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Are you thinking of taking on this gentle giant? When it comes to summiting Kili, the number one question on everyone’s mind is: “Just how difficult is it to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?” Closely followed by: “Am I up for the journey, I must be crazy?”

It’s 6am when you reach the summit. Your heart is pounding, the cold air leaves your skin tingling. You raise your gaze to the horizon as you let the warm morning light wash over you. Mount Kilimanjaro will test the limits of your body and mind, simultaneously leaving you in awe of its contrasting beauty. It is a natural wonder of contradiction: snow-covered peaks on the equator, a sea of green surrounded by the savannah.

Photo: Luca Calderone

At 5895m, this African behemoth is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world and the most accessible of the famous Seven Summits. You don’t need any special climbing gear or previous mountaineering experience. Most of the routes are really just hikes, but don’t be fooled by this description. Mount Kilimanjaro will always be a challenge.

There are many things you can do to increase your chances of reaching the summit and ensure that you enjoy this, possibly life-changing, journey. We hope to give you some insight into the physical demands of the climb, which help you better prepare for your journey.

Choose your route carefully

Try to make the journey during the dry seasons. Kili is located near the equator so its peak is accessible all year round, but naturally, certain months are better than others. You should expect rain though, so anything waterproof is your best friend.

Now, the main thing to remember is that all paths lead to Uhuru Peak (5,895 meters). Comparison guides are available to help you find the match for you. Don’t just pick the quickest or cheapest options. There are a number of factors to consider that could make your journey decidedly better. Think about your fitness level, budget, time and sleeping preference (tents or huts). If don’t have much time then the shorter 5/6 day treks would be ideal, but they do require a higher fitness level. If fitness is a concern then maybe the 7/8 day treks might suit you better. One thing to remember is that this is an experience to enjoy so find a route that appeals to your interests.

There are 7 routes to choose from, namely:

Machame: Distance – 49km, Duration – 7 days
Difficulty – Intermediate

Lemosho: Distance – 56km, Duration – 8 days
Difficulty – Intermediate

Rongai: Distance – 65km, Duration – 5 to 6 days,
Difficulty – Intermediate

Marangu: Distance – 64km, Duration – 6 days,
Difficulty – Easy

Shira: Distance – 65km, Duration – 6 to 7 days,
Difficulty – Intermediate

Northern Circuit: Distance – 90km, Duration – 9 days
Difficulty – Intermediate

Umbwe: Distance – 37km, Duration – 6 days,
Difficulty – Hard

Marangu, aka the “Coca-Cola” route, has a gentle gradient is the most popular and thus tends to be the most crowded. Machame is the second most popular and famous for its incredible forest scenes, but is a bit tougher than Marangu hence the nickname “Whiskey Route”. The new Northern Route is the longest route on the list and therefore a little less crowded. Each route has its own unique experiences and requires varying levels of fitness. It is best for you to do some research and find the one best suited to you.

Training for your Kilimanjaro climb

You technically don’t need any training to make the climb, but it will increase your enjoyment of the experience tenfold if you do. The trek amounts to a very long walk (well that depends on the route you’ve decided to take), but the effects of the altitude make things just a little harder.

If gyms and training schedules don’t suit your mind-set or schedule don’t despair: The trek doesn’t require you to be an athlete, but it helps to condition your body to walking for long periods. It will just make the entire journey more enjoyable, allowing you to focus on and connect with your surroundings.

Walk/hike as often as you can and remember to break in the shoes you’ll be wearing on your trek. In the months leading up to your departure increase the number and duration of the walks and hikes. You should be comfortable walking across various terrains for 6-8 hours over consecutive days. Wear the pack you’ll be walking with so you can get used to its weight. Training to make it through the first few days comfortably allows you to reserve your energy for when you need it most.

Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Let your training take you to places you want to see. Making it fun makes your body want to do it again. Unfortunately, fitness is no guarantee that you will reach Uhuru Peak. There’s this little issue of altitude sickness to contend with.

Photo: Lital Levy

Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro

Altitude sickness has thwarted many a climber’s plan for glory. Ultimately, reaching the summit depends on how well you cope with the altitude.

Your research on altitude sickness may lead you to believe that it affects people seemingly at random, regardless of their fitness level or age. There are, however several things you can do to avoid the symptoms associated with altitude sickness. So let’s take a look at the what, when, who and why of altitude sickness.

What exactly is altitude sickness?

Rapid ascent, without sufficient acclimatization, to a high altitude leads to a range of symptoms collectively known as altitude sickness. The body is able to adjust to high altitudes at a rate 300m/day. Ascending any faster may lead to altitude sickness.

The are 3 forms of altitude sickness:
• Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is very common when climbing Kilimanjaro.
• High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is the build up of fluid in the lungs.
• High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is the build up of fluid in the brain.

Both HAPE and HACE have been known to be fatal, but extremely rare for the well prepared.

Who can get altitude sickness?

Well, anybody can. It is extremely difficult to predict how your body will react without proper acclimatization. It afflicts climbers seemingly at random. Nobody is safe from its embrace. Men seem more susceptible than women, especially if they’re young and fit. It may just come down to their competitive nature. Their compulsion to show off will often lead ascending faster: A one-way ticket to altitude sickness. Older climbers are also less likely to be afflicted. By ascending slowly they unwittingly protect themselves and the best protection against altitude sickness is ascending slowly.

When will you get altitude sickness?

If you’re highly susceptible people you may experience symptoms from approximately 2500 m onwards and in rare cases below that.

The likelihood that you would develop AMS not only increases with the height but also with the ascent rate. The rate is the most important factor. Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain in the world. The last push to its summit will cause some symptoms of altitude sickness in almost every climber.

There are a number of factors that increase your chances of altitude sickness:

• Ascent rate (the risk of developing symptoms increases the faster you ascend)
• The time you spend at a specific height (symptoms can appear within 6-10 hours though you can delay them)
• Physical exertion
• Dehydration

AMS symptoms take about 1-2 days to go away. Continuing your ascent may mean they don’t disappear. Generally symptoms will come and go during the day, disappear overnight, only to reappear the next day when continuing the climb. AMS can be tough, but your best protection is preparedness and sensible pacing. Most climbers will make the last camp before the summit, which is about 4700m above sea level. Pushing to the summit will force you to do supreme battle with AMS. It is here that it becomes make or break.

Photo: Luca Calderone

What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?

There is also a range of other symptoms you are likely to experience during a Your Kilimanjaro climb will lead you to experience a range of that are considered normal and should not worry you:

Shortness of breath
Periodic breathing at night (A rather frightening, yet harmful experience where you stop breathing for up to 15sec, only to breathe very fast right after)
Frequently waking up at night
Increased need to urinate

None of the symptoms listed above are altitude sickness.

The symptoms associated with AMS are:

• Headaches
• Fatigue
• Sleeplessness
• Dizziness
• Loss of appetite,
• Nausea
• Vomiting

Everyone will experience some of these symptoms in a mild form. The exact cause of the individual symptoms is still not fully understood.

The symptoms associated with HAPE are:

• Extreme breathlessness (even while rest)
• Rattling breathing
• Coughing up pink froth
• Blue lips and/or finger nails

HACE manifests as:

• Lack of coordination
• Loss of balance
• Confusion
• Irrational behaviour (may not want to acknowledge the symptoms)

How dangerous is altitude sickness?

AMS symptoms tend to be limiting, but not dangerous. Your guides may even brief you not to worry and that nausea and vomiting are common during the final lush to the summit: A thought, which simultaneously terrifies and comforts many climbers. Your guide will monitor any symptoms you display, since AMS has been known to progress to a more severe form of altitude sickness.

HAPE and HACE are a different story entirely: They are potentially fatal! Thankfully they are quite rare on Kili climbs. Remain in constant contact with your guide at the onset of any of the symptoms. People who suffer from these severe conditions are often unable to properly assess their own condition, so keep an eye on your fellow climbers. Immediate descent is advised if you or any other climber display any symptoms associated wit HAPE and HACE. Failure to descend may result in death. No need to panic though, this is extremely rare on Kili. If you’re prepared, listen to your guide and take it slow you will greatly reduce your chances of altitude sickness.

What to do to reduce the chance of altitude sickness

Regardless of where you will be staying, you should definitely fly in a few of days early to acclimatize. Your body needs time to adjust to the different altitude, climate and food. It helps to recover from any jet lag and the strains of travel if you are coming from a different time zone. Arriving early you improve your chances of summiting the peak by at least 5%.

Taking the climb slowly is by far the best way to reduce your risk of altitude sickness. Pole pole is a Swahili phrase you will become very familiar with during you climb. It means “slowly, slowly” and it is the most sage advice of all. Once you begin your journey you will notice just how slow the climb is, as if in slow motion. Soon you begin to notice that catching up with the group after a photo break leaves you breathless. Everything starts require a bit more effort. You begin to be thankful for the pace. Try and avoid exerting yourself. You may be tempted to speed up to catch your group or overtake another, but resist! You have nothing to gain. This is no race. Take this moment to appreciate your surroundings and drink in the views. Never underestimate the mountain.

Photo: Emma Van Sant

Remember: Pole Pole!

Keep yourself hydrated! It is all too easy to dehydrate when you are at altitude. The dry air means you lose more moisture, while your body adjusts to the high altitude by eliminating water. You should replace it.

Make sure you keep your energy up by eating as much as possible. You might lose your appetite, while at altitude. Simultaneously your body burns through many calories, which need to be replaced. Stick to carb-heavy snacks to help with your stamina.

Taking the proper gear is essential. While you may not require any specialized climbing gear you will still need to be prepared for different weather conditions. Keeping warm will lessen your risk of succumbing to altitude sickness and protect against the very real threat of hypothermia.

Only take the essentials. Keeping your daypack light will shave of extra kilos and save you some precious oxygen on the way up.

Finally, and I know it might be hard for some, try and avoid tobacco, alcohol and definitely avoid sleeping tablets at all costs! They might leave you sleeping forever.

Photo: Les Argonautes

So Kili presents us with a strikingly beautiful challenge that even the most novice of adventurers can tackle. If you’re healthy, pick a good route, prepare yourself physically, pick a good operator, acclimatize by arriving a few days early and keep all the above tips in mind. You should have an excellent chance of making it to majestic Uhuru Peak.

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