Kilimanjaro Routes Overview
The Machame Route
According to local accounts, the Italian Balletto discovered the Machame Route with the help of his dog. When trying to surpass complicated obstacles through the rain forest Balletto is said to have thrown a piece of meat for his dog who found the most efficient route to it. Balletto then forged his route by watching where his dog walked. Probably just a myth, but a nice story anyway. We do know that the Park named a large glacier just to the east of the Diamond Glacier after Balletto as a gesture of thanks for making this very successful route. And it is a very successful route.
The Machame Route begins in the south west of the mountain and proceeds steeply north over two days until attaining the edge of the Shira Plateau at 3900m. From here it drops 50 metres to Shira Camp where it joins the Lemosho and Shira Routes onwards to the summit. From Shira Camp the view west over the jagged peaks forming the southern edge of the Shira Plateau is phenomenal at sunset. We usually take acclimatisation excursions from here a couple of hundred metres upwards to ensure a better night’s sleep and improved acclimatisation.
Access to the Machame Route is relatively straightforward and this is reflected in its costing slightly less to climb than all the other routes. There are imminent plans to tar the road all the way to the gate. We expect this to happen within the next year, if the government is able to meet its funding targets. The Machame Route tends to be our most popular choice because the topography of the route is very conducive to good acclimatisation and the likelihood of summitting on this route is relatively high.
Advantages of Machame
The principal advantage of the Machame Route over the standard Rongai, Umbwe and Marangu Routes is that day 3 ascends from 3847m to only 3984m, yet via 4642m at the base of a volcanic rocky outcrop known as the Lava Tower. The 600m height differential ensures that Machame exploits the ‘climb high, sleep low’ principle to maximum effect. This and the fact that the summit assault on the Machame Route is via a ridge rather than a loose scree slope and is therefore considerably less difficult than the assault on Marangu and the standard Rongai Route, is responsible for the fact that Machame boasts the best summit
success rates of all the routes after the SNOWCAP Rongai Route.
Most climbers opt for the 7 day route in order to err on the side of caution with respect to being well rested and adequately acclimatised prior to their assault, however timings on the 6 day route are still safe and most people with active lifestyles and who are younger than around 45 years of age, and not carrying significant excess body mass, will usually manage very well on the 6 day Machame Route.
The Marangu Route
Budget operators attempt to encourage people to climb the Marangu Route by claiming that it is the easiest route. The reality is that the Marangu Route is only the easiest route for the operator as very little equipment is needed because accommodation is in huts, the entry gate is close to Moshi (where most of the low-budget operators are based), and the access road is paved all the way to the park gate. While it is true that the approach to high camp is certainly the easiest on this route Marangu nonetheless suffers the worst summit success rates on the mountain with only 42% of all climbers reaching the summit, according to KINAPA’s official figures.
Why is the Marangu Route known as the ‘Coca Cola Trail’?
Because this trail is popularly called the ‘Tourist Route’ or ‘Coca Cola trail’ (Coke being a soft drink, of course, as opposed to the Machame Route while is sometimes called the Whisky Route), some trekkers are misled into thinking this five- or six-day climb to the summit is simply a walk in the (national) park. But remember that a greater proportion of people fail on this route than on any other. True, this may have something to do with the fact that Marangu’s reputation for being ‘easy’ attracts the more inexperienced, out-of-condition trekkers who don’t realize that they are embarking on a 35-kilometre uphill walk, followed immediately by a 35-kilometre knee-jarring descent.
But it shouldn’t take much to realize that Marangu is not much easier than any other trail: with the Machame Route, for example, you start at 1828m and aim for the summit at 5895m. While on Marangu, you start just a little higher at 1860m and have the same goal. So simple logic should tell you that it can’t be that much easier.
Accommodation on the Marangu Route
The main reason why people say that Marangu is easier is because it is the only route where you sleep in huts, rather than under canvas. There are 70 spaces at Mandara Huts, 148 at Horombo – the extra beds are necessary because this hut is also used by those descending from Kibo – and just 58 at Kibo.
The fact that you do sleep in huts makes little difference to what you need to pack for the trek, for sleeping bags are still required (the huts have pillows and mattresses but that’s all) though you can dispense with a ground mat for this route. You may also need some small change should you give in to temptation and decide that the exorbitant price of sweets and drinks that are available at the huts is still a price worth paying. The fact that there’s no tent to carry, however, means you can probably get away with just two-three porters per person, or fewer if you carry your own bag – something of a false economy we’ve found, as we believe it increases your chances of suffering from AMS.
Regarding the sleeping situation, it does help if you can get to the huts early each day to grab the better beds. This doesn’t mean you should deliberately hurry to the huts, which will reduce your enjoyment of the trek and increase the possibility of AMS. But do try to start early each morning: that way you can avoid the crowds, beat them to the better beds, and possibly improve your chances of seeing some of Kili’s wildlife too.
The Umbwe Route
The Umbwe Route often draws fit young people who are attracted by the route’s designation as the hardest route on the mountain. The route is certainly raw and unkempt and very steep until it reaches Barranco at 3,984m, from which point it intersects the Machame Route. Only two days are spent reaching the same point that is reached after three days on the Machame Route and for this reason headaches and mild nausea are relatively commonly on the Umbwe Route, even below 4,000m.
The route can switch left from Barranco to summit via the Western Breach but nowadays more usually switches right, over the Breach Wall, to summit via Barafu.
The Umbwe Route is widely regarded as the hardest trail, a tough vertical slog through the jungle, in places using the tree roots as makeshift rungs on a ladder. Having reached the Southern Circular Route, trekkers can continue north-west to tackle Kibo from the west and the difficult Arrow Glacier Route; or you can follow the Southern Circular Route east round to Barafu and approach the summit from there. The entire walk up and down takes a minimum of five days whether going via the Barafu Campsite (a walk of 27.71km in total) or via the Western Breach/Arrow Glacier (a total distance of 24.35km). Either is entirely too rapid, so take six minimum.
The Rongai Route
This route includes the ‘Mawenzi Tarn Hut variation’ which is recommended for acclimatization. However, some tours skip this and proceed directly from Simba camp to a ‘Third Camp’ at around 3700m to Kibo Hut, resulting in a (more difficult because of shorter length) 5-day total trip.
- = Drive 2 hours from the Marangu gate to the Rongai Gate. Walk to Simba Camp at 2,650 metres (8,690 ft), 2.5-3 hrs. The walk is initially through plantations then rain forest and finally bush country.
- = Walk to second Cave at 3,450 metres (11,320 ft), 3½ hrs. A gentle day through bush then heathers.
- = Gentle rising traverse through moorland over several ridges to Kikelea Caves, 3,600 metres (11,800 ft), 3 hours.
- = Moorland then screes to Mawenzi Tarn Hut, 4,330 metres (14,210 ft), 3-3.5 hrs.
- = Easy angled screes slopes lead across the Saddle to Kibo Hut, 4,700 metres (15,400 ft), 4.5-5 hrs.
- = Very early start for the summit on steep scree up to Gillman’s Point (5,681 metres (18,638 ft)), which is on the crater rim. Continue around the rim (which will take about two hours if you are fit) to Uhuru Peak (5,895 metres (19,341 ft)) the highest point in Africa. Descend to Kibo Hut and then down to the thicker air and relative warmth of Horombo hut.
- = Descend to Marangu gate.
Climbers often omit the second cave during ascent, although the climb is more difficult.
Rongai route is one of the quieter Kilimanjaro trekking routes. The starting point for the ascent is on the north eastern side of Kilimanjaro, almost to the Kenya border. The beginning of the ascent is easy and gradual, but as the Rongai climb continues, the trial becomes more rugged and the hiking days get longer.
Rongai route joins the Marangu trail at Kibo Hut. After resting at Kibo hut camp, the summit ascent begins on a zigzag path up to Gilman’s Point and onward to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro – Uhuru Peak.
Rongai is a camping route. On Rongai route, the descent from the summit to the gate is on Marangu route. The huts seen on the descent are occupied by Marangu route climbers and not for the use of Rongai climbers. The eastern slopes of Kilimanjaro receive less rainfall than on other routes, which makes a Kilimanjaro climb on Rongai route a good choice for wet season hiking.
The Lemosho Route
The Lemosho Route is a very beautiful and unspoilt route that still enjoys sighting of wild game along the forest section. For those seeking a quiet route away from the crowds it clearly a superior option for the first two days of movement. Thereafter however, the route is precisely the same as the Machame Route.
The start point of the Lemosho Route is particularly inaccessible during the wet season and climbers should be prepared to walk the final 2-5 kilometres of the road following heavy rains.
The journey time to reach the start point is quite long and joined to the possibility of not reaching the end of the road by vehicle head torches may well be needed to reach Forest Camp on day 1.
On day two the route ascends towards the eastern side of the Shira Ridge, the third summit of Kilimanjaro, before bending left to round the north side of the Shira Ridge and attain the Shira Plateau, pictured at the bottom of this page.
Having crossed the Shira Plateau and reaching Shira 2 or Shira Cave Camp, the conventional Lemosho Route is precisely the same as Machame, however, SNOWCAP has pioneered its own Lemosho Route that moves north round Kilimanjaro’s summit cone, avoiding all the crowds and enjoying a very quiet assault from School Hut.
The descent is along the Mweka Route, a descent-only route.
If Machame is crowded the conventional Lemosho Route loses its advantage by day 3 so it’s necessary to decide whether the additional costs involved with the Lemosho Route are worthwhile, or whether the SNOWCAP 7 day Rongai Route or 8 day SNOWCAP Lemosho Route might instead be better options.
Another method of avoiding crowding is to combine Lemosho with the Western Breach assault, which we are very happy to arrange, providing the climber making the booking makes it clear to us in writing that he or she is aware, as is the rest of the group being represented, that it is understood that there is an ongoing potentially fatal risk of rockfall on the Western Breach and that the group is willing to expose itself to such risks on the basis of informed consent.
The Shira Route
Unless specifically requested by climbers who are already acclimatized to 4,000m from the ascent of Meru or another mountain, and wanting vehicle support to the Shira Plateau, we only use the Shira Route for mountain safety work as a fast way of reaching the summit or Western Breach when short on time. It is possible for an acclimatized member of our staff to leave Arusha early in the morning and be on the summit the same day by driving up to around 3,760m.
The route functions as a rescue track. If a sick climber is evacuated west of the Breach Wall he will usually walk or be carried on a stretcher to an ambulance that will have ascended to a point only 15 minutes below Shira Hut. From here it is only 1 hour and 15 minutes by vehicle to Londorossi Gate where a reasonably good main dirt road (except in wet weather when conditions can be treacherous) takes us to Arusha in around 2.5 hours.
The Shira route approaches Kilimanjaro through forest and moorland from the west, crossing the caldera of Shira volcano and explores the rock formations of the plateau, before traversing beneath the southern icefields of Kibo. We make our final ascent by the Barafu route. The seven-day itinerary gives maximum possible acclimatisation and also gives us plenty of time to enjoy the magnificent scenery. The views of Kibo in the sharp light of morning and early evening are often stunning and the Lent Hills, close to the western flank of the summit cone, are very rarely visited. Shira is a little-used approach route with time to enjoy this unspoilt wilderness, before the convergence with other routes in the later stages of the trip.
The starting point for the Shira Route is the Londorossi Gate (same as for the Lemosho Route). It is a two to three hour drive to get there and on this first day you may well spend more time driving and waiting around at the gate than you will be walking.
Londorossi (name for the village and the park gate) looks like something pulled out of a cheap Western. The place is entirely made out of wood. The high timber fences you see are supposed to keep the wildlife out.
That already indicates another advantage of taking one of these lesser trafficked routes. You do indeed have a better chance to see some wildlife on the first days, though this applies to Lemosho more than to Shira. But everybody does have a good chance of seeing the beautiful black and white Colobus monkeys, because some of them have taken up residence in the trees right next to the park ranger quarters. Check them out while you are waiting for the registration and permits to be organised… The usual start of a Kilimanjaro climb!
What follows after the registration at the gate is unusual: you keep driving. The Shira Route is the only Kilimanjaro climb route that you can follow in a car, at least for part of the way on day one. Theoretically you could drive all the way to the Morum Barrier at the foot of the Morum Hill. (Only emergency vehicles are allowed beyond the barrier.) This skips the first camp and drops you at a height of about 3500 m/11500 ft! The alternative is to walk, following the same road. Walking on a 4WD track may not be as attractive as walking on a narrow wilderness trail. However, the rainforest here is at least as beautiful as along Machame and Marangu, if not more so. (And the chances of rain are just as big, if not more so…)
The bird life is excellent, there may be more Colobus monkeys, and some really, really lucky people may even see elephant or buffalo (don’t hold your breath, though…) You follow the Ngarenairobi River as you leave the forest and enter the next vegetation zone: moorland and heather. Your first campsite is located between the road and the river. If you choose to walk, then the first day takes you up to six hours (with breaks) or much less, depending where exactly you start walking.