Kilimanjaro – Introduction

Friday 28th December 2018

While I would love to write a loooong article telling you everything about the mighty Kilimanjaro mountain, I know there is way too much to write to ever finish if I start doing that. So instead, here is a short introduction to Kilimanjaro.

DSCF1806 (Medium)

If you wanna know more, there is ONE and ONLY ONE book to read, this one, from Henry Stedman, who is THE expert on Kilimanjaro, having hiked it many many many times.

Kilimanjaro from Henry Stedman

So…Let’s start with a basic fact: Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa.
Its summit is at 5,895 meters high (19,340 feet high).

Where is Kilimanjaro?
Everything is on this page, created by the agency Ultimate Kilimanjaro. There is actually a LOT of basic great info in there.

Not feeling like clicking on a link? Ok, so Kilimanjaro is located in Africa, in a country called Tanzania, at the border with Kenya, here:
Kilimanjaro map

Kilimanjaro’s Timeline

Henry Stedman’s Chapter 4 will tell you all about it in depth. But to summarise here… Kilimanjaro is actually a volcano, with three peaks (or actually three volcanoes), Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo. At the top of Kibo is the summit, Uhuru, which means Freedom in Swahili.

Once upon a time, about 750,000 years old, some lava burst out of the Great Rift Valley, a huge rift that runs through East Africa. The huge pressure pushed the Earth crust up and formed Shira volcano.

Around 500,000 years ago, Mawenzi formed. Then 460,000 years ago, after an eruption, Kibo formed. Several eruptions pushed the summit higher to where it is now.  Then 360,000 years ago, another huge eruption covered Kibo with black lava, or obsidian stones.

A few more eruptions helped to create the Reusch Crater inside the Kibo summit and 200 years ago, the last eruption created the Ash Pit inside that crater, shaped as a symmetrically inverted cone. 100,000 years ago, a landslide on Kibo created the Barranco Valley which is a famous area to hike through on some routes to the summit (not the one we took). Glaciers shaped the rest of the landscape. Kibo is now considered dormant, with magma lying only 400m below the surface of the Ash Pit and it is considered that a new eruption could potentially take place one day, maybe!

Is it true that Kilimanjaro glaciers are disappearing?

Summarising crudely Henry Stedman’s section about glaciers page 139 of his book, Kilimanjaro glaciers have the white ice reflect the sun, while the black basalt rocks absorb the heat and make the bottom of the ice melt, which means they change form constantly. Glaciers started to form 9,700 years BC. The ice hasn’t completely melted over the years thanks to eight ice ages. However, Kilimanjaro’s ice did shrink by 85% between 1912 and 2011, loosing 33% in the last 20 years only. Some believe that there will be no ice left on Kilimanjaro by 2050. This e-book contains a lot of pictures of how the glaciers of Kilimanjaro used to look:

But, reading page 142 of Henry Stedman’s book, the irony is that more rain causes the glacier to replenish so if climate change intensifies rain falls, then rain might replenish the glaciers, making them last longer, making Kilimanjaro the wrong symbol to use when talking about melting glaciers, while in other parts of the world, they do melt more. Who knows!

Who lives there?
The Chagga people, one of Tanzania’s largest ethnic group arrived 400 to 250 years ago and have lived in the surroundings of Kilimanjaro since then. Before that, different people, the Wakonyingo, the Wangassa and the Umbo lived there.

Who were the first mountaineers to summit Kilimanjaro?
First attempts were made in 1861 but it was not until 1889 that Kilimanjaro was submitted, by Dr Hans Meyer and his friend Herr Ludwig Purtscheller. At the time, they had to walk all the way from Marangu village, and had to have a strong food logistics too, but still did use porters. There was much more snow though on their way, making it harder and less high tech equipment than we have nowadays.


When to go?
Avoid March-May (long rain season) and Nov-Dec (shorter rains). June to October is colder than Jan-Feb. But, if you do have to go in Nov or April, some people went and enjoyed having the mountain just for themselves and were lucky to not have too much rain. Do bring crampons in April for the summit night, just in case, so it says.

How to train?
First of all, go hiking, a lot, as much as you can, every week-end if you can for at least the 2 months before you go for the Kilimanjaro hike. Then combine that with going up and down stairs to build up strength in your legs, wherever there are stairs. Then to do a full body training, go running to develop your cardio, and cycle and swim to develop the rest.
That’s it. You can also buy an altitude mask and try to breathe through it, even at rest, to get used to the idea of low oxygen when breathing. Freediving also probably helps with developing the lungs capacity. Then mentally, whatever tricks can help you, everyone has their own things that work for them. For some, it will be yoga and meditation. For others it will pushing your limits on some hard runs or hikes, or visualising the hike while you train.

How to choose an agency?
We went with African Scenic Safaris and were very happy of our choice, but there are plenty agencies to choose from. I would like to recommend learning about KPAP: The Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project. KPAP has been around since 2003 and aims at certifying agencies that treat porters well. There are 137 agencies listed at the time of writing on KPAP’s website and certified as treating porters well. Karen Valenti is one of the Program Manager at KPAP and was incredibly helpful guiding me in choosing an agency and teaching more about KPAP (Thanks Karen!).

You can learn more here:
And find a certified agency here:

Climb With a Partner for Responsible Travel Company

When you go for the Kilimanjaro hike, you will be heavily assisted. Our group of 5 people had 24 people taking care of them during the 9 days. There was a guide, two assistant guides, a cook and 20 porters. Yep, 20 porters!!!
The difference between certified and non-certified agencies encompass several aspects:
1 – Salaries. Certified agencies are audited to ensure they pay the porters, cooks and guides correctly.
1 – the weight the porters carry. Since 2000, porters are requested to weigh their bag at the beginning of the hikes, they are supposed to only carry 20 kilos max for the company’s bag. Uncertified agencies often find ways around to make them carry more.
2 – the working conditions for the porters. This covers the agency offering porters three meals a day rather than just one, and offering appropriate quantity of food. Sleeping conditions. Breaks. Transport to and from the gate.
3 – the way the tip is distributed at the end. It is very important to bring with you 24 envelops if you can and small dollars change so that you can tip each porter individually if you can. We ended up tipping with one envelop for a group of 4 porters each time as we didn’t have enough small change. Better than a big amount but still not ideal.

What to bring?
Warm clothes! Good rain-proof hiking boots, broken in, small pair of closed shoes to put on easily when going to toilets outside at night, flip-flops maybe, good hiking shoes, and I will rave about merino wool, merino bra, merino underwear, merino shirts, merino long sleeves, merino leggings, merino fleece..Then down jacket, rain jacket, winter jacket for the summit night to have 6 layers at the top, fleece pant to have 4 layers under during summit night (merino leggings, thicker warm leggings, fleece pant, rain pant). Light merino hat if you have tons of hoodies with all your upper layers, buff / balaklava, liner gloves…and most important thing I wish I had brought: Ski gloves! Don’t underestimate the importance of good powerful real mountain gloves. Now, you can rent most of this when arriving in Moshi or Arusha so no need to invest if you are not planning to do further cold weather hiking after that. You can rent the sleeping bag from there. Then head torch, trekking poles, small day pack, snacks, rehydration powder, GU gels if you can find it (handy on summit night). Card games, I recommend Hanabi. 🙂 The book of Henry Stedman can be a great read on the Mountain also, or download a good book on your smartphone and turn on your smartphone only 1 hour at night each night to just read. I read ‘The Lion’ of Joseph Kessel and would highly recommend this book as THE best reading on Kilimanjaro, especially if you are going for a safari right after. You could bring a tiny notebook and a pen also to write down details about the hike each night.

Finally, as soon as you google Kilimanjaro hike, you can find heaps of resources out there. Specific agencies have really great content. For example:
Intrepid Travels
African Scenic Safaris (with which we went – highly recommended)
Ultimate Kilimanjaro

There are also people who wrote their experience into books.
I particularly enjoyed reading this book from Sydney-based Annette Freeman:
Mt Kilimanjaro and me.jpg
Of course, there is the famous book of Ernest Hemingway ‘The snows of Kilimanjaro’ but he talks more about a hunter who complains about his feeling he is going to die than anything. Not the book that will put you in the mood of climbing it somehow. My 2 cents.

You could also listen to podcasts, for example this one puts you in the mood of going:

And finally, a French song of the sixties about the Snows of Kilimanjaro:

Here it is for the short intro!

Next…the real thing!!

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