Mt. Kilimanjaro

Picture taken from

The first known reference to Kilimanjaro was by Ptolemy of Alexandria.

In 1849 German missionaries reported seeing a huge, snow-capped mountain, which they said was called the Mountain of the Caravans by Arab slave traders from the island of Zanzibar who used the mountain as a landmark while crossing the interior. The Royal Geographical Society initially refused to believe that snow could exist on the Equator, but expeditions sent in 1861 confirmed its existence. The mountain was first successfully climbed by Europeans in 1887 by Hans Meyer, guided by the local Chagga guide John Lauwo.

Kilimanjaro is composed of three volcanic cones:

Mt. Kilimanjaro seen from the south, showing Shira, Kibo and Mawenzi

kibo from the shira plateau mawenzi from kibo
Kibo seen from the Shira Plateau Mawenzi seen from Kibo

The word Kilimanjaro is derived from Kilima Njaro in Swahili, meaning shining mountain. Uhuru is the Swahili word for freedom (from slavery; or independence, from colonialism) and is also well known to Star Trek fans. The Kaiser Spitze was named for Wilhelm I (1797-1888, our birthday-boy's grandfather).

Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira are Chagga words; the Chagga being indigenous agrarian Bantu people who serve as guides: Kili's Sherpas. The Masai are the red-cloaked nomadic spearmen whose young men traditionally killed lions as a rite of passage.

The Swahili language comes from a dialect spoken in Zanzibar (long a part of Oman) and was spread as the Zanzibaris roamed inland seeking ivory and slaves. Swahili was originally written in Arabic script, and many of the words are borrowed directly from Arabic, but the Latin alphabet is now used. "Hakuna Matata" is probably Swahili's most famous phrase.

Kibo lies 213 statute miles south of the Equator at 03° 05' S latitude, 37° 23' E longitude. Kilimanjaro is the world's highest non-technical climb, as well as the tallest mountain on the continent of Africa (and therefore one of the Seven Summits). Its base is 40 miles around. Kilimanjaro's volcanoes are dormant but not extinct: threatening rumbles are often heard and gases vent from fumaroles in Kibo's ash pit.

Kilimanjaro lies in the heart of the World Heritage Kilimanjaro National Park.

To climb Kilimanjaro, you start over a half-mile above sea level, from the hot African equatorial savannah atop the Rift Valley escarpment, and climb 3 miles straight up into the freezing cold of the glaciers around Uhuru peak. On average, ten people die on the mountain every year. Heart attacks are the leading killer but other problems can arise: severe storms - like all major peaks, Kili makes its own weather and proper equipment is necessary; altitude sickness is everyone's companion above 8,000 feet, although Acetazolamide (Diamox®) is helpful in accelerating acclimatization.

Edema - either pulmonary or cerebral - is a deadly possibility. The accepted orthodoxy about edema is that you must immediately descend if you show any symptoms, but the fact of the matter is that above 16,000 feet getting down quickly enough simply may not be an option ... a response including Decadron® (the steroid Dexamethasone), O2 and a hyperbaric tent must be attempted.

(In January 2006, 3 American climbers and 1 Tanzanian porter were killed in their tents by a rock slide as they slept at the Arrow Glacier just below the Western Breach. Several others were seriously injured. This sort of thing is rare however.)

Excellent physical fitness is obviously required for a successful climb.  The worst physical hardships result from the inability to breathe, more than muscular fatigue, so intense aerobic training must be combined with anaerobic strength conditioning. Training at high altitude (>9,000') just prior to attempting Kili is a good idea (your first camp will be nearly 9,000' and that soon seems quite low as you proceed upward). Coming down, your quads and calf muscles take quite a beating.

Generally in the dry seasons the weather is clear through the night until after the sun is up and then things cloud up. Precipitation after 11AM is quite common ... rain at lower altitudes and snow higher. You soon learn to carry extra layers in your day pack and to change quickly.

The whole trek involves a linear distance of about 50 - 60 miles. As you climb, you go through five distinct climate zones:

The Lemosho Route (pioneered by Scott Fischer of Into Thin Air fame) over the Shira Plateau and up the cliffs of the Western Breach begins at a trailhead that is already in the montane forest, so you drive from dry, blistering heat with very little vegetation up into a lush, wet jungle. The road conditions were so bad the day we arrived on the mountain that our Land Rover couldn't make it to the trailhead so we added several miles to the hike through sopping mud interlaced with tree roots.

route up kilimanjaro

route to the summit of kilimanjaro


Here's the Western Breach. You can see the topo lines above ... it's steep. The base is 16,000 feet and the top is 18,500 feet; half a mile high. On the Lemosho Route, climbing The Western Breach is the hardest day: you start out tired and cold and you end up somewhere you've never been before in your life.

The day we climbed the weather was bad and by late afternoon was snowing quite hard. I was the first of my party to the top, feeling the strongest I had felt in days and thinking I had finally acclimatized. But within an hour I was suffering the symptoms of cerebral edema: I couldn't stand, was racked with nausea and had a blinding headache. I knew I should go down but in the dark, in a blizzard, and sick, I also knew a catastrophic fall was a certainty. The trip leader gave me a Decadron and by early morning I was feeling well enough to try for the summit.

The Western Breach

The next day, we set out in the dark with frozen feet & fingers, climbed through the sunrise to the summit and vindication ...

Ed Viesturs is fond of saying that the point isn't to reach the top: it is to get back safely. Two of our party collapsed at the top and it took all the porters and over six hours to trundle them down the 4,000 vertical feet to our next camp on the descent. A man in the party ahead of ours had convulsions, could not be revived and died in the clinic in the town of Moshi at the base. (A quick glance into this fine facility confirms the wisdom of packing your own sterile syringes.)

I am very proud to have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and lots of people do (although there's a brisk business in fake certificates). But anyone planning to do so themselves should know that it was the most physically taxing thing I have done in my life and even the well-prepared put themselves into harm's way.

Me and Alan at the Summit of Kilimanjaro ... Uhuru Peak Feb 2004

... other links of interest ...

Kilimanjaro Climber's Journal(9 meg pdf)

Kilimanjaro Packing List (Excel file)

Major points of interest in Google Maps

Kili's Glaciers


The Serengeti

George Fisher's Home Page

Thumbnail of large topo map of Kilimanjaro

Large topo map of Kilimanjaro

email me


© George Fisher 1994-2008