Click here to see the author's photos from Kilimanjaro.
THE MOMENT Kilimanjaro finally came together for me wasn’t at the 19,341-foot summit. Nor was it on the Shira Plateau on that inefable evening when a sea of clouds parted to reveal a summit bathed in starlight. Nor was it at the crater rim, when the sun exploded over 16,893-foot Mwenzi, flooding our group of 10 climbers with warmth and energy after five hours of cold predawn hiking.
No, it was in the jungle, in the last hour of the last day, as I watched my 17-year-old daughter swing from a vine with a gaggle of barefoot village kids. We’d broken camp a few hours earlier after a celebratory performance of the “Kilimanjaro Song” by our porters, then set a quick pace down the muddy trail. With the lilting Swahili verses still ringing in our ears, Hadley and I were dissecting her high school Hamlet soliloquy when we stumbled upon the children, none more than eight years old. They’d been sent out to collect wood for their families’ cook fires, but had dropped their machetes to dangle from thick, green ropes falling 40 to 50 feet from giant podocarpus trees—something Hadley had dreamt of since studying rainforests in third grade.
She pidgin-Englished into the airborne party, and that’s when I realized that Kili’s gift is different than other big mountains’—and worth every penny of the $10,000 it costs for a first-class experience, including climb and safari. Unlike Rainier or McKinley, where the summit really is the reason to go, Kili’s secret is the sum of its parts. Your joy will come from the total experience—the sunrises and sunsets, monkeys and songbirds, weird flowers and wild lava formations, views and elevation, and, yes, the spectacular summit. And somewhere along the way, maybe after encountering one of the features highlighted in these pages, you’ll understand why I think there’s no other mountain like this one.
#1. ROPE SWINGS
#2. EXOTIC BLOOMS You’ll travel through five dramatic—and dramatically different—ecozones. In the rainy season (November through June), the jungle is a riot of African blood lilies, tuba shaped impatiens, red hot pokers, giant begonias, and other fantastical flowers. Pack a macro lens. Around 12,000 feet, where most camps sit, there’s nothing like the eerie silence of Kili’s heath forests as the afternoon mists swirl through. Higher, you’ll be amazed by giant lobelias growing 20 feet tall and producing brilliant yellow flowers, the only splash of color in a landscape that turns into a barren moonscape around high camp.
#3. WORLD’S BEST PORTERS
Tanzania requires climbers to hire porters, which feels waaay colonialist until you calculate your impact on an economy with an average weekly income of $11. With extra camera and test gear, our team of 10 needed 40 porters, each of whom received a $25 to $100 tip on top of his wages. The upside for us: Delicious four-course meals. And you’ll never complain about pack weight again after seeing the loads hoisted by Kili porters, whose balance and stamina go hand in hand with infectious laughter and singing.
Never mind marmots and pikas. How about blue monkeys swinging from four-story vines and colobus monkeys cavorting hundreds of feet overhead in the jungle canopy? The climb’s first and last days—through oversaturated-green jungle—are like a chattering circus show.
#5. THE SHORTEST, EASIEST HARD DAYS OF YOUR LIFE Don't take Kili lightly. Mountaineering historians say more climbers have died here than on Everest. (Though Everest has a higher fatality rate, Kili sees many more attempts.) Hypothermia kills some, but the typical victim is an overweight boomer who underestimates the elevation and succumbs to altitude sickness or heart attack while racing to the summit. Even with a superfit party like ours, experienced guides like our team’s leaders, RMI’s Peter Whittaker and Seth Waterfall, take the nontechnical Machame Route very seriously. At 15,000 feet, the body takes in half the oxygen it gets at sea level, and Kili’s 19,341-foot summit is considered extreme high altitude. So while you don’t need crampons, you do need time to acclimatize. This is also why we recommend a veteran American guide like Peter, for whom safety is more important than speed or 100-percent summit success. We averaged just 5 miles per day and carried only water, snacks, cameras, and raingear. Except for summit day—which entails a midnight start, an arduous 4,000-foot climb, and a knee-melting 9,000-foot descent—we finished every day feeling fresh. In the end, the light loads and 1-mph pace encouraged conversation—there’s none of the panting, overworked silence that makes some group trips feel so solitary—and we got everyone to the top.
Blessedly free of light pollution and atmospheric haze, Kilimanjaro’s night sky is unlike any other I’ve seen. Pack a tripod and cable release to capture no-blur photos, like a starlit summit taken at Barranco Camp.
#7. FRESH FRUIT
Plantations blanket Kili’s lower slopes, so bananas and melon grace most breakfast menus. Adventurous? Try mbege, a traditional beer made by the local Chagga tribe from fermented bananas.
#8. PRIVATE POOPING
Yes, our porters really did pack a portable chemical toilet and one-seater tent. Don’t scoff: With Kili’s overflow crowds and wretched outhouses, this little slice of privacy made a huge difference in our team’s well-being. As lead guide Peter Whittaker regularly counseled, every bit of comfort and efficiency you can husband when hiking in thin air helps your body adapt to the pernicious effects of high altitude.
Once you reach treeline, Kili’s volcanic past becomes omnipresent. Fields of giant mushrooms and gnarled stalagmites give the mid mountain slopes an otherworldly feel.
#10. NEW FRIENDS
One of the joys of international trekking is meeting other hikers whose passions have drawn them to the same peak. Our party mixed friends, o spring, and strangers, and soon became a prank-pulling, secret-sharing family. Two old friends organized it—Peter and me—and quickly added a trusted guiding partner (Seth), a cameraman (Jon Mancuso), a past client (Thad Golden), three daughters (Peter’s, Thad’s, and mine), and two BACKPACKER readers (twins Daniel and Katherine Gura) who’d won a contest generously sponsored by Eddie Bauer and Whittaker Mountaineering. The Guras came to us from Wyoming, where they work in bird conservation in the shadow of the Tetons.
#11. COMFORTS OF HOME
Ed Abbey would barf in his boots at the scene on Kili. It’s commercialized, crowded, and way too comfortable for hardcore survivormen. The flip side? Every camp is a bustling multilingual village, and every meal is the relaxed shoot-the-breeze dinner party you wish you could throw for eight of your most interesting friends. And it sure is nice to clean up properly with the warm, soapy water delivered to your tent.
#12. APOCALYPTIC SUNSETS
Every afternoon, Tanzania’s intense equatorial sun coaxes moisture out of the dripping jungles ringing Kili’s base, producing a boiling mass of clouds that obscures everything below treelike. You’ll find the effect hypnotic—like being marooned on the world’s last inhabited island, surrounded by an infinite ocean of smoke.
#13. THIN AIR
Thousands of climbers reach Uhuru Peak each year, but don’t let the numbers fool you: This is still a rare and thrilling summit. Credit the romantic history, the exotic tropical location, and a climbing experience that—unlike McKinley or Everest—is not a test of masochistic suffering. Any ambitious hiker can experience big-mountain altitude here. The payoff: memorable hero shots and a window onto your readiness for even higher climbs. #14. QUALITY TIME
With its unique setup—easy pace, hours of trail time to fill with chatter, and ample down time while porters pitch camp and cook meals—Kili is tailor-made for adventure minded families. Unlike most backpacking trips, you won’t get strung out along the trail, and the kids won’t be too exhausted at day’s end for cards and conversation. That’s why the dads on this trip all found we forged bonds with our daughters here that we wouldn’t have elsewhere.
#15. NEW SKILLS
My daughter Hadley learned the rest step, names of native birds, and a bit of Swahili from Clement, our assistant head guide.
#16. A LAST CHANCE AT A DISAPPEARING GLACIER
Equatorial ice is one of nature’s great anomalies, but scientists project that Kili’s once-giant icecap (it covered 150 square miles) will disappear within 10 to 15 years, depriving trekkers of an aesthetic wonder and glaciologists of ice-core samples that hold 10,000 years of atmospheric data. Over the past century, more than 80 percent of Kili’s Rebmann Glacier has melted.
Do not, under any circumstances, skip the classic circuit of Tanzania’s national parks. While Kili’s summit is spectacular, the post-climb tour included with our trip might have been the most memorable 72 hours of our lives. We stopped counting life-list species on day one, when we saw elephants, ostriches, pink flamingos, and Cape buffalo at Lake Manyara. Day two at Ngorongoro Crater brought mating lions, zebras galore, and water bu alo. And the last day, at Tarangire, was even more spectacular, with giraffes, elephant herds, and thousands of other creatures large and small.
Guides are a must on Kili (literally, they’re required), and a connected outfitter like RMI is best. To book our exact itinerary, go to rmiguides.com/kilimanjaro. For a comprehensive gear list, go to whittakermountaineering.com/kilimanjaro