Why do we climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro at night?

Several times a year people who are looking to climb Kilimanjaro write to me and ask the same question:  

Why is it that most people climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro at night? 

What’s it like climbing at night? 

It’s a reasonable question. After all, that night-time climb to Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak is the most difficult and dangerous part of the entire hike. It’s also the most unpleasant. The cold is usually biting, you’re tired, and in all likelihood you may be suffering from one or more of the many symptoms of altitude sickness, usually either nausea or a headache. 

There’s not much to look at and distract you from your discomfort either. Unless you’re walking under a full moon, it’s usually just too dark to see much beyond the small circular patch of ground that’s illuminated by your head torch. 

And if you do look up for a few seconds, then what you see may not fill your heart with glee either. Guides huddled around an unconscious trekker. Somebody vomiting behind a boulder. A tearful trekker being led by a guide back down the slopes. 

It’s for this reason that, whenever I climb at night, I tend to not think about where I am at all. Instead, I like to go to my happy place. I imagine I’m back in England walking through a wildflower meadow with my dog, or being on safari with my family in the Serengeti. Anything that fills me with happiness – and makes me forget the hell I am currently in!

It’s for this reason that I say that climbing Kilimanjaro is fun for about 90% of the time. But that other 10%, when you’re pushing for the summit, well that’s where you earn your certificate. 

So if it’s so unpleasant, what are the advantages of climbing to the summit at night? 

Well, in the two decades that I’ve been writing the guide book I’ve never really come up with a definitive answer. But here are the top three most common ‘reasons’ that I’ve heard down the years: 

1. It’s easier.

As you get towards the Crater rim, you’ll notice that the ground is largely made up of shale – tiny bits of stone/gravel. During the day, ascending on shale can be like climbing a sand dune. That is to say, every time you take two steps up the slope, the shifting sand/gravel moves you back down the slope again. This soon becomes exhausting. However, at night the shale freezes in place – which makes it easier to ascend. 

2. If something goes wrong, you’ve got an entire day of daylight to get down off the mountain.

The most likely place where you are going to get into trouble, and the most remote place, is the very summit itself, of course, known as Uhuru Peak. After all, this is where the air is at its thinnest. So if you are going to get into trouble there, it’s best you arrive at dawn, so your team has got the maximum amount of daylight available to evacuate you. 

3. The idea of reaching the very highest point in Africa as Dawn breaks across the continent is a romantic and alluring one

This is perhaps the most obvious and persuasive reason.  Even if the reality doesn’t always match up to that romantic notion!

The question is, do the above arguments actually hold any water?

Well, I’m not sure about the first one. In my experience the ease with which one can ascend to the Crater Rim is only marginally improved by walking at night. But I suppose the other two are more persuasive. Certainly, there are few things more magical on this planet than watching the sun rise. And watching it after spending perhaps the longest and most exhausting night of your life only adds to the occasion. 

Can you climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro during the day? 

Yes, absolutely. If you’re on a private trek (ie it’s just you and your friends and family), it should be straightforward. All you need to do is have a word with your agency when you sign up. (That said, often there’s no reason why you can’t just negotiate with your guide while you’re on the trek.)

If you’re on a public trek, however, things are slightly more tricky. In this instance, you have to get all the other trekkers to agree with your plans – or, at least, the majority. But again, it might well be possible to persuade them of the wisdom of a daytime summit. 

The important thing is to let your company know as soon as possible – preferably well before the start of your trek. Sometimes, opting for a daytime summit attempt may involve reworking the itinerary for the rest of the hike. So it’s important to let your trekking company know as soon as possible of your desire for a daytime summit.

Of course, climbing to Uhuru Peak during the day isn’t any easier than climbing at night. And I don’t think it will improve your chances of getting to the top. But at least there is more to distract you from the effort, aches and agonies of ascending Africa’s highest mountain.