When the latest set of statistics were given out by the park authorities recently, one figure in particular stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. With 47,232 people climbing the mountain every year these days, it seems incredible that only 589 of them – around 1% – chose to do so on the Umbwe Route.
The question is: why? After all, its near neighbour, Machame, a path that shares many similarities with Umbwe, is actually the busiest on the mountain these days, with 20,339 people (ie 43% of everybody on Kilimanjaro) tramping up the slopes. So why does Machame see so many more people than Umbwe?
The answer, probably, is all about reputation. Because Umbwe, rightly or wrongly, is known as the hardest route on the mountain. But having it climbed it again recently, I think this reputation is unfairly hampering the Umbwe Route. For while it may be the toughest ascent of the six main routes on Kilimanjaro, its not that tough.
Admittedly, about a decade ago, when I first climbed on the Umbwe Route, there were some difficult sections to it. In the second edition of the book I described a couple of places on the trail where you could stand upright on the trail and kiss it at the same time. I also said that, for some of the path’s second day, you’ll be grabbing onto path-side trees so you can haul yourself up the slopes, because it’s just too steep to ascend otherwise.
All of which remains true. But it should be pointed out that, in common with all the main trails on Kilimanjaro, there is no actual climbing involved on the Umbwe Route. A bit of scrambling yes, but nothing more. And the scrambling is nothing to be afraid of.
This point needs to be emphasised. I myself am not a climber. I would not know how to put on a pair of crampons, or tie ropes properly, and I’d have to have to consult Google to remind myself what mountaineering terms such ‘belay’ actually mean. I also have no head for heights. I’m not acrophobic, as such, but I’m never comfortable if there’s a significant drop within a stride’s radius of where I’m standing.
But I do not find the Umbwe Route too difficult. Exhausting? Yes. Challenging? Certainly. But that’s why you’re on the mountain, isn’t it – to challenge yourself? And it’s really not that much more challenging than any other route.
And besides, these days even the scrambling has been minimised. Five years ago the trickiest section on the trail was a place called Jiwe Kamba. This translates as ‘Rope Rock’ and was aptly named, for a rope had been attached to a large boulder on the path, and you had to haul yourself up it to continue along the trail. It only lasted a few steps, but it was the most difficult bit of scrambling on the entire trek. Well, the path has since been altered slightly, so these days, though the fixtures that held the rope to the rock are still there, there is no longer a rope attached as it’s not necessary: you can climb the rock without it. But even if the thought of tackling this is too much then fear not, for a separate path has been constructed that avoids Jiwe Kamba altogether!
Of course, even if the path isn’t as tricky as it was, there is still one big argument against Umbwe: if the path is steep, it means that you gain altitude quicker – and that, as most people who climb Kili will be aware, spells trouble. Because by taking less time to reach high altitudes, you’re giving your body less time to get used to the rarified atmosphere and the comparative lack of oxygen your body is able to take in once you get above 2500m or so. As a result, your chances of getting altitude sickness are greater. Which not only reduces your chances of getting to the summit – but also increases your chances of dying too.
All of which is true. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t touch Umbwe – because by one straightforward remedy you can ‘fix’ the Umbwe Route so that it’s no worse than Machame when it comes to comparing their altitude profiles.
How? Simple: on the third day of the Umbwe Route, having reached Barranco Camp the previous evening, you should take an acclimatisation day. If you use that day to climb to Lava Tower before returning to camp, then the altitude profile you have followed for the first three days almost exactly mimics that of the Machame Route: that is to say, on the first day you climb to around 3000m/9843ft (3021m/9911ft on Machame, 2944m/9659ft on Umbwe), on the second day you make it above 3800m/12,467ft (3839m/12595ft at Shira Cave Campsite on Machame, 3986m/13,077ft at Barranco on Umbwe), while on the third day on both routes you reach 4627m/15,180ft at Lava Tower before sleeping at 3986m/13,077ft.
So in theory the success rate should be pretty much identical too. What’s more, there are several paths linking Barranco Campsite with Lava Tower – so you can take a different one for the descent than you did for the ascent, so you don’t need to retrace your steps the whole way.
(An alternative to taking an acclimatisation day is to climb Mount Meru first, before tackling Umbwe over five days immediately afterwards. By tackling Meru, Kili’s little brother, first, you will have already reached 4566m/14,980ft – excellent preparation for Umbwe. True, this itinerary will take more time – assuming you have a day off between the two climbs you’re looking at around 10 days in total – and cost more money. But in terms of your overall experience of mountain conquering in Northern Tanzania, this is pretty much the best a man – or woman – can get. If I had ten days and a few thousand dollars spare, this would be my choice without a doubt.)
But that does still leave us with the question of why I think you should tackle Umbwe. Well, there are lots of reasons:
Firstly, it’s the quietest route on the mountain, as I’ve already said. To me, this makes a big difference. If I wanted to be surrounded by lots of people when walking, I’d take a stroll down London’s Oxford Street. I often go trekking to get away from people, no with them, and while it’s difficult to be alone on Kilimanjaro – if the guides are doing their job properly, they’ll never be far away from you – I do dislike it when I feel like I’m just part of a long queue of hikers stretching up the slopes of Africa’s highest mountain. And on certain routes, at certain times of year, that’s exactly what it does feel like. True, even on Umbwe after the second day you’ll be at Barranco, the busiest campsite on the mountain, and thereafter your every step will be shadowed by those on the Lemosho and Machame routes. But in our opinion once you get to higher altitudes it’s quite comforting to have other people around. And the fact that the last few days will be spent in the company of other trekkers doesn’t detract from the fact that this is the quietest route overall. Because every route gets busy as it nears the summit.
So in short, if you want as much of a ‘wilderness experience’ as it’s possible to get on Kili, then Umbwe Route would be the trek for you.
The second reason why you should choose Umbwe is that, because it’s quieter, so your chances of seeing wildlife are greater. Africa’s celebrated wildlife would rather not hang out where there are 40,000 people marching up and down the slopes each year. In truth, your chances of seeing anything beyond the odd monkey or mouse are still very slim – but if you (or, rather, your guide) knows what you’re looking for you should see evidence of animals in the area, be it footprints or spoor -and you never know, you may even be lucky enough to see the creature itself…
There’s also the rather pertinent fact that fewer people on a trail means less rubbish, and it is quite refreshing to walk on a path that doesn’t have used toilet paper behind every rock and tree. The authorities do their best to maintain the paths of Kili, sending cleaning crews up to pick up rubbish on the mountain. But they can’t cover every corner, and after a while parts of some trails become a real eyesore – not to mention a health hazard. With Umbwe, for the time being at least, that’s not a problem.
Want more reasons? Well, how about the fact that my favourite view of the snowy Kibo summit is from the Umbwe Route. It occurs on the first day, as you climb up the steep, snaking slope through the forest. Just as the path takes one of many sharp right-hand bends, straight ahead of you there’s a gap in the forest canopy and there, glistening in the sun, is Kibo staring straight back down at you. This glimpse of your ultimate destination is a great filip – as well as making for a lovely photo.
There’s also the cost to consider: when you ask the trekking companies why they charge so much more on the Lemosho or Rongai Routes, they usually cite the extra expense of transporting everything to these far-flung routes. No such excuse on Umbwe, however, whose entrance gate is the nearest one to Moshi, the town where most companies have their base.
We also happen to think its Kili’s most beautiful route. It’s a matter of opinion, of course, but the lack of people mean that it’s less spoilt, and nature is thus at its most prolific. It is a lovely trail. And it’s certainly the most thrilling – the extra challenge of using your hands to haul yourself up the steeper parts certainly make you forget any other worries you may have bought onto the mountain with you!
And finally, though we’ve talked about how the Umbwe Route isn’t as tough as its reputation would suggest, there is still the kudos that comes with climbing Kili’s so-called toughest trail.
Convinced? Well, you can read more about the route including a day-to-day description of it, by visiting our Umbwe Route page.