Kilimanjaro: the route
Of the five standard routes up Kilimanjaro, we chose Machame, which seemed to offer both gorgeous scenery and good acclimatization opportunities. Starting at 1,800m (5,905ft), the route goes through five diverse climate zones. At higher altitudes, it offers plenty of opportunities to climb high during the day and return to lower elevations to sleep, which helps greatly in acclimatization and is the reason for the route’s high rate of summit success. At 5,895m (19,341ft), not only is Kilimanjaro the highest summit on the African continent, but it is also the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Unlike other tall peaks, Kili is not part of a mountain range, which makes it difficult to do acclimatization hikes or shorter climbs before attempting to summit it.
Machame is typically a six-day route, with nights at Machame Hut (3,100m/10,170ft), Shira Camp (3,800m/12,467ft), Barranco Camp (3,950m/12,959ft), and Barafu Hut (4,600m/15,091ft). Barafu serves as base camp for the steep 5-6 hour climb to the summit on the fifth day. As a point of reference: at 4,421m (14,505ft), the summit of Mount Whitney – the tallest peak in the continental United States – is slightly lower than the Barafu base camp. After summiting, one descends to Mweka Camp (3,100m/10,170ft) before hiking out to the Mweka Gate (1,800m/5,905ft) on the sixth day. Because the last day only has a 2-3 hour hike and because spending extra nights at altitude directly correlates with a higher success rate, we decided to add a night at Karanga Hut (3,930m/12,893ft) in between Barranco and Barafu, and to make the entire descent in one day.
The approach hike started pleasantly enough, even though we had to wait for almost an hour at the gate for our guide to sort out the permits and did not hit the trail until quarter past eleven as a result. In the early stages, the Machame route more than lived up to its enticing description, as we followed a well-groomed, wide trail that gently ascended through a thick rain forest. The sun filtered through the trees, and not even the bad music emanating from the portable speakers of our guide’s ipod could dampen our good mood. We had begun our six-day adventure to reach the top of one of the Seven Summits.