Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is by far the highest I have been at 5,895 meters (19,341 feet), but it is not the toughest trek I have done or the most beautiful scenery I have seen — even just in Africa. It is actually spectacularly beautiful. It is just that the other African peaks are as well. Each mountain has its own unique beauty.
The beauty of Mount Kilimanjaro is defined by the sheer magnitude of the Western Breach, the green misty valleys of Barranco, the most massive glaciers left in Africa, and the gaping Ash Pit in the heart of the mountain. It is certainly worth climbing it to gaze at these natural wonders. However, the irony is that easily over 90% of those do climb Kilimanjaro, do not see these sights. They are smitten with a climber’s disease which ranks altitude above beauty when selecting a mountain to climb, and choosing a route up it. It is quite an unfortunate mistake.
For those that are interested in experiencing the beauty of alpine Africa, there are plenty stunning terrains to consider. The wild jungles and forests of lobelia in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains, the gelada baboons and waterfalls of the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, the secret swimming holes and alpine chalets of Mount Mulanje in Malawi, or the alpine tarns and finger valleys of Mount Kenya.
The benefits of these other African peaks is that they are easily two to ten times less expensive, and there is a good chance you only see a handful of other trekkers on the slopes. When I climbed the Rwenzori Mountains earlier in the year, my friend and I were the only ones in the whole national park for the entirety of our six-day climb. In comparison, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, even avoiding the popular routes, we camped with hundreds of other climbers in tent city slums that reeked of latrines every night.
However, for those still intent on seeing the famous snows of Kilimanjaro, and pushing themselves to the highest point in Africa, Kilimanjaro is a great climb. Just make sure you can afford the phenomenal price, and will not be too put off by finding little piles of poo and toilet paper behind every boulder on the trail up the mountain. Kilimanjaro is a National Park, but it often feels a little more like a poorly run theme park for “high pointers”, so just be aware of that.
For those who are more interested in exploring the mountain than bragging about conquering it, your choice of route is very important. Ultimate Kilimanjaro estimates at 85% of climbers choose the either the Marangu route or the Machame route, which are the most direct routes to the peak. However, they estimate only 8% of people take the Lemesho route, which is considered more difficult and expensive, but offers some great benefits in terms of lower crowds and better scenery.
The Lemesho route starts on the western flank of the mountain in the jungle, and then lays a necklace around the southern slopes before ascending to Stella Peak. Trekking around the mountain gives you more time to acclimatize, and the ability to explore more features on the slopes as you pass by them.
On the Lemesho route, every day offers a unique beauty. The first day you hike through lush jungles, then trek through the stark volcanic desert of the Shira plateau on the second, have lunch under lava tower and camp in the misty Barranco Valley on the third, and finally sleep above a sea of clouds in Barafu on the fourth.
However, there are also some great side trips to plan along the route as well. While your guides are cooking lunch at lava tower, take the trail up to the Western Breach to see the dwindling Arrow Glacier before its gone. You can look through the window in the rock face at the clouds far below, and it is a great perspective on lava tower.
Then on summit day, do not climb all the way up Kilimanjaro to watch the sunrise and then leave. After reaching Uhuru peak, descend through the volcanic sands to Crater Camp to see the Furtwangler Glacier. From here you can ascend back up to the edge of Ash Pit, which is the volcanic crater in the middle of the mountain. It is a super rough climb at that altitude, but a spectacular view into the heart of the mountain.
So if you are drawn to allure of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, you certainly should as long as you can afford the price, and have the patience to deal with a bunch of “peak baggers”. In planning your climb, prioritize exploring the beauty of the mountain over the most direct route to the top. Both the Lemesho and Northern Circuit routes have a lot less traffic and allow you to explore large portions of the mountain slopes.
Author’s Note: Climbing Kilimanjaro is difficult, and for those that do not regularly adventure outdoors, some training beforehand will make the trip more enjoyable. It is important to understand that trekking companies generally plan routes assuming the worst in terms of your fitness, and experience (rightly so).
We were told that to see everything we wanted to, we would need eight days on the mountain. However, we completed the route pretty easily in six days (this was basically our route) even including two side trips. We had a fairly fit group though, and if you are uncertain of your ability, it is not a mountain to push yourself on.
Most days of trekking had one or two difficult sections, but were otherwise fairly easy, especially compared to your average day in a place like the Rwenzori Mountains. Also note that the first day was mostly waiting at the park gate for the rangers to figure themselves out, and only involved one hour of hiking. The last day was only a half day as well.
However, summit day was easily the hardest single day of trekking I have had (Check out the climbing Mount Kilimanjaro stats below for day 5). This was because after Uhuru Peak, we also visited Ash Pit, and then descended all the way down to Millennium Camp. I highly recommend going to see Ash Pit, but prepare yourself for some suffering.
There are two other alternatives on the Lemesho Route we were offered. The first was to continue to the summit by climbing the Western Breach. However, given that would have only been our fourth day on the mountain, and the slopes of the Western Breach looked both steep and unstable, we deemed this option unsafe (three people died attempting this in 2006).
Whether you attempt this route, or summit from Barafu Camp, you can also spend a night camping just under the summit at Crater Camp. Again, we choose not to, but did visit the camp, which looks both desolate and incredibly beautiful. If you are very confident about your ability to handle a night at this attitude, it looks like an epic wilderness experience.
In terms of choosing a trekking outfit, beware as there is a large range of quality of service, even for the high prices being charged. I will not recommend the one we took as their equipment was very sub-par, they basically ran out of food besides potatoes and gruel before we even summited, and the guide’s ability to communicate in English was very poor.
We did meet some others on the mountain that were trekking with Barafu Tours and Safaris that looked like they great gear and guides, and even paid less than us. They are probably worth a try. When choosing a guide pay close attention to not only how much they ask you about your preferences for routes, but how much they ask you about your trekking ability and experience. Better guides will do a better job of collecting this information to provide you with the best experience.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Stats:
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Day 1:
Starting Altitude: 2,416 meters [7,925 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 2,787 meters [9,145 ft.]
Total Climb: meters 372 [1,220 ft.]
Total Distance: 4.3 kms [2.7 miles]
Hours Taken: 1 hour
Camps: Londorossi Gate to Big Tree Camp (also called Forest Camp)
Accent Rate: 86 meters/kilometer
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Day 2:
Starting Altitude: 2,787 meters [9,145 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 3,917 meters [12,850 ft.]
Total Climb: 1,130 meters [3,705 ft.]
Total Distance: 15.4 kms [9.6 miles]
Hours Taken: 6 hours
Camps: Big Tree Camp to Shira II
Accent Rate: 73 meters/kilometer
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Day 3:
Starting Altitude: 3,917 meters [12,850 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 3,469 meters [11,380 ft.] (with climb to 4,628 meters [15,185 ft.] to see Arrow Glacier)
Total Climb: 712 meters [2,335 ft.] (for the 4 hr, 7.4 km. [4.6 miles] climb from Shira II to Arrow Glacier)
Total Distance: 11.9 kms [7.4 miles]
Hours Taken: 6 hours
Camps: Big Shira II to Barranco (with lunch at Lava Tower)
Accent Rate: 96 meters/kilometer (Shira II to Arrow Glacier)
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Day 4:
Starting Altitude: 3,469 meters [11,380 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 4,666 meters [15,310 ft.]
Total Climb: 1,061 meters [3,480 ft.]
Total Distance: 8.2 kms [5.1 miles]
Hours Taken: 5.5 hours
Camps: Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp
Accent Rate: 129 meters/kilometer
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Day 5:
Starting Altitude: 4,666 meters [15,310 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 3,799 meters [12,465 ft.] (Summited Uhuru Peak at 5,895 meters [19,341ft.])
Total Climb: 1,353 meters [4,440 ft.] (and a 2,213 meter [7,260 ft.] descent)
Total Distance: 16.1 kms [10 miles] (only 5km from Barafu to Uhuru Peak)
Hours Taken: 12.5 hours
Camps: Barafu Camp to Millennium Camp (Summited Uhuru Peak and hiked Ash Pit)
Accent Rate: 270 meters/kilometer (Barafu Camp to Uhuru)
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Day 6:
Starting Altitude: 3,799 meters [12,465 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 1,663 meters [5,456 ft.]
Total Descent: 2,136 meters [7,009 ft.]
Total Distance: 11.7 kms [7.2 miles]
Hours Taken: 3.75 hours
Camps: Millennium Camp to Mweka Park Gate
Descent Rate: 183 meters/kilometer