Hailed as the most difficult route up the mountain – and when coupled with the Western Breach summit attempt – Umbwe route is certainly the most “straight up”.
Nothing about this route is technical, but it’s very steep, in the first couple of days you will find yourself using tree roots to help haul yourself up the mountain! Strong legs and the love of a challenge are essential. Owing to it’s difficulty you will often have the mountainside to yourself for the first two days, as most normal people are making their way up less physically demanding routes.
Later on Day 2, however, it changes as you will be at Barranco Camp with other climbers from Lemosho route and Machame route.
From Barranco, you will either take the Southern Circuit to the Summit via Barafu Camp (with Lemosho and Machame climbers) or you will head north to Lava Tower and onto Arrow Glacier from which to tackle the Western Breach. The Umbwe route, coupled with the Western Breach is certainly the most challenging and direct way to the Summit.
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For those who are experienced in the mountains, who are very fit and strong and want to make Kilimanjaro a more serious challenge, then this route certainly fits the bill!
If you are not going up the Western Breach, then I see no particular advantage to giving yourself the two unnecessarily tough days at the beginning, only to go onto the same route as the Lemosho and Machame.
However, it’s spectacular. As you haul out of the forest on Day 2, you will traverse a ridge with the most incredible views on Kilimanjaro. You are unlikely to see many – if any – other people on the first and second days hiking.
Operators offer this route as a 5, 6 or 7 day option. Unless you are well-acclimatized already (from Mt Meru) or extremely confident of your acclimatization and very experienced in the mountains, you should not consider the 5 or 6 day route. Go with the 7 day trek, you will still have the physical challenge but with a better chance of acclimatizing properly.
As I have said before, and will keep saying: if you are fit enough to even consider climbing Kilimanjaro then the main obstacle between you and the summit is acclimatization.
I Opine: For most ‘normal’ trekkers, there is no real need to consider this route. It’s very tough, and if attempted too quickly, has a poor acclimatization protocol. If you’ve got those legs of steel, are confident of your ability to acclimatize and want a route with dramatic scenery and a real physical challenge – go for it!
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Overview of the Umbwe Route (6 days)
Day 1: Umbwe Gate (1600m, 5250ft) to Umbwe Cave Camp (2850m, 9350ft)
- Distance: 11 kilometres, 6 miles
- Length of hike: 6-7 hours
As you begin today’s hike, you may be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was all about. The trail follows a reasonable route through the forest, it will be warm and humid. The forest is alive with monkeys and birdsong, and the unusual vegetation will keep your mind occupied. Just as you are beginning to get comfortable, the track steepens. If there’s been rain, it will be muddy and slippery. The tree roots help to provide “steps” up the slopes. This isn’t just a “steep section”, it’s steep, all the way up, until you reach the ridge where your camp will be set up for the night. Magnificent views of Kibo can be had on a clear day, and your first night on the mountain is amongst the trees and thick, untouched bush.
After dinner, you’ll be ready to sleep off the rigors of the day, as there is more to come tomorrow.
Day 2: Umbwe Cave Camp (2850m, 9350ft) to Barranco Camp
- Distance: 7 kiliometres, 3.8 miles
- Length of hike: 6-7 hours
After a hearty breakfast and hopefully no complaints about stiff legs, you start up a steep trail and very soon leave the lush rainforest behind you, as you enter the heath and moorland zone. The vegetation is more sparse, the environment more rocky, the forest giving way to giant heathers, lobelias and senecio plants. Moving very slowly up the Umbwe ridge, you will have dramatic views down the valleys on either side of the ridge.
The ridge can feel very exposed in some parts, particularly on windy days, if you don’t like heights, you won’t like this. Keep a slow pace as the air gets increasingly thinner, and your body needs time to adapt. You may feel short of breath at times, and if you are feeling at all unwell, you should inform your guide immediately. Some sections of the trail are steep, others less so, but it’s very definitely “upwards” all the way. Until you get closer to Barranco, when the route flattens out towards Barranco camp.
As you approach Barranco, the trail will get somewhat busier, as this is where the Lemosho and Machame routes join together. Barranco camp is on a ridge by the Barranco Wall. Tomorrow you will have to climb that! (Don’t worry, it’s not technical!)
From the end of Day 2 onwards, the itinerary is the same as that of Lemosho and Machame, unless you are going to the Western Breach. Information about the Western Breach can be found >here<. And you would essentially go from Barranco to Lava Tower and on to Arrow Glacier.
Day 3: Barranco Camp (3,900m, 12,950ft) to Karanga Camp (4023m, 13,200ft)
- Distance: 6 kiliometres, 3.5 miles
- Length of hike: 4-5 hours
After breakfast, you need to tackle the Barranco Wall. A 500ft rock face, it is challenging, but not technical. You’ll need to scramble, using your hands in a few spots. At certain points it is quite exposed, but your guides will help you. Take it slowly and steadily and you’ll get there. It’ll take about an hour and a half, and once you get to the top, it’s an exhilarating feeling. You’ll have incredible views of Kibo towering overhead, and the craggy peaks around you.
After the Wall, you will descend through the Karanga Valley and up again to Karanga Camp in time for lunch. As it’s a relatively short day, you’ll have plenty of time to rest up before tomorrow’s trek to Barafu Camp – your last camp before the summit! If you are feeling fit and strong, some operators offer to take you on an acclimatization hike in the afternoon.
Note 1: if you are taking the 5-day Umbwe route, you will have lunch at Karanga and continue on to Barafu camp. I don’t recommend doing this, unless you are pre-acclimatized after summiting Mt Meru, and very confident in your ability to acclimatize and have experience in the mountains. The night at Karanga strongly increases your chances of summit success.
Note 2: if you are taking the 7-day Umbwe route, you will spend two nights at Karanga Camp. Tomorrow would be an acclimatization hike up to a higher elevation, before returning to camp. In my opinion, if you are going to tackle the Umbwe route and are not experienced at altitude, then this acclimatization day is crucial to a successful summit attempt.
Be sure to eat plenty and get a good night’s sleep – tomorrow is a tough day.
Day 4: Karanga Camp (3960m, 13,200ft) to Barafu Camp (4680m, 15354ft)
- Distance: 3.5 kilometres, 2 miles
- Length of hike: 3-5 hours
Today you will be heading to your “base camp” – the last camp before the summit.
From Karanga, you are faced with a tough uphill hike to Barafu Camp. Barafu means “ice” in Swahili, and it’s very windy, cold and exposed at this altitude. The environment gives way to rocky outcrops, windy wilderness and an increasingly inhospitable land. It’s spectacular up here! The air is thin, you will likely feel out of breath during today, but keep the slow, steady pace and remember to drink plenty of water.
Barafu can be a crowded camp, tents pitched in the spaces between the rocks. It’s cold and exposed. Be sure to rest well, as tonight you will have the toughest – but most rewarding – hike of the whole adventure! The afternoon should be spent arranging your daypack with everything you need for the summit.
After a hearty dinner – try to eat even if you don’t feel like it – head to your sleeping bag at about 7pm, as you’ll be woken at 11.30pm.
Day 5: Barafu Camp (4680m, 15354ft) to SUMMIT then descend to Mweka Camp
At around midnight, wearing all the clothes you possess (it’s freezing!) you will start the toughest but most exciting part of the hike. Heading uphill from Barafu camp, moving very slowly across the rocks and scree, you will make your way in the light of the moon on a clear night. You’ll have a headtorch as well.
The route is steep, using switchbacks through the volcanic scree. Tonight’s hike is all about determination, and using all your mental reserves to get you through it. The air is very thin and you will be glad of that extra day of acclimatization. You may pass people who are forced to descend as the altitude gets the better of them.
One step at a time.
After 5-6 hours, you should reach the Crater Rim, in time to see the dawn break and push the night off the mountain. A rest at Stella Point, admiring your efforts and the drama of the sunrise over craggy Mawenzi and Mt Meru. High above the clouds, the break of dawn will give you new found enthusiasm – the worst is over. Now it’s a 1-2 hour hike to the Summit!
Continuing along the crater rim from Stella Point, you slowly make your way to the summit – Uhuru Peak. The view is incredible. The effort is worth it – huge glaciers against black volcanic rock, up here above the clouds a sense of excitement and peace at the same time.
After photos and congratulations, it’s time to tackle the descent. Make sure your boots are well-fastened to prevent your toes from being crushed in the front of the boot. Extend your poles slightly, to help you balance whilst walking downhill.
You follow the same path back to Stella Point and then off the crater rim and down the mountain. It can be a bit brutal on the knees, but as you descend, your lungs will enjoy the extra oxygen after the thin air at the top!
Stopping for lunch at Barafu Camp, you’ve still got a few hours ahead of you before you can really relax. The hike down at first feels easier than all that relentless uphill, but it can be quite exhausting. Take it slowly, it’s not a race.
Towards the late afternoon you will arrive at Mweka Camp for your last night on the mountain. Rejoicing in your achievement and a good night’s sleep ahead of you. It can be bittersweet as the adventure is coming to a close. Some operators arrange for your laundry to be taken down the mountain ahead of you, so that it’s ready for when you reach your hotel.
Final Day: Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate
More downhill greets you this morning, and as you approach the rainforest once again, it can get quite muddy. You may need your rain gear, and the heat and humidity will be a welcome relief from all that cold!
At the gate, you will collect your certificate of achievement for either Uhuru Peak or Stella Point, and bid farewell to your guides and porters. After giving them their tips, you will be taken back to your hotel, back to normal life with the memories of the adventure etched on your mind.
A hot shower and a cold beer will be your reward!