Mount Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano in Tanzania. It has three volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. It is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest single free-standing mountain in the world: 5,895 metres (19,341 ft) above sea level and about 4,900 metres (16,100 ft) above its plateau base. Kilimanjaro is the fourth most topographically prominent peak on Earth. It is part of Kilimanjaro National Park and is a major climbing destination. Because of its shrinking glaciers and disappearing ice fields, it has been the subject of many scientific studies.
Kilimanjaro translates to “mountain of the springs” and its unique position just below the equator offers an opportunity to experience five different habitats from bottom to top, which makes an ascent of the mountain undeniably special.
In 1889, German geographer Hans Meyer and Austrian mountaineer Ludwig Purtscheller became the first people on record to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. Since then, Kilimanjaro has become a popular hiking spot for locals and tourists. Because mountaineering gear and experience is not needed to reach the peak, tens of thousands of climbers ascend the mountain each year.
Suggested Itineraries in Kilimanjaro with Different Routes
There are six established routes up the mountain: Marangu, Machame, Rongai, Shira, and Umbwe. Of these, the popular Marangu Route (also sometimes referred to as the Tourist Route or snidely as the Coca-Cola Route) has the easiest gradient and is the only route with accommodation in huts, which — along with the fact that it can be completed in 5 days — makes it the cheapest option. In recent years, the Machame Route (or “Whisky Route”) has almost equaled it in popularity, and the convergence of routes has made it almost as busy on the final days. The gradients are steeper, but you have an extra day built in, giving you more time to acclimatize, and it is generally considered more scenic. Given that you have to camp, it also feels more adventurous.
I have heard a number of regular climbers assert that Rongai is a great route because it is the only one that kicks off on the north side and is, therefore, the least busy, but with the final ascent of the Western Breach Route recently reopened with strict new rules (following a bad accident in 2006), it usually converges with the busy Marangu Route on day 5 (though some say that 4 days of solitude on the mountain more than make up for this). Similarly, the Shira Route is said to cross through beautiful scenery, but the strictures of the final ascent on the Western Breach Route have similarly robbed it of its exclusivity and — unless you are with a reputable company following the new guidelines — you will converge with the Machame Route the third night. The Umbwe Route is the most direct, but also the steepest, and is therefore traditionally considered the most difficult route (and very scenic). It appeals primarily to those keen to flaunt strong machismo levels. However, it currently converges with the Machame Route on the second night and is therefore not described in detail below.
It is worth noting that if you’re looking for real exclusivity and a more scenic climb, Mount Meru is considered by locals to be a far more satisfying experience; some rate climbing the active volcano, Ol Donyo L’Engai, the Maasai’s Mountain of God, the most exhilarating. Kilemakyaro Mountain Lodge in Moshi, Meru View Lodge, and Hatari arrange climbs on Mount Meru.
Day 1: Marangu Gate to Mandara Hut (1,700-2,740m/5,576-8,987 ft.) in 3 hours
After breakfast, you will be taken to Marangu Park Gate to register. Enter the forest for the gentle walk to the 84-bed Mandara Hut via forest or main trail. Once here, you may like to walk to the Maundi Crater at the upper edge of the rainforest (a 30-min. walk from the hut) for the first of many lovely views, or rest. (Huts are basic but comfortable; lighting is solar-powered; and all but Kibo hut, reached on Day 3, have running water and flush toilets.)
Day 2: To Horombo Hut (2,740-3,700m/8,987-12,136 ft.) in 5 hours
Depart the Mandara encampment at about 8am for the 5-hour walk to the 84-bed Horombo encampment. The first 30 minutes continues through the forest; after this, you skirt the Maundi Crater, crossing a meadow and wooded stream before emerging into the moorlands zone. Look out for the many flora species; if the day is clear, there are also splendid views to enjoy. As you go higher, the vegetation thins, and you may experience shortness of breath — this is common, but keep your guide informed if you are at all worried. If you opt for the 6-day alternative, Horombo hut is where you spend the extra day to acclimatize, walking upward toward the Saddle, then returning to the hut to overnight.
Day 3: To Kibo Hut (3,700-4,700m/12,136-15,416 ft.) in 5 hours
Terrain is very similar to that seen the previous day. Take the left fork until you reach the lunar landscape of the Saddle, from where you can see Kibo Hut (it’s worth knowing that it appears closer than the few hours’ walk away it really is). Most find the last 30 minutes to the hut very tiring, and the sight of the next day’s path can appear pretty daunting. Try to get as much rest as possible.
Day 4: To Summit; Descend to Horombo Hut (4,700-5,895-3,700m/15,416-19,336-12,136 ft.) in 8 to 11 hours
Wake at midnight to complete the final trek to reach Gillman’s Point on the crater rim. The first part of the ascent is to the Hans Meyer cave, weaving around large rock outcrops. The surface is loose and hard going (don’t push too hard); you should witness sunrise from behind Mawenzi. After the cave, the scree slope becomes extremely steep; climbers move up in a zigzag fashion to Gillman’s Point — at 5,895m (19,336 ft); this is acknowledged to be the top, and you will receive your certificate at the gate to prove it. After a rest, enjoying the splendid views of the ice cliffs across the crater, you may — if you feel able and/or weather and time permit — attempt to reach Uhuru Peak. Uhuru (meaning “Freedom” in Swahili) is where a symbolic torch and the flag of the newly independent Tanganyika were hoisted on December 9, 1961; climbers reaching this point receive a gold certificate to commemorate the achievement. Before attempting this 2-hour walk around the crater rim, bear in mind that the descent is, in some ways, as difficult as the ascent. After a rest at Kibo Hut, you continue to Horombo Hut, this time by the more direct route.
Day 5: Descend to Marangu Park Gate in 3 to 5 hours
Collect your certificate and return to your lodgings, hopefully to a pre-booked massage.
The route below does not include the final ascent of the Western Breach Route, considered a difficult and potentially dangerous climb. Following a serious rock fall accident on the mountain in January 2006, park authorities closed this section; it has been reopened but is subject to strict conditions laid down by the national park. Quite a few operators are using the route again — make sure they fulfill the training and equipment regulations specified. These include using guides trained in rock-fall protocol and briefing clients and porters before they embark for the crater’s summit. Companies have been asked to consider reducing the number of support staff accompanying clients during the hike from Arrow Glacier to the crater rim, to reduce the number of porters subjected to high risks and reduce the number of dislodged rocks in this area. Porters should carry luggage in rucksacks to keep their hands free. Every group must have at least two ice axes to help cut steps in the icy conditions to create stable footholds for climbers. Every group must have life-saving equipment (Gammov bag, oxygen cylinder, first-aid kits) during the crater summit attempt, and there should be a written emergency response plan. If the company you are climbing with offers this route without fulfilling their obligations, insist on following the route below.
Day 1: Machame Gate to Machame camp (1,830-3,100m/6,002-10,168 ft.) in 5 to 6 hours
The first day is a gentle walk, gradually ascending through the forest to a ridge between two streams and then onward to the campsite, just clear of the forest. Note that the forest walk can be muddy, in which case trekking poles may be useful.
Day 2: To Shira camp (3,100-3,840m/10,168-12,595 ft.) in 5 to 6 hours
Ascend the steep, rocky ridge from Machame camp, through the moorland zone, heading straight toward the peak. After about 4 hours (at around 3,600m/11,808 ft.), the path veers to the left, flattening out into a gorge and ascending more gradually to Shira camp on the Shira plateau, to the west of Kibo.
Day 3: To Barranco camp (3,840-3,950m/12,595-12,956 ft.) in 5 to 6 hours
The path continues directly up the ridge toward Kibo. After about 4 hours, the path forks to the right and descends into a gorge (barranco), where you will spend the night at Barranco camp.
Day 4: To Barafu camp (3,950-4,600m/12,956-15,088 ft.) in 6 to 7 hours
Cross the Barranco Valley, climb the Barranco Wall, then follow the Kibo South Circuit. If the weather is clear, the views of Kibo’s southern glaciers are wonderful. Lunch next to the river in the Karanga valley, then continue to the intersection of the South Circuit with the Mweka ascent path. Turn left and climb up a ridge for about 2 hours to Barafu camp. (Climbers keen to enjoy rather than endure can opt to split this ascent into 2 days and camp out at Karanga. This means that Day 4 is only a 3- to 4-hr. walk, and Day 5 to Barafu is a mere 3-hr. walk, with plenty of time to acclimatize.)
Day 5: To Summit, and descent to Mweka camp (4,600-5,895-3,100m/15,088-19,336-10,168 ft.) in 10 to 13 hours
Leave your hut at 1 or 2am. The day starts with a steep climb over scree and rock toward the Rebmann Glacier, passing a cliff before entering the gap between the Rebmann and Ratzel glaciers, arriving at the crater rim near Stella Point (about 6-7 hr.). One more hour of hiking takes you to Uhuru. Descend via Barafu hut (1-2 hr. from Stella Point) and then continue for another 3 or 4 hours to Mweka camp.
Day 6: Descend to Mweka gate
Climbers will find the Mweka College of Wildlife Management.
Day 1: Naremoru gate to first camp (1,800-2,800m/5,904-9,184 ft.) in 3 to 4 hours
Climbers are dropped off at the Naremoru entrance gate, a journey of around 2 hours from Marangu. From there, it is gradual ascent through the forest; the camp is just clear of the forest.
Day 2: To Kikelewa (Third) Cave (2,800-3,690m/9,184-12,103 ft.) in 5 to 7 hours
The path goes through the alpine-like moorland zone, similar to that found on the Marangu route, with views of Kibo, the Eastern Ice Fields, and Mawenzi (on a clear day), to Second Cave at 3,500m (11,480 ft.). After a lunch stop there, the path forks left toward Mawenzi (this is not the most direct route but is better for acclimatization). The campsite near Kikelewa Cave is reached after about 3 hours. Total distance is about 15km (9 1/4 miles), making it a rather hard day, but most of the altitude gain is achieved before lunch.
Day 3: Kikelewa Cave to Mawenzi Tarn (3,690-4,320m/12,103-14,170 ft.) in 3 to 4 hours
From Kikelewa, the path climbs a steep ridge directly toward Mawenzi. At the top of the ridge, you traverse left across the rocky landscape to descend into the Tarn Valley to camp. The distance covered on this day is only about 5km (3 miles) but is difficult because of the steep incline and altitude.
Day 4: Mawenzi Tarn to Kibo Hut (4,320-4,700m/14,170-15,416 ft.) in 4 to 5 hours
Retrace your path for a short distance, then descend to the Saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo. A 6km (3 3/4-mile) walk across the gradually ascending high-altitude desert brings you to Kibo Hut, where camp is made.
Day 5: As per Marangu Route, Day 4
Day 6: As per Marangu Route, Day 5
Note: Should you wish to save a day, it is possible to climb direct from Kikelewa Cate to Kibo Hut in about 5 to 6 hours, completing the climb in 5 days.
As with the Machame Route, the strictures on the final ascent of the Western Breach have meant altering the Shira route as below. If you wish to tackle the Western Breach, make sure it’s with a reputable company.
Day 1: Londorossi gate to Mti Mkubwa (1,800-2,750m/5,904-9,020 ft.) in 3 to 4 hours
Climbers are taken to the entrance gate and then to the trail head at Lemosho Glades. From there you ascend quite steeply through the forest. Camp is made in a clearing in the forest dominated by a large tree known as Mti Mkubwa.
Day 2: To Shira One campsite (2,750-3,500m/9,020-11,480 ft.) in about 6 hours
Continue climbing the moorland above the forest, then detour northward around the Shira ridge before dropping down onto the beautiful Shira plateau. Camp is made by a stream at Shira One campsite.
Day 3: Shira One to Shira Hut (3,500-3,800m/11,480-12,464 ft.) in 3 hours
The trail continues across the plateau toward Kibo. After about 2 hours, the edge of the plateau is reached and the path climbs for about 40 minutes to Shira hut. It is 3 hours if the direct route is taken. However, this day affords the opportunity to branch off the trail to climb Shira Cathedral and Shira Needle and look down the Machame Ridge, or visit Cone Place, center of the extinct Shira volcano, and admire the highest parts of the Shira plateau.
Day 4: As per Machame Route, Day 3
Day 5: As per Machame Route, Day 4
Day 6: As per Machame Route, Day 5
Day 7: As per Machame Route, Day 6
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“Mountains know secrets we need to learn. That it might take time, it might be hard, but if you just hold on long enough, you will find the strength to rise up.” – Tyler Knott