Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro: Day by Day

Poa kichizi kama ndizi.

– Swahili for “Crazy cool like a banana,” the most appropriate response to “How are you?” while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

So we climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and shared some of the life lessons we learned along the way. But what did the climb look like? How did it feel?

Getting Closer to the Top - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
On the way up Mount Kilimanjaro.

The Marangu Route

This five-day trail catches hell for not being very interesting in terms of landscape and for forcing a rapid ascent. Our experience? We thought it was great. Aside from an especially challenging final ascent, the progression is fine. Regarding views, we were pleasantly surprised by the variety and beauty of the landscape. Hopefully our photos underscore this.

To give you a sense of the pace of our climb, we’ve included the distance we covered and the elevation we gained each day. Quite frankly, every time we look at these numbers and consider how rapidly we moved, we whip the calculator out just to verify.

Take a deep breath. Let’s get moving.

Day 1: Marangu Gate to Mandara Hut – “Easy Peas-y”

Begin: Marangu gate 1,840m/6,036 ft; End: Mandara Hut 2,720m/8,923ft
Elevation gain: 880m/2,887ft; Distance: 8km/5mi

The climb begins much like a walk in the park. Gauzy moss hangs from trees, waterfalls whisper in the distance. Red clay and forest: this is one of nature’s finest complimentary color combinations. Our pace is absurdly slow, like shuffled footsteps. We feel like dancing to get our hearts beating once again.

Walking Through Rainforest - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
First Day of Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

As we make our way up, porters and trekkers fresh from their summit experience bound down at a quick pace, eager to wind things up and experience a shower. (We can smell this.)

I want to be them.” (Aside from collective body odor, that is).

We pass members of the Drake University football team on their way down the mountain. Many of them – huge, fit guys – look exhausted, wracked.

Oh man. What are we in for?

Hot Water for Washing at Mandara Huts - Mt. Kilimanjaro
Washing hands outside our hut at Mandara. So civilized.

We settle down for the night at Mandara Huts. We’re told that the ascent will whittle away our appetites, so we force down as much food as possible for dinner while finishing well beyond our three liters of water for the day.

(Speaking of drinking, I wake up at 9:30PM and exited the hut to pee. I have seen many a star-stitched sky in my life, but the one overhead at that moment may have been the best I’ve ever seen. Getting up to pee in the middle of the night does have its benefits.)

Day 2: Mandara Hut to Horombo Hut – “This Really Isn’t So Bad”

Begin: Mandara Hut 2,720m/8,923ft; End: Horombo Hut 3,720m/12,204ft
Elevation gain: 1,000m/3,280ft; Distance: 12 km/7.5mi

The landscape changes from willowed rainforest to shrub-strewn heath and moorland. The land becomes textured, perfect for mid-mountain light.

Wildflowers at Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Day 2 of Mt. Kilimanjaro Climb, Marangu Route

Peaks begin to appear. First Mawenzi Peak and then the snow-capped Uhuru Peak in the distance. Our final goal is in sight. Doesn’t look too far, right?

Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mawenzi Peaks - Tanzania
Looking up at Mawenzi Peak – Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

When we flew past Kilimanjaro on our way from Nairobi just days before, we saw a cloud line wrapping around one side of the mountain. At Horombo Huts, our stop for the night, we realize that we are now above those clouds. We feel a lift, thinking how far we’ve come, but we also take deeper breaths to capture more of the oxygen our bodies need.

Looking Down on Horombo Huts - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Above the Clouds at Horombo Huts

The rapid ascent to high altitude begins to register. Broken sleep, too. Besides getting up to pee four times a night, bouts of anxiety and hallucination-like dreams take hold.

I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart racing. I know this feeling from other ascents. My head tells my heart this is normal. A few deep breaths and I fall back asleep.

Repeat until the guide knocks on the door at 6:30 AM.

Day 3: Horombo Hut to Kibo Hut – “OK, I’m Getting the Hang of This”

Begin: Horombo Hut 3,720m/12,204ft; End: Kibo Hut 4,703m/15,430ft
Elevation gain: 983m/3,225ft; Distance: 12 km/7.5mi

Just outside Horombo Huts, we come across a stretch of grassland covered with dendorsenecio kilimanjari, the unmistakably-shaped signature trees of Kilimanjaro. The clouds stay away, and our views of the peak and its glaciers remind us not only of how fortunate we are to be here, but also how we must continue to earn our way.

Looking Up at Uhuru Peak - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
View of Uhuru Peak on Day 3, Marangu Route

After lunch the walk becomes mind-numbingly monotonous. A road is carved to the horizon. Each time we reach what seems like an end, a new beginning awaits us.

Barren and brown, this path seems infinite.

Long Path to Uhuru Peak - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Barren landscape on Day 3 of Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

I sample mantras to deal with my fatigue and boredom. I like the four-step mantra, “one…foot…in front of the…other.” Timing my footfalls to match my breath feels like yoga. If there’s a prevailing cycle in the universe, I experience fleeting moments of becoming one with it. Then I fall out, reflecting on the monotony and appreciating the beauty in turns.

Then Kibo Hut appears, a spartan gift to bring this day to an end.

There’s no mistaking that this is base camp territory. We’ve seen it in the Himalaya. It’s basic, it’s barren. Short-drop toilets are not for lingering. There’s no running water. For so many reasons, time here must be limited. No need to force it, for our climbing schedule is about to take an inhumane leap.

Dan at Kibo Hut - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Excited to make it to Kibo Hut.

A short acclimatization walk, then rest, then early dinner. In an attempt to reassure us, Suliman, our guide, shows us two giant aerosol cans of compressed oxygen, which in the worst of all cases will save us. (The moment you take oxygen is the moment your climb is over. It’s a sign that you’ve succumbed for good and you go no further.)

We are cold. We are tired. We all wonder what summit day will feel like. We wonder whether we’ll make it.

For the next couple of hours, we “sleep.” But this is no sleep, it is just short of full-blown insomnia.

Day 3 Night/Day 4: Summit and Back Down – “Let’s Do This”

Ascent: Kibo Hut 4,703m/15,430ft to Uhuru Peak 5,895m/19,341ft (via Gilman Point and Stella Point)
Elevation gain to Summit (Uhuru Peak): 1,192m/3,911ft; Distance: 10km/6.2mi
Descent: Uhuru Peak to Horombo Hut: 2,175m/7,135ft; Distance: 22km/13.7mi
(Yup, you did the math correctly – that’s 32 km/20mi of walking in one day.)

Wake up is 11 PM. While the rest of Africa is just going to bed, we are getting up. Our “day” begins with porridge. I’m not the least bit interested in eating, but I force it down all the same. Maija captures the worst of what we are feeling, “My bones ache. Even my teeth ache. It’s like I have growing pains.”

Though my bones do not ache, it’s clear that my body is not especially pleased with what I’ve done to it.

We pile on every layer of clothing we have — Audrey counts 10 on top — and we’re out the door to climb. It’s midnight.

Let’s do this thing,” I say. Audrey and I clasp hands. I choke up.

We are here. It’s time.

Starting Summit Climb at Midnight - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Setting off with our guide and summit porters. Without their support, we wouldn’t have made it.

We begin to walk, plodding. “Pole, pole,” our guides remind us. (Slowly, slowly.)

12:30 AM
Up scree switchbacks. God, I hate volcanic ash. Though it’s not as bad as one step forward, two steps back, it’s something close.

If I climb like this another 12 times, maybe I’ll make it to the top,” I say to myself, playing mathematical rationalization games.

1:15 AM
I see Audrey looking up, checking out the lights of the climbers ahead of us. “Don’t do it,” I say.

It’s demoralizing. Keep your head down.”

I’m irritable, almost forgetting all the great wisdom that comes too easily while tapping on a laptop in the comfort of an oxygen-rich warm apartment.

2:00 AM
I look up, ignoring my own advice. The lights from head lamps that punctuate the darkness snake up the mountain to the edge of the sky. I wonder if I’ll be able to sustain this.

2:30 AM
The first of our potential casualties, one of our fellow climbers has a break down. The guides act quickly, ushering the rest of us onwards so she can be attended to properly. (Spoiler: She continues and makes it all the way to the top.)

3:00 AM
I feel like I want to throw up. I quickly debate the merits of doing so and decide against exchanging relief for an uncomfortable burning in my mouth and nose. I begin to exhale heavily and inhale in musical patterns to stave off the nausea. It works, fleetingly.

My exhaustion is so thorough that I catch myself falling asleep as I walk. This is the downside of sleep-starved yoga breathing. Sleepwalking while mountain climbing — I cannot believe this. (Maija later confirmed that she was both sleepwalking and dreaming on the way up the mountain.)

Every time we stop on a rock or turn to catch our breaths, I catch a wink of sleep, inadvertently. I could fall asleep here forever. I know this is dangerous. Our guides do too. They nudge us to keep moving.

4:00 AM
Why do I keep looking at my watch?? I feel like tearing it off and throwing it down the mountain.

Head down, one foot in front of the other. There are those bottles of beer on the wall again. I keep losing count. Not that it matters.

4:30 AM
We stop occasionally, but not often enough for my needs.

I look down and see a chain of headlamp lights snaking below. I’m torn: pleased to have made it so far, but wondering how much more I have to go.

In darkness, there’s comfort in not knowing how infinite this mountain might be.

5:00 AM
I look up. I think I can see the crest of the hill. “A night mirage,” I think.

5:20 AM – Gilman Point (5,681 m/18,638ft)
The first big milestone of the day. I don’t feel like I’m dying anymore. We rest, but not for long.

Uhuru Peak is not that far away,” Hatibo, our summit porter, offers a morsel of motivation.

(Note: Pace yourself. Ideally, you’d like to arrive at Gilman Point when it’s still dark, and finish at Uhuru Peak around sunrise so that you can enjoy the view and the early morning sun. However, if you climb too quickly, you’ll get to the top when it’s dark and far too cold to linger.)

6:10 AM Stella Point (5,730m/18,800ft)
On your way up, NEVER EVER listen to anyone coming down who says, “It’s not long now.”

It’s long. Trust me.

Another climber on his way up adds, “I heard it’s mostly downhill from here.” Either he is joking or he is full of crap. Either way, I resent him almost completely.

The reality: we have plenty of uphill remaining.

Resting at the Top - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Taking a break on the way to Uhuru Peak. Yes, we’re as exhausted as we look.

The sun appears on the horizon above the clouds. Kilimanjaro’s glaciers begin to glow in the early morning light. Under other circumstances, I’d be taking photos by the hundreds, but I focus my energy uphill. (Kudos to Audrey for assuming the reins of the big camera.)

Glaciers at Dawn at the Top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Glaciers at sunrise at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro

From here, I can see the peak, but not the place where climbers are celebrating. I can beat this, but it’s slow. Very slow.

7:20 AM – Summit, Uhuru Peak (5,895m/19,340ft)
Our final steps are all emotion. Fatigue is forgotten and adrenaline takes over. I’ve imagined this moment countless times.

A posed shot by a little wooden sign has never felt so satisfying.

Our Whole Group at the Top of Mt. Kilimanjaro - Tanzania
Our Group at Uhuru Peak- Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

The summit is known for cold and rapidly changing conditions, but we luck out. The sun blazes and skies are clear. The temperature is almost comfortable and the wind is nothing like what we prepared for. We linger, snapping photos and getting drunk on thin air. The views are even more impressive than we imagined.

Glaciers in the Clouds - Mt. Kilmanjaro, Tanzania
Another view of the glaciers before we head down.

We can’t recognize the potential danger. At twenty minutes, we’re pushing our luck; our guides “encourage” us to head back down.

In an aim to return to Kibo Hut as soon as possible, we move very quickly. Too quickly, it seems. I’m overexerting myself. Before I know it, I feel miserable and exhibit the tell-tale signs of altitude sickness: my stomach is in knots, my head is pounding.

Walking Down from Uhuru Peak - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Making our way down, a quick descent.

As we bounce down the scree below Gilman Point, I’m amazed by what we’d scaled. And I want to throw up again.

When we arrive at Kibo Hut, I collapse into my bed. No time for sleeping bags. I wake up to breakfast 45 minutes later, my rain pants only half off.

After a full breakfast and a short rest, it’s time to hit the road to Horombo Hut to retire for the night. And to breathe.

Day 5: Horombo Hut to Marangu Gate – “Savor the Victory”

Begin: Horombo Hut 3720m/12,204ft; End: Marangu Gate 1840m
Elevation loss: 1,880m/6170ft; Distance: 20 km/12.5mi

It’s a long way down, so we get an early start. But as early starts go, this is a good one. We all feel relatively well. We didn’t wake up to pee as much. We slept. Our appetites return.

We even do morning exercises. We laugh.

Morning Exercise at Horombo Huts - Mt. Kilmanjaro, Tanzania
Morning exercises at Horombo Huts.

We enjoy the early morning light and clouds as we walk. This is the second time we’ve seen this stretch of terrain, but this time it looks different. It’s in the shadow of the summit, a place we’ve been.

Now we’re the ones coming down –- a bit more stinky, a little more confident — and we’re encouraging those heading up.

How much can change in just a few days.

Celebrating Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro - Tanzania
And we made it all the way to the end!

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Mount Kilimanjaro Photos

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you’d like to read the captions, you can view the Mount Kilimanjaro photo set.

 

Coming up next: All the practical details you need to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, from packing the right gear to dealing with altitude sickness.

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Disclosure: Special thanks to the leaders of our G Adventures climbing and summit team: Suliman, Issa, Isaac, Hatibo and Masa. Without you, we might still be on that mountain. Our tour in Tanzania was provided by G Adventures in connection with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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The experiences above were from the G Adventures Tanzania Encompassed Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

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Comments

  1. says

    Great stuff guys! Congrats on making it. I hear it’s a tough one but hugely rewarding for everyone I know that’s done it. One of these days I’ll get there.

    When you coming to Rwanda? :-)

  2. says

    A great account of your climb. I know that feeling you get at high altitudes all too well, and the little games you play in your head. But it’s all worth it in the end! Congrats again :)

  3. says

    @Kirsty: Thanks! Tough, doable, not to be underestimated and thoroughly rewarding. You will get there and we’ll look forward to hearing about your experience on the summit.

    Don’t leave Rwanda! We are coming. Hoping to put together a longer trip to East Africa for next year.

    @Anthony: Thank you! Love to hear this.

    @Meg: Do it. Kili won’t disappoint. Among others, we’ve experienced Machu Picchu/Salkantay, Torres del Paine, a bunch of volcanoes in Nicaragua, Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan, the Annapurna Circuit, etc.

    Kili’s got them all beat on the scale of the challenge, mental and physical. When you do it, you feel like you’re on top of the world. Or at least on top of Africa.

    @Dean: Yes, the head games of altitude. It’s actually good to hear that others experience the same. It’s not so much that misery loves company, it’s just nice to know that when we were on the mountain, we weren’t going crazy.

  4. says

    I was gripped, reading this entire story of your climb up Kilimanjaro. I can imagine that clear Tanzanian (non light polluted) sky with the star display (I’ve also thought of that bonus of having to pee every night myself).

    Sounds grueling and brutal but worth it all!

  5. says

    @Mark: I’m laughing. Peeing and staring at the stars in total peace and darkness on Kilimanjaro — gotta take in the experience in full.

    There were grueling moments — especially our midnight ascent — but it was all worth it. I’m glad that came through.

  6. Don says

    Hi guys: The obvious joy is at the summit but the great lessons of life are learned in the steps along the way. The trek up the mountain becomes a metaphor for life. It is a story beautifully told and so real that I found myself choking up a bit several times as I read it. Great job and a wonderful accomplishment for two special people. Wonderful photography as usual. Thanks for taking us along on this special journey.

  7. says

    @Don: A Kilimanjaro climb is indeed a metaphor for life. Am glad that our story had the effect it did. We felt it on the way up and we’ll probably be feeling it upon reflection for some time to come.

    @Daniel: Thank you for sharing our story. I hope the community finds it helpful and inspiring.

  8. Agne says

    I enjoyed this article sooooo much!!! Thanks for sharing all your thoughts and this incredible experience. I am so happy you made it!

  9. says

    Great trip recap. Did the Marangu route on the way down after the Rongai route up a cpl yrs ago and your recount helped me recall many of our steps, too. Then there were:
    •all the would-be porters hoping to be picked for work at the start gate
    •those thieving, scampering black & silver monkeys at Marangu
    •the porter stories about elephant & lions roaming above Mawenzi Tarn (possible?)
    •the endless scree in your boots (my biggest tip – wear gaiters!)
    •going to manual breathing mode to max incoming oxygen
    •the best beer of my life at the finish gate shop. Also the second best

  10. says

    @Charlie: Thanks! Definitely appreciate your post Kilimanjaro climb recollections including the fact that the supply of porters definitely seems to vastly exceed demand. (I’m really glad, however, that we had the porters we had.)

    Where there are monkeys and tourist crowds, there’s always a problem. India, Indonesia, Tanzania — you name it. I don’t blame the monkeys, but the tourists and especially those who train the monkeys to steal. Having said all that, we tracked some monkeys just off the trail (in the trees) toward the bottom of the route and they were not thievery trained.

    I don’t recall stories of elephants and lions on Kilimanjaro. I do recall the scree. Boots were pretty full, even with gaiters. A couple of hours into the last day’s ascent, yoga breathing seemed to help. And a beer to the finish most certainly did.

    Thanks for your comment…it brought me back.

  11. says

    @Chris: I remember flying past Mt. Kilimanjaro and thinking, “We are going to summit that thing!” Flying over Kilimanjaro can be spectacular, but there’s no better way to develop an appreciation and respect for a mountain than to see it up close and climb it.

  12. says

    I loved your picture of the trekkers and guides stretching before their days walk. Sometimes these type of pictures capture the imagination more than yet another clip of the summit. Well done and thanks for all the travel tips.

  13. K says

    Thanks so much for your blog. I am fascinated with the idea of climbing Kili and really would love to do it but am very apprehensive. While hiking Macchu Pichu I got very ill and never determined whether it was altitude or a stomach bug. Keep going back and forth on whether to even attempt Kili with the altitude. Any thoughts greatly appreciated.

  14. J says

    Awesome photos/comments!!

    So far I have trekked Peru and Nepal; I am looking for my next adventure!

    Is it Kilimanjaro? Or would you recommend somewhere else?

    Thanks

  15. says

    @K: It’s impossible to prevent altitude sickness 100% but if you follow the advice above and also the advice of your guide and porters regarding altitude sickness, then you’ll have a good chance of being OK. The biggest thing is to drink tons of water, move slowly, sleep as much as you can. I recommend attempting Kili, but perhaps schedule in an extra day for acclimatization.

    @J: We loved trekking in Nepal and Peru as well and really loved our Kili hike. It’s different from the other mountain climbs we’ve done. So yes, go for it!

  16. says

    I loved all your picture big different then picture in my country (Mount Rinjani an Mt Tambora) Sometimes i hope will come there to Mt Kilimanjaro. Well done and thanks for all the travel tips.

  17. says

    Your photo set tells all the story very well and it looks like you guys had a great time on kilimanjaro. Marangu route is the most comfortable and less likely to get mountain sickness since it has a more gradual gradient. This is the only route that you get to sleep in built up huts complete with toilets and refreshments. its popularly known as coca cola route.

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