Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro: The Most Accessible of the 'Seven Summits'


, by Charlie Boscoe

Photo: Stephan Beckert.

In 1985, American businessman Dick Bass became the first person to climb the "Seven Summits" - the highest peak on every continent. Everest is obviously the highest mountain that Bass climbed in the process, and arguably the hardest, but even amateur hikers can tick off one of the Seven Summits by climbing Kilimanjaro - a dormant volcano and the highest point on the continent of Africa. The ascent of Kilimanjaro is non-technical, and if you've got the requisite fitness and determination, you stand a good chance of reaching the summit!

The path to the summit is simple, but not easy! Credit Crispin Jones.

For European climbers, the trip to Kilimanjaro is simple, with direct flights from several European hubs directly into Kilimanjaro International Airport and a minimal time zone change. From the airport, a night in the town of Moshi is followed by a short drive to one of the famous gates at the foot of the mountain, and then it's time to go hiking!

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Kilimanjaro has multiple routes, with the Machame route being the most popular. Regardless of which route you aim for, allow at least a week to summit the peak - ideally longer. We recently had an article on Strava Stories about how to acclimatize to high altitude, and I'd recommend reading that before booking a trip to Kilimanjaro. To summarise the key points, go slowly, take as long over your acclimatization as possible, and listen to your body. Kilimanjaro is an objectively safe mountain with reliable weather and mellow terrain, but a surprising number of people die on its slopes - almost entirely because so many trekkers rush their acclimatization and hike themselves into altitude sickness. Only push higher up the mountain when your body is ready for it!

Hiking through the heather/moorland climatic zone. Credit Crispin Jones.

You can climb Kilimanjaro at any time of year, but be aware that there are a couple of rainy seasons, namely from March to May and in November. Interestingly enough, the sheer size of Kilimanjaro and its prominence against the peaks around it (Kilimanjaro is the fourth most topographically prominent mountain on the planet) means that it creates much of its own weather, and the northern side of the mountain gets far less rain than the southern side. Both sides can get cold though, so don't be fooled by the pleasant temperatures in nearby Moshi - Africa's highest mountain can get seriously cold! Snowfall is possible at any time of year but is more likely to occur during the rainy seasons. 

Light snow and huge sunrise views on the summit ridge. Credit Ben Sp.

One of the most interesting features of Kilimanjaro is that climbing it leads you through a series of climatic zones, and experiencing these is one of the highlights of the journey. The ascent of Kilimanjaro begins at 800 meters above sea level, and you enter a new climatic zone roughly every 1000 meters you climb. The bushland at the lowest part of the mountain soon gives way to rainforest, and then, another 1000 meters higher, you enter the heather/moorland zone. This is the last climatic zone with any greenery, so savour being amongst living things for the last time until you're on the way back down! Above the heather/moorland, you enter the alpine desert, and then, on summit day, you're into the appropriately named arctic zone. As that name might suggest, it's pretty chilly right at the top of Kilimanjaro, doubly so because climbers begin their summit attempt in the middle of the night to maximize the amount of daylight they have to play with. As well as providing maximum daylight, getting up early also means that you can watch one of the sunrises for which Kilimanjaro is so famous. Huge, seemingly endless plains surround the mountain, and watching these slowly fill with orange glow is surreally beautiful. 

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If you get up early enough, move quickly, and are able to summit at first light, the good trails on Kilimanjaro mean that you can then descend remarkably fast and can easily find yourself back in the lower climatic zones by the end of your summit day. I can remember standing on the barren summit of Kilimanjaro at sunrise and going to bed that night amongst dense trees, with a pair of monkeys happily swinging above my tent! The trails on Kilimanjaro are all in excellent condition and don't present any technical challenges. This isn't much consolation when you're grinding them, but it allows you to quickly get down to warmer temperatures and thicker air quickly when heading home!

Descending from the summit on a snowy day. Credit Kristoffer Darj.

When you exit one of the gates at the foot of the mountain, grab your summit certificate and head down to Moshi for cold drinks and hot showers!

Check out this detailed overview of Kilimanjaro's Machame route: