The worst part hits around 4:30 a.m. That's when you collapse into a slender cave, feet numb, water bottle frozen. You've been walking since one in the morning, and the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro is still three hours away. Hang in there. Soon, the sun will break from behind the jagged crown of nearby Mawenzi peak, bathing Kili in orange. Exhaustion melts away, and exhilaration takes over as you stand amid glistening glaciers at the roof of Africa.
A trek to Tanzania and the snows of Kilimanjaro is the perfect solution for adventure travelers daunted by ropes and crampons, since that sort of gear isn't necessary. Nor is age a limiting factor, as long as you're healthy and fit. My thirtysomething husband, Scott, and I tackled it in February, and four of our group of five reached the summit, including 65-year-old Nordis Tusvik from Seattle. (Altitude sickness prevented one from making the final ascent.)
Yet at 19,340 feet--that's the height at Uhuru Peak--the summit should not be approached lightly. Consult a doctor first, and take the time to get in shape. Officials at Kilimanjaro National Park say you should be able to jog for at least 30 minutes without shortness of breath.
WORST ENEMY. Fitness, mental stamina, and pacing are crucial, but they are no guarantee against a climber's greatest enemy: altitude sickness. Ignoring such symptoms as severe headache, nausea, and disorientation can lead to pulmonary edema--fluid in the lungs--and even death. Try to make a test climb of at least 14,000 feet before planning this trip. And while Kili can be done in five days, take the six-day plan to better acclimatize. We polled descending climbers and noticed that, like us, those who used a prescription drug for altitude sickness called Diamox tended to reach the top.
Although Kili can be climbed year-round, the best months to go are December through February, or July through September, to avoid the two rainy seasons. Days can be quite warm, but nighttime temperatures near the summit fall below freezing any time of year. For hassle-free and reliable planning, we used REI Adventures, the travel arm of Seattle-based Recreational Equipment Inc. Many of its knowledgeable staff members have made the climb themselves. We chose REI's 18-day climb-and-safari trip for $3,495. (Park fees and airfare are not included.) If you prefer, you can work directly with Jordan D'Souza of Tanzania Serengeti Adventure in Arusha (table).
Your guide will make or break the trip. Ours, Peter Mato, was first-rate. A porter since the age of 13 and a guide for 15 years, he has 372 summit climbs under his belt. His ability to sense the correct pace for a trekker and his soft-spoken, constant encouragement have earned him a high success rate for getting his clients to the top.
You can even just show up in Arusha, near the entrance to Kilimanjaro National Park, and hire a guide and porters from among the dozens of companies that have sprung up. They're licensed by the national park, and many of them are quite good. But we saw guides who rushed people along and others barely able to speak the English or German required by their clients, much less explain the wildlife or local customs, as Mato did.
Another advantage of a prescreened guide: You're more likely to get trustworthy porters to carry your duffel bag and the food and utensils for your group. Climbers must beware of thievery in the camps, keeping wallets and cameras at hand. Porters we passed on the trail asked for our hats, sunglasses, and food. Tip your porters well if they've earned it--$15 to $20 per porter for a week.
LIME JUICE. We followed the Marangu route, the easiest and most popular of the four main routes. It starts with a gentle three-hour hike through forested terrain to a cluster of huts at 8,850 feet. By the end of Day 2, after five hours through rugged moorland to 12,200 feet, we started to feel the altitude. We lingered for two nights to acclimatize. Appetites start to fade here, so bring energy-boosting snacks such as chocolates and granola bars. Lime juice in your water bottle helps settle the stomach.
Day 4 is six hours over barren hillside to Kibo, the last camp, at 15,425 feet. Then it's to bed at 5 p.m. and up again at midnight for the final ascent. On this last night, temperatures fell below freezing. Chemical hand warmers to shove into your ski gloves and plenty of warm clothing are essential. Keep extra camera batteries near your body.
Don't be dissuaded by the prospect of chilly fingers or wobbly knees, though. It's a small price to pay for the view--and the sense of accomplishment--you'll find waiting for you at the summit.