This is a question we're frequently asked, but which does not have an answer that applies to all climbers at all times of year. The volume of misleading information elsewhere on the Internet requires that we offer quite a comprehensive, and clarifying perspective on how to ensure you're enabled to choose the best Kilimanjaro route.
Before reading too much into the following estimates, we should point out that the route selection trends of Kilimanjaro climbers in general differ substantially from those of our own climbers, and we don't recommend the modal choices of trekkers with other companies as being advantageous in terms of maximising summit chances, avoiding crowds, and seeing as much as possible of the mountain’s beauty.
The reason for the discrepancy in route selection guidance is that we believe that the normal train of advice obtained from operators generally is based on criteria that ought properly not be prioritised when aiming to achieve the most advantageous circumstances for climbers with respect to what we believe that our climbers consider to be of prime importance.
In the light of our experience in dealing directly with climbers from the very beginning of their planning and preparations, through the climb itself, and then following through the debrief phase when the climber has returned home, the elements of an expedition which we have come to believe that our climbers value most are:
Conversely, it's a simple matter to demonstrate that some of the principal factors bringing to bear when considering the general trend of Kilimanjaro route selection advice across the board, often focus instead on the convenience of the operator, simplifying their logistics, and minimising costs.
And while minimising costs is obviously an attractive prospect for all of us, climbers should consider how much they will already have spent on training for their trek, obtaining visas, buying all the equipment needed for the expedition, and purchasing the flights and hotel costs - and it may very likely transpire that the effort to save a couple of hundred dollars will turn out to be highly regrettable decision based on completely false economy, if it means settling for a route with inferior acclimatisation potential that will significantly increase the risks of onset of AMS and summit failure.
Remember, a significant number of climbers who have failed to reach Kilimanjaro on their first attempt with another company will subsequently approach Team KIlimanjaro and ask us to help them with more careful planning than on their first trek. And while the support structure and techniques that we deploy in order to to maximise hydration, nutrition and rest are paramount, thereafter, the single most important factor in determining summit success on Kilimanjaro is route choice, and how the chosen route is configured and run.
In short, Team Kilimanjaro has a unique approach to climbing Kilimanjaro and the route selection criteria that we apply deliberately prioritise those considerations which our experience has long since persuaded us are the key factors in promoting safety, summit success, and the enjoyment of as authentic a wilderness experience as possible. It is strongly recommended, therefore, that you discuss your route with your TK coordinator before making this decision.
Based on recent statistics provided by TANAPA, the following is approximately the distribution of climbers on Kilimanjaro's different routes, when TK climbers are excluded from consideration:
From a mountaineer’s perspective it is pleasing to see that there has been a migration from Marangu as the dominant route, towards Machame, as there are significantly better pro-acclimatisation features on the Machame Route than on Marangu. We believe that the reason for this migration has been:
With the decrease in interest of the Marangu Route, Machame has been the obvious option for operators to promote as, after Marangu, it is the easiest to operate and the most accessible for transportation, meaning that it can be operated at very competitive cost.
By contrast, on the basis of bookings we have received, and our observation of trends over the last few years, we believe that throughout the coming year Team Kilimanjaro climbers will be distributed across Kilimanjaro's routes as follows:
It should be understood that the standard Lemosho Route that passes through Barranco is technically a variation of Machame in the sense that although the first two days are different and the route passes through more pristine rain forest where the likelihood of wildlife confrontation is very much greater, nonetheless, once it has obtained the eastern edge of the Shira Plateau, the Lemosho Route entirely merges with the Machame Route all the way to the summit and down to Mweka Gate.
Precisely the same is true of the Shira Route, and a similar situation applies with Umbwe, where the route is unique for only two days until Barranco is attained, where the ‘Umbwe Route’ is simply the Machame Route for the rest of the way to the summit and down again.
The following criticisms should therefore be understood to apply to the standard Lemosho Route and the Umbwe Route (for those not diverting to Arrow Glacier Camp).
There are two main problems with these routes.
Firstly, the fact all four routes - Machame, Shira, Old Lemosho and Umbwe - converging at Barranco or earlier, means that a very disappointing bottleneck results just before the point at which the route reaches its narrowest point. The reality then is that in the peak of the high seasons it is possible for in excess of 1,200 bodies to pass over the same 80 cm wide section of trail within some 2 and a half hours of each other. Those who have chosen to come to Africa in the hope of encountering a raw wilderness challenge can understandably become extremely disappointed when such crowding is experienced.
That said, for those climbing at quieter times of year, such as April, May and November, crowding is not really a concern on any routes.
There is however, a far more serious problem with the Machame, standard Lemosho, Shira and Umbwe Route. It is a problem that has a serious impact on the summit prospects of every trekker that ascends via these routes.
The issue is that after all four of these routes converge at Barranco, they follow a course that requires traversing three spurs and tributaries in succession, to the east of the dramatic Breakfast Wall that rises above Barranco Camp. The highly undesirable consequence of this is that the trekker is therefore required to waste some 401 metres of hard-earned vertical height gain on the day immediately preceding what for many people will be the hardest day of their lives. You can see this graphically in the following diagram.
Having organised a number of world record attempts on which candidates are always seeking to push the boundaries with respect to what can be achieved at high altitude, and having overseen more than 10,000 successful summits on Kilimanjaro what has become very, very clear is that success at high altitude is a matter of balancing what are effectively two opposing variables:
Variable A. On the one hand, climbers need to input the additional effort required to ensure that they acclimatise adequately. This usually entails evening excursions to a higher altitude than where one sleeps at night, and of course necessitates a little extra calorific expenditure. However, this should not be achieved at the expense of neglecting...
Variable B. On the other hand, prolonged exposure to high altitude has a physiologically deleterious effect, meaning that when we remain at above 3,000 metres altitude for several days, the body doesn’t adequately recover from expended effort and suffers from accumulated fatigue that can only be relieved by descent to much lower altitude.
Our criticism of Machame, standard Lemosho, Shira and Umbwe is that while these routes (with the exception of Umbwe) very adequately satisfy the criterion of Variable A, the routes perform appallingly with respect to Variable B, and climbers typically arrive into high camp (Barafu, 4681m) with substantially depleted physical reserves available to be expended on the arduous summit bid.
We only pose this question because we have often seen this claimed elsewhere on the Internet, and we have sometimes had the impression that a climber is on the point of asking us to arrange a TK Rongai climb but that they are concerned that their making this choice in favour of enhanced summit prospects and reduced crowding comes at the expense of missing out on Machame’s perceived superior beauty. We do not believe that this belief is founded on reliable data.
With beauty being a subjective thing, it is of limited use to try to create an objective argument for or against Machame being the most beautiful, (or the second most beautiful route after Lemosho, as some others claim). We will however, aim to address the question nonetheless.
To try to look at the question objectively, we should perhaps break down the appreciation of a route’s beauty into some discrete components. We’ll try to compress these elements of a route’s beauty into the categories shown in the following table, and will add our estimate of the respective rank of each of the three routes being compared, within each category - with the lowest number designating the highest rank.
Mobiles: Scroll right for overall rank
While we see no other way of addressing the question objectively, we find this comparison of very limited use.
An example of its drawbacks is that we can easily envisage a scenario in which a climber might book TK Lemosho with us because it scores a first place rank in the above table, and yet on their return home they might write to us and tell us that they were disappointed because they were expecting it to be the most ‘beautiful’ route and yet for the long stretch between the Lent Group and 3rd Caves the scenery was arguably bleak and repetitive, or else the distant views to Kenya’s Amboseli were not enjoyed because of mist.
In such a case it might not help the climber to ask them whether they didn’t especially appreciate the possible exciting encounters of dik-dik in the forest section, the incredible unimpeded view of the entire mass of Kibo’s summit cone as they crossed Shira Ridge, the opportunity to see Kibo from more angles than any other route, and the unspoilt wilderness solitude of not seeing another person for two full days, if their own prioritised concept of beauty required some compressed foreground atmosphere such as the weirdly bright green bamboo forest on a dramatic narrow ridge as you only find on Umbwe, or the dramatic beauty of Mawenzi’s broken head* as you become enveloped in Kilimanjaro’s second volcano’s northern flanks.
So while we cannot see any objective argument that advances Machame as the most beautiful route, it would nonetheless feel very simplistic and disingenuous if we claimed that the respective beauty of Kilimanjaro’s routes should be ordered according to the above table, as many sensible people would have very valid reasons for disputing this. And of course, criteria which we - and we believe that the majority of our trekkers - would prioritise, are not addressed by these considerations, being especially:
And when factoring in the above considerations, it is absolutely without question that TK Lemosho and TK Rongai by far outrank the other routes.
For a few years Team Kilimanjaro was never happy to use the Rongai Route to climb Kilimanjaro, as it is simply a straight line navigation from the gate to the summit that incorporates virtually no exploitable pro-acclimatisation topography. There are a couple of commonly used variations that swing east slightly and attain Mawenzi Tarn Camp, rather than merely proceeding direct to Kibo via 3rd Caves, but the acclimatisation benefit obtained by these diversions is still very much inadequate in terms of acquiring sufficient climb-high, sleep-low differential, and the overall success rate of standard Rongai expeditions is commonly reported to seldom exceed 50%, which is only slightly better than the Marangu Route.
Another significant reason why Team Kilimanjaro did not operate Rongai unless inexorably coerced by insistent agents prior to January 2007, was that the Rongai Route assaults Kilimanjaro’s summit from the base line of Kibo Huts. There are two very significant flaws with this strategy. The main problem is that the going directly above Kibo Huts until the intersection of the School Hut trail at Hans Meyer Cave is extremely difficult, unless frozen moisture has bonded the particles of loose grit together, temporarily cementing them for a few hours.
Generally however, this bonding does not occur to a satisfactory extent and progress from Kibo Huts to Hans Meyer Cave is laborious and reserve-depleting in the extreme. By the time climbers reach Gilman’s Point - assuming they are not amongst the 20% who are already too exhausted to get that far - a further 38% of all climbers are already taxed to their limit and refuse to proceed further.
The second reason comes into play here, and that is that when one reaches Gilman’s you’re confronted with a new and usually very unwelcome psychological obstacle in the shape of the realisation that the summit is still very far away and that some of the precious height you have just gained needs immediately to be lost as you follow the demoralising undulations of the crater wall towards Stella Point.
When many climbers reach Gilman’s Point and have previously been led to believe by either their guide or their imagination that doing this will mean that they’ve virtually summitted, and yet they see what an apparently vast distance still remains, the extent of the depletion of their reserves from battling up the loose scree slopes above Kibo Huts - where three upward steps have effectively been simultaneously accompanied by one downward step, owing to the traction loss from poor adhesion to the collapsing material underfoot - it is not difficult to imagine why so many give up at this point.
So while the prospect of the quietest direction of approach and the fewest crowds has always been attractive, it was only in January 2007 that it occurred to us that we could make a plan to enjoy the best of both worlds. We therefore devised a new route that stayed just within the confines of TANAPA’s General Management Plan for Kilimanjaro, and yet diverted well away from the old Rongai Route across significant topographical features that ensured:
While the new configuration certainly seemed logical and we believed that we had very likely discovered the ultimate combination of optimal circumstances possible to be achieved on Kilimanjaro, nonetheless the first few brave climbers were advised that the route was largely experimental. It was to transpire however that we had absolutely no causes for concern as it was not until our thirteenth expedition along the new route that the first of our TK climbers failed to summit. Since that time TK Rongai has become by far our most prolific route and undoubtedly the most successful.
It is therefore our recommendation that unless climbing at the very busiest time of year when the assault start point will be shared with several hundred other climbers who converge at Barafu from Shira, Lemosho, Machame and Umbwe, that climbers should consider our TK Rongai Route extremely carefully before deciding on an alternative.
While we are genuinely very much at a loss to identify weaknesses with TK Rongai, the following considerations are nonetheless noteworthy.
Prospective climbers who are interested to read typical comments from climbers’ guides as to how they fare at each camp are encouraged to peruse our Kilimanjaro guides’ live reports.
We used to try to keep details of the TK Rongai Route secret, so as to ensure that the route stayed quiet. However, a couple of companies attempted to follow our lead and their porters got lost in bad weather and we had to rescue them. Since then we are not aware of any attempts to copy the route by other companies.
Indeed, it is our expectation that most other operations (very few of which are coordinated by mountaineers) will not properly comprehend the benefits of TK Rongai and that their staff will object to its use, as it’s much harder work for support staff to operate than the old Rongai Route. We very much hope, therefore, that the route will not catch on and will remain pretty much exclusive to us and pleasantly devoid of crowding.
We commented above that during the very busiest time of the high season Barafu suffers significant crowding. While assaulting from Barafu is undoubtedly preferable to assaulting from Kibo Huts, nonetheless, for some climbers it may not be desirable when the summit is expected to be very busy, that is in February, August and September. There are two intelligent methods of avoiding these crowds when undertaking a summit bid, though some non-standard approaches require acceptance of some compromises, which we will explain.
The first summit crowd avoidance method is actually a strategy that we advise be followed as standard operating procedure in the case of very young climbers, particularly those between the ages of ten and sixteen, who we find have difficulty staying awake during a nighttime assault. This technique involves foregoing the usual summit bid start time of 2300 - 0100 and delaying the assault to start at 0500. While this method will almost guarantee that crowding is avoided, and while climbing when one can see where one is going is generally easier psychologically, and is also less mentally tiring, climbers wishing to consider this option should be aware that:
It should be noted however, that for the especially privileged and adventurous few climbers who feel able to elect to commit to an Excel Series climb, summitting in daylight is an excellent option and carries virtually no drawbacks. Our Excel Series climbs all offer the possibility of a double summit since we do not allow groups to sleep in the crater unless they have just summitted. While literally only a handful of climbers have ever double-summitted and an Excel Series climb with double summit and full crater excursion on a summit traverse route such as TK Rongai or TK Lemosho, possibly represents the ultimate and most complete non-speed related achievement on Kilimanjaro, engaging in such a challenge does allow climbers to summit at dawn, while at the same time totally avoiding all summit crowds, as well as of course capturing photographs of the entire route without having to deal with darkness.
The second method of crowd control on the assault is to become one of an extremely small handful of people that sneak around the north side of the mountain. If one is electing not to climb via TK Rongai, this is the only way to avoid high season crowds.
In July 2008 Team Kilimanjaro developed a route that would a) avoid both the undesirable bottleneck effect suffered on Shira, Lemosho, Machame and Umbwe at Barranco; b) that would be a less taxing alternative to the severe undulations when crossing spurs and re-entrants on those routes, but unlike TK Rongai, c) would also avoid the crowding that is suffered on way to the summit when assaulting from Barafu. This route incorporates the richest section of rainforest, by beginning at Lemosho, and avoided converging with other routes at Shira by switching north towards Moir Hut, and to compensate for not visiting the pro-acclimatisation feature that is the Lava Tower, instead takes climbers to a rarely visited area of the mountain that only a tiny handful ever penetrate, the Lent Group.
The resultant new route configuration was such an isolated wilderness experience that our director was only able to speak to one other climber on the entire ascent from Lemosho to the summit, and this climber was a German lady in her seventies that was climbing Kilimanjaro for her fifth time and was therefore a very experienced connoisseur of the mountain.
Having passed Kibo to the north the route then curves south to 3rd Caves and from there passes by a very quiet assault route, through School Hut, to the junction at Hans Meyer Cave, from where it joins the standard Marangu / Old Rongai assault route to Kilimanjaro’s summit. This variation enables climbers to avoid both summit bid crowding and the difficult loose scree above Kibo Huts, as by the time one reaches Hans Meyer Caves the worst of the loose scree is already bypassed, and climbers are already very widely strung out, rather than tightly bunched as is the case for the first two to three hours after leaving Kibo Huts on the Old Rongai and Marangu Routes.
While TK Lemosho does require climbers to summit via Gilman’s Point, there are two considerations that mean that this is less problematic than beginning the summit bid from Kibo Huts. Firstly, since the loose scree is avoided when climbing diagonally from School Huts, one’s reserves are very much less depleted by the time one reaches Hans Meyer and thereafter Gilman’s Point, and secondly - for those climbers wanting to err on the side of caution - it is possible to add a day to the climb and for us to use a hasty camp at Hans Meyer Caves, provided that a) the apparently variable localised KINAPA policy does not temporarily prevent this option, b) your guide judges that you are suitably acclimatised to overnight there, and c) you are predicted to be strong enough to ascend an additional 200 metres above Hans Meyer Cave for an acclimatisation excursion, before descending to overnight there and subsequently retracing an hour of upward progress the following morning when finally starting out for the assault.
It may sound surprising that we deem only 200 metres to constitute an adequate climb-high, sleep-low differential for an overnight here at 5,148m, but this is only because by this time a climber is broadly acclimatised to around 4,600 metres already, and the extra acclimatisation is now much more easily gained than if one were to proceed all the way to this elevation and drop only 200 metres for one of one’s earlier nights on the mountain - which would of course be very dangerous.
While on the subject of spending nights at high altitude, climbers considering booking to spend a night in Crater Camp at 5,729m should be advised that unless in extremely unusual and mitigating circumstances, we do not permit our guides to spend a night at Crater Camp unless their climbers have already reached the summit, 166 metres above. We find that although we’d ideally prefer to have an additional 50 metres of climb-high, sleep-low differential available, this 166 metres is just about adequate, but we are sadly unable to entertain any propositions - which we occasionally receive from climbers - to let the group sleep in the crater on the way to the summit, as a means of shortening the summit bid, usually when climbing via the Western Breach.
The reason we do not allow this is that this would blatantly defy a very necessary principle of safe movement at altitude, which is that when moving beyond some 3,500 - 4,000m, and prior to being satisfactorily acclimatised to the proposed overnight location, climbers should always go higher during the daytime than they will sleep at nighttime. There is a very straightforward reason for this that all mountaineers are very familiar with. Climbers who wish to discuss the physiology behind this rule should please email us for more information.
In order to understand why so many companies recommend Marangu as the easiest route, we should discuss a little of the context of these recommendations. Years ago, and before the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) introduced the new electronic park fee payment method that now makes it impossible for unlicensed rogue quasi-tour operators to take their low budget prioritising and unsuspecting climbers up Kilimanjaro, it was very usual for many operators to actually possess no climbing equipment at all; not even a stove or cooking pots. A budget operator’s equipment stores would usually just consist of some knives, forks and spoons, a Maasai blanket (to be used as a table cloth), a few plastic bowls, plates and cups, and clothing for hire that the porters had sold to the company - clothing that had been donated by climbers who mistakenly believed that the porters would actually use these clothes themselves when climbing. It was not necessary for an operator to own much beyond this as the Marangu Route has huts and mattresses, and used to have large communal cooking pots and places where the operator’s cook could arrange his charcoal.
Since the Kilimanjaro National Park Authority (KINAPA) has become aware of the unacceptable environmental damage that is suffered by the now-illegal local coal production that sadly still occurs to a small extent on Kilimanjaro’s lower slopes, the authorities have attempted to phase out the use of coal on the mountain and nowadays the cheaper operations will use kerosene to cook, instead.
Another significant factor is that KINAPA are headquartered at Marangu, and they have arranged to have a tarred road running from the Arusha - Moshi highway, all the way to the Marangu park gate. This means that 4 x 4 transport is not required for Marangu climbs and it is relatively inexpensive to find a private hire driver who can ship climbers in to the start point along the excellent road.
A further interesting practice employed by budget Kilimanjaro operations is simply to hire porters from the park gate, rather than using porters that work regularly for the company and that they have trained themselves. Hiring porters at the gate means that no staff transport costs are applicable.
When combining all these cost advantages gained by using practices that are deliberately very different to our own, and when considering how easy are the logistics of shipping in zero staff and virtually no equipment, it becomes obvious why companies that are run by people who have no mountaineering experience or raining and cannot differentiate between the respective merits of the different routes, are motivated to encourage trekkers to climb with them via the Marangu Route.
The intention of this explanation is simply to provide context, as we are often asked why Marangu has a reputation for being the easiest route. We have no wish to be disparaging towards any of the operations that choose to organise their climbs in this very different way.
From our experience working beside these other such operations, many of these operations are run by very honest, cheerful locals, who have no wish to deceive their climbers - they simply are unable to discern between the six routes and honestly see no reason why anyone should make the process of climbing Kilimanjaro any more expensive or complicated than necessary.
As TK climbers will already know, unfortunately the process of successfully and safely climbing Kilimanjaro is a bit more complicated than simply starting at the most accessible point and following the trail that has the easiest going.
While there are no accurate statistics recorded or retained for any of the other routes, KINAPA do however keep quite accurate records for the Kilimanjaro route. The reason for this is that it is the only route that begins and ends at the same gate, so it is a simple matter for the registrar to compare the Marangu check-in register with the summit certificate register that is kept at the same location, as he only needs to exclude Rongai records. The last time we spoke to the registrar he advised us that the following are the summit success rates across all operators on the Marangu Route:
The main reasons for so many people giving up at Gilman’s Point and failing to reach Kilimanjaro’s summit are threefold, in our view:
Our experience of climbers at altitude is that whereas at home, if you were asked about the possibility of giving up at say, Stella Point - just 143 vertical metres short of the summit - you’d probably say ‘That’s a ridiculous idea! I’ve trained so hard and spent so much money on travel and equipment, that I wouldn’t dream of giving up when I had already proven that I could get so close!’
But when you’re actually there and are struggling to think clearly, with only around 54% of the oxygen fuelling your brain that you’re used to, it’s surprisingly easy to get confused and disorientated and to wonder why you once thought the summit was so important, and with the nausea and suffering and extreme tiredness, it can be very tempting to succumb and to give up... and then to go home and feel some deep regret, and to reflect on the possibility of coming back and trying again!
We frequently receive emails from our climbers telling us that if it were not for their guide constantly encouraging and motivating them all the way to Uhuru, they believe that they would not have summitted. And yet it should be understood that we deliberately do not publish our own summit success rates, and we do not pay our staff bonuses for summitting.
Whereas typically in any given year we will have several dozen climbers describing to us how grateful they were to be motivated to summit, to date we have had only one person - who failed to summit - ever complain to us that he felt that Simon should not have placed such importance on the idea of summitting and should have allowed the climbers in his group to give up at Stella Point without any sense of disappointment or resistance from him (even when it was acknowledged that there were no perceptible medical impediments to their continued progress).
Since we do not use statistics for marketing advantage (although we believe that we would possibly have the highest recorded ratio if we did) climbers should please understand that the only reason that we place so much emphasis on summitting is because we genuinely believe that attaining the summit is of substantial importance to nearly all of our climbers, and it is our conviction that our climbers expect us - even at the risk of possibly being misconstrued or criticised by some - to do our utmost to aim to ensure that climbers who have put in so much time and effort, and have sometimes had to scrimp and save so carefully to be in a position to undertake this challenge, should have the best possible opportunity to realise their goal, and in some cases, their very dream.
This concept has been confirmed to us by a few of our climbers who will usually have reached somewhere between 5,200m and 5,700m and will simply have entirely exhausted all their reserves - often because they didn’t manage to find enough time to train amongst their many work and family commitments - and who have to give up and return home disappointed. They then contact us and ask to climb again. To date all returning climbers have summitted on their second attempt and the extent of the costs and efforts to which these climbers are willing to go to complete their unfinished business and reach Kilimanjaro’s true summit reaffirms to us a tremendous sense of our responsibility to ensure that climbers are not going to go home disappointed because we made it too easy for them to give up.
That said, if the climber identifies his or her limitations having been undoubtedly reached well before the summit is attained, and convinces us that they are genuinely happy with curtailing their climb, then we will willingly acquiesce. Our resistance in challenging a climber’s expression of their willingness to capitulate is motivated purely by the belief that the request is the expression of only a temporary wish that they will subsequently regret if we do indeed acquiesce to it. So while, we have absolutely no problem with a scenario in which someone genuinely doesn’t want to summit, we nonetheless maintain the mountaineer’s conviction, which is necessarily an almost autistic obsession, that the goal of successfully climbing Kilimanjaro infers a direct contact with Uhuru Peak, or to be more exact, a small area of slightly raised ground about 15 metres beyond the signboard which is about 20 cm higher than the location at which the summit signboard has been erected.
Unless a trekker:
… then there is absolutely no question:
All climbers are recommended to choose either TK Lemosho (and definitely not Lemosho) or TK Rongai (and definitely not Rongai).
To reserve your place on one of these routes, please contact a coordinator today.