Wrestling with altitude while hiking
the tallest freestanding mountain in the world
Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain (not part of a range) in the world. Topped by a glacier and comprised of a trio of volcanic cones, the ‘Mountain of Light,’ as some believe the name translates, rises 19,341 feet above sea level to offer spectacular views over both Tanzania and neighboring Kenya. There are six routes you can use for the hike, with most trekkers taking six or seven days for the round trip. Much of the trail hiking Kilimanjaro is relatively easy-going until you reach the final ascent to Uhuru Point. Then, dealing with the altitude will truly test your mettle on what is one of the world’s truly worthy, bucket-list hikes.
- Trail length: 45mi
- Climb: 13,238ft
- Fastest known time: 7h 14m
Head for heights
It’s just after midnight when, bleary-eyed, I’m roused from my bed and ushered into the bracing air outside. My head is pounding, my stomach nauseous and I’ve not slept a wink. It feels like the hangover from Hell and, looking around, it’s clear the rest of my group is suffering just the same. The reason for our pain is we’re at Kibo Hut – altitude: 15,466 feet. Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit, the ‘Roof of Africa,’ is just one more push away.
And so, using excitement to banish our woes, we trudge into the night. Zigzagging up the rocky scree of Kibo, the main volcanic crater at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, is slow, steep and cold. The higher we rise, the worse the altitude sickness gets. Each time my boots press down, the reverberations feel like a kick to the head.
We’re a few hours into our climb up Kilimanjaro, with the hut far below us, when bad news travels up the line. Two of my group are beaten. They need to head back, meaning a guide must go with them. That leaves just four of us – three tourist hikers and our lead guide. It’s an edgy situation. We’ll either all make it to the top, or none of us will. Giving up now (and so heading back with the last guide) will mean everyone must retreat. Suddenly our decision to cut costs and skip the altitude acclimatization day halfway up is looking a little foolish.
Killing me softly? The Coca Cola Route
Our adventure to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania’s iconic peak, had begun three days earlier from the bustling mountain town of Moshi. We’d set off at the crack of dawn, heading through the Marangu Gate after a swift drive from town, hoping for a head start on the other hiking groups hitting our chosen Marangu Route.
Admittedly picked because it’s also the cheapest, Marangu is the oldest of the six main trails for hiking Kilimanjaro. It’s also dismissively nicknamed the ‘Coca-Cola Route’ by some locals, supposedly because soft foreign trekkers enjoy the huts (rather than campsites), and the chance to buy (extortionately-priced) food and fizzy drinks. Some claim its more direct route is also slightly easier.
The other side of the argument, however, is that it’s only the budget operators who consider Marangu the soft option, with the good access and need for fewer supplies making it ideal for cutting costs. Indeed, with official figures stating just 42 percent of Marangu’s climbers reach the summit, the trail has Mount Kilimanjaro’s worst success rate, largely because the direct route makes it far harder to deal with Kili’s most challenging aspect – acclimatizing to the altitude. Either way, we were hoping to improve on the trail’s worrying statistical record.
The name ‘Marangu,’ taken from the nearby village, means “many waters,” and it doesn’t take long to work out why. Our first day’s hike up Kilimanjaro’s eastern flank, rising 2,500 feet over a distance of five miles, sees us trek through the massive trees of the jungle that blankets the mountain’s lower slopes, the sound of babbling streams and waterfalls never far away. It’s a gentle start that eases us in, allowing plenty of time to spot the white beards of the local colobus monkeys, listen to squabbling baboons, and generally admire the lush surroundings of one of the mountain’s numerous eco-systems.
Still relatively fresh on reaching our first camp, the Mandara Huts, we opt for an extra hike to the Maundi Crater Rim, where the views step up a notch. Emerging from the rainforest into the moorland’s wild flowers, we’re met by our first glimpse of our target – the snow-capped Kibo summit – meaning we can’t wait for our next leg to begin.
Day two sees us cover eight miles and climb 3,000 feet as we leave the trees behind us and head up the heathland, where giant groundsel plants dot the trail, creating a surreal, alien-like landscape as we climb Kilimanjaro. Making our way to the Horombo Huts, we top an altitude of 12,000 feet, and our pace noticeably slows, the rarefied air becoming an issue.
Sensible hikers take it easy at this point, using the third day to explore the area around Horombo, staying at the same altitude to let their bodies acclimatize. Unfortunately, we’re not very sensible.
Saddle up for the 'Roof of Africa'
We push on to the Kibo Hut at the base of the final climb. It’s another fantastic day with another spectacular change in landscape. With the jungle and moors behind us, we enter the Saddle, the wild and windswept high altitude desert separating the Kibo and Mawenzi peaks near the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. But climbing another 3,000 feet over another six miles has become so much harder due to our total gain in elevation.
The altitude kicking in, the stunning surroundings take a backseat to the mental battles in our heads. Reaching the final hut, the backdrop is as sensational as any I’ve experienced. Unfortunately enjoying it is no easy feat.
The final climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro is a killer. We scramble up the scree by torchlight, as we have four miles to cover and 4,000 feet to climb. Conversation is at a minimum, especially after our group shrinks, and twice we’re forced to stop while people throw up. But the scree finally ends, and semi-delirious and ecstatic to see the rising sun, we slip and slide across the ice to the Kibo summit of Africa’s tallest mountain, to stand on top of the continent.
Whipped by the freezing winds and battered by the suffocating air pressure, our moment at the peak is brief – we even forget to sign the book – but we’ve done it. The sense of achievement is immense.
Turning around, we fly down the scree as fast as we can, taking huge sliding lunges and laughing like maniacs as we head back down to Africa after hiking Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.
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