What is Mount Kilimanjaro?
If you are reading this, I don’t think I need to explain what Mount Kilimanjaro is. But in case you really don’t know, the TLDR version is: Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in Africa, with its summit of 5,895 metres (19,341 feet) above sea level. Are you impressed now?
In case you want to compare with the height of Mount Everest (the highest mountain in the world), its summit stands at 8,848 metres (29,029 feet) above sea level.
Unlike Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro is really safe to climb. Very few people die climbing this mountain. I’m not saying that climbing the mountain is easy though! There is still a 30% fail rate from reaching the summit, but you won’t die (you may just be completely exhausted). There are about 50,000 trekkers in the world each year challenging this mountain. The oldest trekker was 85 years old and the youngest was 7 (you serious?). Mount Kilimanjaro is also a popular trekking destination for Canadians. When I was shopping for hiking gear in MEC, the salesperson explained that he had customers asking him about Kilimanjaro trekking supplies every week!
The Lemosho Route
There are six routes to reach the top of Kilimanjaro. These routes are Lemosho, Shira, Machame, Umbwe, Marangu and Rongai. They are all different in terms of difficulty, the number of trekking days, sleeping conditions, ability to acclimatize, and scenery variety. Lemosho, Machame and Marangu are the more accessible routes compared to the other ones. Since I did not hike on the other routes, I am not going to explain all the differences between them.
The Lemosho route has a high success rate (I’ll explain why I didn’t make it to the top though). This route varies between 6-8 days of trek, which is excellent for acclimatization. Lemosho is not as crowded as Marangu. The ideal length for average hikers is 7 days. We ended up choosing Lemosho because of the ease of acclimatization. Before you hike, your starting point is already at 2,300 metres.
The exact route is as follows:
Day 1 – Base to Mti Mkubwa, 3 hours, 4.5 km, (2,300m to 2,750m)
Day 2 – Mti Mkubwa to Shira II, 8.5 hours, 17 km (2,750m to 3,900m)
Day 3 – Shira II to Barranco, 6 hours, 10 km (3,900m to 3,900m) – go through Lava Tower at 4,600m
Day 4 – Barranco to Karanga, 4 hours, 6 km (3,900m to 4,050m) – you can directly go to Day 5 destination
Day 5 – Karanga to Barafu, 4 hours, 4 km (4,050m to 4,670m)
Day 6 – Barafu to Summit (Uhuru Peak) back to Mweka, 10-16 hours, 17 km (4,670m to 5,895m to 3,100m)
Day 7 – Mweka to Base, 4 hours, 10 km (3,100m to 1,630m)
Which tour company (operator)?
There are many (too many) operators for Mount Kilimanjaro. Being prudent travelers like us, we did our research and enquired about several tour companies. For big tour companies, we looked into G Adventures, Intrepid, and Kandoo. Then, we also researched local companies such as Viva Africa Tours, Bayango, Pita Safari and Trekking Hero.
At the end of the day, we chose Trekking Hero. Many factors led us to this local company.
First, the tour company needs to be a registered operator and part of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project or Mount Kilimanjaro Porter Society. It is important to know that the operator is safe during the whole duration of the hike. You must verify that the tour company is licensed with the Tanzanian Park Service.
Second, you want to know how the operator treats its own trekking staff. This is a reflection of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If the operator has a good policy of treating its own staff, you know that you (as a trekker) would also be treated well. Factors to indicate their employee treatment include whether they hire freelance guides (you don’t want freelance guides), amount of salary they pay their staff, and the extent of their training and development program.
Third, you want to know how flexible they are. A good operator is one that is flexible and can accommodate their guests based on their needs. For example, we asked whether the tour would be guaranteed in case of a low number of registrants. We also asked whether a particular departure date was available and was not the one offered on their websites.
Fourth, read their reviews! Google review and Tripadvisor are good sources to verify whether guests have an overall positive experience. When I read reviews, I pay attention to the negative comments and judge how those comments would really affect me.
Fifth, price. You want to know whether you are overpaying the tour company. Though, safety is a paramount factor and you should not cheap out and go with an unsafe operator.
We found that Trekking Hero ticked all the boxes and we truly had an enjoyable experience with them. They were very flexible on the departure dates and guaranteed our trip regardless of the total number of sign-ups. It turned out to be a private tour. We paid $2,099 USD for the 7-day tour and it was very reasonable.
When you choose your operator, be mindful of these various factors.
When should you go?
You can technically climb Mount Kilimanjaro all year round. The warmest times to trek would be from mid-December to February, or from September to October. You can also climb from June to August but the night temperatures are much colder. November, March, April and May are not ideal and best to avoid because those are the wettest months.
Even during the hike itself, you will experience both hot and cold temperatures. When we went in late December, the base temperature was 23 Celcius degrees. At the top of the summit, the temperature dropped to -10 Celcius degrees. It’s really hard to plan on what to wear during the hike. I encourage you to wear layers. When you hike, you tend to generate heat and get warm easily. However, as soon you take a break, your temperature drops and any slight movement of wind becomes extremely noticeable. Don’t get sick and put on your hiking jacket!
This site is one of the best to show you live temperature and forecast of Kilimanjaro: https://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Mount-Kilimanjaro/forecasts/5963
How do you get there?
If you are coming from North America, getting there can be a trek itself. For us, we had three connecting flights. We left from Toronto, to Frankfurt, to Addis Ababa, and then to Moshi. All the flight combined took 30 hours (including layover), and spanned over 2 days. When we arrived at Moshi, we took a one-hour bus ride to our hotel. On the next day, we had to take another 4-hour bus ride to reach the base of Kilimanjaro (Lemosho route).
Jet lag was bad. My first piece of advice is to perhaps take a day to fix your jet lag.
Things to bring
Too many things to bring, best to list them by category:
1. All underwear and undershirts
2. Thermal pants (for the top)
3. Parka and fleece jacket
4. Long hiking pants, jeans, shorts
5. T-shirts (dry-fit!)
6. Waterproof pants
7. Rain poncho / jacket
Headgear and hand-gear
1. Hat and toque
3. Hiking poles
4. Normal gloves
5. Hardcore winter gloves
1. Hiking socks
2. Sleeping socks (yes they are different, these are warmer)
3. Hiking boots
4. Normal shoes
5. Knee brace
6. Any sports tapes (like spider-tech)
7. Sock liners
1. Small towel
2. Body wipes (forget about taking showers)
3. Vaseline (good to treat dry nose)
4. Lip balm
5. Toilet paper (key!)
6. Toothbrush and paste
8. Hand sanitizers
1. Adaptors (be sure you bring the ones that fit Tanzanian standards)
2. GoPro plus all accessories
3. DSLR if you want (but kinda bulky for hiking)
4. Solar charger (game changer)
8. Lots of spare batteries
1. The usual stuff like Tylenol, Advil and Cipro
2. Immodium (you need that)
3. Diamox pill (for altitude)
4. Malaria pill (must bring)
8. Blister plaster
9. Aloe vera cream
2. Eye mask
4. Water bottle (1L) x2
6. Ziplocs (you cannot bring plastic bags to the mountain)
7. Sleeping bag liner
8. Trail mix
9. Heat warmer
10. Massage ball
Things to really know
I will list all the things that you really want to know for the hike:
1. Don’t take altitude lightly. One of the main reasons why people don’t make it to the summit is because of altitude sickness. Even with the Diamox pill, you only get some relief up to a certain point (like around 5,000m). Any additional height past 5,000m renders Diamox useless. You will still experience nausea, headache, fast heart rate, tingly feeling, diarrhea, frequent urination, and temporary memory loss. Oh yes, you can also be temporarily blind.
Sam and Becky's success
2. Maybe take an extra day of rest before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro if you experience jet lag.
3. Watch your knee. If you have a Runner’s Knee history, I encourage you to wear a knee brace and use hiking poles from the beginning.
4. Always drink and get hydrated. If you don’t, the Diamox pill produces severe side effects which would give you the urge of frequent urination, even though nothing comes out.
5. If you have the option to purchase a private washroom from your operator, do it! We paid 175 USD to Trekking Hero for a private washroom, and it was a game-changer! You may not want to use the public washroom in the campsites. According to a fellow trekker, the description was that you would want to vomit as soon you go inside the public washrooms. So go figure!
6. The following were game-changers for our hike:
Pill cutter – for Diamox
Solar panel charger – for your phone and camera
Hip belt backpacks
7. Think about whether you really want to summit on a special day. For example, if you summit during full moon, the path will be crowded. If you summit on New Years Eve or New Years Day, the whole summit trek would be extra miserable because the path would be overly crowded. Keep in mind, when you summit, you want to get there fast and get out fast. You don’t want to stay at the top for more than 2 minutes. On a crowded day, you have to wait extra long to get your picture taken in front of the Uhuru sign. Any extra second of wait would be too long. Your smile will be fake!
Summit on New Years Eve 2019
8. Don’t expect that you’ll be sleeping comfortably inside the tents. Even when you are extremely tired from the hike, you may not necessarily get a good night sleep. I encourage bringing a portable, inflatable pillow with you to get extra comfort. The sleeping condition sucks but I guess you don’t have a choice with the Lemosho route. Though, I believe you can stay in huts in the Marangu route.
Shira II campsite
9. Bring dry-fit clothes. A mistake that I made. My impression of Kilimanjaro was that the trek would be cold. So most of my clothes were winter-gear. What I didn’t expect was the beginning where the average temperature was hovering around 23-25 Celcius degrees. My shirts were all soaked and since they were not dry-fit clothes, I had to recycle through them while they were wet. Not the most pleasant experience.
10. Put on loads of sunscreen on summit day. Since you are so high at the top, the UV ray is extra strong. Always re-apply. When you are cold, you tend to sneeze and wipe your nose with tissue paper. By doing that, you also wipe off some of the sunscreen. If you don’t re-apply, you will get severe sunburn – not pretty.
11. Have you heard of the Barranco Wall? Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the wall. But my friends told me that it was a steep wall where they climbed straight up. At one point, you have to hug a massive rock (called the Kissing Rock) just to get to the other side. If you are scared of altitude, don’t look down!
The Kissing Rock
12. Your park entrance fee includes the cost of rescue off the mountain. If you really reach the point where you need to be rescued, don’t hesitate to ask for help! One less item to worry about since you don’t have to pay extra. I believe the Incan trail is the opposite.
13. There is a standard tipping guideline for some operators. For us, we tipped 300 USD for the whole crew. You’ll be surprised to see the number of porters, guides and chefs who go with you. On a typical 10 person group climbing Kilimanjaro, you are supported with a team of 40 people, including 4 head guides, 3 assistant guides, 3 cooks and 30 porters!
So how come I failed to reach the summit?
Everything went wrong for me. Before my first hiking day, I was suffering from jet lag and a cold that I got in Frankfurt. I was already weak on the first day.
Then, the change in temperature between the day and night was rapid. You can be sweating during the day, and then experience the freezing cold at night. This wasn’t a determining factor, but it destroyed my sleep and I certainly wasn’t recovering from my low HP. Oh yea, did I say that my sleeping bag was faulty?
The deal-breaker though was my Runner’s Knee. I suffered from a previous condition called the patellofemoral syndrome, also known as the Runner’s Knee, 2 years ago from my trip in Patagonia. It was a result of overusing my knee joint, which caused misalignment of the kneecap. People who suffered from the Runner’s knee can easily get it back, even when your knee has already completely healed. This happened to me when I experienced sharp pain on my knee cap by day 2. My hike was so bad that my hiking poles became my crutches. Hiking upward wasn’t a problem. It was going downhill that cause tremendous trouble for me.
I had to decide whether I should continue by day 3. I wanted to see the Barranco Wall myself but visiting the wall means that I had to go through the Lava Tower first (a trek up 700m up) and then to hike 700m down. As I said, hiking up wasn’t a problem, it was going down.
At Shira II camp, I had the option to call the rescue car to transport me down to base camp. If I kept going, it would be the point of no return. At the end of the day, I had to make a tough decision and called the rescue team. The path for the rescue car was terribly maintained. I can see why people can’t hop on the car, drive up this path and be at Shira II camp already. You would also lose the ability to acclimatize. Anyhow, I hopped onto the rescue car and it took 2-3 hours to get down. Unfortunately, the porters had to carry my stuff using a different route – by walking!
It was a wild experience. I failed at reaching the top but I’m glad I tried climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.