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It’s pitch black, save for the light of my head torch, and I’m counting my guide’s footsteps to distract myself from the cold. One, two, three, four becomes my repeated mantra during my final, midnight ascent up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. My nose won’t stop running, and my right foot has been numb for the last hour, but I’ve made it my mission to raise funds for The Intrepid Foundation. Its mission is to bring awareness to East African Wildlife Society's anti-poaching initiatives and the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project’s work to support the fair and ethical treatment of Mount Kilimanjaro porters, and for this, I'm willing to take on a measure of discomfort.
Though temperature and altitude appear as the most acute nemeses on the mountain, I find the real opponent of my climb up Africa’s highest peak is my mind. That’s why I chose to climb with a purpose greater than myself–so whenever almost everything inside of me said to stop, I kept going. When it felt like summiting was unattainable, and the glow of cascading headlights snaked for what seemed like miles into the sky, the chant of “pole-pole” (a reminder to go slowly) by my team of smiling guides and porters reminded me it was indeed possible to reach lofty Uhuru Peak,. Although a positive attitude and this wise Swahili adage are secrets to making it to the top, past climbers and travel planners alike know there’s a bit more to the story.
So read on for the ultimate guide to summiting Mount Kilimanjaro the right way, from what to know before you set out to where to celebrate once you've scaled.
What to Know Before You Go
Let’s face it: it’s imperative to be physically fit to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. To prepare for the journey, spend at least a few months leading up to your adventure walking or running hills, biking long distances on high resistance, or climbing stairs to condition your body for the journey ahead. “Be honest with yourself–can you walk uphill for six to eight hours per day, with altitude sickness making it harder than the average hike?” says Jenny Gray, Africa, and the Middle East product manager for Intrepid Travel. “Our porters are there to assist, always, but we recommend increasing exercise six months before the climb.”
When to Get There & How to Select the Ideal Operator
Like all high-intensity trips, it’s important to arrive at least a day before your start date to shake off jet lag and give your body ample time to acclimatize. While it may be possible to join a tour once you arrive, it’s best to plan ahead to ensure you have the best experience with operators who place your dollars into meaningful places. As a sustainable B-Corp travel company, Intrepid Travel partners with the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, an organization advocating for the fair and ethical treatment for porters, who haul nearly 33 pounds of gear up the mountain each day. “Unfortunately, some porters are severely underpaid and work in poor conditions with inadequate clothing and equipment,” says Gray. “By working with KPAP, we provide Kilimanjaro porters with support, advocacy, and education to ensure good climbing practices and conditions are the standards.”
Why Route Selection and Seasonality Matter
Mount Kilimanjaro’s prime location near the equator makes it an ideal place to hike nearly year-round. But even with a temperate climate, there are a few rainy seasons to avoid, mainly from March to May and November to December. During this time, the trail conditions tend to be slippery, although doable. And while there are many routes to reach the summit, the seven-day Marangu route, the eight-day Rongai route, and the nine-day Machame route tend to be the most popular. Although the routes are comparable, and there is no guaranteed success rate per length of hike, the longer routes allow your body more time to acclimatize before summit night, when you will reach 19,341 feet. “January, February, and September tend to be the ideal times to climb,” says Gray. “And while factors like age, fitness, and weather conditions tend to be the most accurate predictors of a successful climb, 100 percent of hikers on Intrepid’s longer routes like Machame and Rongai reached the summit in 2016, while the same year only 80 percent of trekkers reached the summit on the shorter Marangu route.”
What to Pack
Each day on the trail comes with variable conditions, making an array of layers essential. You’re allowed two bags (a day pack and a 33-pound overnight bag), and you won’t have access to your overnight bag until you reach your next campsite or hut. This makes a waterproof daypack with built-in hydration technology vital. As a rule, bring a head torch, a few pairs of warm socks, a thermal base layer, trekking pants, a fleece, and an extra down jacket. For the final summit night, temperatures can dip to below 13 degrees Fahrenheit, requiring you to wear two pairs of socks, two or three layers on the legs, and up to four to five layers on top. A balaclava and a wool hat will keep your head warm, while ski gloves, polarized sunglasses, and gaiters will make you more comfortable. Ask your doctor about any medications that may assist with your climb, and be sure to pack a small bag with toiletries for extended days on the trail: wet wipes, tissues, sunblock, and SPF lip balm.
Where to Celebrate Your Climb
The best way to celebrate your climb is on safari, and between Kenya and Tanzania, you’re in the heartland of incredible wildlife experiences. On this 12-day expedition to Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, meet the world's remaining northern white rhinos, mother-daughter duo Najin and Fatu, in an area where lions, cheetahs, elephants, and giraffes roam free. If seeing one of the world’s greatest natural marvels is on your list, you’re in good company: about 50 percent of Intrepid travelers who climb Kilimanjaro follow the adventure with a Tanzanian safari. On this trip of a lifetime, venture to Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater to witness the Great Migration–1.5 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras chase the rain on a 1,200-mile journey throughout the region’s plains and woodlands.