The roof of Africa
The highs and lows of climbing Kilimanjaro
The Sound of Music urged us to climb every mountain and while I sympathise with that ambition, my personal list is much smaller. Out is anything that requires ropes, clinging by fingertips or hammering anchors into rock. On the list is any peak that involves nothing more than a bracing walk, the prospect of a fine view and a little exotic travel.
So the Matterhorn gets a thumbs-down but Mount Kinabalu, in the Malaysian state of Sabah, makes the grade. At 4100m it’s one of Southeast Asia’s highest summits but you can trek up and down in a couple of days. Tanzania’s fabled Kilimanjaro definitely is in.
In fact at 5895m, Kilimanjaro is the crowning achievement for any foot-slog summiteer; it’s as near as you can get to the stars without proper mountaineering skills. Or an aircraft. Perhaps you’re thinking, why climb at all?
Well, that’s like a wannabe Rolls-Royce buyer wondering about the price … if you have to ask, it’s not for you. Mountains cry out to something in the soul and if you deny their pleas, then your spirit is restless. At least, that’s the way it is with me. And as No 1 in the mountain-lite charts, the iced volcanic monolith of Kilimanjaro tickles your psyche until the day you decide to scratch.
February is an ideal time: it avoids the high-season crowds from July to October but has favourable weather before the rains start in March. Deciding to go turns out to be the easy bit. By Kilimanjaro norms, my run-up is short and I am suddenly faced with a range of secondary decisions such as which route to take and which operator to use. The options are bewildering. Going with a guide is mandatory and there are hundreds. They vary greatly in scale, experience and cost. Most have websites that laud their approach and bemoan that of rivals.
There are seven main routes, with variations. Some are easier, others more scenic. The popular Marangu route involves just four nights in huts while Lemosho means seven or eight nights spent camping. The sheer height of Kilimanjaro is a factor. As oxygen thins, headaches and sleeplessness can hit, regardless of your fitness level. A longer route costs more but means your body has more time to adjust, which can make a vital difference as altitude presents dangers. High-altitude cerebral oedema leaves you confused and unable to walk in a straight line. High-altitude pulmonary oedema involves extreme tiredness and difficulty breathing. Both can be rapidly fatal. There’s no option but to descend. I’ve experienced altitude symptoms on Mount Kinabalu and in Peru. Even in its milder forms, it isn’t much fun.
Fitness is neither necessary nor sufficient but it is an asset; I decide to cover two bases at once by moving my usual exercise regime to a specialist gym. Altitude in Sydney’s northern beaches simulates 3700m, where oxygen is two-thirds the usual level. At the top of Kilimanjaro, it’s just half.
When it came to choosing an operator, altitude concerns are decisive. The well-regarded African Walking Company offers a unique route called Shira that takes seven nights and has acclimatisation side-trips. It also avoids some of the more congested campsites. Flights booked and transport organised to the start point of Arusha, Tanzania’s safari hub, the final ingredient is gear.
I was once told you can climb Mount Kinabalu in thongs, and while I’m glad I didn’t try it’s almost true. There’s no such ambiguity here as Kilimanjaro is so large it creates its own, unpredictable weather. There’s a mountain forecast website and, every time I look, it is freezing at 4900m with snow showers.
So the equipment list begins with a good pair of boots and ends with top-to-toe waterproofs, with multiple layers in between. I decide to hire some of the heavier items, such as a sleeping bag, when I get there. Either that, or I will exceed the 15kg checked luggage limit on East African internal flights.
By the time I reach Arusha I’m a mixture of antici-
On the summit of Kilimanjaro, top; the peak from Karanga Valley and trek leader Mussa, above; Kibo crater rim, below