Summit Day on Kilimanjaro and What to Expect

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So climbing to the roof of Africa is on your bucket list and you’re wondering what to expect for summit day on Kilimanjaro? Climbing to over 19,000′ isn’t easy and summit day on Kilimanjaro has the potential to be the most difficult day of your life. It’s a midnight start with about seven hours of uphill switchbacks and it’s mostly all in the dark. Don’t worry though, it’s not an impossible feat! Over 30,000 people every year attempt to reach Uhuru Peak. Fairly high success rates are common but depend upon the route and itinerary chosen. With the proper training and appropriate gear, reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro is POSSIBLE!

Four climbers celebrate summit day on Kilimanjaro.
At the Kilimanjaro summit you celebrate!

Preparing for a Kilimanjaro Summit

Before I get into your actual summit day experience, I want to highlight how important it is to have trained for your climb and having the appropriate gear.

You’ll be climbing to Uhuru Peak which is 19,341′ above sea level. Most climbers don’t live in high elevation areas so it is important to train prior to your departure. Having a strong heart and lungs will help you reach the summit of Kilimanjaro easily. Check out my easy guide to training for high altitude climbs here.

Aside from preparing your body for the thin air and extreme exhaustion, you’ll also need to protect yourself from the elements with the right gear. Depending on the time of year, hikers will face varying degrees of precipitation and temperatures. Summit day on Kilimanjaro, however, is very unpredictable, but sure to be cold before the sun rises. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Check out my Simple Kilimanjaro Packing List for some more ideas on what to bring along for a comfortable climb.

Gear photo for summit day on Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro Gear Photo

Before Summit Day on Kilimanjaro

The day before summit day on Kilimanjaro, you will arrive at Barafu Camp, also known as Base Camp. Your guides will most likely have you do a bit of an acclimatization hike where you’ll get a chance to see the first part of the trail you’ll be embarking on the next day.

You’ll return to camp with plenty of time to rest before your midnight wake up call. I slept in my summit day clothes which included my base layers, fleece, wool socks, and buff.

Hiker climbing towards the Lava Tower on Mount Kilimanjaro.
A gradual ascent towards the Lava Tower along the Machame route.

Pro Tips for Summit Day on Kilimanjaro

  • Use extra pairs of wool socks to cover your water bottles. This will keep them from freezing.
  • Place your snacks and anything else you think you’ll need in easy to access pockets. You’ll be cold and it will be difficult to open zippers.
  • Don’t bring anything you won’t actually need! You don’t want to carry extra weight if you don’t have to. (But a beer for the summit is totally acceptable)
  • Don’t forget your sunglasses. It’ll be dark when you start, but when the sun comes up you’ll definitely need them.
  • Keep your toes warm. Save one pair of clean socks for summit day. And if you do start to get cold toes, try giving your toes extra wiggles as you walk to keep the blood flowing.
  • Don’t forget your medkit for summit day. You’re likely to get a headache at high altitudes and ibuprofen or Tylenol are a necessity!
  • Keep your phone or camera in a warm place, preferably close to your body, while it’s dark. You won’t need it until the top so better to not risk it freezing up.
A tent set up in front of Kilimanjaro.
Tent set up under Kilimanjaro at Barranco Camp.

Experiencing Summit Day on Kilimanjaro

Though this is one of those things that you have to experience yourself to truly understand, I wanted to share my point of view from summit day on Kilimanjaro.

Prepping For the Most Difficult Day Of Your Life

Sleeping the night before was difficult. How can you possibly sleep when you are so excited? Our wake up call came before 12 o’clock so that we could start our hike at the stroke of midnight. We had a quick “breakfast” which was a small snack to get us going.

I started with my fleece on, but removed it almost immediately because my puff jacket is that amazing! After loading up, we took off along the uneven surfaces of Barafu Camp. It was dark, but not pitch black because the moon was shining down on us.

Headlamps are a necessity for this part of the Kilimanjaro hike. They not only light the path for you, but they can give you a reference point for the hike. As you look up the mountain you can see the headlamps of hikers ahead of you. This wasn’t discouraging to me, only more motivating to keep going.

Two hikers prepare for summit day on Kilimanjaro.
Sorry Stephanie, this is an important photo to document our attire for summit day on Kilimanjaro….

A Slow Pace Equals A Successful Summit

The pace is slow. Slow enough that I wasn’t even out of breath. This is one of the reasons it takes a few hours to reach Stella Point, which signifies the plateau at the top. We didn’t pass anyone unless they happened to be taking a break as we went by. It’s not a race and going too quickly can be dangerous.

The guides told us not to watch the time but just focus on the hike. As we climbed higher and higher I couldn’t help but keep an eye on my Garmin watch which displayed our elevation. For me, I was excited to surpass 17,900′ which was what I climbed to during my trek to Everest Base Camp.

Hikers on Kilimanjaro high above the clouds on the path towards the summit.
The last push before the summit of Kilimanjaro.

Passing The Time While Making The Climb

As we trudged on, I kept shoving food in my mouth. Everything from Cliff Bars (which I never want to see again after eating so many of them in a short amount of time) to peanut butter crackers. I also kept my water bottle busy so that I’d stay hydrated and strong the entire climb.

One of my favorite memories of summit day on Kilimanjaro was the enthusiasm and motivation our guides brought to our group. They sang the songs they had taught us earlier in the week. And although I didn’t have enough breath to sing along, I appreciated every “Jambo, Jambo Bwana”.

Our guides were even chanting to other guides on the mountain. Honestly, it felt like a huge party and was a great way to stay distracted from the long hike to Uhuru Peak.

The sun rises as seen from just before Stella Point, summit day on Kilimanjaro.
The sun rises just as we approach Stella Point.

The Best Sunrise Of My Life

I kept my eyes towards the horizon to the right of us. This was where the sun would first show itself. I must have said WOW about 500 times as I watched the orange glow start to show.

Words or pictures will never do it justice. The feeling of being on top of the world, the highest point in Africa, is something I’ll never forget.

We reached Stella Point, which signifies the end of the switchbacks and only about 30 minutes left until the summit of Kilimanjaro. We grabbed a few photos at this point, but we were urged to keep going because this is where the wind started to really pick up. As we inched our way towards Uhuru Peak, the path lead us around the rim of the crater and along the glaciers that were visible in the distance.

Hiker poses with thumbs up at Stella Point on summit day on Kilimanjaro.
Reaching Stella Point was blinding with the sun rising and cold from the wind whipping.

Reaching Uhuru Peak

With only a short portion of the hike left, it was hard not to quicken the pace. I wanted to get there and it made me even more anxious as people were passing us on their way down. The air was incredibly thin, but I don’t remember being very out of breath. Other than a headache that had developed right around 18,000′, I was feeling great!

It’s hard to describe the feeling of this accomplishment because I had been dreaming about summiting Kilimanjaro for many years. As we approached the sign and other groups celebrating it was all surreal. We immediately began celebrating with hugs, photos and eventually the Kilimanjaro beer I had carried the entire trek. That first sip of beer tasted so good, especially because I had earned it after climbing to over 19,000′.

Kilimanjaro Backcountry Adventures leading a group of hikers to the summit of Kilimanjaro
Couldn’t have summited Kilimanjaro without the amazing guides at Kilimanjaro Backcountry Adventures

Descending From The Summit Of Kilimanjaro

Taking in all the sights as we hurried down the gentle decline from the peak back to Stella Point was incredible. I no longer had the urgency to hurry to the peak, so I was able to take in the glorious glaciers on Kilimanjaro as well as the mysterious crater that was to our left. Don’t get me wrong, I was still walking at a fairly quick pace. I wanted to get down the mountain to hopefully alleviate my headache.

The way back to base camp from Uhuru Peak was just as intense as the initial climb up. Now that the trail was visible in the daylight, you could see just how steep the climb up was. And that’s why you start in the dark, so you can’t see the climb ahead of you!

As the sun warmed up the day the trail became a slippery slope of loose rocks also known as scree. For about an hour and a half, I felt like I was downhill skiing back to Base Camp. I used my trekking poles to keep my balance and steer me in the right direction. This was a lot of fun, but one wrong move and you could find yourself tumbling down the mountainside!

Glaciers on top of Kilimanjaro and above the clouds.
One of the glaciers that can be found at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.

A Long Summit Day

After arriving back at base camp around 9 AM, we took a short rest. At this point, we had been up since midnight and spent 7.5 hours hiking straight up to the summit of Kilimanjaro and about 1.5 hours of descending back to Barafu Camp.

I won’t lie, I felt absolutely horrible after waking up from that nap. My headache was still very painful and all I wanted to do was get to a lower elevation that would hopefully get rid of it. The only problem was, our next camp was about a 4-hour hike away.

A Downhill Battle To Mweka Camp

It’s hard to describe, but coming off such a huge high from summiting the highest peak in Africa to having to trudge downhill was literally THE WORST. We were sore and we were tired. We had no choice but to keep moving forward. It felt like every step down was a struggle and there was a high chance I would slip to my death.

“You took something I loved and turned it into something I now hate.” Quote directly from Stephanie, my climbing partner who like myself was completely ready to be done hiking at this point. This is the definition of Type 2 Fun, which I plan to write about in the near future. It’s the kind of fun that is ONLY fun after the fact.

After nearly 13 hours of hiking during summit day on Kilimanjaro, we were SPENT. As we arrived at Mweka Camp, which was around 10,000′, I was sure that I would be losing at least 3 toenails and that my headache would never reside. A long day that was rounded out with some great food was a huge relief for my aching body.

The path shaded by moss covered trees during the descent from Kilimanjaro.
The path becomes more gentle as you descend to lower elevation.

Final Thoughts

Is summit day on Kilimanjaro hard? YES! Is it worth the lost toenails, sore muscles, and a throbbing headache? ABSOLUTELY! Climbing Kilimanjaro is an experience like no other. There are highs and there are lows. Be comfortable with being UNCOMFORTABLE and you’ll get so much more out of this mountain than you could have ever expected. I accomplished a huge goal of mine, pushed my body to the extreme and proved to myself that boundaries are meant to be broken. Want to find out what you’re made of? Climb a mountain.

If Kilimanjaro is on your bucket list, read my raving review here on the amazing company that led us to a safe and successful Kilimanjaro summit. Kilimanjaro Backcountry Adventures is a local Tanzanian company that truly cares about their guests and wants to see them succeed! If you are still searching for a company to lead you to the roof of Africa, consider trusting the best!

A hiker poses with trekking poles lifted towards the sky.
On the way down from the summit of Kilimanjaro.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below or reach out to me on my Facebook Page!

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