Pole-pole! How to conquer Kilimanjaro

More than 20,000 people every year attempt to climb the world’s highest freestanding mountain – and fewer than half succeed. Our trekking expert Lou Day gives us a step-by-step guide to get you to the roof of Africa.

Kilimanjaro may not be a technical climb, but it’s not to be taken lightly – it’s a serious trek, requiring preparation, stamina and self-belief. It also about as spectacular as trekking gets, with amazing variation in the landscapes as you ascend, from the lush forests of the foothills to the prehistoric groundsel-studded moonscapes higher up, to the gleaming white glaciers of the summit. Anyone who has put in the preparation, goes with the right attitude and has the fitness to succeed can make it to the summit – an unforgettable moment and the crowning glory of a peerless adventure. Here are some tips to help you get there. ‘Pole-pole’, incidentally, is Kiswahili for ‘slowly-slowly’!

Gear

Thermals! They should be the first thing into your rucksack – along with a balaclava, two pairs of gloves and thick socks. You’ll need that lot at nights, when the temperature plummets, and you’ll be thankful for them on summit day as well, when the going can be slow and cold. And remember your camera needs thermals too! Nothing’s more frustrating than a frozen camera when you’ve got the photo opportunity of a lifetime waiting. I’d definitely recommend walking poles as well – they can really save the knees a lot of trouble, particularly on the descent.
An obvious recommendation – a good pair of walking boots, properly broken in. I’ve seen people make it up mountains in light shoes, but the waterproofing and ankle support you get from good boots is a godsend on a demanding peak like this one.

Food

Food for a challenging trek like Kili is really part of your technical gear – you need to make sure the stuff you take gives you the best chance of getting you up and down the mountain. Purification tablets are always useful. Travel with Peregrine and your support crew will boil up all the water you need, but some people like the added security of iodine tablets as well. Some form of energy supplements is certainly required – a regular intake of calories in the form of energy gels, barley sugar, or energy bars is a must. Just be sure to try them out before you get onto Kili, so you know what you like and what keeps you going best. Lastly, some ginger is no bad thing – helps fight the altitude sickness. 

Route

Peregrine operates tours on two routes – the Rongai and the Machame. The Machame takes a day longer, but travels up a steeper gradient in parts, so in terms of difficulty and acclimatisation the routes are pretty similar. Really, you’re not going to lose out whichever trail you take. Each passes through extraordinary scenery, and they both converge on base camp so whichever you follow you still get that sense of camaraderie, anticipation and excitement the night before summiting – a true expedition feeling! 

Prepare

No crampons or rope-climbing is needed on Kilimanjaro, but mentally and physically, tackling the mountain is a challenge. You’re starting close to sea level and, all being well, topping out at 5895 metres, so getting fit and having plenty of hikes beforehand is crucial. If you’ve got the time, there’s no better acclimatisation than spending a few days on Mount Meru, a nearby peak standing at over 4500 metres. In general, my advice would be to try to avoid rushing off an international flight straight onto Kili’s slopes – long-haul flights are tiring and dehydrating, so if you’ve got the time, a safari beforehand is a pretty good option. Alternatively, if a safari is your reward for scaling the mountain, check out this trip.

Support

We use porters, so all you carry is your daypack – a definite plus, as it would be a huge grind for you to carry a heavy rucksack all the way up Kili. The guides and porters are experts on the mountain and are used to high altitudes, so following their lead is important – you won’t see them (good ones at least) rushing to get uphill as swiftly as possible. Pole-pole is the mantra – you’ll find yourself muttering it to yourself as you move slowly uphill!

Reward

Awe-inspiring views, forging new friendships, the feeling of summiting Africa – a climb up Kilimanjaro gives trekkers a truckload of moments and memories to treasure. If you’re looking for some post-mountain indulgence, safari is without a doubt a great option – the mountain neighbours some of the world’s best wildlife viewing – or beaching out on Zanzibar is difficult to beat!

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