First Time Guide to Climbing Kilimanjaro

Have you ever had a dream for so long that it never stopped bugging you until you decided to just do it? For me, it has always been Kilimanjaro. I had wanted to climb this epic mountain ever since my father did it in October 1999. There really had not been any dream or travel goal that I have had for that long.

Like most dreams, there have been many obstacles and road blocks along the way. It wasn’t until a few years ago that my decades long dream became a reality.  I had wanted to make this climb special and have it be somewhat similar to my life-changing trip to Nepal. Serendipitously I was connected with the U.S.-based non-profit Solar Sister, an organization who provides solar electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa. For their fifth year anniversary, an international team was planning to climb Kilimanjaro in June of 2015.  Each climber was required to raise $4,000 to support the hiring and training for 8 new solar sister employees in Africa and to celebrate the success of Solar Sisters, we would climb Kilimanjaro together as a multigenerational, international team. It was a perfect opportunity and I seized it. Looking back today, it was even better than I ever dreamed it would be. It was truly epic. Figuring out what on earth to do next after such an incredible climb will be the challenge.

Why go?

Kilimanjaro, the fourth highest peak among the seven summits, soaring at 19,340 feet (5,895 m) and one of the world’s highest freestanding mountains, has long been one of the most popular climbs given its relative ease of climbing (no technical climbing ability is necessary) and beauty.  Located 200 miles (330 km) south of the equator in Northern Tanzania, the snow-capped volcanic dome of Kilimanjaro dominates the skyline like no other mountain on earth.

Kilimanjaro is actually not a single peak but a vast complex of cones and cores spreading over 38 miles (61 km) long by 25 miles (40 km) wide. There are three distinct volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim and is the hopeful destination of thousands of climbers every year.

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

For me personally, I had grown up hiking, and climbing Kilimanjaro had been a long-term goal of mine after seeing my dad’s photos of his own climb back in 1999. I also desperately wanted to get there soon before the snow that caps the top of this mighty beast and makes it so stunning, is gone forever. Some scientists predict that the glaciers atop Kilimanjaro will be gone as early as 2030. What a tragedy!

What Route to choose?

There are six main climbing routes on Kilimanjaro with the Marangu Route (also known as the “Coca-Cola Route”) being the easiest and most popular. Our group chose the longer, more scenic Machame route that can take anywhere from 6-7 days and is known as one of the most beautiful routes on the mountain, passing through five distinct ecological zones and affording dramatic views every single day of the climb. The Machame Route also has one of the highest success rates for reaching the summit since it allows proper acclimatization before the final summit push.

Total Length of Hike: 62 miles (100 km) up and 24 miles (38 km) down.

Image of Mount Kilimanjaro Climbing Routes (Wikipedia)

Image of Mount Kilimanjaro Climbing Routes (Wikipedia). Our route was the Machame colored in brown.

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Kilimanjaro hike to Barranco Camp Machame Route

Why Using Local Guides Matters

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover”.  – Mark Twain

Over the past twenty years, the world has truly become a smaller place. Once hard to reach, remote parts of the planet that used to be only for the most adventurous of tourists, have become more accessible. Places like the Himalayas of Nepal, the tiny fishing villages of Southeast Asia and the bushland of the Maasai have opened their doors for travelers,   allowing us to see their beautiful unique cultures as never before.

Although it is wonderful that more of the remote corners of the world are now accessible, it  comes with a price. The negative impact of tourism on the environment, culture and people of a place, threatens it’s very own authenticity and landscape. This is why choosing sustainable travel is critical if we want to preserve and protect these destinations for the future.

My father and I have been trekking in remote places for decades and every place we go we use local trekking guides and companies. I honestly admit that the initial reasons behind our choice were purely convenience and economical.  However, the more we began using local guides, it became clear how incredibly rewarding and important it is to hire locally. Not only do you get a more intimate cultural experience by getting to see a country through their eyes, your investment also greatly supports the local community in which you are visiting. By hiring local, all money you spend on your trip is directly reinvested back in that very place that is so special instead of profiting an international corporation who only has financial interests to gain.
Furthermore, the cross-cultural friendships and understanding that are made and shared by hiring local are priceless. Not only does it create goodwill, it brings a new perspective and understanding on both sides of the relationship. As a client, you get to learn as much as possible about a culture, history, society, life, flora and fauna and environment. As a guide, you gain a better understanding of people who are so different from those portrayed in the media. Together, you can create life-long friendships that promote cultural understanding and peace.

Kilimanjaro hike to Barranco Camp Machame Route

Our group heading down the trail on Kilimanjaro.

Here are three examples of why supporting local guides matters.

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Kilimanjaro

Transition through the eyes of a climber

There are few mountains in the world that have such an amazing ecosystem and transition of landscape as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Rising up to 19,341 feet above sea level, the transition from cultivated crops, to lush forest, to heather, moorland, and alpine desert is astounding. I have hiked many mountains but have never experienced any with such a fascinating landscape as Kilimanjaro.

Machame Gate Kilimanjaro Tanzania

Welcome to the long journey up!

Although I’ve already written at length about my trip and am about to put it all to rest, I thought it would be fun to go through the pictures as if you are climbing the mountain for yourself so you can see exactly what I mean. These are brief descriptions of each day, however, if you want to read more detailed posts on my trip, click here. Pay attention to how dramatically the landscape and vegetation change. It truly is spectacular.

Day 1: Climb to Machame Camp

The hike to Machame Camp meanders up about 7.5 miles (12 km) from a starting altitude of 4,890 feet (1490 m) to 9,780 feet (2980 m) and almost the entire hike is through thick rainforest common at the lower altitudes of Kilimanjaro. It is the only part of the hike that is shaded yet the temperature can be quite hot.

Machame Route Kilimanjaro Tanzania

Day 2: Climb to Shira Camp

The second day climb transitions from 9,780 feet (2,980 m) to Shira Camp at 12,600 feet (3,840 m) passing through rainforest glades, the vast open moorlands and up to the Shira Plateau where the treeline ends and the vegetation becomes sparse. In total, the climb is roughly 4 miles (7 km) taking anywhere between four to six hours depending upon speed.

Shira Camp, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Kilimanjaro Tanzania

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Sunset on Mount Kilimanjaro

What Victory Means to Me

“You won’t win until you learn how to lose” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Following and fulfilling your dreams is not easy. Oftentimes the obstacles and hurdles that lie ahead seem so insurmountable that they hold you back from even trying. Whether it is the fear of failure or anxiety of the unknown we all have our reasons.

I’ve realized over the years that if I do not take risks or step out of my comfort zone than I am miserable. I don’t grow as a person nor do I feel fulfilled or happy. The more I challenge myself both mentally, intellectually and physically, the more peaceful I feel in my own skin.

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Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: The End of the Road

“A great accomplishment shouldn’t be the end of the road, just the starting point for the next leap forward”. – Harvey Mackay

I woke up on the last day on Mount Kilimanjaro feeling tired, sore and irritable. My left knee had finally just given out and I still blame it all on my fall in the rice fields the day before the climb which injured my left leg. I never mentioned it before but I also have been battling a two-year annoying injury somewhere within the confines of my right hip. Right in the midst of the pain and physical therapy last April I decided on a whim that I wasn’t going to let anything including pain deter me from fulfilling my dreams. I was going to climb Kilimanjaro one way or another.

View descending Kilimanjaro

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Descending Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: The Long Walk Down Continues

“I prefer physical exhaustion over mental fatigue any day”. – Clotilde Hesme

After a three-hour sleep, it was time to get up, eat and continue down to the final base camp of the trip. The last thing I felt like doing was walking more yet I wanted to get down to a warmer place and closer to the end. My left leg were quite swollen which would eventually make my left knee throb the entire four hours down and for days after the hike.  But I was determined to go. The thought of getting back to our hotel with a hot shower, a normal bed and alas a glass or two of wine kept me moving.

Descending Kilimanjaro

We had been incredibly fortunate to have had amazing weather the entire seven days on the hike. We never faced rain, the sky was clear affording us spectacular views of the peak and the valley below, and most important of all, it wasn’t too cold on our ascent to the summit. The only cloudy weather we had occurred during our descent down. It was gray and overcast but really it wasn’t bad at all compared to what it could be.

Descending Kilimanjaro

Descending Kilimanjaro

Descending Kilimanjaro

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Descending Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: The Long Walk Down

There is one fact that is sometimes forgotten when climbing a mountain: What goes up, must come down. After the euphoric elation of reaching the summit at a little past seven o’clock, the reminder of the long, difficult hike back down hit me like truck. I was exhausted, famished and at an emotional high that would soon dwindle as I began my descent down to our base camp for some much-needed rest.

Our group of nine had split up into different pace groups, and I was alone with another climber from our group named David. Despite being as fit as can be (David just completed a marathon in Africa a few days before setting out on our climb), being in shape does not always guarantee your body will acclimatize properly. There are a number of reasons why you can get altitude sickness but it is never certain what exactly sets it off. Poor David reached the top of Kilimanjaro and promptly vomited behind the trail. He needed to get back down and fast.

Descending Kilimanjaro

Once the sun fully rose and I was able to take a quick breather, I took this shot of the rugged, steep trail back down.

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Uhuru Peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, SolarSisterSummit

Reaching up to the sky on top of Kilimanjaro

If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. – Bruce Lee

What are the boundaries we make for our lives? I know for myself, I have certain boundaries I will not cross. I will not be dishonest, disrespectful, or full of hate. Instead, I will be as open-minded as I can, as loving, loyal and honest as possible. I have set my standards high at trying to be the best “me” I can humanly be. Do I make mistakes? Of course! We all do. Yet I strive to correct them, to push ahead and to always try to improve myself to make me a better person and human being.

While I may be an adventurous person who is driven to explore, wander and challenge myself physically there are other aspects of my life that are relatively structured and risk free. I have my boundaries on what kinds of risks I want to take and what kind of life I want to live. My family always comes first. Yet thankfully I have the most incredible, supportive husband possible who encourages me to follow my dreams and challenge my boundaries. Climbing to the top of Kilimanjaro is one such boundary I had dreamed to conquer, and thankfully with plenty of hurdles and obstacles along the way I fulfilled my dream at the end of July.

I have written a lot about each day of my Kilimanjaro climb. But I have not written yet about the hardest, most difficult day of all. The Summit. So here the story goes.

Shira Camp, Machame Route, Kilimanjaro

Sunset at Shira Camp. 12,600 feet/3,840 m

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Kosovo Camp Machame Route Kilimnajaro

Kilimanjaro: A rest at Kosovo before the Summit Push

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear”. – Nelson Mandela

Shortly after a hot lunch, we left Barafu Camp at 14,930 feet (4,550 m)  – the normal setting off point for the summit attempt – and continued on one hour up to a higher, lesser known camp called Kosovo where we would sleep a few hours before our midnight rise to climb to the top. Few people know about Kosovo Camp and staying there instead of at Barafu saved us an ugly first hour straight up climb at the onset of our quest to reach the top.

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The hike was steep, rugged and tough, giving us all a small taste of what we had in store for us early the next day as we attempted to summit Kilimanjaro at Uhuru Peak. As we left camp and continued up, it was astounding to look down upon the clouds and realize just how far we had come.

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Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: Lunch at Barafu Camp

The morning light rose above the mountain and slowly warmed my tent. I had slept relatively well knowing that the next 36 hours were going to be grueling. We would have a short three hour hike to Barafu Camp at 14,930 feet (4,550 feet)  – the normal setting off point for the summit attempt – and continue on to a higher, lesser known camp called Kosovo where we would sleep before a midnight rise to climb to the top.

Carnage Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Morning 5 on Kilimanjaro.

Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Group shot before we leave Karanaga Camp.

It was another gorgeous day and the views of the summit were spectacular. After five days and nights on the mountain, it was hard to believe that the summit attempt was already so near. We were incredibly fortunate to have been blessed with such spectacular weather and were hoping that our climb up would be equally nice. The thought of climbing unprotected for hours in the dark scared me more than the actual climb. I knew that on some cases it could be bone-numbing cold with winds well below zero. Six or seven hours in that sounded painful.

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Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Evening at Karanga Camp

“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work”. – Colin Powell

Our night at Karanga Camp would be our last full night’s sleep until after the summit attempt the following day. It was hard to believe that we were already on day four of our climb. I was beginning to get used to living on the mountain and breathing in the cool, crisp air at night. Yet the thought of a hot shower and a real live bed sounded heavenly.

Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

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Hike to Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: Day 4 Climb to Karanga Camp

 

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I was relieved and rewarded by finally getting a good night of sleep. I couldn’t believe how good it felt! It was my first real solid sleep in over a week. I am sure that my body had finally given in due to mere exhaustion after a week of travel, jet lag and sleepless cold nights on the mountain.

I woke up feeling invigorated to start the day’s climb, a relatively strenuous yet short hike up and over the Barranco Wall to Karanga Camp at 13,780 feet (4,000 m). Our group set off early trying to beat the long lines of people climbing up the narrow path. The first hour of the hike was a bit frustrating. If someone in front of you stopped to rest, the entire long queue of hikers below would have to also stop and one thing is for certain when I hike, I don’t like to stop unless I absolutely have to.

Hike to Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Trail marker showing us the way.

Hike to Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Pretty wildflowers

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