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Mount Kilimanjaro is famous for being the home of Africa’s highest peak and being the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. It’s estimated that 30,000 people come every year to climb it. We hear it repeatedly quoted that less than 50% of climbers make it to the top, indicating that climbing Kilimanjaro is a difficult achievement.

But recent statistics suggest that more and more people are reaching the summit every year. So is it getting easier to climb Kilimanjaro?

And if not, what explains the high success rates that we see on the mountain today?

First Ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro

In 1848, a German missionary named Johannes Rebmann became the first European to officially report the existence of Kilimanjaro. His reports were considered unreliable by the Royal Geographical Society, so 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.

That same year, German geology professor Hans Meyer reached the lower edge of the ice cap on Kibo, but was not equipped to traverse the ice on the upper slopes. So he turned back.


Numerous others tried and failed to reach the coveted peak until 1889. That year, Hans Meyer made his third attempt at the summit with the assistance of Ludwig Purtscheller, an Austrian mountaineer. They established several camps stocked with food and supplies ahead of time to allow for multiple attempts without making a full retreat. Finally, on October 6, 1889, Meyer and Purtscheller reached Kibo’s summit. They were the first to confirm that it had a crater.

The Challenges of Climbing Kilimanjaro Today

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 hike 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 elevation and becoming acclimatized.

Ironically, the relatively easy paths to the top today have resulted in a different obstacle. Altitude sickness is now the main reason for unsuccessful summits.

Why Route Selection Determines Difficulty

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. Contrary to belief, it is a difficult route because of this. Even today it has a paltry success rate of 27% when done over 5 days.

When Kilimanjaro’s second route, Machame, was established, it was an improvement over Marangu. But it still has a poor success rate of only 44% over 6 days. Kilimanjaro’s reported overall success rate of 50% is a result of the past popularity of these two routes. However, clients nowadays are avoiding 5 and 6 day routes.

There are many more options available to today’s climbers, and some are much better. 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 of severe altitude sickness.

The longer routes that are used today have markedly better success rates. Our favorite routes, the 8 day Lemosho and 9 day Northern Circuit, have success rates of over 90%. As more and more climbers opt for these longer routes, Kilimanjaro’s over success rate will continue to increase

But it’s not that the mountain is becoming easier, it’s that people are making better route decisions. This is a welcome trend on Kilimanjaro, as it is safer and more fulfilling for everyone involved.

We believe the 50% success rate for climbing Kilimanjaro is outdated. The current success rate on the mountain is probably closer to 70-75%.

So How Hard is it to Climb Kilimanjaro?

It depends on the route you choose. Chances are, if you climb on a longer route with a professional outfitter like Ultimate Kilimanjaro, you’ll make it to the top – and unlike Hans Meyer, you’ll do it in just one try.