Tanzania: Kilamanjaro

Oxygen zone: the forested lowlands of Kili     Photo: William Neill/ Larry Ulrich Stock

AT A GLANCE
Trek Length: 15–8 days, 25–35 miles
Maximum Altitude: 19,340 feet
Physical Challenge: 1 2 3 4 5
Price (Self-organized Trek): $500–$700
Price (Group Trek): $700–$5,500
Prime Time: January–February,
Staging Cities: Arusha, Tanzania, or Nairobi, Kenya

The Rhapsody: Trekkers watching the sunrise from the 19,340-foot summit of Kilimanjaro have been known to blubber on about this being the greatest moment of their lives. And why not? Every aspect of the five-day, 13,000-foot climb—perhaps the most popular high-altitude trek in the world—is an exercise in dramatic extremes: Starting in dense montane forest at 6,000 feet, you trek through leopard and rhino habitat; head upward through moorland, high-altitude desert, and vertiginous scree slopes; and then emerge onto the desolate lunar landscape of the snow-covered summit cone. Altitude is the 800-pound gorilla of any Kili ascent, and those who fall short of the top are typically turned back not by storm or ice or precipice, but by a simple failure of will: At some point, they decide that the volcanic massif is not worth the effort of taking one more step. It's no wonder, then, that such a stern test of mental and physical toughness is enough to make one want to shout—or wail—with joy.

The Route: Compared to the standard Marangu route used by the vast majority of Kili aspirants, the Machame route (starting near the village of the same name, at 6,000 feet on the mountain's southwest flank) is much less crowded, more scenic, and longer—five days up instead of four—which allows more time for acclimatization. The first few days of the trek feature moderate ascents averaging 2,000 to 3,000 feet per day through forests of cedar and heather and then up onto the rocky Shira Plateau at 12,500 feet. Barafu Hut, a grungy, graffiti-covered tin shelter at 15,000 feet, just below the mountain's steep summit cone, is where you'll make your final bid for the top: a gruelingly steep 16- to 18-hour push through soft sand and scree. A word on aesthetics: Because Kilimanjaro is an anomaly in the African landscape, a high-altitude culture never evolved, and there are no villages and virtually no inhabitants above 6,000 feet.

Guides and Outfitters: Kilimanjaro offers a number of trekking choices, none of them dirt cheap, thanks to high fees imposed by Kilimanjaro National Park ($350 to $450 per trek, depending on the route). Do-it-yourselfers are out of luck: The park requires that you climb with at least one guide and one porter. And note: New park rules designed to control the daily number of climbers on Kili also require that climbing permits for all routes be booked in advance. There are any number of full-service treks organized by outfitters in the towns of Arusha, Moshi, or Marangu (try the Marangu Hotel at 011-255-27-2756361; marangu@africaonline.co.ke), which typically charge $700 to $800 for the quickie five-day round-trip Marangu climb. The Machame and Shira Plateau routes cost upwards of $1,000 per person because of longer stays in the park and more complex logistics.

American outfitters are much more expensive— figure $4,500 to $5,500 for the Machame route—but these trips usually include a mini-safari, transportation from the airport, top-quality hotels and meals before and after the climb, a Western trip leader, and various logistical backups and safety measures. Among the many U.S. outfitters offering Kilimanjaro climbing packages are Alpine Ascents International, Geographic Expeditions, Thomson Safaris, and Wilderness Travel.

Read Up: The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories ($10, Scribner) is Ernest Hemingway's classic. The Shadow of Kilimanjaro: On Foot Across East Africa ($14, Henry Holt and Company) is Rick Ridgeway's account of his trek from the summit of Kilimanjaro to the Indian Ocean. Cameron Burns's Kilimanjaro & Mount Kenya: A Climbing and Trekking Guide ($19, The Mountaineers Books) is a comprehensive guide to popular and little-known routes. —D.N.

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