How difficult is it to climb Kilimanjaro?

One of the most complex questions I am often asked is, “How difficult is it to climb Kilimanjaro?” The simple truth is that it is a mountain, which makes it hard to climb, but how difficult? Well let’s start with the facts.

Fact 1: Kilimanjaro is a free standing mountain,  meaning it is not connected to any range. It rises directly from its base to an altitude of 5895m. Most trekking routes start at around 1800m. So if you measure out 4.095km on a road and imagine that to stand vertically, THAT is how much you are going to ascend.

Fact 2: Kilimanjaro is the name given to the entire mountain, all 388,500 ha of it. It measures 40km from one end to the other. The mountain consists of three volcanoes, two of which are extinct (Shira and Mawenzi) and one which is dormant. It is the dormant volcano that leads to the summit of Kilimanjaro, namely Uhuru Peak.

Mawenzi Peak Kilimanjaro
Mawenzi Peak

Fact 3: The mountain lies just three degrees south of the equator. This means that the weather is not as variable as it is say,  on Everest or Aconcagua, meaning it can be climbed all year round. However, this does not suggest that the weather is warm and humid.  To explain simply, …temperature decreases by 6.5 degrees Celsius for every 1km increase in altitude.  Remember we said Kilimanjaro is effectively a 4.095km gain?  This means if we do the math’s,   we are going to get a drop in temperature of around 26.6 degrees between the base and the summit. If we start out climbing at 30 degrees C in summer, then we can expect around 3.4 degrees at the summit.

In ideal conditions we can plan for 3.4 degrees but we have not yet added the wind factor.  Winds on Kilimanjaro have been known to gust up to 25km/hour. If you know the math’s behind this then it is easy work out that with wind chill, we can look at summer summit temperatures of -14degrees C.

Fact 4: Kilimanjaro is classified as an extreme altitude climb. As humans, we function best at sea level where the atmospheric pressure is low. Without getting too technical, the higher we climb, the less oxygen saturation we have in our blood and the more we battle to adapt physically. At the summit, there is about half the oxygen concentration than we are used to at sea levels making us more prone to altitude sickness. 

Fact 5: Despite being a mountain, there are no technical difficulties involved and essentially, one can walk up Kilimanjaro,  excepting a few sections where you need to do some scrambling  for example on  the Barranco Wall.

So in summary, Kilimanjaro is a mountain, it is 5895masl, it is very cold at summit, it is not a technical climb, but due to its altitude, means you are susceptible to altitude sickness.

Blind climbers on Kilimanjaro

So what can be done to make the climb ‘easier?’ Of the roughly 30 000 people that climb Kilimanjaro every year, it is said that about 60% make summit. This seems contrary to the fact that many companies boast a 98% or 100% success rate.  As a company arranging climbs on Kilimanjaro, we look at these statistics which a degree of skepticism.  There are times when high winds prevent people from reaching summit, and times when altitude sickness takes hold, forcing a client to descend for their own safety. There are times when mentally a person just gives up. 

The first important thing, is to choose the correct route. There are seven routes to the summit of Kilimanjaro, each with their own pros and con’s. The biggest factor you need to consider is a route that will help you to acclimatise.  It is said that the body copes best with an altitude gain of 350m per day. On Kilimanjaro you are doing 1000m a day. Choosing a route which offers the principle of ‘climb high and sleep low’ or has extra days to climatise, is paramount.

The second is to train. Many super fit athletes and marathon runners have tried to climb Kilimanjaro and failed, simply due to the fact that they had not trained to “climb a mountain.” By getting started on a training regime a good three months pre-climb, means that you are also training your brain, to the fact that you are climbing a mountain.  And let’s face it, your legs get you to the last camp before summit. Assuming you are well, it is your brain and mental stamina that gets you to summit.

Thirdly you need to prepare for the cold. There is an old saying that goes, “there is no such thing as being cold, only badly dressed.” If you ensure that you have the correct gear and warm thermal layers, this will help you adjust to the cold a great deal  better.

Fourth, choose a reputable company that not only trains their guides and ensures a good climber and guide ratio, but also takes care of their porters. The porters are an integral part of your climb and should be treated with the respect they deserve.

Last but not least, get a medical checkup before you go.

In short, aside from the physical aspect of acclimatisation which you have little control over other than to choose the right route, walk slowly, drink plenty of water and follow the “rules” of acclimatisation, the rest is up to your willingness to train, as well as physically and mentally prepare. After all, why spend the money to do the climb if you are not willing to put in the effort before you leave.

So now you can decide…just how difficult it is to climb Kilimanjaro.

By Debra Bouwer

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