Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
Story and Photograph by Simon Vaughan
It's Africa's highest peak and one of the Seven Summits, but reaching the snows of Kilimanjaro doesn't necessitate being a world class mountaineer.
Some people collects stamps, coins or baseball cards, but travellers and adventurers collect bigger things, like countries, capitals and continents. It's never been disputed that travelling is addictive, and once the travel bug has bitten it's very hard to wriggle free from its cloying grasp. Whether that addiction is sated with a week on a white sand beach each year, or venturing to new corners of the globe is up to the individual traveller, but few people who have a pleasurable travel experience choose never to travel again. For those with the time, inclination and funds, the travel addiction can lead you to collect all sorts of things from visiting all seven continents to joining the Century Club of countries.
But two of the most elite of all adventure collections belong to mountaineers.
The first is the "Eight-thousanders" club, membership in which is restricted to those who have successfully climbed the 14 independent mountains whose summits sit 8,000 metres above sea level and which has been achieved by fewer than 40 climbers. The second mountaineering collection is to crack the summits of the highest mountains on each continent.
There are some disputes over which peaks should be included in this list. Some say that Europe's highest mountain is Russia's Mount Elbrus while others claim it straddles the European and Asian continents and therefore Mont Blanc should technically be regarded as Europe's highest peak. There's a similar debate over Australia's premier summit with some opting for Australia's Mount Kosciuszko and others for Indonesia's Puncak Jaya—also known as Carstenz Pyramid—because it sits on the Australian continental shelf. What is undisputed is that the "Seven Summits" club includes such beasts as Mount Everest and Antarctica's Mount Vinson. Despite those considerable obstacles, more than 300 people have succeeded in completing this collection.
For those of us with more humble means, it is possible to at least tackle two of the Seven Summits without breaking the bank, having technical experience or supreme fitness.
Mount Kosciuszko is located 190 kilometres from the Australian capital Canberra, and its 2,228 metre summit can be conquered on a day-trek that requires nothing more than average fitness. Not only do those who succeed have the opportunity to boast about attaining one of the Seven Summits, but they can also use Australia's highest public toilet while in the process! The second reasonably attainable Seven Summit is Africa's highest peak, mighty Mount Kilimanjaro. Located in northern Tanzania, every year thousands of travellers from all over the world try their hand at summitting the 5,895 metre mountain.
Although physically taxing and providing a particular challenge due to the high altitude, Kilimanjaro requires no climbing experience, no technical skills and no specialist equipment.
There are seven official routes to reach the top of Africa. They vary in difficulty, views and support but all eventually reach the snow-capped summit. Or at least what is currently a snow-capped summit:
Anyone who wants to dip their toes in some equatorial snow needs to move quickly, although not fast enough to jeopardize their chances of successfully reaching the top!
Tackling the mountain is not easy and everyone who gives it a go needs to maximize their chances of success by selecting the route best for them, a company that provides good support and a schedule generous enough to allow for acclimatization to the high altitude.
The first choice is the route. Of those available, Machame and Marangu are the most popular. This is because they are amongst the least expensive, the easiest to trek and they offer the best support facilities during the climbs. The downside is that because they are the most popular you will rarely have the opportunity to trek with nothing more than the views and your thoughts, and if you want to sleep in one of the huts, you need to book well in advance. For beginners with little or no experience of similar high altitude treks it may be for the best to opt for one of these routes, but it's still wise to research the other ways up. The second decision is how long you permit yourself for the climb.
The biggest problem most people encounter on Kilimanjaro is the altitude.
At more than 5,800 metres, even the fittest, strongest and most experienced of climbers may fall victim to the thinner air. There's little you can do to acclimatize before you reach the mountain and neither previous experience or great fitness guarantee success, but allowing yourself extra time to climb may be the difference between success and failure.
The final decision is the company with whom you climb. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of operators offering Kilimanjaro climbs. The neighbouring Tanzanian towns of Arusha and Moshi are home to many who can provide guided treks complete with porters to carry your gear and cooks to prepare your meals as well as all equipment. In many cases it is less expensive to book a climb once in Africa than it is before you leave home, however, not only may all the treks be sold out if not booked in advance, but choosing a local operator on the fly may have consequences that could ruin your chances to reach the top even if you get on the mountain in the first place.
While many outfitters are ethical and responsible, there are too many tales of companies who attempt to rush their clients up the mountain as quickly as possible in the hope that the visitors will quit half way up and ask to be returned to the base.
The outfitter pockets the full payment despite the trek having taken three days instead of six or seven, thereby leaving them free to either take a few days off or race another client up the mountain straight away. In addition to lessening your chances of success, climbing with someone who is disreputable can also have safety and health repercussions, neither of which are ideal on a trek that has its fair share of pitfalls, quite literally in some cases.
There's a pretty good chance that you'll only attempt to tackle Kilimanjaro once in your life.
If you succeed, you will probably rather invest future travel funds on new challenges and adventures rather than climb it again. If you fail, you may wish to give it a second crack or you likewise may decide that you gave it your best shot and choose to move on. Regardless of the outcome, you want to do everything possible to make your first attempt a success.
When picking an operator, choose one that is recommended by someone you know and respect. That could be a friend, someone you met on your travels or an authority. If you book through a third party like an adventure tour company that sends thousands of people on treks and travels throughout the world every year, you can take some peace of mind in the knowledge that they have performed their own due diligence on the local climbing outfitter and their recommendation and professional partnership is based on first-hand experience. It may cost more than booking locally, but if it increases your chance of safety and success, surely it's worth that extra fee.
Finally, pick the best possible time of year. Weather patterns change and nothing is ever guaranteed, but by coordinating your Kili attempt with what should be the best season for trekking, you lessen the chance of being foiled by a freak snow storm or heavy rains.
Regardless of whether your ultimate aim is to climb the Seven Summits or simply add Kilimanjaro to Mount Grouse on your 'been-there, done-that' list, climbing Africa's highest mountain is worth every expense and every effort.
Simon Vaughan is a Senior Writer/Editor & Special Travel Advisor for Outpost. Alongside special reports and travel features you can find Simon’s voice in his super-mega-funny Local Knowledge travel stories in Outpost Magazine every issue. Don't miss each of Simon's articles over at Simon Says Travel.