The Kilimanjaro Climb: What You Need to Know

Mt Kilimanjaro is the world's largest freestanding mountain, attracting thousands of climbers annually. How hard is it to climb? And is it worth it? Here's what you need to know about the trek, insurance, and what happens on summit night.

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Elephants in a line at sunrise in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro Photo © Getty Images/Diana Robinson Photography

There‘s a reason it‘s called the Roof of Africa. Standing at 19,340 ft (5,895 meters) above sea level, ‘Kili’ is a beast of a mountain. It’s small in comparison to its bigger brothers in Asia, but still daunting.

Some sobering figures include: around ten trekkers will die each year on Kili, out of 35,000 people attempting to reach the top. Around 65% make it to the summit, while 35% will turn around.

But in saying that, the experience of Kilimanjaro – hiking uphill for six days with Maasai and Chugga guides – will leave you inspired, exhausted, and stronger.

This mountain will change you.

The Kilimanjaro Experience

While summiting Everest can take months, Kili in usually done in six days. Climbing Kilimanjaro is an endurance test…literally a non-stop grind to the top.

The age-old climbing term, “Climb High, Sleep Low” is loosely applied here.

So if you are thinking of setting foot on Africa‘s tallest peak, get ready for some tough days.

But lets not be too melodramatic about this. Just remember what the locals say, “Hakuna Matata Kilimanjaro. (Loosely translated, No worries with Kilimanjaro.)

Preparing to climb Kili

Training for Kili is essential if you want to be one of the lucky ones to stand on Uhuru Peak (Swahili for ‘Freedom Peak‘).

Its no easy climb like some people suggest. There may not be any technical climbing, but walking up 6,000m vertically in six days will take a toll on your physical well-being.

So here are some basic tips for training:

Walk….walk….walk, and when you are done, walk some more.

The only real training for Mount Kilimanjaro is walking – hitting the pavement until your feet bleed. It will prepare your body for the long days and get your legs in the best shape of their lives.

And for all you fitness/gym junkies out there…pumping weights and cardio routines arent going to help. This is mountain climbing, and unfortunately altitude doesn‘t care if youve run a marathon.

And trust us, a screaming personal trainer is not as scary as the symptoms of altitude sickness.

The hard facts of altitude sickness

I won‘t go too deep into altitude sickness, but basically, its a very real concern when you climb mountains anywhere in the world.

Ascending to heights greater than 2,500m can trigger a range of symptoms including headache and vomiting. This is caused by going up too rapidly, which doesn't allow the body enough time to adjust to reduced oxygen and changes in air pressure.

Men are at greater risk of altitude sickness than women, for unknown reasons.

It is important to remember that being young and fit doesn't reduce your risk, and just because you haven't experienced altitude sickness in the past doesn't mean you are immune to the condition during future climbs. The only sure method of prevention is to make sure you take plenty of time during your ascent.

Symptoms can include headaches, tiredness, insomnia, lack of appetite, lack of coordination, and nausea.

But here are the two big nasties – Pulmonary Edema and Cerebral Edema. In layman‘s terms, fluid on the lungs and fluid on the brain.

Both, if untreated, can be fatal.

So how can you prepare or prevent this from happening? Unfortunately, you can only take small steps to prevent altitude sickness. If your body doesn’t want to climb high, then it just won’t do it.

The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to go up slowly. Some people take medications but in the end, these can just act as a placebo.

But from our own experience here are some guidelines you might want to note:

  • Avoid alcohol
  • Drink water!!! Up to seven liters a day.
  • Only climb with professional guides
  • Don‘t lie to yourself or your guides

Believe us, carrying a friend off a mountain while he coughs up blood is not a fun experience.

So use a buddy system! Most people will not acknowledge their own symptoms, especially when the peak is in sight. So sometimes youll need to force someone down…in the end, it will be a good decision.

Insurance coverage for Kilimanjaro

Climbing Kilimanjaro can certainly put you in harms way. So getting the best insurance cover is necessary.

Of everything you do in Africa, nothing can land you in hospital as quickly as climbing Kili. If you do develop altitude sickness, expect a few days in Arusha hospital and some extra nights at a hotel, all at your expense.

And keep some US dollars handy for your rescuers, who will push you down the mountain on one of the ancient stretchers spread along the tourist trails.

The summit night

Get ready for a challenge and in some cases, absolute hell.

Take all the marathons youve run, all the hard beach runs and tough gym sessions, and put them in the back of your mind.

You are climbing at altitude now…this will test you.

Here‘s a summary:

  • Eight hours of vertical pain, slipping and sliding in skreet (loose rocks).
  • You‘ll master the Hilary Step (the basic mountaineering shuffle made famous by Sir Edmund Hilary), the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mantra.
  • You‘ll stop talking amongst your companions – just their heavy breathing, filling the night sky.
  • It will be cold, dark, unforgiving…especially when you look up to see distant torch lights scrambling up the mountain.
  • Our advice – focus. Focus on what you are doing, what‘s important to you, one step at a time. Your determination, character, and spirit will be tested on this evening.

But nothing is easy about traveling in Africa, so it's up to you whether you‘ll let Kilimanjaro beat you.

When you make it to the top

If you do get to the top, take some time to enjoy it and give yourself a pat on the back! Youll only stand on the peak for a few minutes, so take them all in.

The Roof of Africa is a beautiful place and as you look out over the plains of the Serengeti, the bushland of Tsavo and the peaks of Mount Kenya and Mt Meru, youll know why East Africa is a magical place that every real traveler should experience once.

Travelers' tips

One reason you‘ll make it to the top is the crew you have around you. Your Maasai or Chugga guides will get you there and keep you smiling the whole way.

Kilimanjaro‘s guides are some of the nicest people in the world – true Africans! You'd give them your life at the end of this journey.

But instead, here are three tips for making the experience better.

  • Tip your guides and porters well (they don‘t get paid much and they work very hard, so they deserve your tips)
  • Hand over any gear you won‘t need again. Clothing and boots are valuable for these people – and they need it more than you.
  • And finally, exchange details. Social network with your new friends. Your experience will be better for it.

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