Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, proudly shooting to the sky with three of its peaks, Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. While Mawenzi and Shira are long extinct volcanos, the Kibo is dormant only, and we can potentially witness its eruption again. The highest of its peaks, Kibo, rises to 5,985 meters above the sea level and this is the peak that thousands of climbers and hiking enthusiasts tackle every year.
The volcano is located in the Northern part of Tanzania, in the Kilimanjaro National Park, and is bordering with Kenya on the north. While Kilimanjaro is rather famous for being the highest peak in Africa, lesser known fact is that it is also the highest free standing mountain in the world; that is to say a mountain that is not part of a mountain range.
According to the historical records, the earliest attempts to reach the summit were already made in the 19th century. Prussian officer Karl Klaus von der Decken together with English geologist R. Thornton made the very first attempt in August 1861. Unfortunately due to the bad weather, they managed to reach 2 800m above the sea level. Despite the failed attempt, both of the climbers provided the estimated hight of Kili – between 5 944 and 9 197m, and Mt Mawenzi at 5 177 – 5 236m. Thornton also indicated that Kibo was the youngest and Shira was the oldest part of the mountain.
The following year von der Decken reached 4 260m, without Thornton. However that attempt failed too, due to a snow storm.
After the aforementioned attempts, the Kilimanjaro saw several additional attempts, but in the end it was Hans Mayer, Ludwig Purtscheller and a local, Lauowo who were the first to successfully summit Mount Kilimanjaro in October, 1889.
Choosing a route to climb a mountain is very important, because it will determine your success rate to reach the peak. Shorter routes have lower success rate comparing to the longer ones of course, giving a proper time to get used to the climate and the altitude. There are six routes to ascend: Lemosho, Machame, Marangu, Rongai, Shira and Umbwe, all of which I will briefly cover below. They differ not only due to the scenery or steepness, but they also differ due to how many days it takes to attempt to reach Uhuru Peak. Reports by Kilimanjaro National Park done in 2006 showed that the shorter the climb, the lower the rate of reaching the top:
- All climbers, all routes 45%
- All climbers, all 5 day routes 27%
- All climbers, all 6 day routes 44%
- All climbers, all 7 days routes 64%
- All climbers, all 8 day routes 85%
- All climbers, all 9 day routes (no data)
Marangu is often chosen by unprepared and inexperienced climbers, because it has a reputation as being an easy route, however reaching the top is low, as additional day or two to acclimatize are preferred. This route is also called “Coca-cola route”, because in the old days climbers could purchase this drink in the tea huts. The other characteristic of this route is that it is usually rather crowded, because it is used both for ascending and descending. Moreover, accommodation on this route is in shared huts, so you can end up cozying up to a stranger.
Machame route – popularly known as “Whisky route” as it is more difficult to climb that “Coca cola route” (Marangu) – is considered the most scenic one and is also the most popular one. However, it is steeper and more physically demanding then Marangu and Rongai and therefore it is better suited for the more fit and experienced climbers.
Rongai is the easiest, but also the least scenic route with very tough final ascends from the north. It offers less acclimatization opportunities, but at the early stages of the climb, hikers can experience true wilderness.
Shira and Lemosho routes offer generally good success rate due to longer altitude adaptation and acclimatization time, especially during longer itineraries. Shira starts higher than Lemosho, but both offer interesting sites and beautiful views of the western side of Kilimanjaro. Both routes converge with Machame route at the Barranco camp, and this camp tends to be the 2nd busiest camp on the way up to the top.
From all the routes, Umbwe route is the most scenic, quiet and remote one, but it is also quite a steep one. Due to its rapid ascend, it shows the lower rate of success.
There is the Mweka route, but this only used for descending. As this is the only route where dozens of climbers and porters use to reach the camp at the lower altitude, hence it looks like a crossing in Tokyo.
Out of all aforementioned routes, we chose the longest one to help us acclimatize to the altitude better, Lemosho Route. With our slightly busy schedule, we decided to climb to reach Uhuru Peak, which is the highest summit on the crater rim of Kibo, in August. Tanzania is located below the equator therefore August is one of the winter months there, and we had to keep this in mind when preparing ourselves and our equipment.
Climbing Kilimanjaro does not require any technical climbing or any specialised mountaineering equipment. Of course, pair of strong legs, good lungs and strong will does not fall into this category. However, many people tend to underestimate this mountain and the climb. They do not consider that the summit is at almost 6 000m above the sea level, and the proper acclimatization is needed. The widely accessible statistics published by the Kilimanjaro National Park show that the longer you allow yourself to acclimatize, the higher your chances are in reaching the peak. The numbers may have changed, but all climbers on all 5 day routes have 27% chance of reaching Uhuru Peak, whereas all 8 day routes 85% and even more.
The Other Me enthusiastically started his preparations in February, buying elevation training masks for both of us. I started preparing myself the same time, but I was more nervous than him. I was not worried about my stamina, but rather my breathing. I tend to run out of breath quickly on steep slopes when hiking fast. Of course, several articles about Altitude Illness and Acute Mountain Sickness did not ease my nerves. The images of getting sick and being escorted down all swelled to the main gate and then to the hospital kept appearing in my head.
But being born a rather stubborn person, I started running on the treadmill wearing the mask at least 5 times a week, and making loud breathing sounds like Lord Vader from “Star Wars”. I looked funny too. Actually the Other Me did not look any better. He wore the mask with his outside exercise outfit consisting of long sleeved shirt and sweatpants with holes in strategic places. I must admit that our neighbours had many good laughs during these six months and our cats looked at us weirdly.
If you are not familiar with the concept of the elevation training mask, here it is a short description. There are many fancy descriptions of its function, but in plain English, it is used mainly by athletes to push their body to the next level. The purpose of the mask is to simulate the decreased oxygen levels at certain altitudes and this way making your body work harder.
As we chose the Lemosho route for 8 days, we spent hours and days researching details of the ascend and descend, what we had to look after, etc. During the six months I ended with new hiking shoes, new walking sticks, and several new pairs of hiking, trekking and climbing socks, weird looking thermo underwear, head lights and so much more. Our house also saw new sleeping bags and mats. I am not counting sun blocks with factor 30, sprays against mosquitos, sprays after mosquito bites, few packages of wet wipes, and approximately 150 plasters in different sizes, just in case we experience blisters.
About three months before the climb, I was convinced that we needed additional breathing with the PowerLung . I loved it from the minute I unpacked the box. The tool helps to activate and exercise all 12 muscles used during inhalations and exhalations. But on the contrary to the elevation training mask, it puts the emphasis on the breathing out. The device has two adjustable settings: one for inhalation, and one for exhalation. So the user can adjust and increase the difficulty according to the progression levels. As per instructions, I used it twice a day, 3 sets of 10 breaths each time, experiencing sore diaphragm from exercises after a week. But it is commonly known “no pain, no game”.
The closer we were getting to a final packing, the more nervous I was growing, and the more excited the Other Me was. We do hike quite often whenever we have an opportunity, but this time we were preparing for our first proper climb and with no showers.
Finally the day of the flight arrived…