Adventure of a Lifetime
Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is one of the most accessible of the world’s seven summits — neither oxygen nor technical climbing skill are required — which makes it a doable adventure for almost anybody who is plenty determined and reasonably fit. But you can really improve your odds of making it to the top by choosing the right route and outfitter.
The two most popular trails up the mountain are the Marangu (don’t even think about it; the vast majority of the 20,000 tourists who attempt Kili every year do the Marangu, also called the Coca-Cola route for the beverage sold at the dormitory huts along the way; it’s steep, crowded, and has a two in three failure rate), and the Machame (usually five days of climbing). We chose the longer Shira Route, which gave us time for acclimitization — I believe choosing Shira was a big part of our success.
Two other factors to consider: how grueling the climb to the summit can be, and whether to tackle the Western Breach, a rock scramble up the mountain face between 16,000 and 18,000 feet. On the Shira route, camping at 18,500 feet meant we had a short, sweet climb to the summit on day eight; it also allowed us to ascend the Western Breach in daylight; Machame climbers who do the Breach generally set out at one or two in the morning, ascend it in the dark and continue on to reach the summit at dawn. I wouldn’t have wanted to tackle the Breach in the dark, though a group of climbers who did told me it wasn’t scary because you couldn’t see the sheer drops.
Timing & Outfitters
WHEN TO GO?
Our guides recommended September as the driest, most pleasant month; November and December are the wet season. Consider a full-moon climb. Not only is the moon rising alongside the massif one of the most moving sights you will ever see, but you will be able to make your way after dark solely by its glow. If you choose to go during the new moon, you’ll see a spectacular sky full of Southern Hemisphere stars.
To climb Kilimanjaro, you can simply show up in Arusha or Moshi, Kili’s hometowns, and hire yourself a porter, a trail guide and a cook; it’s the cheapest way but you’re relying on your own instincts to assess the expertise of your team. Some climbers who’ve done it this way tell of guides who pushed the pace in order to get the trip over as quickly as possible (they get paid whether or not you summit). Or you can use an outfitter, which I highly recommend: if there’s trouble, you are with the group that has a VHF radio and cell phone, not the group that’s frantically trying to find somebody who does.
Some outfitters use local teams led by an expat trip leaders (usually American or British). Our outfitter, Wilderness Travel, uses an all-Tanzanian team, and I was very pleased that our leaders were locals. It was reassuring to be taken up the mountain by men who had grown up on its flanks.
Another choice you’ll make is whether to go with a set group as we did, or do a private trip. Group travel is a leap of faith, and joining a group in as rigorous an environment as Kilimanjaro makes for some interesting social interaction (one of the effects of altitude sickness is grouchiness). We all commented on how civility crumbled as we marched toward the top. So weigh your tolerance for group. Not surprisingly, private trips tend to be a little pricier.
Wilderness Travel (800-368-2794) has set departures, and will do private trips if you assemble six people or more. Other top outfitters that run both group and private trips include Mountain Travel Sobek (888-687-6235) and Abercrombie & Kent (800-554-7016). A British firm, Journeys by Design, does private trips exclusively (011-44-1273-623-790).
WHAT TO ASK Find out whether you’ll be climbing the Western Breach, and if so, what precautions (helmets, time of day to climb) will be taken against falling rock. Ask how medical evacuation of climbers is handled, and what kind of accreditation the trip leader has for dealing with medical issues, especially acute mountain sickness, as well as how many times he has summitted with clients. Find out the outfitter’s success rate for reaching the top.
Training and Getting There
READY! SET! TRAIN!
You don’t have to be an athlete to climb Kilimanjaro, but you do have to be fit. Brook and I counted on regular cardio workouts at the gym and weekend hikes to get us in shape. If you have a chance to do some hiking at altitude, that’s a plus. And even if, like us, you’re only carrying day packs, you’ll want to test-drive your backpack before the trip to make sure it’s comfortable — and that goes double for your boots.
The most direct route from the U.S. is via Amsterdam where you can pick up a KLM nonstop to Kilimanjaro International. The airfare is steep; an outfitter’s group rate is usually better than anything you’ll find on your own, unless you’re willing to take a more circuitous route, say, through Nairobi.
What to Bring
Your outfitter will send you a dismayingly long list of essentials for the trip. We followed it to the letter, and wore every stitch of clothing we brought. Summer by day, winter by night is the Kili weather cliche, so you’ll need everything from shorts to expedition-weight fleece. Think layering. There’s a fair amount of downtime on the mountain, so pack playing cards or other small-scale entertainment — but remember, your porter has to carry whatever you bring.
You’ll be above the mosquito zone, so anti-malarials aren’t needed unless you combine a climb with a trip to the coast or a safari but you will want to consider diamox to combat altitude sickness. Your travel doctor can advise on inoculations and other drugs to bring, but be sure to have ibuprofin, immodium and Pepto-Bismol at hand. We found eyedrops a godsend at dust-ridden camps. For up-to-the-minute health information, consult the Centers for Disease Control Web site.
Check with the State Department to see if there is a warning on travel to East Africa; one was in effect when we traveled there in October 2003. We didn’t feel at risk, but you’ll have to weigh this issue for yourself.
The IMAX film, Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa is available on video and DVD. While much drama is lost in downsizing to a small screen, there’s excellent footage of the Western Breach. The lavishly photographed book of the same name by Audrey Salkeld, which chronicles the IMAX team’s ascent via the Western Breach, is filled with mountain history, botany and lore.