Mt. Kilimanjaro is famous for being the home of Africa’s highest point, and being the tallest free-standing peak in the world. It’s estimated that 50,000 people come every year to climb it.
How hard is it to climb Kilimanjaro? It is also repeatedly quoted that less than 50% of climbers make it to the peak. But do statistics suggest that it is becoming increasingly easier for people to succeed?
Before we go into the history of climbing Kilimanjaro, let’s first discuss Kilimanjaro itself. What most people don’t know about the mountain is that it isn’t simply ‘a mountain.’ It is classified as a stratovolcano; the mountain is actually three separate volcanic cones.
Geologists believe that Kilimanjaro actually began life as a volcano now known as Shira, which erupted about 2.5 million years ago. At the time, it was likely about 17,000 ft tall, but has collapsed and eroded over the ages to a mere 13,140 ft, making it the shortest of the three cones. Much later, approximately 1 million years ago, Kibo and Mawenzi erupted, now standing at 19,341 ft and 16,893 ft, respectively. These two volcanoes were separated by what is now known as the Saddle Plateau, located at 14,400 ft. Aside from being the tallest of the three, Kibo is also the largest, over 15 miles wide at the Saddle Plateau altitude. It’s also noteworthy that, while Shira and Mawenzi are extinct, Kibo is technically dormant, meaning that it still has the potential to erupt.
The earliest known written record of Kilimanjaro comes from Ptolemy, an Alexandrian mathematician, astronomer, and most importantly in this case, cartographer around 100 AD. He wrote of sailor’s reports of a “Moon Mountain” with references to the Nile, which may indicate Kilimanjaro or any of several other African mountains. Whether or not Ptolemy was, in fact, speaking of Kilimanjaro, nothing more was recorded about the mountain for over 1,700 years. In 1848, a German missionary named Johannes Rebmann became the first European to officially report the existence of Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, his reports were considered unreliable by the Royal Geographical Society, and confirmation of Rebmann’s claims were not made until 1861.
Almost no time passed before explorers began making attempts at the peak. Prussian officer Baron Karl Klaus von der Decken made an attempt in 1861, along with a crew of fifty porters, but bad weather foiled his plans. He made it to only 8,200 ft. He tried again a year later and made it to 14,000 ft before turning back – this time due to heavy snow. Hungarian Count Sámuel Teleki and Austrian Lieutenant Ludwig von Höhnel were a bit more successful in 1887; Teleki and his crew of 300 porters made it to 17,400 ft before stopping the expedition due to ear aches.
Numerous others tried and failed to reach the coveted peak until 1889. German geology professor Hans Meyer made his third attempt at the summit of Kibo, with the assistance of Ludwig Purtscheller, an Austrian mountaineer. They established several camps stocked with food and supplies ahead of time to prevent to allow for multiple attempts without making a full retreat. Finally, on October 6, 1889, the pair reached Kibo’s summit and were the first to confirm that it had a crater.
So why did it take several trained, experienced explorers, with the support of large mountain crews multiple tries to reach the peak of Kilimanjaro?
The simple answer – snow and ice. In Meyer and Purtscheller’s day, there was a layer of ice over the top of the mountain, so thick that they had to spend quite a bit of time carving footholds in it just so they could proceed. These days, the ice has retreated, allowing for reliable routes to the different peaks of the three volcanic cones. One can climb to the top without ever stepping on snow.
But while snow and ice no longer are significant obstacles in the ascent of Kilimanjaro, the more modern barrier is altitude sickness. Because the early explorers had to battle the grueling terrain, they were encumbered, making slow progress on their ascent. They spent many days gradually gaining altitude and becoming acclimatized. Conversely, altitude sickness is the main reason for unsuccessful summits today.
Today’s well maintained routes can be done in as little as 5 days (which we strongly discourage). The original route that Hans Meyer took for the first summit closely resembles the Marangu route being used now. It was also the route that was first used to guide commercial expeditions. For a long time, it was the only route available. But Marangu is not a well planned path. Even today it has a paltry success rate of 27% when done over 5 days.
As the years passed, more and better routes were established. The new routes on Kilimanjaro are designed to control the flow of visitors and have more reasonable elevation gains from day to day, thus reducing the likelihood for altitude sickness (though AMS is still the biggest risk while climbing Kilimanjaro). The longer routes that are used today, like the 8 day Lemosho and 9 day Northern Circuit, have success rates of over 85%. More and more people are choosing these routes with the education of reputable operators who steer clients away from the 5 day Marangu and 6 day Machame routes. Therefore, the percentage of total climbers who reach the summit is increasing. This is a welcome trend on Kilimanjaro, as it is safer and more fulfilling for everyone involved.
Kilimanjaro has consistently changed over its several million-year history, and it’s not stopping now. Due to global warming, scientists predict that the ice on Kilimanjaro, the remains of ancient glaciers, could be gone by 2060. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Kibo still has the potential to erupt. While it doesn’t appear that there is anything we can do about these changes, perhaps we should simply be grateful that this picturesque geological marvel is available for us to experience during our lifetime. And chances are, if you climb on a longer route with a professional outfitters like Ultimate Kilimanjaro, you’ll make it to the top – in just one try.