There's a lot more to Kilimanjaro than just "getting to the top". To the Summit. A geological phenomenon, steeped in history, local tradition and modern feats of endurance. Many of us focus on the practical considerations involved in planning a climb.
But what about this place to which we are headed? What's there to know about Kilimanjaro apart from the sign at the summit? Lots. There's so much more to Kilimanjaro than just climbing her slopes. Here are 19 Kilimanjaro facts that will enhance your experience of this beautiful mountain and it's people.
What & Where is Mt. Kilimanjaro?
Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world, that is, it's not part of a mountain range. Situated approximately 200 miles south of the Equator in Tanzania. Formerly Tanganyika, part of German East Africa during colonial times.
One of the Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro stands at 19,341ft, 5895m above sea level at it’s highest point, Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the crater rim. Formed at the same time as the Great Rift Valley, (around 750,000 years ago), Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the largest volcanoes in the world.
A stratovolcano - otherwise known as a composite volcano - made up of layers of lava, ash and tephra (the material that falls back after an eruption). Comprising three volcanic peaks: Kibo (the one we climb), Mawenzi (a technical climb) and Shira. Kibo is classified as a dormant volcano, both Mawenzi and Shira are extinct.
Mount Kilimanjaro towers above the Kilimanjaro National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of approximately 75,000 hectares. The National Park was established in 1973 and at that time only comprised the area above the tree-line, with wildlife corridors through the forest.
In 2005, the National Park was extended to include not only the area above the tree-line, but the entire montane forest on Kilimanjaro’s lower slopes(1)
Climate Zones on Kilimanjaro
There are five major climate or vegetation zones on Kilimanjaro, from the equatorial heat of the lower slopes to the arctic tundra of the summit. Within each of these zones there are differences in rainfall, altitude, temperature, flora and fauna. You could compare walking up Kilimanjaro with walking from the Equator to the North Pole - roughly speaking, of course.
Zone 1 : Lower slopes, cultivation & Savanna (altitude: ~2500ft - 5900ft)
What would once have been the rolling savanna plains of Africa and lowland forest is now predominantly grassland for grazing of livestock and cultivation. In the dry north eastern areas, the scrubby savanna plants are still in evidence. The climate here is hot and humid as you would expect from an Equatorial region. Rainfall varies, depending on what side of the mountain you are on. (Mountains have an effect on local weather). Much of the water in this zone comes from rain that fell in the forest percolating through underground channels.
Zone 2: Montane Forest (altitude: ~5900ft - 9200ft)
This area has the highest level of rainfall, the northern slopes receive approximately half the rainfall of the southern slopes. Rich in plant and birdlife, this area was once home to many species of wildlife. Monkeys (blue and Colobus) in the trees, olive baboons, antelope, buffalo, elephant and leopard. These days, with the increased foot traffic, you are unlikely to encounter any large game, but that doesn’t mean they are not in there, somewhere! Small mammals and monkeys are abundant. Being warm and humid, and off the beaten track, the forest is dense and dark, with orchids and vines in the trees. Listen out for the sounds of numerous birds and the occasional bark of a baboon.
Zone 3: Heath and Moorland, Low Alpine zone (altitude ~9200ft - 13,000ft)
Emerging from the abundance of the forest, the reduced rainfall in this area is immediately apparent. The climate is cooler and drier apart from the mist and fog at the boundary of the forest. The first part you encounter is the alpine heath. Vegetation consists of tussocky grasses and heathers - ground heather and giant heather. Dusty coloured plants with bursts of color in between from the Protea flowers and the ‘red hot poker’.
Going higher still, into the moorland area, you will see the giant senecios, with their tall, almost “furry” stems. When the large leaves die, they do not fall off, but form a dry insulating protection against the cold. Giant lobellia, another endemic plant solves the problem of insulation by closing their leaves over the central core at night.
Streams run through various parts of the moorland zone, most notably at Karanga. Boggy areas encourage the growth of the giant groundsels.
Zone 4: Alpine Desert (altitude ~13,000ft - 16,400ft)
Where the air is thinner and dryer, and the landscape bleak and inhospitable. The sun's rays are intense during the day with freezing temperatures at night and little water. There is little soil amongst the dusty, barren rocks. The vegetation is made up of short, tussock grasses and lichens. The odd flower can be seen, but it’s mostly a barren landscape - with spectacular vistas.
Zone 5: Arctic Tundra/Ice Cap Zone (altitude above 16,400ft)
Virtually nothing lives in this zone. It’s mostly rocks and volcanic scree. With low oxygen levels and no protection from the sun, there is little, if any, surface water. What minimal rain falls here is absorbed by the porous rock. There are some slow-growing lichens, the red and grey ones you see are probably very old.
Early Mentions of Kilimanjaro in History
The Greek geographer, astronomer and mathematician, Ptolemy Of Alexandria made mention of a “great snow mountain” somewhere in the second century AD. How he came about this information is unknown, but various classical geographers were fascinated by the interior of the African continent.(1)
Over a thousand years later, Oriental traders apparently had heard tell of "a great mountain west of Zanzibar”.
The first undoubted reference to Kilimanjaro comes in 1519, when Fernandez de Encisco, a Spanish writer, made a journey to the Kenyan port of Mombasa. He gathered information from caravans who had visited the interior. In his Suma de Geographia, he mentions “west of this port stands an Ethiopian Mount Olympus”.(2)
1844, William Desborough Cooley, a British scholar who had previously dismissed the idea of any such mountain, provides a mention of “The most famous mountain of Eastern Africa is Kirimanjara” - thought to be the first mention of the name.
In 1848, German missionary, Johann Rebmann set eyes on the snow-capped peak close to the Equator. Before traveling to the interior, he had heard tell of a "vast mountain of gold and silver in the far interior, the approach to which was guarded by evil spirits". Initially the Royal Geographic Society dismissed this claim.(4)
Early Attempts to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro
August 1861 Baron Carl Claus von der Decken and Richard Thornton, accompanied by around 50 porters had to turn back after only a few days and reached around 8200ft. Thornton was the first to state that the mountain was volcanic.
1862, they tried again. This time reaching around 14,000 ft.
1871, Charles New made two attempts to climb, thwarted by the ice caps. On his third attempt, Charles New was attacked by local tribes.
1887 Count Samuel Teleki had to turn back - we don’t know how high he climbed. In this same year Dr Abbott claimed to have reached a height of 19,680ft. Since this is higher than the summit, we suspect he was telling Tall Tales.
Hans Meyer and his Guide, Yohani Kinyala Lauwo
In 1887, Hans Meyer, a wealthy German geographer reached 18,000ft, turning back as he could not scale the ice wall that he could see covered the entire peak.
He returned in 1889, together with accomplished Alpine climber Ludwig Purtscheller - who knew how to use an ice axe.
Beginning his trek near Mombasa, he recruited an entourage of porters and a “guide”: Yohani Kinyala Lauwo, 18 years old at the time, who lived in Marangu, a village on Kilimanjaro’s slopes. Yohani’s appointment as Hans Meyer’s guide was accidental.
When Hans Meyer was at the courthouse in Marangu to obtain permits for his climb, one young man was in trouble for abandoning his job in construction. Given the option of either climbing with Hans Meyer or going back to his job, Lauwo agreed to become his guide.
Learning from Teleki and Dr Abbott’s aborted missions, Hans Meyer’s strategy was to establish various basecamps from which to make the assault on the summit. This strategy is still in use today.
On 6th October 1889 they stood on the summit of Kilimanjaro for the first time.
Lauwo lived to the remarkable age of 125. He apparently led expeditions up Kilimanjaro for over 70 years. In 1989, he was gifted a modern house, in commemoration of the first successful summit (5).
Meyer climbed again in 1898, on this occasion he only made it to the crater rim.
The next successful summit was in 1909 - 20 years after Hans Meyer’s success.
First Woman to Summit Kilimanjaro
In 1927, 22-year old Sheila MacDonald became the first woman at the summit. An adventurous young woman, she had climbed many Scottish peaks as a youngster with her father, a member of the Alpine Club. She later went on to scale Mt Etna before traveling to Africa to visit relatives.
It's reported that she drank champagne from the bottle to keep her spirits up and in spite of her male traveling companions abandoning the summit attempt, she pushed on. A remarkable lady, no doubt!(6)
Reusch Crater & the First Tour Operator
In 1926, Pastor Richard Reusch became the 7th Westerner to sign the register on Kilimanjaro’s summit, where he planted the Christian flag.
He went on to establish the East African Mountain Club, in partnership with Clement Gillman. Together Reusch and Gillman trained the first mountain guides and effectively became the first tour operator on Kilimanjaro. The Club built the first huts on the mountain in the 1920’s.
Known for his advocacy of Maasai rights, he became known as the “Son of Kibo”.
The famous frozen Leopard, immortalized in Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro, was seen by Reusch and he cut off an ear as a souvenir - and possibly to prove that it did exist!
The East African Mountain Club continued to run all expeditions up the mountain until 1973 when the Tanzanian Government took over.
Richard Reusch climbed Kilimanjaro over 60 times, and the Tanzanian Government named the inner crater - the Ash Pit - after him. There is some dispute as to whether or not he was the first to get up close to the smelly fumaroles of the Ash Pit, but he was certainly one of the first.(7)
The Famous Frozen Leopard
The famous opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro:
"Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and it is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Maasai, 'Ngaje Ngai,' the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."
Truth be known, Hemingway himself enjoyed basking in the metaphor. He never saw the Leopard as he did not venture up the mountain.
However, Richard Reusch did see the carcass and cut off an ear as a souvenir. He states in an account for the Tanganyika Times (10th February 1928):
“The second time of my ascent to Kaiser Wilhelm Point was on July 19th, 1927, together with the native guide Oforo. I found the frozen leopard which on the former trip my guide and I had placed on the top of a rock situated on the rim of the crater. I left records at every place besides leaving a Mission Flag at the top. On my return I cut off an ear of the leopard, taking it with me.”(8)
H.W Tilman, a British mountaineer, claimed to have seen the remains. His expedition also led to reports that Kibo was still an active volcano - a report that was subsequently disproved: Kibo is dormant.
Dogs & Camels on Kilimanjaro
Dogs? Yes. Apparently, records suggest that in 1962 five African Hunting Dogs shadowed three climbers to the summit. It’s possible that the climbers were suffering from high-altitude hallucinations.
In 2011, it was reported by a group of climbers that there was a domestic dog roaming around the summit. This was reported widely in the press, in articles that sounded more as though they should have been saved for 1st April publication.(9)
Climbing Kilimanjaro with Camels? Yes! Dubai adventurer Mohammed Majrin overcame all the red tape and took two camels to the Summit(10) - if you've got nothing to do, you can see the documentary of their adventure right here:
Oldest & Youngest to Climb Kilimanjaro
It should be noted that these records are all achieved by foreign climbers. There are many records set by Tanzanian guides and porters, which go unreported.
Oldest people to reach the summit:
Current record holder: Angela Vorobeva aged 86 years, 267 days (summit 29th October 2015)(11)
July 2015: Anne Lorimor aged 85
October 2014: Robert Wheeler aged 85
September 2012: Martin Kafer aged 85 & Ester Kafter aged 84
October 2011: Richard Byerley aged 84
September 2010: Bernice Buum aged 83
Youngest people to reach the summit:
The "official" record is held by Keats Boyd, a 7 year old from Los Angeles who reached Uhuru Peak in January 2008. However, in 1996, Wilson Mosha, a guide working for Tusker took a mother with her 7 year old and 10 year old to the summit!
Bran Rhyss Evans is alleged to have climbed Kilimanjaro at the age of 5, though this information is not verified.
Since there is an age restriction of 10 years old to climb Kilimanjaro, this record is unlikely to be beaten any time soon.
Amazing Feats Against All Odds
If these Kilimanjaro facts don't inspire you, nothing will!
In 2007, Bernard Goosen, a South African, became the first wheelchair-bound quadriplegic to reach Uhuru Peak. In his own words: "I did not choose to be born quadriplegic, but I choose not to be restricted by it".
2012, Kyle Mynard, born with no arms or legs (a condition called congenital amputation) made it unassisted to the summit, by crawling. He used no prosthetic limbs. The climb was to raise awareness for wounded American Military Veterans.
September 2015 South African ability activist Chaeli Mycroft became the first female quadriplegic to summit Mt Kilimanjaro. She used a specially designed "mountain wheelchair". Celebrating her 21st birthday on the mountain she used her climb to raise funds for the Chaeli Foundation.
January 2016 Aaron Anderson, who lost both his legs to cancer, scaled Kilimanjaro initially using a specially designed bicycle. However, the steep slopes became too difficult so he discarded the bike and crawled to the summit!
June 2016 Aaron Phipps, who lost both his legs at the age of 15 to Meningitis made it to the summit unaided. He used a wheelchair for most of the route, but for the last 9 hours crawled on his hands and knees.
Sport, Pizza & Highline
Every year, the Wings of Kilimanjaro team climb to Uhuru Peak and paraglide from the summit to a landing spot near Moshi. This amazing feat raises money for Tanzanian projects focused on bringing clean water, education and environmental restoration to rural communities.
In September 2014, a post-Summit cricket match in the crater became the highest game of cricket.
February 2015 Valery Rozov B.A.S.E jumps from the Western Breach. The first wingsuit flight off Kilimanjaro, Rozov opens his parachute to land safely at Barranco camp. In October 2016, Rozov achieved the highest ever B.A.S.E jump from 7,700m off Cho Oyu.
October 2015, raising money for charity, the world's highest rugby match was played in the crater. A group of Rugby League players and charity supporters made the trek to raise money for the Steve Prescott Foundation.
December 2015 Sanjay Pandit walked backwards to the summit of Kilimanjaro - whilst this doesn't really qualify as an "amazing feat", it's a funny one. It's hard enough going forwards on this mountain, let alone backwards!
In May 2016, Pizza Hut made it into the Guinness Book of Records for the highest ever pizza delivery! To mark the launch of Pizza Hut in Tanzania, a pepperoni pizza was "delivered" to the summit where it was enjoyed by the team. I'd prefer to wait
June 2016 Stephen Siegrist makes it into the record books for the highest high-line walk. At 5,700m and with his line at a height of 150-200m above the ground Siegrist walks 21m - remarkable at this altitude!
Kilimanjaro's Altitude & Oxygen
At Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro’s summit, there is approximately half the oxygen that there is at sea-level. It can feel like trying to breathe through a straw. This is not because there are less oxygen molecules at altitude, however.
As we go higher, the atmospheric pressure decreases. At sea-level, the pressure of the atmosphere causes the molecules that make up the air we breathe to be more dense. So for every breath, there are more of these air molecules (including oxygen).
As we ascend, the pressure on these air molecules decreases, allowing them to become more widely dissipated. So for any volume of air, there are fewer molecules present. Oxygen still makes up 20.8% of the air, but it’s the pressure that causes you to inhale less than you do at sea-level.
Read more about how to prevent altitude sickness in our section about Altitude.
Why is it called "Kilimanjaro"?
You’ll hear a lot of differing stories as to the origin of the name Kilimanjaro. This is all pure conjecture, as no one really knows the etymology of the word. Some people suggest it’s a Swahili name (which makes little sense), others suggest it’s a Chagga or even a Maasai name.
We don’t know. But no one really likes that answer, do they?
Place Names on Mount Kilimanjaro
We don’t know the precise etymology of the name Kilimanjaro, but we do know some other things:
Stella Point: named after Kingsley Latham’s wife. Kingsley Latham was a member of the South African Mountain Club, and they reached this point together in 1925.
Gillman’s Point: named after Clement Gillman, who set up the East African Mountain Club with Richard Reusch in 1926.
Leopard Point: on the western side of the crater rim, named after the famous frozen leopard found there.
Reusch Crater (the Ash Pit): named after Richard Reusch who is said to be the first man to see the inner crater of Kilimanjaro.
Uhuru Peak: Uhuru is the Swahili word for Freedom. The summit was previously named “Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze” (Kaiser Wilhelm Peak) by Hans Meyer (the first man to reach the summit) and was changed by the Tanzanian government at Independence in 1961(11)
Hans Meyer Peak: Strangely enough, Mawenzi used to be called "Hans Meyer Peak", in spite of the fact that he never climbed it!
Whilst the Tanzanian Parks Authority does not release reliable numbers of would-be climbers, it is estimated that around 40,000 people make the journey to the slopes of Kilimanjaro each year. This number is growing year-on-year, and has been since the mid-20th Century when adventurous travel started to become popular.
The advantage of this huge growth is the benefit to the local population. Alternative employment for young people who don’t want to continue the subsistence way of life of their forebears, with shops and restaurants in the local towns, jobs as porters and as guides. Jobs in hospitality with an increasing number of hotels to accommodate the trekkers.
As with all growth, it comes with some downsides. The large wildlife on the lower slopes of the mountain is virtually non-existent - it’s not a very peaceful place to live with noisy trekkers every day.The litter on the mountain from lazy tourists or unscrupulous tour operators. KPAP is working hard to solve the problem of the poor treatment of porters on the mountain, which is why it’s important to only climb with an operator that is registered.
Read more about Choosing a Tour Operator
Summit Success Rates
This is a tricky one. It’s difficult to find hard “facts” about this - as the park authorities do not release reports. It’s often up to the tour operator to report. And of course no tour operator is going to tell you that they have a 5% success rate!
I’ve heard varying percentages over the years ranging from 45% to 67% and everything in between. All we know for certain is that there is no such thing as 100% success rate on Kilimanjaro.
Different routes certainly have different success rates. Notably the longer routes - such as Lemosho, Northern Circuits, Machame and Rongai- are better, as the time available to acclimatize on the short routes is simply not enough.
However, it’s also worth bearing in mind that Kilimanjaro is often seen as an “easy” mountain. Some people believe that this means they don’t need to do any preparation. Whilst fitness levels are not the primary reason for failure - that would be the altitude, it’s worth noting that Kilimanjaro is seen as the mountain that “anyone” can climb.
Which is only partially true. Many people give % success rates, but the only success rate that matters is your own. Choosing the right operator can be key to your success, but ultimately the combination of altitude and your own resilience is what matters.
Deaths on Kilimanjaro
Another one of those “facts” that is shrouded in mystery. Since the park authorities do not publish any reports, the information comes from listening to the guides. The most accurate statistics are that between 5-15 people die on Kilimanjaro every year. These are mostly porters, with tourists being 2-3. (courtesy Eddie Frank).
We all see the headlines when a tourist dies on the mountain. But these figures do not tell the full story. Porters die every year, from altitude sickness, or hypothermia or other complications. Most tourists will undergo some sort of medical assessment before climbing. Porters, on the other hand, are often simply employed at the gate and have little to no experience of altitude. Additionally, there are some unscrupulous tour operators who do not give them the same treatment as they give their clients.
A reputable operator will monitor the health of their porters in the same manner as they do their clients.
July 2016 Gugu Zulu, South African rally champion died climbing Kilimanjaro whilst on a charity climb(12)
September 2015 Scott Dinsmore, a 33-year old American entrepreneur died during a rock slide on the Western Breach(13)
January 2013 Ian McKeever, Irish mountaineer was killed in a lightening storm(14)
September 2008 Ken Moskow, an ex-CIA agent died a few meters from the summit
January 2006 three Americans died from a rockfall on the Western Breach
Kilimanjaro Facts: The (really) Stupid Stuff
These estimations have been made by people who are either (a) suffering some altitude sickness or (b) have a lot of time on their hands.
Per year, it’s estimated that:
Around 150 cubic meters of intestinal gas is created by climbers on the mountain. In my time on the mountain I have never come across a scientist studying this phenomenon. Nor have any of the other climbers I know. However, it is certainly the case that altitude can create a more “gassy situation” than you are used to at home.
Perhaps an unemployed mathematician has created an equation to measure this.
Approximately 140,000 liters of tea is consumed. This I can believe. On arriving in camp after a long day on the trail, where there is no beer or wine (and often no coffee at the higher elevations) there is nothing quite as warming and refreshing as a nice cup of tea.
1994 kilometers of toilet paper is used. Hmm. At the higher elevations, where nothing biodegrades, I wish the national park would install some kind of disposal facility.
Africa time. I have to thank my friend Eddie Frank for this one. What is Africa Time and how does it differ from other time? There is a scientific calculation, but it’s worth remembering that “Africa time is GOOD time”. Anything can happen, at any time. Remember this when you are waiting at the gate for a quick “sign-in” and a few hours seem to slip by!
The Science(!) behind it is as follows:
10am sharp/Africa Time = Any time in the future.
Have I missed anything? Do you have any facts about Kilimanjaro you'd like to share? If so, please leave me a comment below: