. Kilimanjaro

Trekkers on the top Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Getty Images/Marc Guitard

At 5895 meters (19,341 feet) in height, Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the entire world. It also happens to be a prominent adventure travel destination, with many people who list it on their bucket list of places that they would most like to visit. While the mountain doesn't require any specific technical skills to climb, it remains a significant challenge none the less. With its rocky terrain and high altitude trails, it can surprise unprepared visitors with its level of difficulty.

But for those that do make it to the top, it is a rewarding experience unlike any other.

What Makes Kili Special?

Kilimanjaro has been called the "Everest for Everyone," which means that while it is a challenging mountaineering experience, just about anyone who puts their mind to it can reach the top. Good physical conditioning is important of course, and a healthy level of determination is required as well, but for the most part, the climb is very accessible and affordable. In contrast, Mt. Everest requires two months of climbing time, a vast amount of experience and skill, far more specialized gear, and costs tens of thousands of dollars as well.

The time and monetary investment for Kili, on the other hand, is a fraction of that, which also puts it well into the realm of the average adventure traveler.

The mountain has many unique characteristics that set it apart from other trekking destinations. For instance, on the way to the summit, hikers pass through five different climate zones, including rainforest, heather, moorlands, alpine desert, and polar conditions near the top. Additionally, since Kilimanjaro is not a part of a vast mountain range, the views of the surrounding landscapes are quite breathtaking. Travelers can often see for miles in all directions -- that is when those views aren't obscured by the clouds which often hover below the trail they are hiking on.

Trekking Routes

There are multiple routes that can be taken to the summit of Kilimanjaro, each with its own set of challenges and unique characteristics. As mentioned above, these routes are non-technical in nature, meaning that climbers don't need to possess any mountaineering skills to actually ascend to the top of the peak. It is, for all intents and purposes, a high-altitude trek that will test you with its thin air and steep trails rather than difficult climbing obstacles.

The seven routes up Kili include Lemosho, Machame, Marangu, Mweka, Rongai, Shira, and Umbwe. Of those, Marangu is generally considered the "easiest," which also makes it the most crowded as well. Machame is noted for being the most scenic, although it is also quite steep too. Each of the other routes has its own unique properties as well, blending overall challenge with beautiful landscapes, natural wonders, and individual properties that can only be found along those particular trails.

Number of Days on the Mountain

The number of days spent trekking on Kilimanjaro can have a direct impact on the success rate of climbers. Many will attempt to summit in as few as 5 to 6 days, which is a rapid ascent that brings an increased chance of developing altitude sickness. While the shorter routes are of course less expensive, they also are much harder to complete. It is estimated that along those routes, travelers see just a 60% success rate due to the fact that their bodies have less time to acclimate to the thinner air.

In contrast, some of the routes require as many as 7 to 8 days to reach the summit, giving the body more time to adjust to conditions on the mountain, and operate at higher efficiency at altitude. The success rate on those routes increases to more than 90% thanks to the slower pace of the climb. It is recommended that anyone who is attempting to climb Kilimanjaro consider one of these longer climbs to help ensure a safer experience.

Summit Day

No matter which route you take to the top, Summit Day will definitely be a long and grueling affair. Many teams leave before sunrise, lighting the trails with their headlamps as they go. This ensures that they have plenty of time to get up and down the mountain before nightfall, with the descent made entirely in daylight. Reaching Gilman's Point or Stella Point along the rim of the volcanic crater is always an exciting moment for trekkers, but the summit is still 1 1/2 hours and 1 hour away from those respective locations.

The final push to the top is generally made all the more challenging by gusty winds, cold temperatures, and hard-packed snow.

As you can imagine, the views at the top are quite awe inspiring. Not only does Uhuru Peak -- the official name of the summit -- overlook Kili's massive crater, but it affords visitors outstanding views of the glaciers that remain on the top of the mountain. At this point, most clouds are well below the trekkers, who often experience a feeling of relief, joy, and euphoria at completing their climb.

Down, Down, Down

Reaching the top of the mountain is only half the battle, and many discover that descending can be quite a difficult experience as well. Going down from the summit can actually put quite a lot of strain on already tired legs, making it a surprisingly painful stage of the journey. While the richer air begins to relive the symptoms associated with altitude, the legs often suffer on the descent. It doesn't help that most teams spend 6 to 7 days going up, and just 1 to 2 going back down, dropping thousands of feet in the process.

If you're considering a Kilimanjaro climb, be sure to leave a little gas in the tank for your descent. It will likely be more difficult than you expect, and a good pair of trekking poles can help immensely.

Utilizing Guide Services

A guide service is required to trek on Kilimanjaro, which means you must book with a company that is authorized to take travelers up the mountain. Those services usually provide not only professional guides to lead the way, but porters to carry heavy gear such as tents, food, fuel, and other equipment as well. They also provide cooks to prepare meals while camping, as well as medical services, should the need arise.

While there are literally dozens of companies that offer Kilimanjaro climbs, not all are created equal. Tusker Trail is one of the major operators on the mountain. Their level of professionalism and service is simply unmatched and are recommended highly. They are on the higher end of the price spectrum, but the company exceeds expectations in every way possible.

If you're considering a Kilimanjaro climb of your own, then it is best to go in as prepared as possible. That includes knowing the pros and cons of the route you choose, understanding the challenges that lie ahead, and being as physically prepared as possible. The trek to the roof of Africa is one of the most demanding journeys that you will ever embark upon, but it is also a highly rewarding one as well.

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