Climbing Kilimanjaro

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Rising from the grassy plains of the savannah, sits Africa’s highest peak – Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Nicknamed the Roof of Africa, the mountain soars to over 19,000 feet, and is topped with the quickly receding Furtwängler Glacier.  It has become one of Africa’s top trekking experiences and an estimated 15,000 people attempt the climb each year.  Not only is it Africa’s highest peak, it is also the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, and one of the 7 Summits, representing the highest peaks on each continent.

While it might sit in the same categories as the mighty Mt. Everest, Kilimanjaro is actually one of the easiest of the world’s top peaks.  The mountain is tall but the routes up are gradual and forgiving to those of us not trained as professional mountain climbers.  The climb is not “technically” difficult in the way of scaling rock walls or trekking through deep snow.  Instead, the most popular routes wind their way up the mountain, slowly and steadily.  That is not to say this is an easy climb and with high elevations, altitude sickness can affect even the most athletic among us.  If you have a dream of climbing one of the world’s tallest mountains though, Kilimanjaro might just be your peak.

Preparing

Most people hiking Kilimanjaro take 5-7 days, depending on their route, to make it to the top.  While you could theoretically hike up much faster than that, the thin air of the high altitude makes going slow vital.  When preparing for your trek, keeping in mind the altitude factor is important.  Most treks involve days of 6+ hours of walking, gradually uphill.  If you are relatively fit, this can seem like just a long walk but once you start gasping for oxygen at the mountain’s peak, you will have a different opinion.  If you can, try to do some mountain hiking before you go.  Even if it isn’t as high, it will give you a better understanding of what to expect.  If you are training at sea level, try and over prepare to avoid any issues.  If you know you are susceptible to altitude sickness, you can also talk to your doctor about taking diamox, an altitude sickness drug, as well.

The other most important thing you can do to prepare is to buy a good pair of hiking boots.  While some people never reach the summit due to dangerous altitude sickness, an embarrassed few have to turn back due to foot and ankle problems caused by lousy shoes.  This is not where you want to break in a new pair of hiking boots.

Routes and Guides

Kilimanjaro National Park regulates climbers and guides on the mountain.  Signing up with an approved trekking company is not only mandatory but also highly recommended.  There is a set number of guides and porters required for each group, depending on the number of hikers in the group.  Usually this is around 1-2 guides per group, 3 porters for each person, and of course a cook.  The porters carry all the major supplies for the trek, including food and water.

As mentioned before, there are multiple routes up the mountain and while most take 5-7 days, you can opt to join a longer trekking group of 8-9 days to better acclimatize to the altitude and maximize your chance of making it to the summit.  Marangu is the most popular route and at times can be quite crowded.  It does though pass through beautiful scenery and with an average total of 6 days, it provided for decent altitude acclimation.  Umbwe is the shortest, steepest, and most demanding route.  It is the most dangerous option up the mountain and should be avoided unless you are a professional.  Northern Circuit is one of the newer routes up the mountain.  It is very long, scenic, and rarely crowded due to the average 9 days of hiking that this route takes to reach the summit.

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