How do senior trekkers fare on Kilimanjaro?

Some facts, advice and tips

In July 2019 Anne Lorimor, from Phoenix, Arizona, reached the summit of Africa’s Highest Mountain aged 89. In doing so he became the oldest person ever to reach Uhuru Peak, the true summit of Kili.

It was actually Anne’s second successful assault on Kilimanjaro, having first climbed it four years previously aged 85. Indeed, it was hearing that she was no longer the oldest person to reach the top that prompted Anne to climb it for a second time.

Age really is no barrier on Kilimanjaro

Ms Lorimor’s achievements provide a welcome reminder that age really is no barrier to climbing the Roof of Africa.

Indeed, this year over 40% of climbers who are climbing with our own company, Kilimanjaro Experts are aged 40 or over. And 19% are aged 50 or more.  And four of our climbers were over 70 years of age when they trekked up Kilimanjaro.

Their success on the mountain proves something that we have known for a long time. That in our experience, older climbers are just as likely to get to the top of Kilimanjaro as those of any other age group.

Indeed, according to a statistic published by the park authorities many years ago, the category of people who are most likely to fail in their attempts to climb Kilimanjaro are men aged between 20 and 30. 

Nobody is really sure why this should be the case, nor is it the purpose of this article to examine why this should be (though it may be that young men tend to be more confident and thus less likely to both prepare properly, and to listen to the guide when he tells them to slow down. They may also be more reluctant to take Diamox, feeling that to do so would be to cheat. But let’s examine the reasons why younger men ‘fail’ more often for another time and another article.)

Older people are just as likely to get to the summit as younger people – though it may take them longer!

Just to reiterate – if you are over 50, you are just as likely to get to the summit of Kilimanjaro  as those who have yet to reach their half century. Indeed, perhaps more so.

But there are differences in how senior climbers perform on Kilimanjaro compared to their younger counterparts.

For one thing, older climbers tend to take longer to get to the summit that those under 50. This isn’t a problem: as long as the operator that has organised the trek is following the rules, there should be one guide for every two climbers – so there should always be a licensed guide available to trek with anyone who is falling behind the group.

If you thought it was tough climbing up, wait ’til you have to come down again

However, the slower pace set by older trekkers doesn’t usually make much difference on the way up. After all, everybody is advised to go slowly when going up Kilimanjaro, to give their body time to acclimatise. It’s on the descent, when people can finally go at their own pace, when older trekkers may feel left behind.

Our advice is simply this: don’t worry. You’ve paid a lot of money for this trek, and in all probability this will be your only time on this mountain – so make the most of your leisurely pace to take in the views and enjoy the experience. And sure, you may be feeling lousy when you’re coming down from the top, and  it might be a little frustrating to see your fellow trekkers skip effortlessly down the slopes while you crawl along like some arthritic tortoise.

But that doesn’t matter. Because you’re also the arthritic tortoise that has just, that very same morning, stood at the very highest point in Africa. And the sense of pride you should feel at achieving that feat should keep you going as you manoeuvre your weary old bones slowly back to camp – and well beyond too!

Advice for older trekkers on Kilimanjaro

  • Do make sure that your body is still able to trek for a few hours a day, and for several days at a time, and that you are happy sleeping in a tent between each day’s trek. The obvious way to do this is to undertake a trek in your own country. If you can find somewhere to trek that is at altitude then so much the better. But if not, don’t worry: the point of the exercise is to determine whether you can trek and camp over the course of several days. (And no, don’t assume that, because you could do this thirty years ago, so you can still do it today. That doesn’t necessarily follow – and Kilimanjaro is no place to discover that you can no longer bear camping, and don’t much like walking now either!)
  • Don’t be afraid to join a public trek, even if you are travelling alone. Indeed, especially if you’re travelling alone. As we mention above, you won’t be slowing down the group – the fact that there is one guide for every two trekkers mean they can go as fast as they like, and you can go as slow as you like. And besides, in my experience older trekkers tend to be the most popular members of any trekking group – more trustworthy, more socially adept, more patient and, well, often more fun too. It’ll also be much cheaper than having a private trek for one person.
  • Don’t worry that your slow pace will mean that you’ll be walking after dark sometimes. That’s unlikely to happen. The distance you cover each day is surprisingly short (usually about 8km), and you usually start early (as you’re camping on all but one of the routes, so it’s difficult to have too much of a lie-in). And besides, as you probably already know, everyone goes slowly when climbing Kilimanjaro, in order to give their bodies time to acclimatise.
  • Do visit your doctor before you go to make sure that he’s happy for you to attempt the climb. If nothing else, visiting him will make you more confident about the climb. If you have a pre-existing medical condition, he may be able to advise you how (and when) to take any medication when you’re on the mountain. He’ll also be able to check that there is no contraindications between your existing medication and any medication you may be planning to take for Tanzania (eg malaria tablets or Diamox).
  • Do let your agency know of any pre-existing medical conditions you may have, any medication you may be taking for this condition, and any special arrangements that your doctor has advised you to have on Kilimanjaro. The guides on Kilimanjaro aren’t qualified physicians, of course – but any information you can give them regarding your health may help them to make an informed judgement that might just save your life.
  • Don’t try to pack too much into your itinerary. Give yourself a day between landing in Tanzania and starting the trek. And, if you have the time, a day in between the trek and the safari (if you’re taking one) or your flight home. (Though you don’t really need one between your trek and a safari, if you have the time, then why not?)
  • Take walking poles. Your knees will thank you.