Mt Kilimanjaro rises out of the plain like a giant solitary cake. From below it appears all flat across the top, ready for the candles to be put into the snowy white icing. Appearances can be a little deceptive though, this majestic sight is actually a serious endeavour for those wishing to climb it. Kilimanjaro is but a remnant of it’s former self at 5896m, the top having been blown off in a volcanic explosion some millions of years ago. The ‘flat’ top is actually a crater rim, with three separate peaks. Kibo is the highest point in all of Africa, with Mawenzi and Shira slightly lower. The now dormant crater is snow filled and vast. Originally the mountain is thought to have been higher than Everest.
There are several different routes and some are easier than others. Success rates vary between the routes. Reaching the Kibo summit is not technically challenging and requires no actual climbing, you simply walk to the top, but at nearly 6km above sea level it can be quite a challenge. Altitude sickness is a real issue and the only cure is rapid descent, meaning route selection is critical.
All of the main routes pass through Stella Point on the crater rim. The final summit climb will start somewhere between midnight and 2am, depending on the route taken and which final campsite is used. Most gear can be left behind for the summit climb and collected on the way back. Trekkers usually arrive at Stella Point at dawn for some spectacular views of the rising sun, then skirt about an hour, usually through hard packed snow, around the crater rim to Kibo Summit. Whichever route you take, the final summit experience is the same.
Many people who are strapped for both time and budget choose the Marangu route, also known as the ‘Coca-cola’ route. This can be a good choice, but does suffer a lower success rate because it’s straight up and straight down in a very short time, leaving little time to acclimatise. Dormitory accomodation on the way makes it quite comfortable. This is the only route with accomodation. It can be very busy on this route, with groups passing each other frequently in both directions.
A second option, taking a little longer to acclimatise is also popular. The Machame Route involves a short near vertical climb on day 4, but the slower ascent makes for better acclimatisation and results in a much better success rate. A little less busy, it also gives plenty of time to take in some breathtaking scenery while getting acquainted with the altitude. Spending more time above the cloud line, means that you’ll be seeing Kibo Peak early in the trek. Machame is the most challenging commercial route.
The Shira Route is also quite a popular route up Kilimanjaro, meeting up with the Machame route on day 4. This is the route the author took and has a distinct advantage in that it climbs, then descends through a saddle, before climbing again. This offers the body a very good opportunity to acclimatise fully, meaning this route has a good success rate.
Two further routes are available, but are significantly less popular. Both suffer from being short and steep, with little chance for acclimatisation and poor scenery. Rongai is quiet and peaceful in comparison to the other routes and is serviced by fewer guides. It is the only way in from the north. Umbwe is very quiet and remote, with a low success rate, but may suit some people who know themselves to be both very fit and easy acclimatised.
All routes require a mandatory guide and porters are highly recommended for all but the fittest. Not only does hiring a porter help the local economy, it offers an opportunity to view the fantastic scenery and enjoy the climb. Water is available at all the camping sites and along the way. A couple of decent water bottles are needed to carry water on the longer stretches, a couple of litres is sufficient. Warm clothing is required at night and for the final summit climb. A good pair of boots is essential. Guides, porters and everything needed for the climb can be arranged in Arusha.