Best Kilimanjaro Route?
This is a question that we are frequently asked, but which does not have an answer that applies to all climbers at all times of year. Misleading information elsewhere on the Internet does however require that we offer what we hope will be a clarifying perspective. This will necessarily be quite a long page, so we will aim to arrange our titles in approximate order of relevance, rather than their being a logical progression of the overarching arguments that come into play when discussing how to choose a route on Kilimanjaro.
Popular route choices on Kilimanjaro
Before reading too much into the following estimates, we should point out that the route selection trends of Kilimanjaro climbers in general differ substantially from those of our own climbers and we do not necessarily recommend these modal choices as being advantageous in terms of maximising summit chances, avoiding crowds, and seeing as much as possible of the mountain’s beauty. The reason for this discrepancy in route selection guidance is that we believe that the general train of advice obtained from operators generally –
Important factors in Team Kilimanjaro route selection
In the light of our experience in dealing directly with climbers from the very beginning of their planning and preparations, through the climb itself, and then following through the debrief phase when the climber has returned home, the elements of an expedition which we have come to believe that our climbers value most are:
- safe and thorough acclimatisation,
- the experience of an authentic wilderness environment, and
- maximised summit prospects.
Conversely, it is a simple matter to demonstrate that some of the principal factors bringing to bear when considering the general trend of Kilimanjaro route selection advice across the board, often focus instead on the convenience of the operator, simplifying logistics, and minimising costs. And while minimising costs is obviously an attractive prospect for many, when considering the extent to which the success of the mission may be compromised by prioritising this consideration, the increased risk that all the funds spent on preparing, equipping, and transporting a climber to the route’s start point, may transpire to have been poorly directed into a strategy that will lead to the mission’s failure, means that it is not difficult to argue that such cost-
In short, Team Kilimanjaro has a unique approach to climbing Kilimanjaro and the route selection criteria that we apply deliberately prioritise those considerations which our experience has long since persuaded us are the key players in promoting safety, summit success, and the enjoyment of as authentic a wilderness experience as possible.
Anyway, since KINAPA doesn’t keep accurate statistics (except for Marangu) it is not possible, to our knowledge, to estimate with very great accuracy, how many climbers attempt each route, but we would estimate the following to be approximately the distribution of climbers on the different routes, when TK climbers are excluded from consideration:
- Machame –
- Marangu –
- Lemosho –
- Rongai –
- Umbwe –
- Shira –
less than 1%
From a mountaineer’s perspective it is pleasing to see that there has been a migration from Marangu as the dominant route, towards Machame, as there are significantly better pro-
1. Marangu’s hut occupation has become saturated at busy times of year and operators are unable to obtain availability in the already overcrowded huts –
2. Since the advent of the Internet having become the main resource for climbers researching Kilimanjaro, a growing awareness of safety and acclimatisation issues has impelled companies to respond to climber demands to offer options that climbers understand as affording better and safer acclimatisation, and so has driven traffic away from Marangu –
With the decrease in interest of the Marangu Route, Machame has been the obvious option for operators to promote as, after Marangu, it is the easiest to operate and the most accessible for transportation, meaning that it can be operated at very competitive cost.
By contrast, TK climbers –
- TK Rongai –
- Machame –
- TK Lemosho –
- Old Lemosho –
- Lemosho via Western Breach –
- Marangu –
The main problems with the Machame Route do not concern its topography, but are rather a consequence of overcrowding. Also, it should be understood that the standard Lemosho Route that passes through Barranco is technically a variation of Machame in the sense that although the first two days are different and the route passes through wilder rain forest where the likelihood of wildlife confrontation is very much greater, nonetheless, once it has obtained the eastern edge of the Shira Plateau, the Lemosho Route entirely merges with the Machame Route all the way to the summit and down to Mweka Gate. Precisely the same is true of the Shira Route, and a similar situation applies with Umbwe, where the route is unique for only two days until Barranco is attained, where the ‘Umbwe Route’ is simply the Machame Route for the rest of the way to the summit and down again.
The fact then of all four routes –
Apart from the crowding, which is only a problem in the high season, we are very happy with the Machame Route, and in the wet season (April, May, November) when safe vehicle passage to the start points of Rongai and Lemosho is not possible, we believe that Machame is the best option. Throughout the rest of the year, however, we believe that climbers can obtain a far more satisfying experience if they take measures to circumvent these crowds, and in so doing, can also benefit to a greater extent in terms of better acquiring optimal levels of acclimatisation and preparing themselves for the summit.
We only pose this question because we have often seen this claimed elsewhere on the Internet, and we have sometimes had the impression that a climber is on the point of asking us to arrange a TK Rongai climb but that they are concerned that their making this choice in favour of enhanced summit prospects and reduced crowding comes at the expense of missing out on Machame’s perceived superior beauty. We do not believe that this belief is founded on reliable data.
With beauty being a subjective thing, it is of limited use to try to create an objective argument for or against Machame being the most beautiful, (or the second most beautiful route after Lemosho, as some others claim). We will however, aim to address the question nonetheless.
To try to look at the question objectively, we should perhaps break down the appreciation of a route’s beauty into some discrete components. We’ll try to compress these elements of a route’s beauty into the categories shown in the table at right, and will add our estimate of the respective rank of each of the three routes being compared, within each category, with the lowest number designating the highest rank.
While we see no other way of addressing the question objectively, we find this comparison of very limited use. An example of its drawbacks is that we can easily envisage a scenario in which a climber might book TK Lemosho with us because it scores a first place rank in the above table, and yet on their return home they might write to us and tell us that they were disappointed because they were expecting it to be the most ‘beautiful’ route and yet for the long stretch between the Lent Group and 3rd Caves the scenery was arguably bleak and repetitive, or else the distant views to Kenya’s Amboseli were not enjoyed because of mist. In such a case it might not help the climber to ask them whether they didn’t especially appreciate the possible exciting encounters of Dik Dik in the forest section, the incredible unimpeded view of the entire mass of Kibo’s summit cone as they crossed Shira Ridge, the opportunity to see Kibo from more angles than any other route, and the unspoilt wilderness solitude of not seeing another person for two full days, if their own prioritised concept of beauty required some compressed foreground atmosphere such as the weirdly bright green bamboo forest on a dramatic narrow ridge as you only find on Umbwe, or the dramatic beauty of Mawenzi’s broken head* as you become enveloped in Kilimanjaro’s second volcano’s northern flanks.
* A Chagga story told to local children is that Kibo broke Mawenzi’s head with an ugali paddle after she kept pestering Kibo to borrow it.
So while we cannot see any objective argument that advances Machame as the most beautiful route, we would nonetheless feel very simplistic and disingenuous if we claimed that the respective beauty of Kilimanjaro’s routes should be ordered according to the above table, as many sensible people would have very valid reasons for disputing this.
For a few years Team Kilimanjaro was never happy to use the Rongai Route to climb Kilimanjaro, as it is simply a straight line navigation from the gate to the summit that incorporates virtually no exploitable pro-
Another significant reason why Team Kilimanjaro did not operate Rongai unless inexorably coerced by insistent agents prior to January 2007, was that the Rongai Route assaults Kilimanjaro’s summit from the base line of Kibo Huts. There are two very significant flaws with this strategy. The main problem is that the going directly above Kibo Huts until the intersection of the School Hut trail at Hans Meyer Cave is extremely difficult, unless frozen moisture has bonded the particles of loose grit together, temporarily cementing them for a few hours. Generally however, this bonding does not occur to a satisfactory extent and progress from Kibo Huts to Hans Meyer Cave is laborious and reserve-
The second reason comes into play here, and that is that when one reaches Gilman’s you’re confronted with a new and usually very unwelcome psychological obstacle in the shape of the realisation that the summit is still very far away and that some of the precious height you have just gained needs immediately to be lost as you follow the demoralising undulations of the crater wall towards Stella Point. When many climbers reach Gilman’s Point and have previously been led to believe by either their guide or their imagination that doing this will mean that they’ve virtually summitted, and yet they see what an apparently vast distance still remains, the extent of the depletion of their reserves from battling up the loose scree slopes above Kibo Huts –
So while the prospect of the quietest direction of approach and the fewest crowds has always been attractive, it was only in January 2007 that it occurred to us that we could make a plan to enjoy the best of both worlds. We therefore devised a new route that stayed just within the confines of TANAPA’s General Management Plan for Kilimanjaro, and yet diverted well away from the old Rongai Route across significant topographical features that ensured:
- by far the greatest climb-
high, sleep- low differential of all routes on the mountain
- the gentlest approach to high camp
- that the unnecessarily taxing assault up a loose scree slope was avoided and replaced with an assault via a comparatively firm ridge that enjoys much better traction
While the new configuration certainly seemed logical and we believed that we had very likely discovered the ultimate combination of optimal circumstances possible to be achieved on Kilimanjaro, nonetheless the first few brave climbers were advised that the route was largely experimental. It was to transpire however that we had absolutely no causes for concern as it was not until our thirteenth expedition along the new route that the first of our TK climbers failed to summit. Since that time TK Rongai has become by far our most prolific route and undoubtedly the most successful.
It is therefore our recommendation that unless climbing at the very busiest time of year when the assault start point will be shared with several hundred other climbers who converge at Barafu from Shira, Lemosho, Machame and Umbwe, that climbers should consider our TK Rongai Route extremely carefully before deciding on an alternative.
While we are genuinely very much at a loss to identify weaknesses with TK Rongai, the following considerations are nonetheless noteworthy.
1. Approach to the start point by vehicle is not possible or safe when there have been heavy rains. In the wet season we therefore either recommend that climbers climb via Machame or else that they book TK Rongai with us and are willing to switch to Machame at the last moment if our driver reports that passage to Rongai is not possible. In the case of our requiring a last minute switch, if the climber has already booked TK Rongai we will provide them with a refund of the difference between the cost of climbing TK Rongai and the cost of Machame. This refund will usually be in cash back at Arusha immediately after their climb returns to their hotel.
2. A very small handful of climbers have commented that whereas we continue to claim that beyond any doubt, TK Rongai enjoys the gentlest approach to Barafu, there is however quite a taxing section of the trail immediately before Barafu is attained. We concede that this is indeed the case but that climbers who have reached Barafu from both directions –
3. One of our criticisms of standard variants of Shira / Lemosho / Machame that approach Barranco via Lava Tower, or via the Shira –
TK Rongai however, balances these factors by dividing the acquisition of the maximum elevation from which the climb-
Prospective climbers who are interested to read typical comments from climbers’ guides as to how they fare at each camp are encouraged to peruse our Kilimanjaro guides’ live reports on Twitter.
We do not publish precise details of TK Rongai online as we are still the only operation to run the route and we are keen to avoid any publicity that will lead to crowding the route. Despite our efforts to keep details of the route quiet, industrial espionage is sadly not alien to Kilimanjaro, and it appears that details of the route have been leaked since we note that one or two other operations claim that they will soon be offering the route also.
It is our expectation however, that most other operations (very few of which are coordinated by mountaineers) will not properly comprehend the benefits of TK Rongai and that their staff will object to its use, as it’s much harder work for support staff to operate than the old Rongai Route. We very much hope, therefore, that the route will not catch on and will remain pretty much exclusive to us and pleasantly devoid of crowding.
We commented above that during the very busiest time of the high season Barafu suffers significant crowding. While assaulting from Barafu is undoubtedly preferable to assaulting from Kibo Huts, nonetheless, for some climbers it may not be desirable when the summit is expected to be very busy, that is in February, August and September. There are two intelligent methods of avoiding these crowds when undertaking a summit bid, though some non-
The first summit crowd avoidance method is actually a strategy that we advise be followed as standard operating procedure in the case of very young climbers, particularly those between the ages of ten and sixteen, who we find have difficulty staying awake during a nighttime assault. This technique involves foregoing the usual summit bid start time of 2300 –
1. There is an increased possibility that when they summit they will be greeted by cloud cover and may lose the opportunity to get good summit photos. While we would still expect clear weather, ordinarily until around noon, on many days after this time the clouds will roll in and obscure the view. This could be very disappointing for many climbers. Arguably however, compromised summit views are compensated for by the prospect of taking many photos between high camp and the crater wall. These views are missed by climbers on the way to the summit in darkness, and on the descent climbers seldom find time to stop sufficiently frequently to capture these views (both because of the need to concentrate on balance and because downward movement deliberately follows loose scree and is quite swift).
2. Leaving 4-
It should be noted however, that for the especially privileged and adventurous few climbers who feel able to elect to commit to an Excel Series climb, summitting in daylight is an excellent option and carries virtually no drawbacks. Our Excel Series climbs all offer the possibility of a double summit since we do not allow groups to sleep in the crater unless they have just summitted. While literally only a handful of climbers have ever double-
The second method of crowd control on the assault is to become one of an extremely small handful of people that sneak around the north side of the mountain. If one is electing not to climb via TK Rongai, this is the only way to avoid high season crowds.
In July 2008 Team Kilimanjaro developed a route that would a) avoid both the undesirable bottleneck effect suffered on Shira, Lemosho, Machame and Umbwe at Barranco; b) that would be a less taxing alternative to the severe undulations when crossing spurs and re-
The resultant new route configuration was such an isolated wilderness experience that our director was only able to speak to one other climber on the entire ascent from Lemosho to the summit, and this climber was a German lady in her seventies that was climbing Kilimanjaro for her fifth time and was therefore a very experienced connoisseur of the mountain.
Having passed Kibo to the north the route then curves south to 3rd Caves and from there passes by a very quiet assault route, through School Hut, to the junction at Hans Meyer Cave, from where it joins the standard Marangu / Old Rongai assault route to Kilimanjaro’s summit. This variation enables climbers to avoid both summit bid crowding and the difficult loose scree above Kibo Huts, as by the time one reaches Hans Meyer Caves the worst of the loose scree is already bypassed, and climbers are already very widely strung out, rather than tightly bunched as is the case for the first two to three hours after leaving Kibo Huts on the Old Rongai and Marangu Routes.
While TK Lemosho does require climbers to summit via Gilman’s Point, there are two considerations that mean that this is less problematic than beginning the summit bid from Kibo Huts. Firstly, since the loose scree is avoided when climbing diagonally from School Huts, one’s reserves are very much less depleted by the time one reaches Hans Meyer and thereafter Gilman’s Point, and secondly –
It may sound surprising that we deem only 200 metres to constitute an adequate climb-
While on the subject of spending nights at high altitude, climbers considering booking to spend a night in Crater Camp at 5,729m should be advised that unless in extremely unusual and mitigating circumstances, we do not permit our guides to spend a night at Crater Camp unless their climbers have already reached the summit, 166 metres above. We find that although we’d ideally prefer to have an additional 50 metres of climb-
In order to understand why so many companies recommend Marangu as the easiest route, we should discuss a little of the context of these recommendations. Years ago, and before the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) introduced the new electronic park fee payment method that now makes it impossible for unlicensed rogue quasi-
Since the Kilimanjaro National Park Authority (KINAPA) has become aware of the unacceptable environmental damage that is suffered by the now-
Another significant factor is that KINAPA are headquartered at Marangu, and they have arranged to have a tarred road running from the Arusha –
A further interesting practice employed by budget Kilimanjaro operations is simply to hire porters from the park gate, rather than using porters that work regularly for the company and that they have trained themselves. Hiring porters at the gate means that no staff transport costs are applicable.
When combining all these cost advantages gained by using practices that are deliberately very different to our own, and when considering how easy are the logistics of shipping in zero staff and virtually no equipment, it becomes obvious why companies that are run by people who have no mountaineering experience or raining and cannot differentiate between the respective merits of the different routes, are motivated to encourage trekkers to climb with them via the Marangu Route.
The intention of this explanation is simply to provide context, as we are often asked why Marangu has a reputation for being the easiest route. We have no wish to be disparaging towards any of the operations that choose to organise their climbs in this very different way. From our experience working beside these other such operations, many of these operations are run by very honest, cheerful locals, who have no wish to deceive their climbers –
As TK climbers will already know, unfortunately the process of successfully and safely climbing Kilimanjaro is a bit more complicated than simply starting at the most accessible point and following the trail that has the easiest going.
While there are no accurate statistics recorded or retained for any of the other routes, KINAPA do however keep quite accurate records for the Kilimanjaro route. The reason for this is that it is the only route that begins and ends at the same gate, so it is a simple matter for the registrar to compare the Marangu check-
- Percentage of climbers reaching Kilimanjaro’s Summit from Marangu = 42%
- Reaching Gilman’s Point but failing to attain Uhuru Peak = 38%
- Failing to reach Gilman’s Point = 20%
The main reasons for so many people giving up at Gilman’s Point and failing to reach Kilimanjaro’s summit are threefold, in our view:
1. The Marangu Route is favoured and marketed by companies that have little or no mountaineering background. To non-
Our experience of climbers at altitude is that whereas at home, if you were asked about the possibility of giving up at say, Stella Point –
We frequently receive emails from our climbers telling us that if it were not for their guide constantly encouraging and motivating them all the way to Uhuru, they believe that they would not have summitted. And yet it should be understood that we deliberately do not publish our own summit success rates, and we do not pay our staff bonuses for summitting. Whereas typically in any given year we will have several dozen climbers describing to us how grateful they were to be motivated to summit, to date we have had only one person –
Since we do not use statistics for marketing advantage (although we believe that we would possibly have the highest recorded ratio if we did) climbers should please understand that the only reason that we place so much emphasis on summitting is because we genuinely believe that attaining the summit is of substantial importance to nearly all of our climbers, and it is our conviction that our climbers expect us –
This concept has been confirmed to us by a few of our climbers who will usually have reached somewhere between 5,200m and 5,700m and will simply have entirely exhausted all their reserves –
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