Outdoors and Adventure

Mount Kilimanjaro Hikes: Journey to the Top of This Iconic Mountain

Don't be fooled by this article's title. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro isn't exactly a stroll in the Serengeti. Sure, scaling the mountain doesn't require technical climbing skills, but it is still a difficult hike through intense climate changes and occasionally difficult terrain.

Pre-Climb
Before you buy a plane ticket to Kilimanjaro International Airport (from most parts of the world, you'll need a connecting flight through either Nairobi or Amsterdam), make sure your body is ready for the climb. Try a few long hikes to test out your endurance and legs.

Also, it's helpful to know whether you're susceptible to altitude sickness. A short trip to Denver or to a nearby mountain should tell you if you'll last the entire trip or if you'll tap out the minute you land in Tanzania.

Finally there's the matter of vaccinations. Malaria and other diseases are still prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, and travelers must face a phalanx of syringes to get the necessary vaccinations. Needlephobes need not apply.

Hitting the Hill
Self-sufficiency is honorable in life but not while climbing one of the highest peaks in the world. Hooking up with an expedition group is a must. The mountain is in the middle of a national park, and the land is highly regulated by the government. Even if you're an able adventurer, getting past the red tape can be soul-sucking and even more difficult than getting to the top.

Once you've settled on a group, it's off to the initial staging ground of Arusha, Tanzania's second-largest city. After the standard two days of acclimating to the high altitude of Arusha, it's on to the base of the mountain. Kilimanjaro is the most prominent figure in Arusha's skyline, but it will change dramatically over the next 20 years. Scientists have estimated that global warming will melt the familiar gray-white snow atop the snub-nosed peak.

A few routes exist to get to the top. The Coca Cola Route is a popular one among travelers who want slightly more comfortable accommodations at night. Along the path are cabins where the weary can spend the night in relative peace. Others opt for the Rongai Route on the backside of the mountain. It's a long, bumpy drive to reach the other side of Kilimanjaro, but you will be able to glimpse numerous little villages on the way.

As you start your hike, you'll experience the first of many different climate zones on the mountain. The base is an unexpectedly wet, tropical environment. The higher you climb the more the mercury begins to fluctuate. Charles Layton, a seasoned climber of Kilimanjaro, describes the weather conditions as being "wickedly hot in the morning and intolerably frigid at night." His recommendations include plenty of layers, comfortable shoes, a walking pole for older climbers and a well-insulated (to prevent the water from freezing at night) CamelBak to keep you hydrated.

The batteries in your digital camera are also susceptible to freezing. If you plan on bringing a camera along to capture the sights, keep spare batteries close to your body or otherwise insulated. Finally, be sure to bring a headlamp. Since most summit attempts begin in the late hours of the evening and finish just as the sun pokes up on the horizon, climbers spend most of the final hike in pitch-black conditions.

The thought of carrying 60 pounds of gear, clothing and food can make anyone nervous. Fear not - most groups cater to the needs of their well-paying clients by having porters haul the majority of the members' luggage and by offering unexpectedly tasty hot meals three times a day in mess tents.

After the Fact
Upon their return to Arusha, many hikers take a few days to recover from the expedition. Settling in one of the bungalows in nearby Moivaro Coffee Lodge will restore most of the strength in hikers' legs. Afterward, instead of heading straight home, take advantage of the close proximity of the Serengeti by taking part in the more common African activity of going on safari. Sitting comfortably in a rugged Land Rover while being chased by a herd of elephants will seem downright relaxing compared to the punishing weeklong workout on Mount Kilimanjaro.

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