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What climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is really like

written by Rowan Waters December 7, 2018
A hiker on Mt Kilimanjaro

One by one, we high-five our Intrepid lead guide James and walk under the arch that signals the start of our hike up Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. A mixture of excitement, nerves and questions of whether I’ll succeed sends a shiver up my body. My eyes water.

I have expectations to reach the summit, but as we walk under that arch, the realisation that the next five days are a massive unknown really hits me.

There are 12 of us in the group, and we’re all as nervous as each other as we make our way to Mandara Hut (2700 metres). We suss out each other’s fitness, hiking ability and experience in altitude, as we ask – and give – recommendations on the best way to tackle the mountain.

Two trekkers on Mt Kilimanjaro

The only way is up. Photo by Rowan Waters.

On this section of the hike we’re lead by Vendelin, a quietly spoken, beautiful soul. He is one of six guides that will lead us towards the summit. He lets us in on the first secret to summit Kilimanjaro: walk slowly, or as he says ‘pole pole’, which is Swahili for slowly slowly.


Our first few nights on Kilimanjaro go a little like this: a few acclimatisation walks, games of cards, lots of laughs, big meals and a good night’s sleep. Which leads me to the next tip: eat a lot, drink plenty of water and sleep as much as you can.

An intrepid guide

One of our great guides. Photo by Lucy Piper.

The following day starts with a crisp morning and a deep blue sky. The contrast with the lush green forest is beautifully scenic. We walk beneath a hive of bees in the foliage above; the sun’s rays penetrate the trees, creating a light show through the morning fog.

As we start walking, a fellow traveller jumps and spins excitedly in anticipation of the day’s hike. It’s a heart-warming moment that sends me back to my childhood, excited to be outside and exploring the world. I’m struck by the realisation that hiking gives me a childlike appreciation of nature as I touch, smell and soak up my surroundings.


We exit the forest and slowly walk our way through the semi-arid grasslands of the low alpine zone – the second climate zone of Kilimanjaro – sharing stories of past hikes, and supporting each other as our friendships grow. As we reach the arid desert environment of the high alpine zone, the fast moving clouds give us glimpses of the snow-covered summit which spikes steeply into the sky. My heart rate spikes too.

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro

The long walk to the top. Photo by Lucy Piper.

We reach Kibo Hut (4703 metres), our last stop before our summit attempt. Tonight’s different to the seemingly luxurious previous nights on the mountain; we’re advised to attempt a few hours’ sleep before being woken at 11pm to start walking to the top.


The sky is still light and I’m too excited to sleep; despite the high altitude, I’m feeling surprisingly good, and looking forward to the night ahead.  As the sun sets behind the mountain, the fading light slowly skips up the face of the adjacent Mawenzi Peak.

I sit quietly, taking in this magnificent view above the clouds as the light begins to fade; we’re almost at the summit of the roof of Africa.

The sun rising in Tanzania

Sunrise above the clouds. Photo by Rowan Waters.

A few hours later and in complete darkness, apart from the light of our head torches, we start ascending the steep slope. One foot in front of the other, we give a new definition to the phrase ‘pole pole’. We don’t expend any more energy than we have to, stepping slowly, quietly and deliberately, as we walk the ten metres of trail before pausing, turning sharply, and walking the next ten, zig-zagging up the steep mountain face.

It feels like this momentum has become my life. At this pace, I can’t even think about the end goal. For seven hours, I concentrate on my slow steps… rest… water… readjust my balaclava… This is how we make our way up the mountain on this bitterly cold night.


More steps, a wobbly climb through a rocky outcrop, and a sign that reads Gilmans Point. Beyond the sign is a beautiful sight for sore legs: the plateau of the mountain, with only a gradual rise to the highest point. I check my surroundings; very softly, in the distance below, are tinges of blue, orange and yellow. It’s still too early for sunrise, but the hint that it will be soon upon us brings feelings of relief, joy and satisfaction that the summit is in our sights.

We step with purpose along the plateau, soaking it all up as the sky lightens; we’re almost there. A smile breaks out across my face as the pain subsides and we float towards the summit. My emotions are in overdrive: exhaustion, pride, bewilderment and an overall feeling of euphoria of what we’re about to achieve. I realise trekking mountains in my thirties has an uncanny likeness to the nightclub days of my twenties.

Two hikers on top on Mt Kilimanjaro

Quiet reflections on the roof of Africa. Photo by Rowan Waters.

I turn full circle, in absolute awe of this beautiful landscape. The sun is rising over Mawenzi Peak, blazing a strong orange against the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.

My fellow group members and I high five each other; we embrace and share grins of absolute joy as we stand on the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, at almost 6000 metres above sea level.

Ready for a challenge? Tie up your boots and tackle Mt Kilimanjaro now – check out our trip info here

Feature image by Lucy Piper. 

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