Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the most awe-inspiring sights on the African continent, and perhaps on the entire planet. It rises over 19,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, and its peaks consist of two dormant and one extinct volcano. This magnificent site is located in northeast Tanzania, one of Africa’s most popular tourist attractions, and the site of thousands of attempts each year to ascend its slopes.
How hard is it to climb Mount Kilimanjaro? Unlike the overwhelming majority of mountains with similar stature, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro does not require mountain climbing expertise or highly specialized climbing equipment. However, ascending this massive, geological marvel is physically demanding, and even the fittest of people struggle to reach Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit, with many falling short.
Despite the arduous challenge posed by Mount Kilimanjaro’s massive, steep slopes, thousands flock to Tanzania to make their attempt to reach its summit. Part its mass appeal lies in the perception that its highest point, Uhuru Peak, is attainable with the right mixture of grit and determination. Proper preparation is critical to a successful expedition, and it starts with knowing what to expect.
Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, and it is also a massive geological feature occupying nearly 500 square miles and measuring 25 miles across at its widest point. Lying just a few hundred miles from the equator, Africa’s tallest mountain rises above the flat grasslands of Kilimanjaro National Park. It has five separate ecological or climatic zones through which hikers must pass on their way up to the top.
While reaching the summit does not require specialized mountain climbing gear such as crampons or rope, Mount Kilimanjaro presents its own unique challenges, the most formidable of which is acute mountain sickness (AMS), also known as altitude sickness. The onset of altitude sickness begins at around 8,000 feet and is brought on by the lessening oxygen content of air at higher altitudes.
The dangerous combination of intense and prolonged physical exertion and lower levels of oxygen at higher altitudes can result in symptoms that include nausea, dizziness, severe headaches, and debilitating shortness of breath. Altitude sickness, more than any other factor, is the reason for trekkers failing to reach Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit.
This is why local Tanzanian guides stress the importance of acclimatization (allowing your body to get accustomed to altitude) before attempting this climb. Not all hikers suffer from the effects of altitude sickness; it can afflict those who are in prime athletic shape, while those who are seemingly not nearly as fit suffer no effects at all.
Here are additional challenges posed by a Mount Kilimanjaro summit expedition:
Aside from adorning Tanzanian tourism brochure covers and serving as Africa’s representative among the Seven Summits (highest mountains on each of the seven continents), Mount Kilimanjaro is an adventurer’s destination in itself. Climbing this mountain is on many a bucket list, and it is estimated that over 50,000 people attempt to reach Uhuru Peak at Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit each year.
Success rate figures vary wildly, particularly when they come from tour guide companies, as they tend to tout the number of successful summits as part of their marketing efforts. According to one recent estimate, about 65% of all climbers (regardless of which route they choose to ascend) successfully reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Typically, the longer the expedition in terms of the number of days, the higher the success rate.
Although following Mount Kilimanjaro routes are ranked from easiest to hardest, it would probably be more accurate to say they are listed from least difficult to most difficult. The truth is, there is no easy way up Kilimanjaro, plain and simple. Even experienced mountain climbers and adventurers come away from the experience humbled by its difficulty, and quite a few fail to reach the summit.
As far as ranking the routes, there are various factors at play, and the degree to which each is relevant depends on the individual climber. Some routes are steeper than others but cover less distance; some are longer than others and require more days to complete but allow for more gradual acclimatization to altitude. Others yet are far less traveled, so there is less human traffic congestion at bottleneck points.
Here is our list of Mount Kilimanjaro climbing routes, ranked in order of increasing difficulty:
Starting from the southeast, the Marangu route is widely considered the least challenging ascent to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. For this reason, it is the most popular choice among tourists and casual climbers, and its trails are by far the most congested with crowds ascending and descending the mountain. It also requires the least amount of commitment as far as days spent trekking with some tour groups offering five-day excursions to the mountaintop.
Of the seven routes on this list, the Marangu trail is the only one that offers overnight accommodations in huts versus tents on the other ascents. With beds (although sleeping bags are still required), pillows, flushing toilets, and basic washrooms, the Marangu has earned a reputation as having the best amenities for trekkers, along with the nickname “Coca Cola Route” (rumor has it that this beverage can be found for sale in the huts).
Despite its popularity with the masses, the Marangu route has a relatively high failure rate. This is mainly attributable to the fact that as one of the shorter-duration summit excursions, there is less time for trekkers to acclimatize to the altitude, so many succumb to the effects of AMS. Fatigue is another factor as the entire ascent and descent are crammed into six days (sometimes five).
This is also a highly popular route, primarily due to the incredibly scenic vistas that dot its trails. The Machame route also has a nickname – it is the “Whiskey Route” to the Marangu’s “Coca-Cola.” With its popularity among tourists and serious hikers, the Machame route suffers from nearly the same amount of crowding and congestion as the Marangu.
The Whiskey Route is considerably shorter than the Coca-Cola Route (roughly 13 miles shorter) but is significantly more challenging because of the steeper terrain it traverses. Despite the higher level of difficulty, the Machame keeps tour operators busy because of its proximity to the Shira Plateau, Barranco, and Lava Tower, which provide once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities.
Day six of this excursion is “Summit Day,” which for most expeditions begins at midnight. The frantic 4-6 hour-long push for the peak is intended to culminate with the “most amazing sunrise you are ever likely to see,” but the glory of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro is short-lived, for the remainder of the day will be spent in a rapid descent (over 9,000 feet) to base camp.
The Rongai route is similar to the Marangu in that it has a relatively moderate slope until it nears the summit, and therefore in terms of difficulty, these two routes are quite similar. The main difference is that the Rongai approaches the summit from the north, and its remote starting point requires extra travel and considerable expense. It is, therefore, not as popular with tourists and affords a more solitary excursion up to the summit.
Although not as Instagram-worthy as the Machame route from a scenery perspective, the Rongai route does go through pristine wilderness areas, and as such, encounters with local Tanzanian wildlife are a high possibility. Also, much of the ascent is spent trekking through tropical rainforests, which hold a special kind of beauty.
It is worth mentioning that as the only route that approaches the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro from the north, the Rongai route is the only feasible option during the rainy seasons in Tanzania because the northern slopes of the mountain receive significantly less precipitation than the others.
This is the newest route on the Mount Kilimanjaro climbing circuit and one of the least traveled due to its length (53 miles) and typical duration (nine days). Because the climbing is stretched out over nine days, this route has one of the highest summiting success rates as trekkers have plenty of time for their bodies to acclimatize to the altitude properly.
As the only trail that nearly encircles the entire mountain at around 13,000-foot elevation, the Northern Circuit route gives participants rare views of the northern slopes. Seeing other hikers on the trail is an uncommon sight, so this option is popular with adventurers who want to avoid crowds and congestion, and want to stay off the beaten path.
Because of its duration, the Northern Circuit route is one of the most expensive excursions to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. However, if reaching Uhuru Peak is important to you and the driving reason for making this trip, then the additional cost and time spent on the mountain may be worthwhile as this option boasts one of the highest success rates among all the summit routes.
In terms of length and elevation gain, the Lemosho route is similar to the Northern Circuit route. The Lemosho is considered the most scenic of all Mount Kilimanjaro ascent options, as it begins in the rainforests (two days are spent trekking here) and winds through the Shira plateau before merging with the Machame route which itself is popular among visitors for the scenic views it offers.
Even though the typical duration of a Lemosho excursion is one day shorter than a Northern Circuit booking, it still boasts a high summit success rate because of the ample time it affords hikers to acclimatize to Mount Kilimanjaro’s altitude properly.
The Lemosho route is a relatively new route with tour organizers and is gaining in popularity among adventurers seeking a less crowded but moderately difficult hiking experience. Because of the extra time and travel needed to reach Lemosho’s starting gate, this is one of the more expensive Mount Kilimanjaro excursions.
The Shira route is a challenging route with a lower summit success rate than most of the other Mount Kilimanjaro ascent options. Unlike the other routes, considerable time is spent driving to begin the expedition, and Shira trekkers bypass the entire rainforest portion of the ascent and start at the rocky terrain of the Shira Gate on the western slope of the mountain.
The primary reason for the lower success rate of Shira hikers is its starting point, which sits at an elevation of 11,800 feet (3,596 meters). Most visitors spend the previous night in the towns of Moshi (3,120 feet elevation/950 meters) or Arusha (4,600 feet/1,400 meters), only to spend the first night of their Shira expedition at roughly two to three times that elevation.
With such a drastic elevation gain before the real work of ascent even begins, altitude sickness is a very real obstacle, and some hikers are behind the eight ball right out of the gate. For those whom acclimatization is not a concern, however, the Shira route offers spectacular vistas and a rugged, physically challenging climbing test with practically no other hikers on the trail.
The most difficult ascent to reach the summit is the Umbwe route, which has the shortest length and most significant elevation gain out of the seven options on this list. With a typical excursion duration of six days, the Umbwe route is challenging from start to finish. It should be undertaken only by experienced climbers who are in peak physical condition.
In a word, the Umbwe route is steep. It is days of nonstop climbing stacked on one another, so the physical toll is considerable. If the fatigue does not get you, then be prepared to deal with the possibility of altitude sickness as there is not much opportunity for proper acclimatization due to the abbreviated itinerary.
On the plus side, Umbwe is the least traveled route ascending Mount Kilimanjaro, so if you are seeking a quiet, solitary experience trekking up one of the Seven Summits, then this is the option for you. There is also the satisfaction of knowing that should you successfully reach Uhuru Peak via the Umbwe route, you conquered Mount Kilimanjaro in the most challenging way possible.
Just visiting Mount Kilimanjaro is the experience of a lifetime; to reach its summit would be a crowning achievement on any adventurer’s bucket list. With proper planning, you can significantly improve your chances of successfully reaching Uhuru Peak, and it begins by selecting the right route. Tanzanian mountain guides urge their clients to proceed “pole, pole” (which translates to “slowly, slowly”), and this might be the best advice of all.
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