Location, geology and appearance

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Location, geology and appearance
  • Detail of HH Johnston's map of Kilimanjaro showing the main Kibo summit and various rivers and paths rendered in green

The location, geology and appearance of Kilimanjaro

Where is it?

Kilimanjaro sits on the northern border of Tanzania, overlooking Kenya, and just over 200 miles south of the Equator. The area is not particularly mountainous; indeed, the nearest mountain to Kilimanjaro is Mount Meru, over 60km away to the south-west.

The geology of Kilimanjaro

Rising 4800m above the East African plains, 270km from the shores of the Indian Ocean and measuring up to 40km across,Kilimanjaro is a bizarre geological oddity, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world and one formed, shaped, eroded and scarred by the twin forces of fire and ice. It is actually a volcano, or rather three volcanoes, with the two main peaks, Kibo and Mawenzi, the summits of two of those volcanoes. The story of its creation goes like this:

The Rift Valley

About three-quarters of a million years ago (making Kilimanjaro a veritable youngster in geological terms) molten lava burst through the fractured surface of the Great Rift Valley, a giant fault in the earth’s crust that runs through East Africa (actually, Kilimanjaro lies 50 miles from the East African Rift Valley along a splinter running off it, but that need not concern us here). The huge pressures behind this eruption pushed part of the Earth’s crust skywards, creating the Shira volcano, the oldest of the volcanoes forming the Kilimanjaro massif. Shira eventually ceased erupting around 500,000 years ago, collapsing as it did so to form a huge caldera (the deep cauldron-like cavity on the summit of a volcano) many times the size of its original crater.

The formation of Kibo and Mawenzi

The twin peaks of Kilimanjaro, Kibo and Mawenzi, as seen from a hotel terrace overlooking the town of Moshi

The twin peaks of Kilimanjaro from a hotel terrace in Moshi

Soon after Shira’s extinction, Mawenzi started to form following a further eruption within the Shira caldera. Though much eroded, Mawenzi has at least kept some of its volcanic shape to this day. Then, 460,000 years ago, an enormous eruption just west of Mawenzi caused the formation of Kibo. Continual subterranean pressure forced Kibo to erupt several times more, forcing the summit ever higher until reaching a maximum height of about 5900m. A further huge eruption from Kibo 100,000 years later led to the formation of Kilimanjaro’s characteristic shiny black stone – which in reality is just solidified black lava, or obsidian. This spilled over from Kibo’s crater into the Shira caldera and around to the base of the Mawenzi peak, forming the so-called Saddle. Later eruptions created a series of distinctive mini-cones, or parasitic craters, that run in a chain south-east and north-west across the mountain, as well as the smaller Reusch Crater inside the main Kibo summit. The last volcanic activity of note, just over 200 years ago, left a symmetrical inverted cone of ash in the Reusch Crater, known as the Ash Pit, that can still be seen today.

Kilimanjaro’s glaciers

Today, Uhuru Peak, the highest part of Kibo’s crater rim and the goal of most trekkers, stands at around 5895m. The fact that the summit is around five metres shorter today than it was 450,000 years ago can be ascribed in part to some improved technology, which has enabled scientists to measure the mountain more accurately; and in part to the simple progress of time and the insidious glacial erosion down the millennia. These glaciers, advancing and retreating across the summit, created a series of concentric rings like terraces near the top of this volcanic massif on the western side.

View of the Furtwangler Glacier that sits on the crater floor of Kilimanjaro's main Kibo summit

The Furtwangler Glacier on the Kibo summit

The Kibo peak has also subsided slightly over time, and about one hundred thousand years ago a landslide took away part of the external crater, creating Kibo Barranco or the Barranco Valley (home to one of the mountain’s more popular campsites).

The glaciers were also behind the formation of the valleys and canyons, eroding and smoothing the earth into gentle undulations all around the mountain, though less so on the northern side where the glaciers on the whole failed to reach, leaving the valleys sharper and more defined.

You can find out more about the mountain’s glaciers by visiting the Kilimanjaro glaciers page.

Is Kilimanjaro now an extinct volcano?

While eruptions are unheard of in recent times, Kibo is classified as being dormant rather than extinct, as anybody who visits the inner Reusch Crater can testify. A strong sulphur smell still rises from the crater, the earth is hot to touch, preventing ice from forming, while occasionally fumaroles escape from the Ash Pit that lies at its heart.

What does it look like?

Kilimanjaro is not only the highest mountain in Africa, it’s also one of the biggest volcanoes on Earth, covering an area of approximately 388,500 hectares.

The summits of Kilimanjaro

Within this 388,500-hectare area are three main peaks, as shown in the picture here…

Aerial view of Kilimanjaro's three peaks, Mawenzi, Kibo, and the Shira Ridge, taken from a plane to the west of the mountain

Kilimanjaro as seen from the west (in a plane – obviously!)

 The Kibo summit

The Kibo summit is the best preserved crater on the mountain; its southern lip is slightly higher than the rest of the rim, and the highest point on this southern lip is known as Uhuru Peak. At 5895m, this is highest point in Africa and the goal of just about every Kilimanjaro trekker. Kibo is also the only one of the three summits which is permanently covered in snow, thanks to the large glaciers that cover large – though diminishing – areas of its surface (see below).

The southern icefields and glaciers of Kilimanjaro's main Kibo Summit, taken from the Mweka Route

Kilimanjaro’s main Kibo Summit

Kibo is also the one peak that really does look like a volcanic crater; indeed, there are not one but three concentric craters on Kibo.

The Reusch Crater and the Ash Pit with a small cairn in the foreground and a light dusting of snow

Kilimanjaro’s Reusch Crater and Ash Pit

Within the inner Reusch Crater (1.3km in diameter) one can still see signs of volcanic activity, including fumaroles, the smell of sulphur and a third crater, the Ash Pit, 130m deep by 140m wide.

The outer, Kibo Crater (1.9 by 2.7km), is not a perfect, unbroken ring. There are gaps in the summit where the walls have been breached by lava flows; the most dramatic of these is the Western Breach (see photo).

Kibo's Western Breach as seen from below on the Shira Plateau, with two small figures of trekkers in the middle distance.

Kibo’s Western Breach

Perhaps the most important feature of Kibo, however, is that its slopes are gentle. This feature means, of course, that trekkers as well as mountaineers are able to reach the summit.

Mawenzi

The triangular Mawenzi summit, half obscured by cloud and frosted with snow, as seen from the Rongai Route on the way to Kikelewa Camp

A snowy Mawenzi summit

Mawenzi is the second highest peak on Kilimanjaro. Seen from Kibo, Mawenzi looks less like a crater than a single lump of jagged, craggy rock emerging from the Saddle (see ‘Other features of Kilimanjaro’ below). This is merely because its western side also happens to be its highest, and hides everything behind it.

Walk around Mawenzi, however, and you’ll realize that this peak is actually a horseshoe shape, with only the northern side of the crater having been eroded away. Its sides too steep to hold glaciers, there is no permanent snow on Mawenzi, and the gradients are enough to dissuade all but the bravest and most technically accomplished climbers.

Mawenzi’s highest point is Hans Meyer Peak at 5149m but so shattered is this summit, and so riven with gullies and fractures, that there are a number of other distinctive peaks including Purtscheller Peak (5120m) and South Peak (4958m). There are also two deep gorges, the Great Barranco and the Lesser Barranco, scarring its north-eastern face.

 The Shira Ridge

The oldest and smallest summit on Kilimanjaro is known as the Shira Ridge, and lies on the western edge of the mountain. This is the least impressive peak, being nothing more than a heavily eroded ridge, 3962m tall at its highest point, Johnsell Point. This ridge is, in fact, merely the western and southern rims of the crater formed by the original volcanic eruption.

Other features on Kilimanjaro

Three trekkers, with several others in the distance behind them, strolling across the Saddle of Kilimanjaro with Kibo in the background

Trekkers strolling across the Saddle of Kilimanjaro

Separating Kibo from the second peak, Mawenzi, is the Saddle, at 3600ha the largest area of high altitude tundra in tropical Africa. This really is a beautiful, eerie place: a dusty desert almost 5000m high, featureless except for the occasional parasitic cone dotted here and there, including the Triplets, Middle Red and West Lava Hill, all running south-east from the south-eastern side of Kibo.

These are just some of the 250 parasitic cones that are said to stand on Kilimanjaro.Few people know this, but Kilimanjaro does actually have a crater lake. Lake Chala (aka Jala) lies some 30km to the south-east, and is said to be up to 2.5 miles deep.

The Shira Plateau is a large, rocky plateau, 6200ha in size, that lies to the west of the Kibo summit (ie between Kibo and the Shira Ridge). It is believed to be the caldera of the first volcanic eruption (a caldera is a collapsed crater) that has been filled in by lava from later eruptions which then solidified and turned to rock.

The paths on Kilimanjaro

Look down at Kilimanjaro from above and you should be able to count seven paths trailing like ribbons up the sides of the mountain. Five of these are ascent-only paths (ie you can only walk up the mountain on them and are not allowed to come down on these trails); one, Mweka, is a descent-only path, and one – the Marangu Route – is both an ascent and descent trail.

At around 4000m these trails meet up with a path that loops right around the Kibo summit. This path is known as the Kibo Circuit, though it’s often divided into two halves, known as theNorthern and Southern circuits.

From here, three further paths lead up the slopes to the summit itself. For a brief description of the trails, and a look at their relative merits, follow this link to our Routes up Kilimanjaro page. While for a route map for Kilimanjaro, click on the image below:

Kilimanjaro route map

For further details, check out the full descriptions of each in the book, with carefully drawn maps and detailed information on each route. Note that some trekking agencies vary the routes slightly, particularly on the Shira Plateau, but any agency worth its salt will provide you with a detailed itinerary, enabling you to check exactly which path you will be taking each day.

Kilimanjaro glaciers >>