Here’s what it takes to ice climb Kilimanjaro

As glaciers melt, this adventure is becoming a rare experience.

Photograph by Christian Pondella
Photograph by Christian Pondella
This story appears in the February 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

On Kilimanjaro, most climbers go straight for the Tanzanian mountain’s famous summit. But those who take the more dangerous western route have found glaciers up to 100 feet tall. These ancient frozen masses are tropical anomalies—ice doesn’t often last long near the Equator. The sun’s rays cause the foot of a glacier to melt first, leading to calving, breakaways, and, sometimes, stand-alone towers of ice (pictured above). Kilimanjaro’s ice climbing can be some of the best on Earth, says climber Will Gadd. One reason to go soon: These glaciers—like glaciers everywhere—are melting.

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Getting in shape

Any attempt on this mountain requires serious physical and mental preparation. To build fitness, starting at least half a year in advance, Gadd suggests daily weight and cardio workouts paired with a diet of whole foods and lean red meat. During training climbs, he advises, explorers should be alert to warning signs like sustained winds or impending rain.

Essential packing list

High-quality gear is the key to both enjoying ice climbs and surviving them, Gadd says. He’s adamant about taking the following:

  • Sharp crampons that attach securely to boots
  • Handheld ice claws
  • A helmet, in case you fall or ice falls on you
  • Gloves that are flexible and warm
  • A jacket that repels water and blocks wind
  • Rope and safety harness: “Never skimp on these.”

Ready for launch

Respect the porters with you on this climb: They’re likely dealing with the same altitude sickness that you are. When you arrive at the starting point, take an honest assessment of conditions. Is there too much wind? What’s the likelihood of rain? Climbing mountains and glaciers is dangerous even in the best of circumstances, so don’t push ahead in subpar conditions, Gadd says.

By the numbers

Estimated age, in years, of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers

The year the glaciers will be gone, by some scientists’ estimates

Kilimanjaro’s height, in feet