Kili 360: Summit Success on the Northern Circuit
To climb Mt. Kilimanjaro you have six route choices. Not surprisingly the least taken is arguably the best. And it’s also the one that climbers use when they come back to climb a second time.
The Kili-360 Northern Circuit is the longest Kilimanjaro summit route, but also has the highest summit success rate. It’s also the most scenic and most expensive, and well worth it. How do you put a price on a life-changing adventure that few can muster the physicality, for or the imagination to experience?
Tusker has monthly treks on three of Kilimanjaro’s six routes—Machame, Lemosho and Kili-360. The Kili-360 (Northern Circuit) trek is nearly a complete circumnavigation of this iconic 19,341 foot mountain and follows a clockwise traverse of the untouched northern slopes. It is the newest of the six and Tusker has been a pioneer in forging this route.
Unlike the main Marangu route, you don’t go down the way you went up. If you like loop hikes with all the diversity they offer, this will probably be the most spectacular loop of your life.
Tusker founder Eddie Frank has climbed all six routes during his 40 years on Kilimanjaro and recommends Kili-360 for its wilderness, its unrivaled views, its lack of trekker traffic, but most importantly for the opportunity to acclimatize.
“We spend four days on the north side going up and down but hovering around 13,000 feet or so each night and this is great for acclimatizing. It’s also very remote and untouristed,” Eddie said.
Nine out of 10 Tusker climbers succeed on reaching the summit on this route. The 12 day itinerary features nine climbing days and we make it available 9-10 climbing dates each year.
Through the Glades
The trek starts at the Londorossi gate, a higher departure point than other more popular routes. The reason there are so few trekkers on this route is because the many budget operators on the mountain focus on shorter quicker routes to minimize cost and to maximize profit.
On your first day the trail gradually ascends through the most intact montane forest on the mountain. The forest is called the Lemosho Glades and is overgrown, wet and full of wildlife. When this trek first opened park rangers accompanied groups to prevent interaction between trekkers, buffalo and elephant who are prevalent in these verdant orchid-filled forests, but the large mammals now steer clear of trekker traffic.
The first night camp is Big Tree and if you’re interested in bird life get up early to see the choir of spectacular singing birds in those big trees. Colobus and Blue Monkey are also prevalent in and around camp.
Shortly after leaving Big Tree the country opens as you head toward Shira Ridge and the first drop-dead views of the Kibo summit. Mount Meru, Kili’s little sister at 15,000 feet is 70 kilometers off in the distance. The Shira Cathedral looms ahead, a huge buttress with steep spikes and pinnacles and its worth trying to capture its tortured geology with a photo.
Shira is the third and smallest of Kili’s three volcanic cones and the camp site is at 11,500 feet among the heath and moorland vegetation.
Lava express rollercoaster
The next three days are unlike any of the other Kilimanjaro treks. It’s a roller coaster through lava flow and alpine desert country with amazing views of the Tanzanian plains and Kilimanjaro’s most distinctive peaks, Mawenzi and Kibo.
Moir Camp is at 13, 650 feet, but the following two nights at Pofu and Third Cave camps you sleep at 13,000 feet. Of course there is elevation gain and loss along the way as you traverse the Lent Mountains, but the point is your body is getting the chance to fully acclimatize to the thin air which is only going to get thinner/colder in the days ahead. There are scree slope challenges and frosty mornings in this exposed, treeless terrain, but your lungs are making the adjustments needed for the summit push.
That push comes in the wee hours from your camp at Kibo Hut at 15,520 feet. It’s a 3.5 mile slog for the summit through switch backed, rocky, inhospitable wilderness. It’s the most strenuous day of the trek, but in the end it’s worth the effort. You pass Hans Meyer Cave, homage to Kili’s first summiteer, but this is no time to sightsee. Stay in rhythm, keep moving, keep drinking and pace yourself for the ultimate objective, Kibo Peak.
By choosing the Kili-360 Northern route you are on the colder side of the mountain and when you near the top you see more glacial ice than you would on a southern approach.
Once at the top you feel like you are a world explorer having been places few have trodden, but the adventure is far from over.
After briefly basking in glory atop the summit with your fellow circumnavigators you begin the trek down. In some ways, this is the hardest part of the trek because of the relentless downhill angle. The views are immense but it’s hard to not look down because the trail to Mweka Camp is laden with rocks. Poles and gaiters come in handy and when you arrive at Mweka camp at the edge of the forest you exalt in your exhaustion having come through the hardest part of the descent.
By the time you receive your climbing certificate at Mweka Gate after a bright morning in the cloud forest you are ready to get back to “civilization.” You circumnavigated Africa’s tallest mountain and made the summit. By the time you’ve had a hot shower and patched your feet you think, “if I can do Kili-360 I can do anything.”