Sunday 1 December 2013

Viven : Advice for Climbing Kilimanjaro

Dear Viven,

There are heaps of information in guidebooks and on the internet about climbing Kilimanjaro, and I’m sure there’s nothing I can say in this letter that you can’t find, confirm, counter or disprove somewhere else.  Nevertheless, trekking up the mountain, which for most people is far away, is expensive and universally challenging – and, in all likelihood you’ll only do it the once.  Don’t leave your research to this letter alone.  But here are my two cents, even if they are only worth two cents.

I climbed Kilimanjaro and reached the summit on the six-day Machame route with my partner from 24 to 29 November 2013.  We were clients of Zara Tours (

The Basics

It’s often said that climbing Kilimanjaro is the most challenging thing you’ll ever do.  Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.  Many people have a tough go, and more than half don’t make it to the summit (most because of altitude sickness).  Certainly there are tougher, longer and less-catered climbs out there, but what makes Kilimanjaro so difficult is the elevation.  It’s for that very same reason that so many (tens of thousands every year) pay the big bucks and make the journey: you are literally on top of a continent.  And let there be no doubt: it is beautiful, invigorating, fulfilling and, when you get to the top, quite literally awesome.

There are exceptions to every rule, and certainly ways around the orthodoxies of Kilimanjaro.  If you don’t want to go with a company who carries up your food, if you don’t want to go on a certified trail with a certified guide, and if you want to spend a month near the summit doing a scientific survey on your own personal hardiness and constitution, I’m sure it’s possible.  I’m also sure you’ll need the money, time and force of will for dealing with Tanzanian bureaucracy.  I’m not familiar with going around the usual ways, and the rest of this letter will assume you are okay doing Kilimanjaro like 98% of other climbers.  In which case, you’ll need to find a company, choose a route and time of year, pay a price, and think a little about gear, altitude sickness medication, and even tipping.  Here goes.

Cost & Company

Firstly, the longer your route, the more expensive it will be.  Thus, two of the cheapest ways up are also the busiest: the Marangu and Machame routes.  The Umbwe, meanwhile, can be cheaper because of its short duration, but is by far the most difficult.  Regardless, from my research and experience, you should not be going outside the range of US$1400-2000 per person to climb Kilimanjaro.  If you are paying less, expect some cut corners (poor gear, underpaid porters, inadequate food); if more, expect not to notice the difference. 

Park fees (including a mandatory emergency rescue fee) are first and foremost what make the climb so expensive: they amount to about $900 per person.  Some budget companies offer the climb for slightly more than $900, and they get you up (if they can get you all the way to the top) by cutting expenses (say, for tents that can withstand the rain) and by hoping you’ll make it worthwhile to the underpaid, or unpaid, porters and guides with a big, guilt-induced tip.  These companies do exist and they can work, but remember what you’re getting into.

On the other hand, some companies (like Team Kilimanjaro or Duma Explorer) charge more money because, quite frankly, they have a flashy website.  Meanwhile, outfits like the African Walking Company (which, admittedly, has a stellar reputation) do not even sell their own services, but are arranged exclusively through external, international sales teams, typically in the United States and United Kingdom.  This outsourcing is bound to jack up the price, and it’s tough to source a Kilimanjaro climb through an international agent that costs less than $2500. 

There is little to no difference between what these high-priced companies offer and what any mid-range option provides: the food, equipment, guiding style, itinerary and amenities are practically identical.  This is not to mention some companies which seem to be able to get away with charging upwards of $5000 per person per climb.  Don’t fall for it: do a little homework, negotiate, and try to deal directly with the company with whom you will hire for the climb.  It may also be a good idea to play the companies off each other to get the best rate.

Now, there are certain optional additions that many companies offer which will add to the overall rate.  You may request a private toilet in a tent, which a porter carries for you at a typical extra rate of $50 per day (know that the camp toilets are adequate, clean and usually close enough to your sleeping tent).  You may pay about $200 extra per person or more for oxygen tanks to be brought up (to be used only in emergencies, and I understand if you use the oxygen before the summit, you will not be allowed to continue upwards).  Some companies, such as Team Kilimanjaro, offer different rates for the type of food you will receive.  Expect to save about $200 by eating only dehydrated food at meals, foregoing fresh fruit, vegetables and meat – still, Team Kilimanjaro’s reduced rate (their ‘Lite Series’ as opposed to the ‘Advantage Series’) remains above $2000 per person.  Finally, if you do not have any of your own gear, expect to pay upwards of $150 per person in rentals.

To put it in context, we paid $1550 per person (originally $1650, but with a $100 discount earned by haggling) for a six-day climb, meaning $275 per day, with Zara Tours.  We climbed with a guide, assistant guide, cook, waiter and six porters (three per person), and both reached the summit.  The guides were friendly, highly competent, and spoke good English – to be frank, they were great.  The tents and equipment were mostly fine, though the duffle bags (packed with your personal belongings and given to a porter to carry) weren’t waterproof, nor were the raincoats we rented.  We were given two complimentary nights at Zara Tours’ Springlands Hotel in Moshi; again fine, with helpful staff and a swimming pool, but meals were not included.  Transportation to and from the airport was also included, but we only requested an early-morning ride to the bus station – which didn’t show up and nearly made us late for our bus.  Finally, while the packed lunches left a little to be desired and the Zara-standard sausages got a little tiring, we generally received hot, decent-quality, well-cooked meals using fresh meat, vegetables and fruit.

All in all, US$3100 ($1550 per person) got us all we needed, and the service far outperformed other companies who charged their clients a good deal more.  Plus, perhaps by mistake we got a private toilet, which we never requested or paid for.  It wasn’t bad at all.


There are six main routes for getting up Kilimanjaro: Lemosho, Machame, Marangu, the Northern Circuit, Rongai, and Umbwe.  There is quite a bit of information about these routes out there, but here’s a summation.  Lemosho: longer, scenic, less busy, good for acclimatisation.  Machame (the ‘Whiskey Route’): scenic but busy, a little more difficult, and short but still great for acclimitisation.  Marangu (the ‘Coca-Cola Route’, named because porters used to haul up crates of Coke): easier, busy, less scenic, less good for acclimatisation, and the only route with accommodation in shared huts.  The Northern Circuit: newest, longest, least busy and thus most expensive route, with good scenery and a good success rate.  Not all companies offer the Northern Circuit.  Rongai: easier, longer, less busy, less scenic but with typically better weather because it ascends from the north.  Umbwe: steepest, most direct and most difficult, making it the shortest route (if you can do it without an extra break) and usually only recommended to those with mountain climbing experience.

The Marangu, Rongai and Northern Circuit routes all approach the summit from their own unique direction.  Meanwhile, the Lemosho, Machame and Umbwe routes (all Southern Circuit) offer two possibilities for the final ascent: the standard, steep and zig-zagging wall-climb from Barafu, or the very difficult Western Breach, for which you will need helmets, hands as well as feet to hold onto the scree, and the light of day to ascend (all other routes start the ascent at midnight, while the Western Breach begins at dawn).  The vast majority of Machame and Lemosho climbers aren’t even aware of the latter route, while many Umbwe climbers add the Western Breach to their list of challenges.

Finally, there is an option to spend a night in Kilimanjaro’s crater, just beneath the summit.  This is available for any ascent on the Southern Circuit or Western Breach (not to those on the Marangu, Northern Circuit or Rongai routes).  It gives climbers the chance to tour the glaciers and reach the summit early without needing to do a midnight climb.  Keep in mind that this option is very expensive, in large part to pay the porters.  For them, this is the toughest job on the mountain, and only the strongest may volunteer for the task.

My advice?  Find a route that best suits your needs and interests, and if you’re anything like me, go Machame in the shoulder seasons, or Lemosho in the high season.

Time of Year

The main reason that people select a route other than Machame or Marangu is to get away from the crowds, which are indeed a big deal in the high season from June to October.  But hikes from November to December and March to May are typically not crowded on any route.  Though, I wouldn’t advise hiking Kilimanjaro at all in April and May, unless you don’t care to actually see anything as you go up and down.

While the temperatures at Kilimanjaro’s summit are always very cold, the levels of precipitation and cloudiness change throughout the year.  Generally, Tanzania’s long dry season (also its tourist high season) from June through to October offers a cloudless, rainless ascent to Uhuru Peak.  The short rains from November to early January provide a mix, while a second but short dry spell in February and early March promises clearer views.  In April and May you can expect constant cloud cover and rain from top to bottom, with a very good chance of a blizzard on the dark morning of your summit.  Some climbers do go up at this time of year, and the companies do run treks.

My advice?  Try to go at the start or end of the dry seasons to avoid the crowds, or a less-traveled route in the middle of the high season.  Or take a chance and go up in November and December: it should rain in the afternoons, leaving the mornings (including that of your summit) clear and warm. 


If you are able, bring your own gear.  Not only will it save you money, but you can be confident in the quality (and waterproofness) of what you will wear.  If you can’t (because, for example, you are backpacking across Africa and carrying winter coats is a bit much), most companies either have a store of rental gear or are partnered with somebody who does.  Arrive early enough to rent the good equipment – and be prepared not to get everything you want in the high season.  Anticipate to pay for it.  Alternatively, there are winter clothing shops all over Moshi and Arusha, mostly selling used gear for an inflated price.  One shop I would recommend for purchasing new gear in Arusha is Safari Care, in an outdoor shopping plaza next to Shoprite:

As for the gear itself, you will definitely need the following:
  • Very warm sleeping bags (company-issued are usually fine), rated to -20 °C at least
  • Waterproof top and bottoms
  • Long underwear, top and bottoms
  • Fleece, top and bottoms, or other warm (not cotton) gear
  • Down or other kind of winter jacket
  • Outer waterproof shell jacket
  • Good waterproof hiking boots, with high tops and solid ankle support
  • Lightweight second pair of shoes, for camp wear when the hiking boots are wet
  • Warm socks (avoid cotton, try for wool)
  • Touque, brimmed hat, gloves, scarf, neckwarmer, etc.
  • Headlamp for the midnight ascent to the summit
  • Sunscreen
  • Hiking poles (I never used them, but most people do)
  • Optional: balaclava, skiing goggles, gaiters, chocolate bars, camera, book, Diamox

Altitude Sickness & Diamox

Altitude sickness is a non-chronic illness caused by exposure to a high-elevation, low-oxygen environment.  In other words, when you go high up (usually starting at 2400m) the air pressure decreases, there is less oxygen for you to breathe, meaning negative effects on the body.  Altitude sickness can lead to more severe symptoms such as high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), and both of these can lead to death.  So, don’t take it lightly.  Most people on Kilimanjaro who suffer from actual sickness seem to get headaches, dizziness and an overall physical weakness, and sometimes these symptoms are too harsh for them to make it to the summit.  The best treatment is simply to descend.

I’ve heard it said that every second person gets altitude sickness when climbing Kilimanjaro, starting at around 3000m (on some routes, this is the first day).  Of all the people I met who didn’t make it to the summit because of altitude sickness, about half took medication.  In other words: it seems to help, but it is no guarantee. 

I suffered only from headaches, which were severe from the very first night at Machame Camp (3000m) and occurred both at rest and while hiking.  I seemed to acclimatise, get higher, get the headaches again, and then acclimatise once more.  At no point did I feel dizzy, weak, nauseous or even short of breath.

Acetazolamide, or Diamox, is the altitude sickness medication of choice, and many climbers take the drug or carry it with them in case.  The drug works by tricking the body into believing its carbon dioxide levels are too high, thus inducing heavier, faster breaths.  It is advised to take the drug before climbing, continuing dosage until descent, at one or two pills (125-250mg) per day.

I can’t speak much for the overall effectiveness of Diamox, or to the statistics for how it works, or about its side effects.  One climber, who didn’t make it to the summit because of the altitude, refused Diamox because he was warned that the side effects could be just as bad as the altitude sickness itself.  I didn’t take any prior to departure up the mountain, and only popped three 125mg pills on the two days before the summit (one on the evening of Day 3, and one each on the morning and evening of Day 4) because the headaches were so fierce.  I had to borrow the medication off another climber who, luckily, could only get a prescription of 100.  The medication seemed to alleviate the intensity of the headaches, though not the headaches themselves, and perhaps saved me from other symptoms; but it was not as effective as ibuprofen.

My advice?  Try Diamox for side effects before you go up, and if it’s alright, use it.


Tips are expected by your crew at the end of any Kilimanjaro climb.  Whatever company you’re with will advise you to tip more than you really should.  And worse, expect your guide to act disappointed no matter how much you give.  The problem is that the tip-receiving is a practiced routine.  Many companies will take you straight from the finishing line at the bottom of the mountain to a restaurant to celebrate, and there they’ll ask for the tip.  You won’t want to ruin the atmosphere, so when the guides and cooks and porters sulk, you will feel the need to pay more.  Whatever your original tip, it will not be enough.  When you start saying you don’t have the money, they will often ask for other things: your hiking shoes, clothes, watch, headlamp, etc.  Don’t get worked up about this: it’s all part of the trick to get more money.  Chances are, so long as you aren’t truly cheap, your tip will indeed be adequate and much appreciated – they just won’t show it.  To be blunt, it’s a part of the training.

There are various standards of tipping out there, but I feel that the most reliable one is to tip 10% of the overall cost of the trip, and more if you were particularly impressed.  You may tip in one large bunch (ensure, however, that it is distributed properly and not pocketed) or disburse it individually.  If the latter, remember the expected hierarchy of who gets more: guide, assistant guide, cook, waiter, toilet porter, porter.  You can tip in US dollars or Tanzanian shillings.

For two people we tipped a total of 595,000 shillings, or US$371.  This was about 12% of the total cost of the climb.  The tips were divided as follows: 120,000 for the guide, 90,000 for the assistant guide, 60,000 for the cook, 50,000 for the toilet porter and waiter, and 45,000 for each of the five other porters.  And yes, they were originally disappointed.

Like other companies, Zara Tours provides its guides with sheets of paper to log all the tips per staff member, and these documents must be copied, shown to all the staff, and kept on file by the company. 

My advice?  Tip 10% for a standard climb, more or less depending on your satisfaction, and take the time to work out who gets what.  And, defer the moment of tipping to the very end: not when you get to the restaurant, not when you get to the gate, but right before you part company. 

Also, not all guides and staff behave like this, but it is, sadly, the norm.


Is this letter an inadequate guide with insufferable errors and unforgivable blunders of judgment?  Absolutely.  So go read some words which are wiser, better researched and more thorough than mine.  Specifically:

The Mount Kilimanjaro Guide.  Exhaustive, well-written and fun, with no bias to any specific company.  Not sure if you want to go?  Get convinced. 

Kessy Brothers.  An operator with a good reputation; some climbers we met were given free rental gear.

Climbing Kilimanjaro.  A trekking provider with a great, detailed website. 

Zara Tours.  The largest operator with over a thousand staff.  Middle-of-the-road, well-organised.  A bit of an assembly-line feel, but decently priced.

Team Kilimanjaro.  The tour company with the best and most informative website.

There are many others.  It’s worth getting lost a little in cyberspace to find them.

Does that do it?  I hope so.  I also wrote a letter to YouTube which includes a video montage of the climb, and some letters from the hike itself, dated on days 1, 3, 5 and 6, though they might be a little more emotional than practical, flashy more than helpful.  But then, that’s Kilimanjaro.   

Happy scramble,


Signs at the start of the Machame route
Signs at the start of the Machame route
Signs at the start of the Machame route
Signs at the start of the Machame route
Signs at the start of the Machame route
Looking up at the summit
View from Barafu
Sunrise on the Southern Circuit ascent

Towards the summit

Mawenzi Peak

Stella Point (5739m), about an hour from Uhuru Peak