So how much do you know about Mt. Kilimanjaro? Maybe you’re thinking of climbing or you’ve already booked your climb, and no doubt you are focusing on all the practical aspects of your trip. You must know where it is, right?
There are many reasons why you might be drawn to climbing Kilimanjaro and the more you know about the mountain you are about to tackle (or are dreaming of tackling) the more enjoyable your experience will be. Not to mention being able to impress your friends about how much you know!
We’ve got some lesser-known facts to share about this mountain – from its geology and history to modern-day records and achievements.
So let’s jump right in:
Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain – that is, not part of a mountain range, such as the Himalayas – in the world, at 5,895 meters above sea level. It actually comprises three volcanic peaks, the largest being Kibo – the summit. The other two cones are Mawenzi and Shira.
According to the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research (2008), Shira started erupting some 2.5 million years ago, and the main activity was around 1.9 million years ago. We’ve no idea how these clever folk managed to figure this out, but after this time the volcanic activity moved towards Mawenzi and Kibo. It’s thought that what is now the Shira plateau was actually a caldera that had collapsed in on itself – and subsequent erosion of the side walls has made it flat.
Mawenzi and Kibo on the other hand, are pretty young in comparison. They started their volcanic grumblings around a million years ago. At the top of Kibo is a large crater, formed after the volcano erupted, like Shira, it also collapsed in on itself and is now a flat area, containing glaciers (fast retreating). The summit Uhuru Peak is on the crater rim.
One interesting point is that both Mawenzi and Shira are extinct but Kibo is dormant. This can be seen clearly if you hike to the Ash Pit – a two hour round trip across the crater floor. From here you can smell the sulfurous gases being emitted deep inside the earth’s crust. And a sobering reminder that this is, actually, a volcano!
The glaciers on Kilimanjaro are estimated to be around 11,700 years old. In the late 19th century, the entire summit of Kibo was covered in glacial ice, and it clearly isn’t today.
According to a study done by the European Geosciences Union, between the years of 1912 and 2011, as much as 85% of the glacial ice disappeared.
To put this into numbers: in 1912 the coverage was 11.4 square kilometers. By 2011 a mere 1.76 square kilometers of glacial ice remains. It’s estimated that if present climate conditions continue that there will be no ice cap at all on Kibo by 2060.
A pretty frightening thought!
Being the tallest mountain in Africa gives Mt. Kilimanjaro the status of being one of the “Seven Summits” – the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. Long been a goal of many mountaineers, conquering all of these is quite a feat.
The other six are:
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that at 5,895 meters high, Kilimanjaro is the fourth largest of these Seven Summits. Of course, there are many more mountains particularly in the Himalayas that are larger than Kili, but it’s still an impressive size!
Many classical geographers were interested in the African continent, and the first recorded mention of Kili in history was in the second century. The Greek mathematician, Ptolemy of Alexandria referred to “a great snow mountain”. Later on, Oriental traders reported news of a “great mountain west of Zanzibar”.
In his “Suma de Geographia”, Fernandez de Encisco, a Spanish writer mentions “an Ethiopian Mount Olympus’; after traveling to the Kenyan port of Mombasa and apparently speaking to people who had visited the interior.
In typical style, early nineteenth-century British geographers had dismissed any idea of a snow-capped peak in Africa. That is, until William Desborough Cooley in 1844 wrote: “the most famous mountain of Eastern Africa is Kirimanjara”. This is thought to be the first mention of any form of the modern name Kilimanjaro.
Still stubborn, the Royal Geographic Society dismissed the claim of the German missionary, Johannes Rebmann, who actually traveled to the ‘interior’ and seen Kili for himself in 1848.
Just goes to show how wrong these naysayers were!
The first recorded attempts by European explorers to climb Kili started in the mid-late nineteenth century. A German explorer, Baron Carl Claus von der Decken made the journey to the interior in 1861 and met a British geologist, Richard Thornton.
Together they took the dangerous journey to Kilimanjaro. They surveyed the area, apparently climbing to around 8,200 feet. They estimated that the mountain was around 20,000 feet high. Interestingly, Richard Thornton was the first person to say that the mountain was actually a volcano.
Hans Meyer claimed the first actual summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Not without some difficulty though. His first attempt was in 1887 when he reportedly got to around 18,000 feet and had to turn back – as he couldn’t climb the immense ice wall in front of him.
Not to be deterred, Meyer enlisted the help of Ludwig Purscheller – a very experienced Alpine climber – and returned to Tanzania in 1889. He established a team of porters and his own guide, a young man called Yohani Lauwo, who lived in Marangu.
On 6th October 1889, they stood on the summit for the first time. Yohani Lauwo went on to guide expeditions on Kilimanjaro for 70 years, living to the remarkable age of 125.
Interestingly, after this initial summit in 1889, it took another 20 years for the next successful attempt, in 1909.
The first woman to get to the summit was a Scottish lady who had spent a lot of time in her childhood scaling Scottish peaks with her father. After climbing Mount Etna in Sicily, she apparently traveled to Africa to visit relatives.
She joined a group of adventurers and embarked on her expedition up Kili. Reportedly, she drank champagne and whiskey to keep her strength up – even after her traveling companions abandoned their attempt at the summit, she pushed on, reportedly succeeding on the 27th September 1927!
The early predecessor of modern tourism, the East African Mountain Club was formed in the 1920s by Richard Reusch and Clement Gillman.
Richard Reusch was the 7th person to sign the register on the summit and reportedly the first person to see the Ash Pit – it is named the Reusch Crater after him. Gillman’s Point is named after Clement Gillman.
Together, they built the first huts on Kilimanjaro, at strategic points to allow climbers to rest and acclimatize before continuing their journey. They trained the first mountain guides and ran the first commercial climbs.
The East African Mountain Club ran all the expeditions up Kilimanjaro until the Tanzanian Government took over in 1973. They predominantly used what is now the Marangu route.
Moving on from history to more modern times, there are currently seven official routes up the mountain to the summit. Climbers have to use one of these routes, it is not possible to make your own route!
From the south:
From the west:
From the north:
All these routes end up at one of three main base camps from which the summit attempt starts.
The three main routes to the summit are:
There are two descent routes: Marangu and Mweka (which is only used to descend).
It has been suggested that walking from the bottom of the mountain to the top is like walking from the equator to the North Pole – in terms of the climate zones you pass through.
There are five major zones on the mountain:
The lower slopes of the mountain would once have been rolling savanna grassland but are now mostly cultivated by small scale farmers, and used as grazing land for livestock.
The humid rain forest receives the most rainfall and was once home to a variety of wildlife. Due to the increase in tourism, you’d be hard-pressed to see anything other than the odd antelope and some monkeys. But the bird life is spectacular!
Low Alpine Heath and Moorland Zone (9,200 feet – 13,000 feet)
The temperatures are cooler here and it is much drier than in the forest. The vegetation is a mixture of heather’s and large grasses. Giant senecios and lobelias are in abundance as you get higher in this zone.
As you climb higher, out of the heath and moorland zone it gets a lot bleaker. Much colder at night, and baking hot during the day, it is an inhospitable place. There isn’t much precipitation here and as a result, the landscape is rocky with little soil to support vegetation.
This area comprises mostly rocks and volcanic scree with glaciers higher up. There is very little water, as most precipitation falls as snow and is absorbed by porous rock. It is bleak and very cold. But it is spectacular!
For more information about the different climate zones, see our guide to Kilimanjaro’s weather and climate.
Andreas Hemp from the University of Bayreuth in Germany has been studying the trees in some of Kilimanjaro’s remote valleys – well away from the climbing routes – for over 20 years. But limitations in measuring tools have meant that up until recently, they could only estimate the height of these trees.
However, with laser tools, it’s been revealed that Africa’s tallest tree, an Entandrophragma excelsum actually measures a whopping 81.5 meters in height. Hemp estimates that the tree is approximately 600 years old. Scientists are calling for protection for the valley in which this particular tree was found.
At 19,340 feet there is approximately half the oxygen in the air than there is at sea-level. This is because, as you get higher up, there is less atmospheric pressure. The actual air still contains 20.8% oxygen. It’s not that there is actually less oxygen, just that it is less available.
This lower atmospheric pressure, combined with less available oxygen is what causes complications such as Acute Mountain Sickness, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, and High Altitude Cerebral Edema. To read more about the effects of altitude on Kilimanjaro, read our guide on acclimatization.
Each year, at least 30,000 people attempt to climb Kilimanjaro. That’s a lot, right? So you’d think the summit would be pretty crowded. You’d be wrong!
It is hard to get actual statistics about what percentage of people who set out to climb actually make it to the summit. Kilimanjaro National Park does not publish these figures, so we rely on evidence from other tour operators.
What we do know, is that the longer routes have the greatest success rates. This is because by far the biggest reason for people not making the summit is due to complications with the altitude. Longer routes allow more time for the body to acclimatize and in the absence of medical conditions or injury, well-acclimated climbers have the best chance of success.
Once again, these statistics are not published by the National Parks Authority. It’s estimated that between 3-6 people die on the mountain every year – although some sources put that figure quite a bit higher. Those that are reported in the press are usually tourist deaths, but it does happen that porters occasionally perish.
The main reason for these deaths is complications arising from the altitude. But some ill-equipped porters have died from hypothermia, which is why it’s imperative to climb with an operator who takes staff welfare seriously.
There have also been rock slides at the base of the Western Breach which in 2006-2007 caused the death of four climbers. Some porters have been known to succumb to malaria, contracted before they set off.
It is important that all climbers – guides, porters as well as tourists – have their health monitored every day while on the mountain. Read our guide on how we make sure everyone in our team stays safe on their climb.
We often get asked ‘am I too old to climb Kilimanjaro’? And our answer is always: no one is too old, provided they have a medical checkup and their doctor signs them off as fit and healthy enough to climb.
That is a question that didn’t worry Anne Lorimor, a great grandmother from Arizona when she set out to conquer the record held by Angela Vorobeva (Russia) of the oldest person to climb Kilimanjaro. In October 2015, Angela Vorobeva became the oldest person to reach the summit at the age of 86 years and 267 days.
On July 18th, 2019 Anne Lorimor reached the summit at the remarkable age of 89 years and 37 days. She climbed unassisted with a team on the Rongai route. This doesn’t just make her the oldest woman to summit – she holds the world record for the oldest person on the Roof of Africa!
The record for the oldest man to reach the summit is held by Fred Distelhorst, from Vail, Colorado who, aged 88 years stood at Uhuru Peak on July 20th, 2017.
The official minimum age to be allowed to climb the mountain (by the National Parks Authority) is 10. However, by special permission, certain younger people have been allowed to join an expedition.
The current record holder is a young man from Albuquerque called Coaltan Tanner. Ever since his parents read him a book about mountains he was obsessed with climbing Everest. His parents gave in and obtained permission for him to travel with them to Kilimanjaro instead.
At the tender age of 6 years old, he stood at Uhuru Peak with his parents in October 2018. The previous record-holder was Montannah Kenney, a girl from Arizona who was 7 years old.
We mostly talk about how ‘slow and steady’ is the best way to the summit. Some people, in the pursuit of world records, ignore this advice and go as fast as possible to Uhuru Peak.
The current record holder is Karl Egloff, a Swiss ultra marathon runner and all-round tough man, who in August 2014 ran the Umbwe route and reached the summit in 4 hours and 56 minutes. He turned around and descended the mountain in a total time of 6 hours 42 minutes – the average day’s hiking time from one camp to another for the rest of us!
The title of fastest ascent by a woman is held by Kristina Shou Madson from Denmark. Another ultra-runner, Kristina ascended and descended in an astonishing 6 hours and 52 minutes!
It’s not everyone that can even think about running for over 6 hours, at home, at sea level, and on a flat surface. I know I can’t. So the idea of trying to run in the thin air, over treacherous boulders, up the highest mountain in Africa is something that will simply remain an idea.
But some folk like to make and break records. It’s in their blood. Take, for example, one Sanjay Pandit from Nepal. An experienced mountaineer who decided to tackle Kilimanjaro – backwards. He walked up to the summit and down again, backwards the whole way. He did this in an astonishing time of 25 hours and 40 minutes.
And that’s an official record, verified by the National Parks Authority.
If walking backwards doesn’t appeal to you, as it didn’t to Douglas Adams – famous author of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” – perhaps climbing in a rhino suit seems like a good idea? Well, it did to him, because in 1994, with the founders of Save the Rhino Foundation, he did just that. To raise money and awareness of the plight of the rhino in Africa.
So there you have it, some facts about this great mountain: its history, and its geology. Some figures – both in the numbers and the famous folk. Some fun, in the form of rhino suits, and walking backwards in pursuit of world records.
And some focus. Focus is what got those early climbers to the top of Kilimanjaro, focus is what got those world records smashed, and ultimately focus is what everyone who embarks on this epic climb needs to succeed.
Is climbing Kilimanjaro on your bucket list? Have these facts piqued your interest? Contact us now and let’s get started planning your trip to Mount Kilimanjaro!
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