When I first started thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro, the logistics of even just getting started seemed difficult enough. There was so much to think about – the best time to climb, which operator to choose, how to train, what I should wear, which route I should choose to ascend to Africa’s highest peak?
I’d previously discounted the Marangu, or Coca Cola route, as feedback was that it was often overcrowded and less scenic. The question of choosing which route for climbing Kilimanjaro came down to two – Machame or Rongai? If you choose either of these routes, there’s slightly more flexibility as both of these are camping routes and there are no bunks in huts to book. You could choose on the morning itself which one you’d like to climb.
Both routes offer stunning views and decent acclimitisation profiles, though Machame is a slightly better climb-high-sleep-low route. Our climb operator, Marangu Hotel, recommended the Rongai route – the only approach to Kibo from the north and with less traffic than Machame. Rongai is also dryer than the southern routes, though when it does rain the first few hours on the trail quickly turns into spirit sapping, boot trapping mud – luckily on my climb the weather held.
The Rongai route can be done in 6 days, though 7 days is recommended. It includes a night at Mawenzi Tarn, easily the most beautiful camp site on Kilimanjaro. The Rongai joins the Marangu route at Kibo Huts, so the summit scent can feel crowded. The descent is via the Marangu route so you get the benefit of seeing different views on the way down.
Climbing Kilimanjaro Day 1: Rongai Gate to Simba Camp
|Altitude change:||1,996m to 2,626m|
|Views:||Farmland and pine forests|
Today’s first priorities are a hot shower and leisurely breakfast – the last of such luxuries for the next 6 days. At Marangu Hotel, there is a flurry of activity as the porters assemble and gear is packed and weighed. We are introduced to our team – Protas, our head guide, Vincent and Stanley, our guides, Nico the cook and our personal porters, who would carry our packs. There is a strict 15kg limit – even after I’d triple checked that I’d packed all the essentials for climbing Kilimanjaro, my pack only weighed about 10kg. I carried the most important items in my daypack – water, snacks, lunch, warm layers, a small first aid kit, rainproofs, hand sanitiser and my camera.
We depart from Marangu Hotel for the 2 hour drive to the Rongai trail head. Other groups are already there, and there is a palatable sense of excitement in the air. While we wait for the porters to arrive, we dig into our packed lunches and relax in the sun. At about 1pm, we finally start. The path crosses maize fields and we pass huts and children waving. It is an easy, meandering walk but the first few hours are dusty and hot. The views of Kibo make up for it.
After about 4 hours we get to Simba Camp, where our porters have already set up camp. A bowl of warm water waits at our tent entrance and I gratefully wash off the fine dust. In the mess tent, there’s a pile of popcorn, biscuits and a selection of hot drinks. I kick back in a camp chair and think “well that wasn’t so bad.”
Climbing Kilimanjaro Day 2: Simba to Kikelewa
|Altitude change:||2,626m to 3,679m|
The second day starts bright and sunny and we leave Simba at about 8am in good spirits. At this height we’re tramping across moorland and low shrubs. Kibo looms large and majestic ahead while Mawenzi, Kibo’s sister summit, can be seen to the right. The trail on day 2 of climbing Kilimanjaro is a slow, continuous 4 hour slog up hill, followed by a traverse to Kikelewa Camp. We break for lunch at Second Cave and seek shelter from the wind between some rock outcrops. From Second Cave to Kikelewa the altitude starts to kick in and two of our climbing party are starting to show signs of AMS.
The vegetation starts to get scrubbier and the views start to open up. I feel like I’m in serious big sky country now. Rolling into Kikelewa at 5pm, our camp is a sight for sore eyes. The setting sun strikes the dramatic ridges of Mawenzi. The views from Kikelewa are stunning. We load up on dinner and Diamox and go to bed under a diamond patchwork of stars in a velvet sky. Halfway through the night I venture out into the darkness, the landscape lit by a full moon and the bulk of Kibo just visible in the night light. It’s magic.
Climbing Kilimanjaro Day 3: Kikelewa to Mawenzi Tarn
|Altitude change:||3,679m to 4,303m|
|Views:||Moorland and alpine|
We awake to sunrise above a carpet of clouds and the silhouette of tents. The morning is crisp and all effects of altitude are now gone. We begin our morning with bacon and eggs (such luxury!) then set off on our hike while trading Irish ditties with the other climbers in our group.
As we walk we are periodically overtaken by other groups of climbers and tentative acquaintances soon begin to form. There is a short but rather steep section, affording neverending views of rolling slopes falling away. Kibo is a constant feature now, and impossible to ignore. The vegetation is now more and more decidedly alpine as we get closer to Mawenzi Tarn.
Mawenzi Tarn is the most spectacular of camp sites on Kilimanjaro. Nestled beneath the sharp spires of Mawenzi next to a glacial lake, the site also offers a chance to acclimatize by climbing a little higher up to Mawenzi ridge in the afternoon, then back down to camp again. We spend the afternoon relaxing and watching the porters engage in a spirited game of football. It’s an early night for us as we wrap ourselves up in layers and turn in.
Climbing Kilimanjaro Day 4: Mawenzi Tarn to Kibo Hut
|Altitude change:||4,303m to 4,730m|
We awake to frost on the tents and a freezing cold morning. After breakfast we set off to tackle the saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo Hut. The route is mostly flat and the views are stunning, but the wind, dust and sheer thinness of the air make it slow going. Kibo Huts never seemed to get closer despite how much we walked. At this point we are close enough to see the dreaded scree switchbacks leading up to Kibo’s crater edge, dark grey Zs worn roughly into the slopes.
Halfway on the route we pass the remains of an airplane that crashed on Kibo’s slopes years ago, a reminder of the inconsistency of mountains. We stop for lunch of fried chicken, boiled egg, banana, orange, juice and copious cups of hot, sugary tea on the rocky plateau, huddled on rocks as the wind whips around us.
We stagger gratefully into Kibo Huts at around 4pm. Before retreating to our sleeping bags we prep our packs and gear for the summit ascent, double checking we have our headtorches, water, gloves and layers. It’s difficult to fall asleep on a mixture of nerves, excitement and high altitude and it feels like hardly any time passes before we are awakened at 11pm for the summit attempt.
Climbing Kilimanjaro Day 5: Summit attempt
|Altitude change:||4,730m to 5,895m|
|Views:||Scree and glaciers|
Bleary eyed and groggy, we wake in the dead of night and force down a hot drink and some biscuits. Protas checks our backpacks – only the absolute essentials should be taken on summit attempt. I leave my DSLR and clip on a little point and shoot camera instead. We start up the scree, one step at a time. By the light of my head torch I can mostly see the feet of Cleve, my fellow hiker ahead of me. Ahead and above me, a line of light snakes up Kibo. The stars look close enough to touch. I put one foot in front of the other, reminding myself to breathe in the cold, unfamiliar dark.
About 3 hours in, we make it to Hans Meyer Cave, at 5,150m. It’s a handy rest stop before we hit the scree switchbacks to Gillman’s Point and it’s the longest, hardest part of the climb up. At about 5,500m I lose my climbing partner to AMS and the cold. Our team of four has now been whittled down to two. Throughout the night we’ve seen climbers turn back – the only sure fire cure for AMS is to descend. I lose the hours between 3am and sunrise, on the never-ending sliding scree. I take small, shuffling steps and just keep going. The water in the tube of my bladder has frozen, so I have to stop, find my water bottle and use frozen fingers to unscrew the cap. I find a square of chocolate and let it melt slowly on my tongue. I take more small, shuffling steps.
From up above, the guides start to sing, their voices echoing up and down the mountain as one by one they pick up the refrain. Sunrise, when it comes, brings hope, and Gilman’s Point, at 5,680m.
The climb isn’t over yet though and the last 200m ascent up to Uhuru Peak, Kibo’s highest point, takes me another 3 hours. We pass retreating glaciers and other climbers, some giddy with happiness after making the peak, others silent and stumbling with exhaustion. When we finally make it to the wooden signs on Uhuru I experience a momentary surge of excitement, exhilaration and relief. I’ve made it. The roof of Africa affords a panoramic view of faraway plains and cloud cover.
Climbing Kilimanjaro Day 5: Uhuru Peak to Kibo Huts and Horombo Huts
|Altitude change:||5,895m to 3,705m|
The descent from Uhuru, backtracking to Gillman’s and then down the scree slopes to Kibo Huts take a lifetime. Dead tired and exhausted from the 9 hours of walking, I switch off and trust Protas to see me safely back to camp. We take our time, skiing down the scree slopes, my arm safely tucked in his, my backpack with Vincent, who commandeered it just after Gillman’s Point. We stop midway to offer help to a lone girl lying down on the trail; she’s lost her group, so Vincent takes her in. One of our porters come up to us, bearing gifts of sugary hot tea and biscuits. We sit and catch our breaths before starting off again. This is the hardest section of the climb. The descent is steep and after the exhilaration of making the summit, I feel drained.
When I finally reach Kibo Huts, 15 hours after I left it, there’s a brief hour to eat, rest and pack before we start our walk to Horombo Huts, our camp for the night. Mawenzi looms to our left on the trail, wreathed in cloud and gilded in gold. Darkness falls on our way to Horombo and the last 2 hours are precariously spent picking our way over uneven rocks and stones. At camp, half the climbers forsake the mess tent for sleep and rest – I drink some soup and then finally, after 19 hours of walking, curl up in my sleeping bag.
Climbing Kilimanjaro Day 6: Horombo Huts to Marangu Gate
|Altitude change:||3,705m to 1,843m|
|Views:||Moorland, alpine, forests|
Things look better in the daylight, and I wake feeling positive. My legs ache a little but I’m not dreading the descent. Horombo Huts is a busy campsite, and we watch as groups of climbers on the Marangu route leave their bunk beds and set out the way we came – towards Kibo’s imposing bulk. I’m glad we’re heading down, not up. The next 6 hours fly by as we eat up the distance with each stride.
The air gets richer, warmer, the lower we go. There is now birdsong, and the welcoming green of forest trees. In no time at all we get to Marangu Gate, where we sign out from the register and pile into a truck to be driven back to Marangu Hotel. After a hot shower (the best shower you will ever have) and a short rest, we gather with our porters to buy them a few rounds of beers to thank them for all their help on the climb and to celebrate under the watchful eye of Kibo with her crown of snow, looming over us from the north.
Climbing Kilimanjaro was the hardest physical challenge I’ve done and I wouldn’t have been able to do it with Protas and Vincent, my guides, who literally helped me put one foot in front of the next, Nico our cook, who was a great conversationalist, all the crew who were full of smiles and encouragement and who worked very hard to ensure we had a good experience, and my fellow hikers, Cleve and Jeff, without whom the climb would simply not have been as fun.