Tanzania Mt. Kilimanjaro 2001.02.22 - 02.27

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,340 ft / 5,895 M)

Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. Ever since reading Michael Crichton's autobiography, Travels, 7 years ago, we wanted to attempt the peak, someday. In Travels, Crichton recounts 5 physically and mentally grueling days that left his feet permanently scarred by blisters. Enduring fatigue, bleeding feet and the scorching sun, he reached Gillman's Point (18,638 ft / 5681 M), just 214 meters short of Uhuru Summit. We wanted to reach the summit, but doubted we could succeed. Early into our world travel plans, we listed the Mt. Kilimanjaro summit as our most ambitious objective. Reaching Uhuru Peak became a dream, attainable only with careful preparation, a proper support team, and luck - fair weather, no illness - on summit day.

Mt. Kilimanjaro hikers have 8 routes to choose from. Of these 8, only one - the Marangu Route - has huts along the way. Knowing that a climb to 5895 meters would be difficult enough in itself, we wanted the easiest possible way up. We chose the Marangu Route, a standard 5-day round-trip from Marangu Park Gate.

Having met 3 satisfied tourist parties climbing Mt. Meru with a company called Zara Tanzania Adventure based in Moshi, we went directly to Moshi to talk to Zara. Booking directly with Zara from abroad costs US$600/person for the 5-day Marangu Route including transport from/to Kilimanjaro Airport and a free night stay at the Zara owned 4-star quality Springlands Hotel the night before and after the climb. Booking the same route with Zara in Moshi costs US$575/person including a free night before and after the climb at Springlands Hotel. We talked to the Zara owner Zainab and agreed on a fee of US$530/person without a free stay at Springlands and including rental of any additional gear we wanted from Zara's large collection at Zainab's house. Although guests we talked to staying at Springlands were impressed by the hotel and loved to relax in the swimming pool after their climb, some were unhappy with the high prices at the Springlands Hotel restaurant. Eating at another place wasn't an option for most guests because of the hotel's distance from Moshi. Instead of Springlands, we stayed at a fabulous budget hotel called Buffalo Hotel, only a few minutes walk from Zainab's house where she runs her trekking and safari operations.

Zara contact information:
Zara Tanzania Adventures
Director/Owner = Zainab Ansell
Tel/Fax: +255-27-2750011
Mobile: +255-0812-451000.

Although US$530/person sounds high, much of this fee goes to Kilimanjaro National Park. The park fees for the Marangu Route are as follows: US$25 per person per day park entry, US$20 per person rescue fee, US$50 per person per night hut fee, and US$1 per day for your team of guides and porters regardless of their number. For Wes and Masami, that comes to US$695 in park fees. The remaining money got us round-trip transport between Moshi and Marangu Park Gate, one guide, one assistant guide, one cook, three porters, daily packed lunch, large breakfasts, afternoon tea and snacks, and large dinners. The meals were restaurant quality and varied everyday. Some examples are baked chicken and potatoes, spaghetti, curry with rice, grilled vegetables, and fresh fruit. What incredible luxury on a mountain!

In addition to the US$530/person for the 5-day Marangu Route, spare cash to tip the guides, porters, and cook is needed. BRING US$ WITH YOU TO MOSHI!!! There are no bank machines in town. Tour operators charge between 7-10% on credit card purchases. Tips must be in cash (Tanzanian Shillings preferred, US$ accepted). Wire transfers to a bank in Moshi take at least 24 hours. It's best to have US$ in cash or travelers check with you before arrival. Mt. Kilimanjaro 5-day hike tipping guidelines are as follows (listed in US$ equivalent because the Tanzanian Shilling devalues rapidly):

Head Guide US$50 - US$70
Assistant Guide US$30 - US$40
Cook US$15 - US$20
Porter US$15 - US$20

These fees are typically split between the number of tourists in the hiking party. Routes other than the Marangu Route require tents, tables, chairs, etc., increasing the number of porters. Also, most other routes take 6 days instead of 5. This means higher park fees, more people to tip, and bigger tips.

All trekking companies offer an additional acclimatization day on all routes for additional cost. This, for instance, would increase the time on the Marangu Route from 5 to 6 days. The typical cost increment for this extra day is between US$100-US$150 per person depending on the route. But because the extra acclimatization day is normally spent at about 3800 meters elevation our guide from Zara said, "The extra day won't help you reach a 6000 meter peak. It'll just cost you more money." On the Marangu Route, the percentage of people who reach the summit is about about the same whether they take 5 or 6 days, so our guide has a point. The trouble is that altitude sickness normally strikes people above 4000 meters but the huts on the Marangu Route are at 2700 meters, 3780 meters, and 4750 meters. At the 4700 meter point, the frigid temperature and thin air make consecutive nights impossible for people coming from the 900 meter high Moshi. The only extra-day option is at 3780 meters, but acclimatization at this height does little to prepare the body for 6000 meters.

In Moshi, the money changer accepts cash and travelers checks in US$, English Pound, and Swiss Franc only. The bank additionally accepts French Franc, Dutch Guilder, Australian Dollar, and Japanese Yen but the rates for these currencies are poor and the bank hours are limited.

Knowing the park fees should help you distinguish between valid Mt. Kilimanjaro trekking packages and street scam rip-offs. If the asking price seems too low, chances are that your money is being taken by a fictitious company (complete with fake business card and fake cash receipt) and that your "guide" will disappear as soon as you reach a Kilimanjaro Park Gate. This unfortunately happens to many, many tourists. Please beware. Even among the trekking companies listed in the Lonely Planet guide, quality can range from excellent to dangerous. The only way to know what you're getting is to talk to other hikers who have completed the trek with a local company.

Fortunately for future Mt. Kilimanjaro trekkers, Wes and Masami did 10 days of investigative work for you. It's important to note two things: 1. We talked to a small sample of people; 2. Some tourists complain even in the best of circumstances.

Company Name Groups Interviewed Client Comments
Zara Tanzania Adventures in Moshi, Tanzania 3 on Mt. Meru, 3 on Mt. Kilimanjaro All positive, and personally, we think we had the best guide on the mountain during the week of our climb.
Shah Tours in Moshi, Tanzania 1 on Mt. Kilimanjaro Company says they charge more than their competitors to hire higher quality people when in fact the guide didn't speak English and the support staff were sub-standard.
Shidolya in Arusha, Tanzania 1 on Mt. Kilimanjaro Service and food quality started well but deteriorated to horrible by the end of the trek.
Kilimanjaro Tours and Trails in Arusha, Tanzania 1 at Marangu 
Park Gate of Mt. Kilimanjaro
Company is dishonest to the extent that the clients' distrust of their guide forced them to cancel their trek for safety reasons.

You MUST have a guide you trust and can understand above 5000 meters. At this altitude, miscommunication or mistrust can be life threatening. Our guide with Zara was Wilson Olotu. We could trust him with our lives. When booking with Zara, specific guides can be requested. We recommend Wilson highly.

If you plan to have a porter carry some of your stuff, you need to bring 2 backpacks: a day pack with rain gear, camera, flash light, water, and provided lunch; a porter pack with sleeping bag and heavy winter clothes. Note: the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro is REALLY cold. Your camera, water, and flashlight will freeze on the way up if they aren't tucked under your clothes. Carry a 2nd set of camera and flashlight batteries in your shirt pocket where they'll stay warm.

Finally, be sure to have spare Tanzanian Shillings in your pocket (after paying tips) for your final day. Those who reach Gilman's Point receive a green certificate of accomplishment and those who reach Uhuru Summit get a gold one. Certificate lamination costs TSh 3000 - a great investment to preserve a well earned trophy from getting crumpled on the way home. Your guide will most likely want you to buy him a beer. That's another TSh 1000. In addition, Kilimanjaro t-shirts, maps, postcards, hats, etc. are for sale at the Park Gate. After completing such a rigorous hike, you may want something to commemorate your achievement. The store at the Park Gate accepts US$ but the rate is poor.

Facts for the Visitor
A National Park Permit (paid in US$), licensed Kilimanjaro mountain guide, and hiking gear are required to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Almost everyone arranges their trek through a reputable trekking company.

The critical considerations on the mountain are keeping warm (preventing hypothermia), shielding yourself from sun exposure (UV radiation is 30% stronger every additional 1000 feet / 305 meters of elevation), sufficient water supply (preventing dehydration) and altitude sickness (pulmonary edema and cerebral edema). Do not wear cotton clothing. Cotton absorbs sweat that chills the body. This is the primary cause of hypothermia.

The two lower mountain huts on Mt. Kilimanjaro's Marangu Route, Mandara Hut (2700 meters) and Horombo Hut (3780 meters), have bungalows with padded beds that sleep 4. A large common dining room is shared by everyone at the camp. Both have running water and flush toilets. Only Mandara Hut has a shower - a very cold shower. The third and highest mountain hut on the Marangu Route, Kibo Hut (4750 meters), is a stone shelter with several rooms, each accommodating 12 on padded bunk beds in cramped quarters. The single picnic table in each room is used in turns by the 12 guests for dining. There's absolutely no water at this hut aside from the ice on the inner stone walls of the rooms. Toilets are outhouse pits. Sleep is impossible due to the cold and thin air. Anything you don't want to be frozen at 23:00 wake-up time - such as camera and flashlight - should be tucked into the sleeping bag with you.

The Climb
The Mt. Kilimanjaro Marangu Route is a standard 5-day hike, although many people opt for 6 with an extra acclimatization day at Horombo Hut.

Day 1 is a short 7km track through the forest that ascends 720 meters from Marangu Gate (elevation 1980 meters) to Mandara Hut (elevation 2700 meters). It's an easy half-day walk in the park for most people.

Day 2 is a gradual ascent to Horombo Hut (elevation 3780 meters). The 11km trail takes about 6 hours walking at a slow pace. The vegetation changes from rain forest to low shrubs as elevation gains. It's important to start early and walk slowly to avoid gaining altitude too rapidly. The overly energetic tend to walk this 11km briskly and suffer an altitude headache at night.

Day 3 is another long and gradual 10km incline to Kibo Hut (elevation 4750 meters). The elevation gain on this day affects about half of the hikers with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) ranging from mild headaches to more severe vomiting and disorientation. On the approach to Kibo Hut, we saw people with more severe AMS symptoms being led down the trail supported by their guide. The terrain changes from low shrubs to barren desert. By 4200 meters, there's absolutely no water and the intensity of the sun can be felt burning into your skin. The night in Kibo Hut is miserable. Shortness of breath, mild headache, and shivering from the freezing cold are normal.

Day 4 actually starts on the evening of Day 3. Wake-up time is 23:00 for a 23:45 departure to attempt the summit. Kibo Hut to Uhuru Peak is only 4km distant but the ascent is a steep 1200 meters. Our guide Wilson made us focus on reaching Gilman's Point (elevation 5681 meters) first. Every meter gain meant less air and more physical strain. The agony was nearly unbearable. It took all of our concentration to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The exhaustion was overwhelming. Thoughts of sitting down and dying in the cold as a preferable alternative to the endless continuing climb occur and reoccur. The difficulty is unimaginable. We reached Gilman's Point, instantaneously bursting into tears. It was so difficult. We didn't think we could make it. It was so difficult.

At 05:00 we were at Gilman's Point. Wilson calmed us down and asked us to focus on the summit. Uhuru Peak is only 214 meters higher but it's about 2km distant over snow, ice, and jagged rock. 5 minutes into the ice-crusted snow, we were ready to turn back. The ice was slippery and the drop was further down than we could see. In addition to shaking legs due to fatigue, the fear of obvious danger immediately under our feet shook our confidence. Furthermore, we knew that 2 tourists died on this mountain 10 days ago when they slipped. Our assistant guide walked ahead to forge a new trail in the softer snow around the slippery ice. We continued onward toward the summit. A full hour later we reached a ridge. The ice-cold wind froze our limbs, penetrating 5 layers of clothes and heavy winter gloves. Every part of our body hurt from the strain and cold. Masami started to slur her words. "I candt-tawk". Wes concentrated on moving his feet, repeatedly thinking, "If Beck Weathers can save himself by walking with frozen arms and snow blindness down Mt. Everest, then I can keep walking on Kilimanjaro". Our guide told us to imitate him. Step-tap-clap-clap, step-tap-clap-clap. He kept us inching closer to the summit while dancing to keep warm. The summit still too distant to see, Masami became dizzy, and her feet stumbled over the rocks. "Now is when you must try your BEST," Wilson encouraged. We continued onward and onward. And as the summit came into view and we knew we'd make it, the tears of joy gushed. We were almost there. Almost there. And finally there. And Wes couldn't contain his emotion. The tears were unstoppable. It was so difficult, and now a dream that started 7 years ago came true. We reached the summit at 07:00. Having concentrated fully on walking and staying alive, Wes didn't even remember the sunrise.

A few minutes at the summit were all we could stand. "We need to go down or we'll freeze!" Wilson alerted. The descent from Uhuru to Gilman's was a fast jog. From Gilman's down to Kibo Hut was an even faster slide down scree. By 08:30 we were at Kibo Hut packing our belongings to prepare to return to Horombo Hut. We reached Horombo at noon for lunch. Although exhausted, Wes wanted to continue down to Mandara Hut where the air is thicker, temperature is warmer, and cold shower waited. By 17:00, we were at Horombo surprisingly alert and energetic. The increased oxygen re-energized us. That night we slept soundly and continued to feel good the next morning for the short 2-hour walk through the forest to Marangu Gate.

The following day is when the body pays. Exhaustion surfaces in the tissue and the brain switches off. We were no better than human vegetables. Decisions couldn't be made. Conversations were mindless. Movement was too much effort. Recovery took anywhere between 3 to 5 days. We're not sure.

Masami on the Marangu Route between Mandara Hut and Horombo Hut. In the background are Hans Meyer Peak (5149 meters) to the right and Uhuru Peak (5895 meters) to the left.

Overlooking the cluster of shelters that make up Horombo Hut on a clear morning.

The Marangu Route in a desert climate at 4400 meters with Mt. Kilimanjaro's Kibo Volcano ahead.

The ice-cold Kibo Hut at 4750 meters. Hikers on a camping circuit ascent another route that merges with the Marangu Route at Kibo Hut.

Gilman's Point is the goal for many people. Above the sign in the distance is the ridge that leads to Uhuru Summit.

Near Uhuru Summit, massive glaciers cap the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

At Uhuru Summit, Wes and Masami stand on the right and our guide Wilson and assistant guide David stand on the left. We made it!!!

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