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Amazing facts about Mt Kilimanjaro

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Mount Kilimanjaro Facts

Kilimanjaro is one of the most majestic mountains in the world. Situated almost directly on the equator, it attracts the visitors with thrilling panoramic views, endemic plants and a unique spirit of challenge and adventure. Many people describe their Kilimanjaro experiences as “life-changing”, “transformative” and “unparalleled”. 

Unlike other popular summits, you don’t need to be exceptionally  fit or have previous climbing experience to take part in a Kilimanjaro expedition. For the majority of Altezza hikers, Kilimanjaro is the first  serious adventure at such altitudes, often sparking an interest in mountain climbing that may just lead to more climbing adventures in destinations around the world! It is an ideal place for  first-time climbers  to experience a safe and comfortable mountain summit adventure, and a memorable off-the-beaten track vacation

If you are planning to embark on this epic journey, perhaps you are interested in knowing a bit more about this UNESCO World Heritage Site. This article summarizes a few key facts about Mount Kilimanjaro:


Height

Mount Kilimanjaro stands at 19,340 feet (or 5,895 m) above sea level and is the highest mountain on the entire African continent. That height doesn’t mean climbers hike exactly that many feet to ascend - Kilimanjaro region lies at 2624 f (800 m) above sea level, and the trailheads are even higher: 

Londorossi Gate (for Lemosho and Northern Circuit routes) is at 7740 f (2360 m). Most Lemosho trips start even higher at the Lemosho glades at 11 500 f (3500 m), providing nearly immediate beginning of your acclimatization transition. 

Machame Gate (for Machame route treks) lies at 5720 f (1740 m) in beautiful virgin tropical forest. 

Marangu route adventures start at Marangu Gate, which sits at 8860 f (2700 m). This route is the most popular on Kilimanjaro, and can sometimes be busy with many climbers.

Nalemuru (Rongai) Gate, the starting point for Rongai route Kilimanjaro climbs, is on the remote northern side of the mountain. Its elevation is 6400 ft or 1950 m above sea level. 

Umbwe Gate, the trailhead of the most taxing Kilimanjaro route, is at 5250 ft or 1600 m above sea level. 

As you may see, trekking parties start at a significant altitude above sea level, so a Kilimanjaro climb actually doesn’t mean trekking exactly 19,340 ft to summit. However, when climbers reach the summit of Uhuru peak, they will be standing at the altitude of 19,340 feet - which is high enough to see the curvature of the earth - pretty cool!  


Name

While many riddles about Mount Kilimanjaro have long been solved, the origins of its name have not yet been concluded. Many of the legends about Kilimanjaro’s name are derived from words from the Chagga tribe (the people who have traditionally resided around the base of Kilimanjaro, probably even before the language of Swahili became widely used across East Africa). Some say that the name comes from the words in the Chagga language kilelema and njaare, meaning “impossible” and “bird” respectively, i.e. when joined together they might mean “impossible even for a bird” (though White-necked ravens may be seen flying even higher).

Johannes Rebmann, one of the first explorers Tanganyika speculated that the word jaro means “caravan”, and when taken together with the word kilelema, the meaning would be “the one which stops the caravans”. Which, historically, Kilimanjaro posed a real obstacle for caravans moving across the African plains.

Also, some wrote that ”njaro” means “white” in the Chagga language, which could be a reference to the snow cap of the volcano - one that the famous writer, Ernest Hemmingway described as “unbelievably white”. 

Others suggest that it may also refer to the name of some evil spirit, which dwells on the slopes of the mountain and used to prevent  anyone from reaching the top. However, with almost twenty thousand reaching the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro every year, it seems that if the spirit is really here, his strength has faded over the centuries. 

All in all, no one knows for sure where the name Kilimanjaro came from, and it is unlikely that someone will anytime soon. Here at Altezza, we really like it that way -  it’s name is one of the enigmatic mysteries that make Kilimanjaro so special. If you are keen on knowing more on this and other legends of Kilimanjaro, sign up for our adventures - our guides are great story-tellers!


Map and location

Mount Kilimanjaro is nearly at the equatorial line, some 200 miles (or three degrees) south of it. For this reason it has a unique ecosystem and is one of the few places in all the world where climbers can experience snow so close to the equator.

Another  curious fact is that sunset and sunrise on Kilimanjaro happen at exactly the same time all year round.


Formation of Kilimanjaro 

Kilimanjaro is not just the highest mountain in Africa, but also the highest free-standing mountain in the world (i.e. it is not a part of a mountain range). Mount Kilimanjaro is an extinct volcano, and truly rises straight up from the African plain; a stunning sight to behold! This is what makes it really special: all other popular hiking destinations belong to a mountain range,  e.g. Everest in the Himalayas, Aconcagua in the Andes, and Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains etc. 

It is estimated that 750 thousand years ago lava cracked through the Great Rift Valley (which by itself is a large fracture of the earth crust) because of a  powerful eruption. The strength behind it was so huge that it hurled up soil and rocks and formed Shira, the first of three volcanic cones that make up Mount Kilimanjaro. It was erupted for nearly two hundred thousand years, and then the rims of Shira Volcano collapsed, forming a large, open caldera. 

Mawenzi was the second volcanic cone to form. It began with further eruptions in the Shira caldera and, despite the ongoing erosion, up to this date Mawenzi has preserved its volcanic shape which is even visible from a far distance.

Finally, some forty thousand years after the formation of Mawenzi, another eruption happened which shaped Kibo. This eruption was very strong and pushed the Kibo crater to an altitude of nearly 6000 meters - making it the tallest of all three volcanic cones.

This is how the present-day shape of Kilimanjaro was formed.
However, the eruptions continued: one of them scattered small black glassy stones known as ‘obsidian’ all over the Shira Plateau. Kilimanjaro hikers continue to find them here and there,despite that the eruption was so long ago.

NOTE: don’t take the pieces of obsidian with you! The laws of Tanzania expressly ban taking any wildlife or natural item (to which obsidian, as well as any other stone, plant, bone, etc., belong) from the national parks.

Last eruption 
The latest recorded volcanic activity on Mount Kilimanjaro happened some two hundred years ago, resulting in the creation of a structure known as the Ash Pit. It is one the key attractions in the crater, and, if you feel up to it after reaching the summit, your guide will walk you down there to have a look. There you will see glaciers and evidence of a volcanic eruption atop Africa’s highest mountain. It is certainly worth spending several extra hours there to get a glimpse of this iconic place.


Volcanic cones 

With Shira cone destroyed by  volcanic activity, technically speaking, Kilimanjaro has two remaining cones - Kibo, crowned atop Uhuru Peak, and Mawenzi at its eastern side.

Uhuru peak

Uhuru peak is what Kilimanjaro hikers seek to reach. The highest point of Kibo cone sits at 19,341 feet/5,895 m above sea level. Kilimanjaro National Park Authority (KINAPA) demarcated three trails to reach the summit: 

The southeastern trail through Barafu Summit Camp is the second shortest way to the peak. It is used by hikers who chose Lemosho, Machame or Umbwe routes for their Kilimanjaro adventure. It normally takes from one to two hours less to reach the summit through Barafu than by hiking through Kibo (see below). The point at the crater rim is known as “Stella Point” and is often a major milestone on the summit trek. A hike to Uhuru from Stella Point is much less strenuous than the first portion of the trek from Barafu Camp up until Stella Point.

The eastern route, which passes through Kibo summit camp is a bit longer, but not less fascinating! When hikers reach the rim they will arrive at a place called Gillman’s point (named after German engineer and explorer of Tanganyika, Clement Gillman). Then, trekkers progress to Stella Point, which normally takes about an hour to complete (this shorter distance is one of the small advantages for those summitting through  through Barafu Camp.), and then follow the common path to the top of Kilimanjaro - Uhuru Peak. Climbers who chose Marangu, Rongai or Northern Circuit route for their trip use this path to reach the summit. 

The most enigmatic path to the summit lies through the Western Breach Corridor. As a result of one of the eruptions, a part of the western wall of Kibo collapsed, opening the way straight to the crater. However, in order to reach this place, hikers need to clamber up through a dangerous, 200-meter/750-feet high part where rocks fall from time to time. The climb is also more physically demanding than through the popular routes, and for this reason Western Breach adventures are suitable for experienced climbers, ideally with prior acclimatization.

Mawenzi Peak

Mawenzi Peak is the highest point of the eastern side of Kilimanjaro. Its height is 16893 ft / 5149 m. You may see at close range from Mawenzi Camp while climbing Kilimanjaro through the Rongai route

To climb Mawenzi peak one needs some alpine skills - unlike reaching Uhuru, this climb requires the use of ropes, ice axes and other special equipment. It is also mandatory to get a special permit from Kilimanjaro National Park (which, in turn, requires proof that a climber has some mountaineering background) and pay special fees atop the regular (plus USD 750 as of the 2021-2022 season).


History of Mount Kilimanjaro 

The history of Kilimanjaro is rich, full of events and interesting figures. Detailed recordings about Kilimanjaro started in the late 19th century, which posed a challenging, yet interesting task for historians.  - what was known about Kilimanjaro prior to this?

Here is a recap of  key historical mentions of Kilimanjaro: 

The first mention of Kilimanjaro was left by Ptolemy of Alexandria, in whose writings we can find a description of a certain “large, snow-capped mountain” close to the African coast. No other peak but Kilimanjaro matches this description. 

In the sixth century, Arab traders arrived at the East African Coast and briefly explored the mainland, noting the presence of Kilimanjaro in one of the surviving travel logs.

The next written record about Kilimanjaro dates back to nearly a millennium later, when the Portuguese gained a firm foothold in Mombasa, Kenya and several other fortresses along the coast (Kilimanjaro is clearly visible from the Kenya border).

The first non-African people to ever attempt a climb were the German missionaries Baron Claus von der Decken and Johannes Rebman. They were followed by dozens of others, all of whom failed due to poor preparations and inclement weather conditions. It was not until in 1889 that Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purscheller finally succeeded in climbing Kilimanjaro. 

In the middle of the 20th century Kilimanjaro became an object of interest for the missionary and explorer Dr Richard Reusch, who is credited with organizing the first commercial expeditions to the Peak of Africa. A former officer of the Russian Imperial Army, Reusch is credited with establishing the first “school” for mountain guides under the aegis of his East African Mountaineering Club.  He was also the one to leave records of the famous frozen leopard on Kilimanjaro. Here at Altezza, we believe that the passion of this man about the wonders of Kilimanjaro hasn’t been matched to this day. 

After Tanzania gained their independence, Mount Kilimanjaro was developed as a tourist destination. Since that time, it has grown  from a remote attraction to now be one of most popular national parks in the world! 

For all interested in getting more in-depth information about the history of Kilimanjaro we recommend reading a special article on this website.


Acclimatization and altitude sickness 

As stated above, one doesn’t need any special skills to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Nor is it necessary to have an above-average fitness level - in fact most of our customers who successfully climb Mt Kilimanjaro had zero prior climbing experience and were not incredibly athletic!

Yet, many trekkers do fail to reach Kilimanjaro’s summit for one simple reason:  improper or insufficient acclimatization transition.

“Acclimatization” means certain transformations that the human body undergoes to adapt to conditions. As one gains elevation there is less oxygen than at normal altitudes. Consider the altitude of where you live and the saturation of oxygen your body is used to breathing for regular activity, now think about climbing to a higher altitude with less oxygen and spending a day or two there.On Kilimanjaro, just like on other mountains, the higher one climbs,  the less intense atmospheric pressure becomes and the molecules of oxygen are dispersed.. As a result, with each breath your body gets less oxygen than normal. However, given some time, your body reacts to the conditions and starts to adapt. The process includes:

● Deeper and more intense breathing

● Use of the areas of lungs, which are normally “dormant”

● Generation of more red blood cells to transmit available oxygen to the vital organs of your body

This transformation does not happen instantaneously - the body needs energy and time to accomplish this task. There are several simple, but very important “golden rules of acclimatization”. They are:

Keeping proper pace - Mount Kilimanjaro hiking is not a race; you should hike with moderate speed. Ideally, you should trek two-times slower than your average walking pace. That will help to preserve energy for acclimatization, instead of  overexerting yourself. The guides and porters will be always telling you “pole-pole” (“go slower” in English). Heeding their advice is a good idea!


Drink much water - hydration is nowhere as critical as it is on a Kilimanjaro hike, and your daily minimum should be 3-4 liters. It is better to drink in small sips, but regularly throughout the day. Make a stop every 20-30 minutes to have a drink. And of course, the guides will be constantly reminding you about water intake, too.

Don’t skip acclimatization hikes - once you reach a camp and have lunch,  the mountain guides will offer everyone in the trekking party to go for a short “acclimatization hike” further up the mountain and then back to the camp. You may have a strong urge to stay at the camp and rest, but do not give up! These hikes take no more than two hours, but they are very, very helpful for your body to acclimate better and increase your chances of a successful summit.

Take longer programs - there are many itineraries for Kilimanjaro climbing. Unless you have prior acclimatization, avoid booking five or six day options - transition on shorter treks is much worse than on the seven-day variations along the same route. Five or six days simply doesn’t allow your body enough time to adapt, and physical exertions will seem much harder.

Overall, proper acclimatization is critically important for your summit success and it is unquestionably the most important part of the guides’ job. Nearly all climbers who had their Kilimanjaro trip aborted sooner than expected had to do so because of poor acclimatization. 

Read more about acclimatization on Kilimanjaro in this article.


Animals and plants 

Mount Kilimanjaro is home to many plants and animals. Some are endemic (i.e. they are found  nowhere else on earth, but only on Mount Kilimanjaro). 

However, seeing a wild animal on Kilimanjaro is not as easy as in the Serengeti or Ngorongoro. Most of the mountain’s wildlife live in the tropical rainforest on its lower slopes, and the animals tend to stay away from popular tourist trails. Park regulations do not allow trekking off-trail, so visitors can not go deeper into the forest to spot these animals. Here we wholeheartedly side with the National Park Authority; the forests of Kilimanjaro are one of the few remaining places on the planet where wild animals are well protected from all forms of human disturbance.

However, some of the animals are brave enough to get closer to the trekking trails to cast a curious glance on trekkers. With some luck, you may expect to see the following animals on your Kilimanjaro hike:

Blue monkey 
There are many blue monkeys in the tropical rainforest of Kilimanjaro. The name is a bit confusing - these monkeys are not actually blue, but dark grey in color, with brown eyes. These primates spend most of their time hanging in trees. They subsist on fruits, flowers, twigs and sometimes insects.

Colobus monkey 
Colobus monkeys are rarer to see than the blue monkeys. They are larger, and also prefer spending most of their time in trees. A certain distinctive feature that makes them different from nearly all other primates - these monkeys don’t have thumbs. However, it has made them excellent tree climbers, and you will seldom see them on the ground. 

Another notable feature of a Colobus is its strong tail, which sometimes reaches two feet in length and is distinctively black-and-white striped. They are able to hook around tree branches and hang likeways by their powerful tails! 

These monkeys are fully white when they are young, and gradually get black patches as they grow. 

White-necked raven
Ravens are known to be one of the most intelligent birds. Some ornithologists speculate that ravens’ intellect is superior to the one of a seven-year human child. Together with parrots, these birds can be taught human speech, and research also confirmed that they are capable of abstract reasoning and group thinking.

There are lots of white-necked ravens on Mount Kilimanjaro, and you will certainly see some hovering over the camps, waiting for some inattentive mountain cooks to leave pieces of food unattended.

Galagos
Galagos (or bush-babies) are small, brownish primates, which lead a nocturnal lifestyle. While Kilimanjaro climbers peacefully sleep in their tents, these adorable, wide-eyed creatures are most active. They prefer spending most of their time in the rainforest. Their big round eyes are the reason for excellent night vision, and small, but strong arms and legs allow them to leap large distances from one tree to another. 
Their diet consists of small insects, fruits and flowers.
    

Mice 
These rodents seem to accompany humans everywhere, even to the places as remote as Kilimanjaro! Compared to what you may be used to seeing in barns and depots, this type of mouse is larger in size. You are likely to see them in the morning and after midday. Unlike other animals of Kilimanjaro, these creatures prefer staying closer to campsites, where food is always abundant. 

Those interested to know more about the animals of Kilimanjaro are welcome to read our special article on the topic.


Plants  

There are hundreds of plants in the rainforest and hearth zones of Mt Kilimanjaro. Here you will see everlasting flowers, Protea kilimandscharica (endemic), Stoebe (notorious for their invasiveness - these plants are very hard to eradicate from an ecosystem, if necessary), red hot pokers, giant lobelias, fireball lilies and many other high-altitude plants

Dendrosenecio Kilimanjari
Dendrosenecio is a very unique plant, and worth a special paragraph in this article. The only places to find Dendrosenecio in the whole world are Shira Plateau and certain areas south of Barranco Camp. 

These plants are higher than most of the Kilimanjaro vegetation and can reach a length of 20 feet tall. It takes years for them to grow, yet when they do, this is really a special sight to behold! You will certainly see them in photos of those who made this epic hike.

Over the course of evolution, this plant developed strong adaptation mechanisms for living in harsh mountain environments. Old leaves wrap around the trunk to keep the plant warm in the cooler air. The trunk keeps water supplies to subsist during the arid seasons, and when the air becomes cold, younger leaves roll up to keep cold air out. These plants are true survivors of Kilimanjaro!


Africa's tallest tree 
The scientists have recently made an amazing discovery - the tallest, and also one of the oldest - trees in Africa, is on Kilimanjaro! With its impressive 265-feet (81 meters) height, this tree is higher than the previous champion, found in South Africa (which is now dead). Apart from being the highest tree in Africa, this tree is also reported to be the sixth largest tree in the world. 

It is also curious that this mountain was found in the Kilimanjaro ecosystem, which, due to its high elevations, is not as wholesome as the lowlands. The fact that this tree has survived and thrived to this record-breaking height is truly incredible.


 

Glaciers

The glaciers of Kilimanjaro are certainly one of the key attractions of this famous mountain. Also, it is  one of only places along the equator where one may see ice. Even though the largest parts of some of the oldest glaciers have melted away, even today they look pretty formidable. 

The most famous and largest glaciers of Mount Kilimanjaro are the following: 

Furtwängler Glacier can be found to the south from Kilimanjaro crater. You will certainly see it while hiking from Stella Point to the summit. 

Rebmann Glacier is located in the south-eastern part of Kilimanjaro summit area.

The Northern Ice Field is in the north-western part of the summit cone, and as of 2021, it has the largest portion of ice remaining. 

Balletto Glacier is south of the crater.

To get a better view of these attractions, we recommend hiking down to the crater area after you reach Uhuru Peak. When you reach the summit, the guides will offer those who have enough energy and desire to go there. It normally takes two extra hours to get closer to the crater area.
 

Melting of Kilimanjaro glaciers 

It is very hot in the summit area at midday, and some climbers find it surprising that the glaciers are still there - our guides often hear the question, “how is it possible that they haven’t melted under this scorching sun yet?”.

While it is hot, the white color of the glacier reflects almost all of the heat. The glacier is melting, but not from above, it is melting from below. It is the rocks under the layers of thick ice, which are permanently heating the glaciers and slowly melting them. Unfortunately, they will eventually disappear.  

From the beginning of the 20th century, Kilimanjaro has lost nearly 80% of its total ice cap. Unfortunately, there is no way we can reverse the process - top experts say that the glaciers of Kilimanjaro are likely to disappear by 2020. There are different theories as to why; some blame global warming (and there is a grain of truth in their arguments), others say that it is a natural phenomenon, which already happened before. This latter theory says that ten thousand years ago the glaciers of Kilimanjaro melted completely, and the volcanic mountain was completely free of ice. A “small ice age” of the 16th century beefed up the glaciers again. So, even if the glaciers will be gone soon, we optimistically believe that this will not be forever. 

In the early 20th century there were sixteen recorded glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro, and four of them completely disappeared by the beginning of 1990s. So, the present day is probably one of the final opportunities to see Kilimanjaro’s glaciers in their full might during our lifetimes.

 

Kilimanjaro National Park 

Mount Kilimanjaro is a part of Kilimanjaro National Park, which was officially gazetted in 1973. Originally, the Park included just Mount Kilimanjaro itself, however, following the recommendations of the World Heritage Council, in order to  further protect its unique ecosystem, the park territory was extended to include the forest zone below.  



All human-related activities in the national park territory are strictly subject to the Mount Kilimanjaro National Park General Development Plan (GDP). Among other things this plan lists the following:

Human impact on the ecosystem of Mt Kilimanjaro shall be reduced to the lowest possible impact. For this reason, it is not allowed to construct permanent structures there, save for administrative buildings of the ranging service and huts on Marangu Route. 

Use of designated routes only for hiking - reaching the peak of Mt Kilimanjaro is allowed only through one of the approved trails. Off-route hiking is strictly prohibited and anyone caught attempting will be subject to fines and other penalties. 

Regulation of hiking - before the creation of Kilimanjaro National Park Authority (KINAPA) and the adoption of comprehensive hiking rules, everyone arriving at what was then known as Tanganiyika explored the mountain the way he liked. Though it might have been more exciting back then, given the recent popularity of Kilimanjaro it is easy to see why a more regulated approach was necessary: crowds of people wandering on their own whims could have easily destroyed the fragile ecosystem of Kilimanjaro in several years.
For this reason the KINAPA passed National Parks Mountain Regulations, which provide in-depth explanation of what is permitted and what is not on these beautiful slopes. 

Employment and other economic benefits for the local population - tourism is one of the key sectors of Tanzania economy, and the popularity of Mount Kilimanjaro among international visitors couldn’t be ignored. For that reason, the GDP advocates the creation of jobs for locals in the park and frowns upon anything that may jeopardize them. Thousands of people work on Kilimanjaro as guides, cooks, porters, park rangers and other mountain professionals.

We are happy to see that the number of people interested in climbing Kilimanjaro is rising every year. The more tourists arrive here, the better the livelihoods of the local communities will become.


Kilimanjaro National Park in Arts

Because the existence of Kilimanjaro hasn’t been largely known to the European and American artists, writers and other people in the arts, it hasn’t received as much attention as other popular mountains have. 

Some notable works about Kilimanjaro include: 

A short story “Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway. This is perhaps the most famous work of art about Kilimanjaro. Though the story has little to do with the mountain itself, its snow-capped peak is viewed by Hemingway as a culmination of journey, in this very particular case - an allegory to the life of the book's protagonist, Harry. This book is excellent reading material for a flight to Tanzania. 

The 1952 film “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” directed by Henry King is a remarkable adaptation of Hemingway’s work. Starring Susan Hayward and Gregory Peck, the film tells the story from a little different perspective, and it won many positive accolades from critics, including two Academy Award nominations. 

As of 2021 the film is in public domain, and we recommend it to anyone interested in Kilimanjaro and Africa at large. 

Zombies on Kilimanjaro: A Father/Son Journey Above the Clouds by Tim Ward is a touching personal story of a son and father expedition to the roof of Africa. Harsh environments of Kilimanjaro conduce honest talks on topics that we normally keep to ourselves. A highly recommended read for everyone!

 

Famous climbs 

Most of Kilimanjaro expeditions are traditional multi-day hiking adventures. Some, however, are worth special mention: 


The youngest person to climb the roof of Africa was Montannah Kenney, who in 2018 successfully reached Uhuru Peak when she was only seven-years old - taking the record title from Roxy Getter, who was eight years old at the time of her expedition. 

The oldest person to climb Kilimanjaro is Anne Lorimore, 89. She broke the record previously held by Angela Vorobeva, 86, and by Fred Distelhorst, 87. All these octogenarians carefully planned their adventures, and followed acclimatization guidelines to succeed. All in all, they are the living proof that anyone can climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and physical fitness is certainly not the most important thing for taking part in a Kilimanjaro adventure and reaching the Roof of Africa. 

Angela Vorobeva reached the highest point in Africa without supplementary oxygen.

The fastest Kilimanjaro climb ever was performed by the Swiss mountaineer Karl Egloff, who ran to Uhuru Peak through the Umbwe route and descended through Mweka in less than seven hours. This tally is exceptional even for skyrunners, whose average time is 10-14 hours. 

Here at Altezza Travel we organize skyrunning trips from time to time, but we encourage only experienced climbers with a proven record of skyrunning trips to apply.



Published on 21 April 2021

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