Team Kilimanjaro has helped more than 10,000 trekkers to climb Kilimanjaro over the last 16 years. And throughout this time one of the most surprising things we’ve seen is how little effort is often spent when considering the most important factors that contribute to summit success on a Kilimanjaro climb: route selection and acclimatisation strategy.
It's easy to find a Kilimanjaro operator to climb with. However, it's not enough merely to plan to climb Kilimanjaro; you should be planning to summit. And to fail to plan is to plan to fail. It's therefore in the best interests of anyone wanting their climb to be a success, to invest a little time in learning how to ensure you'll have the best possible chance of reaching the very top of Mount Kilimanjaro - Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa at 5,895m!
Now, stay on this page and you'll be spending the most important 7 minutes of your Kilimanjaro climbing career...
To understand the problem, those who have not yet climbed all of Kilimanjaro’s routes using both traditional and alternative variants, will probably not be aware that of the six routes by which one may obtain permission from the Tanzanian National Park Authority (TANAPA) to hike - Shira, Lemosho, Machame, Umbwe, Marangu and Rongai - none of these routes when climbed in the conventional way affords adequate opportunity to acclimatise safely and thoroughly prior to the summit bid.
Consequently, the majority of trekkers attempting a Kilimanjaro hike have to contend, entirely unnecessarily, with the often debilitating and potentially dangerous effects of acute mountain sickness (AMS) en route to the summit. And in many cases, beyond the mild headaches and nausea that produce the motivation to descend rather than ascend, and that ruin an otherwise incredible wilderness experience on one of the world’s most beautiful and fascinating topographical features, many trekkers actually fail to reach the summit altogether.
Indeed, consider Marangu, the route that many tour operators describe as the "easiest" route to the summit. The Kilimanjaro National Park Authority (KINAPA) has reported that only 42% of all those climbing this route reach the summit, Uhuru Peak, with the remainder failing in their mission either because of exhaustion or from having succumbed to AMS and being at risk of developing a pulmonary or cerebral oedema if they continue to proceed to higher altitude in their inadequately acclimatised physical condition.
So, anyone wanting to climb Kilimanjaro and to reach the summit safely needs to prioritise the very same considerations that Team Kilimanjaro prioritises when assisting Kilimanjaro climbers:
Lip service is probably paid by most operators to these considerations, however, when observing their ascent tactics and route recommendations it is clear that their assurances to prospective climbers are generally unqualified. When investing considerable time, effort and expense on planning and executing a Kilimanjaro expedition, it is not therefore adequate that a climber merely obtains a commitment from a climb operator that these matters will be attended to.
Rather than accepting without question the recommendation of a tour operator or a vague or dismissive explanation of their alpine methods, it is incumbent on the climber to be persistent in pressing for details of the logic on which basis an operator makes their recommendations and formulates their strategy, and to scrutinise this logic very carefully, not being content with merely a cursory appraisal of the justifications given for their recommendations.
Those with limited experience of high altitude may easily be persuaded by an operator that - like us - has experience of assisting many climbers to Kilimanjaro’s summit, so there really is no shortcut to investing the time necessary to grasp some of the fundamentals of route selection, acclimatisation methodology, maintenance of physical reserves, communication between guides and leadership, and direct and continuous operational oversight.
Please therefore make the effort to continue on this page the further 4 minutes 30 seconds necessary to consider the following issues, as failure to do so could conclude with your spending a lot of time on training for Kilimanjaro and travelling to Tanzania, and a lot of money of trekking equipment, flights and climb costs, and end with your stopping a couple of hundred metres short of your objective - failing to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro.
We really cannot reiterate this forcefully enough. Time and again we are approached by climbers wanting to attempt Kilimanjaro for the second time who their first time on Kilimanjaro blithely acquiesced to the recommendation of a local tour operator whose management evidently had no interest in fully apprehending all the factors that contribute to summit success, or by a seemingly well-organised foreign agent that didn’t scrutinise the logical apparatus of the local operator that they subcontract their climbs to, and who just went with the flow.
As discussed, Team Kilimanjaro is dissatisfied with the traditional use of all six officially sanctioned routes on Kilimanjaro. This is because each variant either fails to incorporate sufficient use of topography to ensure adequate acclimatisation - in the cases of Marangu and Rongai - or else unnecessarily depletes climbers’ reserves en route to High Camp - in the cases of Lemosho, Shira, Machame and Umbwe.
The traditional use of the Shira, Lemosho, Machame and Umbwe routes all converge at Barranco Camp (3,984m). Depending on whether the leadership in control of the climb operation are themselves experienced mountaineers and have mandated that their guides strictly observe intelligent acclimatisation strategy from the start of the trek onwards, climbers may or may not be sufficiently acclimatised by the time they spend the night at Barranco.
However, let us consider a case where the leadership is competent and yet they have nonetheless been compelled to arrange a climb along one of these routes which - while clearly flawed from the perspective of ascent strategy - are nonetheless beautiful and incorporate features which clients may specifically have requested to visit for reasons that are in competition with the objective of maximising summit prospects.
The problem that then arises is that following the night spent at Barranco and thereafter ascending the 257 vertical metres to the top of the Breach Wall (4,241m), climbers subsequently spend the ensuing 3.2km losing 316 vertical metres of gained altitude as they descend towards the source of the western tributary of the Karanga Valley at 3,925m altitude.
What makes these traditional route variants even more shockingly poor options, is that while descending these 316 metres, it is necessary to traverse four spurs that necessitate a cumulative height gain of 85 vertical metres - meaning that the trekker entirely wastes 401 metres of vertical effort on the day immediately prior to his or her summit bid. And bear in mind that this effort follows several days of cumulative fatigue and that following this day there will be no reprieve at a comfortable altitude, and that the next day climbers will typically be trekking for 11 - 15 hours almost continuously, visiting an atmosphere that has only around 48% of the available oxygen their bodies are accustomed to, and will be living in an environment in which appetite is suppressed and sleep is difficult.
Since prolonged exposure to high altitude has a strongly deleterious effect on the human body and that full recovery from physical duress is not possible when in a semi-acclimatised state, any route that spends the first 5 of the 9 kilometres required to approach High Camp in descending 401 vertical metres, is logically indefensible.
For those whose imaginations refuse to visualise something so bizarre - when one considers that demonstrably logically superior alternatives exist on more intelligently configured route variants - please refer to the following profile. The origin is Barranco Camp (3,984m) and the point to the extreme right is Barafu Camp (4,681m).
So, having unnecessarily depleted your summit reserves by ascending 1,162 metres at an arduous mean altitude of 4,332m, to make only 761 metres of useful height gain, immediately before what for many will be the hardest night of their lives - is it still possible to summit on these routes? Yes, certainly. In the same that one could compete in a 1500 metre race by running backwards, or navigate through a bog instead of going around it, or straight-line a route over the top of a hill and perpendicularly through a valley instead of contouring round these features - it’s all possible, but you’re really doing nothing to maximise the probability of summiting, however studiously you optimise your hydration, nutrition and rest, or diligently observe a climb-high, sleep-low strategy en route to High Camp. So, the question that has puzzled Team Kilimanjaro for many years is why on earth do so many climbers continue to make decisions that risk compromising their own summit prospects?
Since TK’s raison d’être is to ensure that as many hikers as possible climb Kilimanjaro safely and comfortably, with alertness, confidence and awareness of their magnificent surroundings and are able to cherish the warm and encouraging company that they share their expedition with, we have devised route variants that more than adequately address all the weaknesses inherent in the traditional Lemosho, Shira, Machame, Umbwe and Rongai trails. With this objective in mind our unique route variants:
So, if you’re thinking of climbing Kilimanjaro and want to ensure with the greatest degree of certainty reasonably possible, that your investment in emotional and mental focus, training, equipment, flights, visas, and climb costs has the best possible chance of being realised and reaping the unforgettable rewards that every esteemed Team Kilimanjaro climber deserves, please contact us and ask to climb the TK Lemosho Route or - for those with anyone in their group carrying old knee or ankle injuries - the TK Rongai Route.