What is it like to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
Seven popular routes reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Jollie took the Machame Route, nicknamed “the Whiskey Route.” This ambitious route takes at least six days complete, and much of it is at high altitude.
The first few days are relatively subdued. Your trek begins on warm, dry plains with average temperatures of 85°F. You ascend through wet tropical forest, then dries, cooler zones.
Challenges come in the latter half of the journey as the climb becomes more technical. Its most famous challenge—other than reaching the top—is the Great Barranco Wall. Also known as the Breakfast Wall because it’s climbed after breakfast, its textured surface offers plenty of foot- and hand-holds. It’s a wall that mountain goats would love. But humans understandably feel trepidation around it.
Fortunately, you will have guides and porters supporting you the whole way. It takes about two hours to ascend 843 feet. At the top, you’re rewarded with an incredible view of Kibo, the main peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.
During the last days of the ascent, hikers have shorter pushes to preserve energy for the final climb. You’ll break off each day at two or three in the afternoon.
“Now the precipices are very steep. Outhouses cantilever over the edge and there’s no horizontal space to pitch a tent,” said Jollie. “You really feel like you’re on the top of the world.”
The final ascent
The final ascent, like all great climbs, begins well before dawn. Approximately 100 people merge from various routes on any given day, coming together in a single line. “But you don’t feel crowded,” said Jollie. “The Tanzanian park authorities do a great job keeping it orderly.” Once at the summit, each group can stay for about ten or fifteen minutes to revel in the view—and the sense of accomplishment.
“You look down at Mount Meru and it’s like looking out of an airplane,” Jollie recalled of his time at the top of Kili. “You look up at the stars and feel like you can reach out and touch them. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Read more about the Machame Route.
More than one way to the top
Mark Hooyer took the Umbwe route, often considered the most difficult route due to its fast ascent. Umbwe’s challenging nature means fewer people use the route, which appeals to some hikers. Because Hooyer had spent the previous months climbing other mountains in Africa, including the Rwenzori range in Uganda and Mount Elgon on the border of Uganda and Kenya, he felt prepared for rapid changes in altitude.
Hooyer’s group approached Kili’s southern glaciers, then accessed the Kibo Crater through the Great Western Breech. This is a steep slope formed millennia ago by the collapse of an ancient peak. They walked across the floor of the crater, then climbed to Gilman’s Point—18,885 feet above sea level, and the altitude at which climbers earn their climbing certificate. However, like most people who make it that far, Hooyer wanted to continue to the highest point. He followed the final summit ridge to Uhuru Peak, 19,341 feet above sea level.
“As a large volcano, the region around Kilimanjaro is not punctuated by other mountains, so the views over the African plains are spectacular,” Hooyer says of his time at the top of Kilimanjaro. “Hiking up the summit ridge of Kibo, I’ll never forget the point where I looked back, eastward, over the great plains and towards the Indian Ocean. It was a clear day, and the curvature of the earth was clearly visible. It was truly the roof of Africa.”
Want to learn more about climbing to the top of Kilimanjaro? Check out our day-by-day itineraries for four popular routes.