The Works: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

Stand on the roof of Africa this winter with our all-you-need-to-know guide.
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Stand on the roof of Africa this winter with our all-you-need-to-know guide.

Top of the Continent Africa's biggest mountain stretches superlatives nearly to breaking: Hemingway wrote that Mt. Kilimanjaro is "as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun." From the 19,340-foot roof of Africa, the moonlike summit (known as Uhuru Peak) affords surreal views of the dormant Reusch Crater and nearly extinct glaciers. You'll hike from monkey-hooting jungle into a savannalike zone of gnarled 15-foot-tall cactus-like trees that live only on Kili; then above treeline into fields of volcanic extrusions.

Route Most tours crowd the relatively short but trashed Marangu route, doable in 5 days. Try the Western Breach instead. It takes 9 days and costs more ($1,000 and up), but offers a more gradual acclimatization and a summit day that doesn't require an 11 p.m. start.

Timing The best weather windows are December through February and July through September. Choose the former if spotting Serengeti wildebeests is key, the latter for clearer, chillier weather.

Gear Outfitters often supply cooking gear, water filters, and tents. Be sure to bring sturdy boots, clothing for both hot and freezing conditions, and a sleeping bag rated to 0°F. Trekking poles and gaiters help on the steep, muddy descent. There's a 30-pound limit for porter-carried gear (in a duffel).

Health A course of antimalarial drugs is a must, and a yellow fever vaccination is highly recommended. Consult a doctor, the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/travel/eafrica.htm), and the Tanzanian embassy (www.tanzaniaembassy-us.org).

Altitude Drink plenty of water, eat heartily, and take a day off midclimb. Local guides cost less, but may not recognize the symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Know the signs and insist on going down if necessary. Pole-pole ("slowly, slowly" in Swahili) wins the summit.

Local Flavor Try mbege, the traditional banana beer of the indigenous Chagga.

Arrival KLM has daily flights into Kilimanjaro International Airport. The day after landing, stretch your legs on the flanks of Mt. Meru in nearby Arusha National Park.

Aprés Summit Home to black rhinos, golden jackals, and other colorful creatures, the nearby Ngorongoro Crater--a 2,000-foot-deep, 150-square-mile caldera--is essential viewing. Rent a car and driver in Arusha.

Gratuity It's standard practice to tip the guide, porters, and anyone else who performed a service. Outfitters often give suggestions, but plan on 15 percent. Also consider donating a warm jacket to the chronically underdressed porters.

Guidebook Read Kilimanjaro: A Guide to Climbing Africa's Highest Mountain, by Henry Stedman.

Outfitters You must have a licensed guide; make sure your lead guide speaks English and has first-aid training. Porters are optional, but hiring them helps the local economy (and ensures you'll have morning tea delivered to your tent). Most outfitters cover the various entrance, hut or camping, rescue, and park commission fees. If not, pay them at the Marangu Park Gate (climbers assume fees for guides and porters).