Celebrating 50 years of Adventure Travel

What’s the best way to summit Kilimanjaro?

November 18, 2019 by Brian Allen

Trekking to the summit of Kilimanjaro remains one of the most rewarding experiences anywhere on Earth. It’s as much a mental challenge as a physical one. The extreme altitude, unpredictable weather, freezing temperatures, steep ascents and shifting scree will certainly demand your endurance and dedication, but having the mental fortitude to accept that for several long days you’ll be tired, dirty, cold, and maybe a little bit scared, is what will get you to the top.

MT Sobek has been leading trips to Kilimanjaro since 1974, and over the years we have learned first-hand what separates a successful summit from dashed hopes and a hasty retreat back down the mountain. 98% of our clients reach the summit and a huge part of our success comes down to our meticulous strategy for acclimatization and the route that we helped pioneer.

We jump-start the acclimatization process by heading straight to Arusha National Park and our private camp sitting at 6,000 feet. After a day spent organizing gear and doing warm-up hikes on the forested slopes of Mt. Meru, we begin the Western Breach Route. Along the way we’ll trek through every ecological zone on the mountain while staying clear of crowds. Most people don’t picture lush green forests when they envision hiking Kili, but that’s exactly what you experience on the first full day of the climb in the montane cloud forest and our first camp near the Machame Hut (9,927’/3,026 m). The humidity disappears by the next morning’s hike toward the Shira Plateau (12,500’/3,810 m) and temperatures begin to drop. Here is where you’ll get your first glimpse of the iconic Lobelia trees, and by the time you reach camp you get a dramatic preview of what lies ahead as the spectacular Western Breach comes into view.

Though the breach wall and the summit beyond appear tantalizingly close from here, you’re still 4 days and many miles of trekking away! This is by design, and it’s where this unusual choice of route really shines. The gradual increase in altitude gives your body a chance to acclimatize to the thin air this high on the mountain. Every hour going slow at high altitude makes your successful summit more likely. It’s not easy, it’s not comfortable, but it works.

Lava Tower (15,190’/3,950 m) is one of the most striking geological features on the mountain, and you’ll spend a night camped right beside it. The views here are stunning with Barranco Valley on one side and Kilimanjaro’s southern glaciers on the other. After resting here for a night, you’ll press on to Arrow Glacier Camp (15,981’/4871 m) where you are unlikely to see any other trekkers. You’ll stay here for a full day of acclimatization and mental preparation for what most people consider the most difficult day of the climb: the ascent up the Western Breach wall.

At this point, the temperatures at night are quite cold, and the altitude can make it challenging to get a good night’s sleep. You might find yourself out of breath after doing something as simple as lacing up your boots. It’s important to remember to take things slow, but moving around helps keep your body warm and brings more oxygen into your bloodstream.

Though this is the most difficult day, it may very well be the highlight of your climb. There’s nothing quite like it on Kilimanjaro. You’ll leave camp before dawn to make it through the steepest section of the breach wall before the sun hits this part of the mountain. You can look back to the Lava Tower camp far below and be reminded that you’re at 16,000 feet above sea level. It’s an incredible view and it really puts into perspective just how high you’re climbing. This is the most ‘technical’ part of the climb in that you need to use your hands in a few sections to hold onto the rock while you scramble up and over boulders. It’s absolutely critical to have experienced guides who know the way up this section, and it’s a point of pride (and critical to your safety and experience) that our team is the most experienced on the mountain. When you reach the top of the wall and step onto the crater rim, be ready for an incredible feeling of relief and accomplishment.

This final evening before the summit, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most spectacular sunsets on the planet. Up here at 18,000 feet it really hits home that you live on a giant sphere: you can see the curvature of the Earth while looking out at the horizon. The night sky is equally amazing, unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and it really needs to be experienced—pictures and words can’t do it justice.

The next morning, we leave before dawn so you summit right as the sun is rising, giving you another incredible sunscape and privacy of the peak before any of the other groups arrive. It’s a short 4-hour trek to the summit (a marked improvement over the all night trek up a steep scree hill the other routes require, in our opinion). That last hour of trekking on the final push to the top is filled with anticipation as you get closer to the summit and the iconic sign marking the highest point in Africa (19,340’/5,895 m).

As the sun rises and light fills the sky, you suddenly realize you’ve made it, you can climb no higher, and you’re here, standing at the summit of the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

About the Author Brian Allen

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