Standing atop the Uhuru (Freedom in Swahili) summit on Mt. Kilimanjaro, there’s a sense of accomplishment that you’ll probably not fully internalize until you’re back near sea level and looking back at the beautiful snow capped mountain. With more oxygen to facilitate your accomplishment, it’s still a surreal experience and you might find yourself asking with certain shock and awe, “Was I really up there?”
Of the seven tallest summits on seven continents, Mt. Kilimanjaro is perhaps only second to Mt. Everest’s fame and name recognition. However, unlike Everest, it’s not a technical climb, meaning you don’t necessarily need hardcore alpine and mountaineering skills, a month of your life (though it may take your life), and you don’t have to take out a second mortgage on the house to climb “Kili.” Having said such, Kili and its altitude of 5895 meters (19, 340 ft) is a serious challenge to the fittest athlete and the mountain, seemingly demanding an annual sacrifice, does claim on average two lives per year. You have to dedicate time to train, be familiar with basic backpacking skills, and be properly equipped to have a successful summit.
There are literally thousands of guide services offering their service everywhere on the globe. At the home front, the US, the service tends to be a bit more expensive (upwards of $2500 for the climb alone). There are two staging cities for Kili: Arusha and Moshi. Arusha is a larger and more populated city while Moshi is quieter and more laid back. By air, you can fly directly into Kilimanjaro International and buy the entry Visa upon arrival (I think I paid $25). The airport is located about equal distance from the two cities and it will cost you about $50 taxi ride to get to either places. Try to find a buddy to split the fare if you can.
I chose to book a hotel room with Key’s Hotel in Moshi and immediately hired a guide service upon arrival. Key’s Hotel has an established reputation for excellent service and also offers a higher end safari tour packages in addition to their Kili guide service. An important note on Tanzania regarding money transaction. Tanzania still seems to lack faith in their own monetary unit, the Tanzanian Schilling (Tsch), and readily accepts US $. Furthermore, credit cards are not readily accepted throughout Moshi, Arusha, and good luck if you get caught without currency in Zanzibar!
The thought of carrying a large sum of US $ is a source of concern, but it’s somewhat an unfortunate necessity in Tanzania. You can argue and ask, what about using the money machine to withdraw Schillings, but believe it or not, there are situations where they only accept US $ and not Tsch! If you want to purchase an international ticket (e.g. Kilimanjaro to Nairobi, Kenya), they’ll demand you pay in dollars, but when purchasing a flight from Kilimanjaro to Zanzibar, a domestic flight, they want Tsch. Go figure! It’s probably the most frustrating aspect to traveling in Tanzania, but a reality. You can definitely leave your American Express at home and save several grams of weight.
There are several routes up Kilimanjaro and the most popular route is known as Marangu (a.k.a. Coca-Cola) route. The Coca-cola route has huts that you’re able to stay in each night and is generally considered to be a more mellow and steady route. I decided on a six day approach on the Machame route, considered to be a more scenic and less used, more demanding, and you stay in tents instead of huts. The cost of the climb is $1200 if you pay in US dollars. If you pay using Tsch, they’ll give you an unfavorable exchange rate, and if you use your credit card (the one time that I was able to use it) they’ll tack on an additional 15%. The guide fee includes a guide, a small squad of porters including your cook, all the meals on the mountain, and two nights of stay at the hotel, the day before departure to Kili and a day of rest upon return from the mountain. Breakfast at the hotel is also included as well as dinner. While $1200 is a substantial amount, the park entrance fee to Kilimanjaro alone is $600.
The night prior to departure, the guide will get together with you to brief you on the climb. He’ll gloss over the big picture and the necessary gear list. I will tack on the gear list at the end. The most important thing from this day on is to start hydrating yourself each night in preparation for the following day. If you forgot few supplies, Key’s has a small store to supply you with gear. I think it’s imperative that you bring along your own sleeping bag and not rely on shoddy rental bags that’s seen its useful days.
At 8 AM, you will be introduced to your porters; I had fiver porters for me alone and a guide! If you had previous experience in backpacking and know about the importance of packing light, the word quite hasn’t gotten to the guide service just yet.
They pack your personal tent, a dining tent, bring along a lawn chair, a dining fold out table, and you’re wondering which poor guy is going to be carrying the kitchen sink. I tried to reason with my guide, Mosha, that I really didn’t need the dining table, tent, the plastic lawn chair, but to no avail he told me it’s company policy. Other guide services are just as ostentatious in their pampering of their clients.
Day one: It’s a short drive to the park entrance and an opportunity to see the Tanzanian villages along the way. Every child will return your wave with an enthusiastic smile and it just adds to the ambiance of the whole Kili experience. Once you arrive inside the park, you’ll see hundreds of people (clients and porters from other services) gathered to depart with you. First, you’ll need your passport number to officially register with the park headquarters. I suggest you make couple copies of your passport and carry that instead. (It’s a good idea to have copies of your passport and stored in a ziploc bag anyhow).
After several hours of getting things organized, you’ll step off for your first camp, Machame Camp at 2980 m, between noon and 2 pm. Your first day of hike is about 18 km and through a lush forest and there’s a good possibility of rain and getting wet. You’ll want to have gators for your boots.
The porters race ahead of you and the guide to set the camp and welcome your arrival. In the meantime, you’re only carrying a day pack with personal gear and two quarts of water. The porters have the brunt of the load bearing job as they haul all of the gear, including my plastic lawn chair, to the campsite.
After several hours of hike, you arrive at your campsite. You’re still in the woods on this day. Your personal tent is set up for you and while the cooking and other chores are being taken care of, it’s an opportunity to take pictures, jot down notes in your journal, make new friends, and learn some Swahili from the friendly porters.
At meal time, a porter will provide warm water for you to wash your hands, and when seated, tea or coffee is served with some appetizer then soup, the main course, and finally desert, all while you’re sitting on your comfy lawn chair! This is a far departure from dehydrated food I’m used to hauling around the mountains. The whole setup is a classic British expedition style and you feel almost like Sir Hillary on an expedition to Mt. Everest. As far as I’m concerned it’s gluttony and takes time getting used to the pampering.
While enjoying your dessert, your guide will review the day’s progress and make sure you’re doing well and provide information for the next day’s adventure to Shira Camp. Prior to sleep, the porters will provide potable water for your bottles. They generally boilthe water and provides a nice warmth inside the sleeping bag. Make sure you hydrate.
Day 2: You wake up around 7 AM and breakfast is served. After breakfast, the camp is pitched and progressfor 9 km towards Shira Camp at around 3840 meters. You eventually climb above the tree-line into an open plane with a scenic view. There’s plenty of time along the route to stop, rest, take photos, and converse and make new friends with other clients.
You might start feeling the affects of the altitude at this point. Mild headaches are common and the best remedy is drinking a lot of water, staying hydrated, and hiking at your own pace. It’s not a foot race and the more you exhaust yourself at the lower altitude, the more you increase your chance of failure to summit.
There’s a lot of down time at Shira Camp so a great time to play cards with others, throw a frisbee (I brought one and amazed the porters and almost put a new Danish friend out of action when he dove to catch one and hit a rock with his side), or sit on your lawn chair and read or write.
Day 3: It’s a 6 km hike to Barranco Camp at 3940 m. The higher you go, the more tired, but the scenery is getting better and the sight of the snow capped top is a good motivation for you to continue on. Everyday, the cook will provide you with a lunch that includes: chicken, hard boiled egg, crackers, juice, fruit (either an orange or a banana), and my favorite, fried bananas. Keep hydrating. You can monitor your own level of hydration by the color of your urine. If it’s dark yellow, you’re not hydrated enough. You want to pee clear and copious amount. If you’re going to get sick, this is where you’ll really start feeling the symptoms.
Day 4: It’s another 6 km push to Barafu Camp at 4550 m, the staging high camp for the summit push at midnight. You climb a steep wall face and eventually make it to a rocky camp along the finger extending from the chute to the summit.
Prior to sunset, try to get your gears ready for the start of the summit push that commences at midnight. Fiddling around trying to find gears and being caught unprepared or lacking critical supplies (e.g. gloves, balaclava, etc.) will jeopardize your summit success.
With headlights on, you commence in the dark and up the steep moraine chute for the next six to eight hours towards the Stella Point. It can be extremely windy adding to the cold and misery to the top which was the case on our summit day.
Water freezes from top down so carry your bottle upside down so you can still drink out of the bottle without dealing with the ice. Camelback hydration tubes can freeze up rendering it useless so make sure you also insulate the tube itself.
After what seemingly is an endless death march to the summit, you’ll reach the rim of the extinct volcano known as the Stella Point to be greeted by the warmth of a sunrise. Your camera becomes useless if the battery is frozen, so make sure the batteries are also well insulated while you’re climbing to the top.
Once you reach the rim, you still have about another hour to the true summit, the Uhuru Peak with its famous sign that you’ll want to take your trophy photo next to. Enjoy the moment while it lasts if you can. Most people are cold, tired, and miserable to fully take the moment in and you still have a long way back home.
You’ll descend and finally return to camp in about another four to five hours of hiking and be greeted by happy porters that will give you a welcome hug that will be tattooed in your memory for the rest of your existence on Earth.
Once you’re rested, the camp is pitched and you hike on further to the final camp, Mweka Camp, for additional 4 to 5 hours and arrive just before sunset. Here, if you brought some money, you can celebrate with tourist-priced Kilimanjaro brand beer or coke.
Day 6: You hike out and near the exit, you’ll come acrosssome kids pandering for chocolate, candies, and even just water. You’re humbled and yet feel 10 ft tall. You sign the final registry of completion, given your summit certificate, and back to your hotel for a dip in the pool and a real meal!
Tipping is generally expected. While it’s not an obligation, keep in mind, the porters make about $6 to $8 per day while the guide makes about $10. I did have a problem with my guide with his preparation (e.g. didn’t have batteries for his headlamp on summit day), professionalism, and also felt he was more there for the money relative to other guides I’ve met.
Traditionally, you give the sum of money to the guide and he distributes the tip to the porters. There have been cases where the guide pockets the majority of the tip so I requested to be in the presence of all porters prior to tipping so I can tell them exactly how much they will receive.
I’ve heard some clients tipping as much as $100 for the guide and $50 for each porters. If you’re the only client in the team, that’s a lot of money! I felt $30 per porter and $30 for the guide was fair and generous and then I bought everyone a round of beer at the hotel.
My overall experience with the porters was limited by the guide who was less mature than other guides, but felt it was an aberration for the Key’s Hotel outfit. I did submit and related my dissatisfaction for the guide, but praised the porters who were all marvelous!
Would I recommend Keys Hotel to my friends? Definitely, even with my experience with the guide, and I will emphasize that I felt it was an aberration.
Stepping out to go to the nearby town and use the internet the next morning, I looked back to see what initially looks like a cloud in the sky then you realize it’s Kilimanjaro and its diminishing snow capped top. I couldn’t help to be mesmerized, standing there, with passing Tanzanians, fully acclimated back near sea level and it hits me, “Was I really up there?” Best of luck on your summit attempt!
Suggested Gear List for Kilimanjaro:
First Aid Kit should include:
Different size band aids/second skin
Asprin (also thins the blood and decreases viscosity of the blood and does aid you at altitude)
Adhesive tapes (I use white climbers tape we use to tape up our fingers)
Minimum SPF 30 Sunscreen
Cold medication (I swear by “No Time for Cold”)
I organize all of the above in Freezer Zip Loc bag (saves weight). You may not need any of the above, but you may become someone’s drugstore and best friend.
Glove liner (wear this inside the ski gloves or by itself in moderate conditions)
Two pairs of hiking socks (I like Smart Wool brand). You only need two, three if you really think you need the extra pair. I usually wear the fresh pair to bed each night to keep the toes warm and feels fresh as well.
Thermal long underwear
One synthetic long sleeve base layer
One short sleeve synthetic t-shirt (cotton will not keep you warm when you’re sweating. I recommend either REI or Mountain madness synthetic t-shirt…my favorite).
Sunglasses. If you forget these, especially at the summit, and get snow blindness at top, it feels like you have sand in your eyes for the next 24 hours.
Boots…duh. Make sure you put on “Nikwax” and waterproof them!
Teva sandals (I like to wear these around camp. I use Keen sandals now with toe guards).
Goose Down jacket (Kilimanjaro can get extremely windy and cold and Goose Down underneath the shell jacket is your best friend! I have a high tolerance to cold, but was cold at the summit especially climbing in the high wind condition we had and basic physics of entropy; lost a lot of body heat to the environment during the 6 hours summit from midnight to 6 am. I really can’t emphasize enough how miserable you will be if you skimp on warm clothes and gear!)
Watherproof Shell Jacket
Shell pants with side zippers (marmot has a decent one called “Precip” for about $85)
Gators (you’ll most likely wear them on your first day when going through the rain forest and summit day to prevent pebbles and rocks from going into your shoes on the scree/moraine field up and down the chute).
Trekking poles will save your knees and help with stability especially coming down hill.
Handkerchief for 101 uses.
Personal female stuff…(for females only...duh)
Inside your pack:
Sleeping pad. If you are using a thermarest blow up pads, make sure you take their thermarest glue/repair kit. I used the glue to put my soles back together the day prior to the summit attempt.
Compass (you really don’t need one, but I always carry one)
Map. You can buy a decent map for about $8 when you get there so you can get the big picture.
Swiss Army Knife. Just a basic one will do.
Whistle (in emergency)
Extra bootlaces you can use to strangle your buddy if he/she snores.
Headlamp (LED’s are the way to go now) with extra batteries.
Camera and Flashcards (make sure on summit day, you keep your batteries with you close and warm. If the battery gets cold once you summit, they don’t work! Make sure you have enough zip on the battery on summit day! Turn the screen off and use the viewfinder to take photos…saves battery life.)
Water bottles or camel back and I already told you about the cold. They will boil water for you every night. If you are using a water bottle and I do recommend you take one even if you have a camelback, ask the guides to fill up with warm filtered water before sleeping as you can use it to keep warm inside the bag).
Iodine tablets for emergency water filtering.
Extra Ziploc bags to store things like your socks/undergarments/waterproof camera/cell phones/etc. If you sit on the Ziploc bag and let the air out, you’ll airtight seal and also decrease the volume it will take inside the pack.
Waterproof shell for your large pack.
Take 7 days worth of Energy bars (anything but Powerbars…when they freeze you can drive your tent stakes in with them. I like Cliff bars), chocolate, and rock candy (it helps keep your sugar level up while hiking and keeps your mouth from drying out and puts a big smile on random porters when you share with them!).
Something to read.
Toothbrush and hygiene gear.
Toilet Papers (take the cork out and keep it inside a Ziploc bag).
Playing cards. I carry the miniture ones (two stacks).