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Is Kilimanjaro one of the world’s biggest mountains?

Trekking towards Kilimanjaro's Kibo summit across the Saddle

Kilimanjaro may be the biggest mountain in Africa – but where does it rank amongst the world’s highest mountains?

There is no doubt that one of the main attractions of climbing Kilimanjaro is that afterwards you can boast to your friends that you have stood at the highest point on an entire continent with Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro, a magnificent 5895m above sea level. Indeed, it’s pretty much the easiest of the so-called Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each of the seven continents) to conquer: Everest in Asia (8848m; 29,029ft)and Aconcagua (6980m; 22,837 ft) in South America are both at least a kilometre higher (and in Everest’s case, almost 3km taller!); Mount McKinley (aka Denali) in North America may be only slightly taller than Kili at 6168m (20,237 ft) but is more inaccessible, positioned as it is in remote Alaska, and is a more technical climb too; inaccessibility is also a major problem with The Carstenz Pyramid, in the heart of Irian Jaya, Australasia’s highest peak at 4884m/16,023 ft, and Vinson in Antarctica (4897m, 16,067ft); while Mount Elbrus – Europe’s highest peak at 5,642 metres (18,510 ft) – is a straightforward climb but is also a little remote (being in the western Caucasus mountain range) and, being in Russia, the permit situation can be a little tricky too.

But while Kilimanjaro may be the highest peak in Africa, where does it rank amongst the world’s highest mountains. The answer is, I’m afraid, not that high at all. Indeed, given that the individual peaks in the Himalayas and the neighbouring Karakoram and other central Asian ranges account for all the top 100, and that lofty Aconcagua in the Andes only comes in at a lowly 189th according to one source, you probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that Mount Kilimanjaro doesn’t even rank in the top 200(!) of the world’s highest mountains.

Given the different ways that people measure a mountain, and that people have different ideas as to what is a mountain and what is a peak (ie a second summit on the same mountain, such as Mawenzi on Kilimanjaro), it’s actually quite difficult to determine where exactly Kilimanjaro comes in the list of the world’s highest mountains; the best guess we can come up with is position 234. But this, of course, is open to debate. For example, Jill Neate’s book “High Asia: An Illustrated History of the 7,000 Metre Peaks” , lists no less than 400 peaks between 7000 and 8000 metres – which obviously means that Kilimanjaro wouldn’t even feature in the top 500 if we were to use her definitions and measurements.

So far, so bad for those of you who thought that by conquering Africa’s highest mountain you’d also conquered one of the world’s highest mountains too. But don’t despair just yet: for as we said above, there are many ways of measuring altitudes and the height of a mountain. For while Everest and co may be the highest mountains above sea level, they are not usually the highest mountains above the surrounding terrain. By this measurement, Mount McKinley, Nanga Parbat and, yes, Kilimanjaro, are said to be the highest – though with no precise definition of what the ground level should be, there is no way of accurately deciding which of these is the highest of them all.

What is more certain is Kilimanjaro claim to be the tallest free-standing mountain in the world (ie one that is not part of a mountain range: Nanga Parbat is at the western end of the Himalaya range, while McKinley is part of the Alaska range). And this, we think, is very important. For while Everest and her neighbours may be a couple of kilometres taller than Kili, because they’re surrounded by peaks that are almost as high they look somewhat less impressive because of it; while Kilimanjaro stands all by itself in the middle of the East African plain, it’s nearest neighbour, Mount Meru, over 60km away and, at 4566m, over a kilometre shorter too.

And with beautiful cloud forest bearding its lower slopes and a crown of snow at the summit, no mountain, in this author’s humble opinion, is more magnificent than the Roof of Africa.

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