How Hard Is It to Climb Kilimanjaro?

A few years ago I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa.  I have written about how I prepared, what I took with me, and how each day was from day 1 to reaching Uhuru Peak (Kili’s summit) to coming down the mountain.  However, one of the key questions I get is “how hard is it to climb Kilimanjaro”?  I also get that in a different way when people look at me like I did an almost impossible feat.  I get that it is not something most people do hence why it is a feat of a kind but to me there are crazier and/or harder things (it is all relative, isn’t it??).  So I wanted to share a little of my perspective on how hard is Kili…

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The first time I saw Kili outside of the Honey Badger Lodge

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A photo shared in my earlier post about what I took with me

A bucket list item that never was: Kilimanjaro

I never planned or thought of climbing Kilimanjaro.  It had never occurred to me. I had barely heard or read of people who did, nor was I a big hiker to begin with (my first multi-day hike ever had been the year before and I had never stayed at a tent in my life!).  I had hiked four days in Transylvania (Romania) the year before with Trekking for Kids (TFK) and, at a fundraiser for them a few months later, folks started talking to me about joining them in a few months to climb Kilimanjaro with TFK.  I considered the whole idea preposterous.  “Climbing Kilimanjaro is too hard,” I thought.  While I exercise regularly, I was not running half marathons (had done it once a dozen years before) nor doing bootcamps a few days a week nor anything of the like.

Climbing Kilimanjaro was for the super athletes of the world and I was far from a fraction of that though I knew I was in slightly better shape than the average person.  But, a lot of cajoling, elbowing me (and a couple (or 4) glasses of wine later), I succumbed and said yes, beginning to feel excited that I would attempt something so ‘crazy’ and out of character.  The next morning as I woke up and remembered the prior night’s events, I was asking myself why I had agreed to doing something like (instead of saying I’d think about it).  Well, I am not one to disappoint so I decided I was going to give it a shot after all not thinking I had what it took, expecting it took a LOT of training time I did not have, at altitude I could not spend time on, and requiring plenty more hiking experience at altitude or not that I did not possess…

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Ready to start the climb!

Getting ready for climbing Kilimanjaro

A million questions started swirling in my head.  How do I best prepare?  What do I need to bring with me?  What do I need to wear to deal with the cold?  Can I do anything to improve my chances at the exertion?  Can I do anything to help me be ready for the high altitude?  What did I need to know in terms of my personal safety?  How much was it going to cost me when it was all said and done?

I was fortunate to have been going to Kili with an outfit like TFK.  They provided a good bit of info and gladly answered all my questions as I researched things and acquired the things I needed.  I even remember being at REI looking at stuff and calling TFK’s Director of Operations and all-around hiking guru to understand the choices, look at items, see if the features they had were needed, and all that good stuff.  It was not easy but surely having knowledge helps!!

I won’t repeat here all the things I decided to do in terms of preparation or to pack in terms of clothing and other gear; I will provide links to those posts below.  But I will address here the “how hard” question…

So how hard is it to climb Kilimanjaro then?

Of course, you do not decide to hike to the summit of 19,340 foot mountain on a whim.  OK, perhaps if you are a superstar athlete or have the right genes you can… but most of us don’t fit that category.  Actually, I take that back even being a superstar athlete does not guarantee you will make it to the top.  Physical conditioning is only part of what is needed to make it to Uhuru Peak, the summit.  The other part, well, it is simply how your body deals with the high altitude and lower oxygen levels (for which you can do a couple of things that help a tad).  Nevertheless, you have to have an OK fitness level as you will be exerting your body through a few hours a day of walking and gradual climbs, mixed with some steeper climbs at certain points.

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Leaving the Lava Tower looks harder than it was (Day 3)

Training at altitude would help but, from what I understand, the body’s adjustment to altitude dissipates within a few days/a week so that may not be logistically possible for everyone (to go from training in high altitude in another continent and head straight to climb Kili).  I did not do any high altitude / long climbs as part of my training due to many constraints but certainly they can only help so if you are able to do some of that in the weeks before, then your fitness level will be better.

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Heading to Barafu Camp from where we would launch to the summit (Day 5)

Part of my training as I share elsewhere was walking on a treadmill on a high incline with a backpack loaded with twice the weight I would carry on the mountain.  It was an odd sight at the gym for sure but it helped physically if not just mentally…  That and the fact that I am in general good shape through routine exercise were in my favor but I still struggled summit night (who doesn’t?) and after the Barranco Wall.

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Climbing along (not up) the Barranco Wall had its challenging spots (me in orange!) (Day 4)

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A little while after the Barranco Wall (OK, an hour or so), we got hit by a little rain

So while Kilimanjaro was far from easy (each day I would end completely drained and able to move but barely), I feel it is a reasonable, attainable goal for people with a fair degree of training/fitness – and the drive to push themselves beyond what they think they can do.  And, with all that, it will still all depend on how the high altitude hits each particular individual – and that cannot be predicted.

I have to say that MOST CERTAINLY going with a great organization (in my case, a non-profit like Trekking for Kids) and having a one-of-a-kind extremely seasoned lead guide as we had (Luis Benitez – read about him here) were key success factors in helping ME complete the journey from planning to trekking to summitting – and making it down in one piece!

What was the hardest part about climbing Kilimanjaro?

It is a hard question to answer.  We are all so different.  My answer may not be yours.  Things I can think of include:

  • the cold,
  • the longing for a nice glass o’ wine or a beer (OK, I threw that in for comic relief),
  • the badly needing to get up to pee in the middle of the night (if taking Diamox – or not),
  • the constant packing and unpacking,
  • the not showering,
  • the bathroom situation at camp and on the trail,
  • the rocks to climb requiring longer legs than I have,
  • the having a sick tent-mate and wondering for days if you will catch it,
  • etc.

(NOTE:  Note food is not on this list.  I ate great stuff thanks to our great porters & crew!)

But all these things are “overcomeable.”  For instance, while I used wipies every day to sort of clean up after a day of hiking, I had no such thing for the hair.  Yet not even ONCE did I think that it had been days since I had washed my hair last (those who know me will know how incredible THAT sounds).  That’s what makes going up Kili something special.  YES, it is hard in many ways.  YES, physically, no matter how well trained (with those rare exceptions).  But the hardest part is the mental part when you wonder if you really can make it all the way and whether you want to on one of those moments you are too tired to think straight.  The hardest part is in keeping going, in putting one foot in front of the other when you think you can step no more.  And you can.  And you will.  And you will be so amazed when it is all done that you did it.  That you had it in you.  I never knew I did.  But I did.

And this is the face of happiness at 19,340 ft above sea level, with my family close to me.

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At Uhuru Peak – the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro!!

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Some key links to posts about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

Gear for Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Clothing

Preparing to Hike Kili: More than Training and Gear

Top 14 Items to Bring on a Climb of Kilimanjaro

And if you want to read a day-by-day walkthrough of what it is to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, start with Day 1.

And if you just like hiking in general, check out some of my posts about hiking in different places

Hiking in the state of Georgia: Blood Mountain

Hiking in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania

Trekking the W Circuit in Patagonia

Doing the Camino de Santiago in Spain

A Hike around Fitz Roy in Argentina

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Would love to hear from you about places you hope to hike or favorites past hikes – always good to get ideas from others for future hikes!!

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Comments

  1. Love it. Thanks for the interesting read. Maybe one day…

    • If there is one friend I have who would most enjoy the experience, it is you! And it would not be as hard for you as it was for me 🙂

  2. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is on my bucket list for a while now, Raul. So, it’s really great to read your post and know what to expect. It seems like you had an unforgettable experience, right?

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