A few months ago, driven by a deep love for hiking in high mountains, a spontaneous idea popped into my friend’s head – wouldn’t it be cool to challenge oneself with climbing a mountain so high and hike so demanding that it pushes one’s comfort zone, skills, and physique and serve as an entry point into more serious mountaineering? Living in Switzerland and being spoiled by the monumentality of the Alps being part of our daily lives, it would have to be an undertaking more exotic and different than the regular alpine treks. How about the highest mountain on the African continent, the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro?
High enough to be forced to seriously consider acclimatization for the first time in our lives, exotic enough to challenge oneself with a completely foreign ecosystem, culture, and environment, yet technically trivial mountain to ascend. No skills with ropes, rock climbing, ice climbing, or glacier traversal would be necessary. How would we need to prepare for the experience? What equipment would we need, how would we choose the guides, and how should we train in anticipation of the climb?
As we scoured internet resources and blogs for advice on preparation for the trip, we encountered often very dramatic stories and contradictory pieces of information on what is essential or what the conditions on the mountain are like. We took each piece of advice seriously and tried to follow it all, only to find out that some of it were indeed overly dramatic and overblown, leading to needless worries or overpreparation, which in the end made the effort of climbing the mountain tougher than it had to be. But not all of it was bad, and I want to share the advice and experience we did find valuable. Let’s have a look at all the preparation for the Kilimanjaro expedition, chapter by chapter, starting with how to choose your guides.
Kilimanjaro Guides as a Must
Of course, Kilimanjaro has a reputation as a tourist spot full of crowds heading up the mountain without any real preparation, motivation, or knowledge. In fact, there are up to 60 000 hikers attempting to summit Kilimanjaro each year. Most of them are assisted by large teams of local porters doing the heavy lifting of expedition work. You will encounter crowds and at least parts of them will confirm the reputation is well earned. While that’s unfortunate, it’s up to you, individually, to find meaning in things and choose with which perspective to see the world around you. Crowds or not, we decided that Kilimanjaro would still push all the right buttons to challenge us, teach us new skills and make us grow.
Trekking independently without a local group of guides and porters is illegal on Kili. This requirement is motivated by Tanzania wanting to make sure the local community benefits from your epic climbing undertaking. That is only fair, in a country where the average salary is equivalent to couple hundred USD. Due to how popular and crowded Kilimanjaro is, it becomes an important part of the preparation to choose the right operators for the trip. You want to avoid those who do not work with guides with appropriate training, do not treat their porters and support staff fairly, or do not treat the whole undertaking like a serious mountaineering trek.
We were in the end very happy with Follow Alice, who offered a great deal of information about all things Kili on their website. They were supportive throughout the months leading up to the trip itself via email, Zoom calls, and WhatsApp chat group, had a reasonably sustainable approach to running the expedition, showed great relationship towards the porters accompanying us on the trip and focused on promoting longer routes for best success rate and least issues with acclimatization. They also provided good quality camping equipment for the varied conditions on the climb as well as delicious hot meals several times a day.
Anatomy of the Expedition Team
You will be accompanied on your Kilimanjaro climb by one experienced guide per two climbers. This will give you the peace of mind of knowing that regardless of what situations may arise, there will always be enough support staff around to deal with them. Imagine a relatively common scenario of someone in your group having a health emergency due to altitude sickness. At such times, you want to have enough guides around to be able to react properly. They should be able to split the group if needed and descend with the person in trouble while allowing the rest to continue. We have unfortunately seen cases where health emergencies happened one after another for several people in a group. That’s where you will really appreciate not relying on a single leader.
The expedition team will also consist of a group of porters. Those will take care of setting up the campsite and your tents. They will be cooking meals for you two to three times a day and carrying your duffle bag with clothing and equipment for the whole trek. These are unbelievable athletes who start their day before you wake up, wait for you to leave the camp, pack it all up, and while carrying twenty kilograms of weight on their backs and heads, trek at a pace where they reach the day’s destination and set up the new camp before you even arrive.
They are wonderful people and during the long days of the expedition, you will get to know at least some of them who are able to speak English. You will likely get to deeply appreciate their kindness and the spirit of camaraderie and teamwork. In our group consisting of six hikers, we had about twenty additional porters and support staff allowing the trip to happen.
Porters and the Tipping Ceremony
There are some hints you may glean about how the operator treats the porters even before you get on the ground yourself. When it comes to paying people for work, Tanzania is a country with a low average salary but a strong tipping culture and you will experience this yourself when it comes to rewarding your group of porters. You will be expected, with any expedition on the mountain, to in the end tip all the people who made it possible.
A serious operator of the trip will let you know the expected guidelines for this beforehand and will describe how this tipping process goes. There have been incidents on Kilimanjaro where climbers have collected the tip for their team of porters, but that tip was not distributed fairly (or at all) by the guides and the operator in between. As the porters often do not speak English, they might not know what the climbers have agreed to give them and whether they’re treated fairly.
That’s why I would recommend looking for an operator that is open about how this process takes place. See the wealth of information that FollowAlice provided on the topic. It is very common practice to have an official Tipping Ceremony on the last night of the expedition. Everyone gathers, and climbers put down on paper how much they give as a tip to the different roles of support staff. This is then shared and presented openly in one big group. This way, you will be sure that there isn’t anything shady happening behind anyone’s back. The ceremony then usually evolves into dancing, singing, and hugging and you will likely not forget the experience or get the famous Kilimanjaro song out of your head for a long time to come.
Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project
It’s not just tipping that may go wrong with a shady operator. There were cases in the past where porters were asked to carry unhealthy amounts of weight or were sent onto the mountain with insufficient gear, resulting in deaths in the past. If you want another indication that your chosen operator is treating their porters fairly, you may look at an association called Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, which offers support, gear, and education to the porters and lists companies that are known to be responsible towards their staff. By the way, seeing the many dozen listed companies on their page should give you an idea of just how popular Kili is and how many options there are to choose from when it comes to tour operators…
A day before setting out on the expedition itself, we met with the guides for the first time to get a detailed briefing over several hours in person. We really appreciated this as it sets the tone for the week ahead as well as builds trust in the people who you will rely on. Throughout our days at Kilimanjaro, it was then very nice to see our guides were caring and accommodating to both weaker members of the group and to those that wanted to push themselves a little bit more and take on some additional acclimatization trip extensions.
Word of Caution – Western Breach
Very importantly, our chosen operator is also one of those who do not offer the Western Breach route, which we took as a good sign of risk management and seriousness. I will share more on this topic later when I talk about different routes leading to the peak of Kilimanjaro. For now, simply be aware that Western Route is a very dangerous path that may make sense to absolute professionals, but is risky and pointless for everyone more casual than that. If an operator has it in their offer, you have to at least ask some serious questions to understand why and how they approach the safety of their climbers.
Kilimanjaro Guides and Authority
If there is one cautious negative to be aware of that may occur with any company, it is that not all the guides you will meet are equally capable leaders. When it comes to mountaineering, our expectation, given by our experiences in the Swiss Alps, is that a mountain guide needs to be pragmatic and able to make tough decisions. If a member of the team is having issues due to poor health or physical condition, there comes the point where the guide must, for the sake of the struggling individual as well as the whole group, make the unpleasant call of not letting the person continue and instead focusing on their recovery and wellbeing. This is of course never easy. Sometimes, the climber who is sent down might take this as a grave injustice done to them. That’s when leadership is needed, to face the negative and difficult emotions and the situation of now to prevent worse in the future.
On Kilimanjaro, due to the massive popularity of the climb, you will encounter guides who are too nice to say anything negative to their clients and will try to please everyone. Perhaps this is because of how big a commitment, both in time and money, it is to come to Tanzania and attempt the climb, so the guides try to not bring about any feelings of disappointment or resentment from their clients towards themselves or their company. Or perhaps they are simply kind-hearted individuals that struggle with saying no to another kind stranger. Regardless, and we have unfortunately experienced this, guides who cannot be strict tend to lead to crises during the expedition when the accumulated tear and wear finally break down a member(s) of the team previously struggling for many consecutive days.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to give the impression that there are many bad companies to avoid. From our experience, it seems that the opposite is true and you will have many wonderful options to choose from. By listing all the cautious outlier stories of things going wrong, I give you a checklist to rule out even the small chance of them happening and focus on all of the great quality operators on the mountain. And from there the actual fun starts with planning which route to take up the mighty mountain…