It is not the lack of fitness that prevents people from reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro, it's altitude sickness!
If you reach the top of Kilimanjaro depends more than anything else on how you cope with the altitude.
And how you cope with the altitude is not a matter of random luck!
There are many things you can do to avoid the symptoms of acute mountain sickness when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
When you research altitude sickness you often read that it affects people randomly, regardless of age or fitness level.
You may also come across data giving percentage numbers for how many people develop dangerous altitude sickness symptoms at certain heights, and the numbers may look scary.
You have to understand how reseachers get these numbers.
Scientific studies of altitude sickness are done by taking a number of people from sea level to a certain altitude and then measuring how they react. Yes, they react randomly, and yes, if you take someone from sea level directly to 3500 metres then there is a good chance that they won't feel too sprightly at the end of the day.
The difference during a Kilimanjaro climb is that hopefully you will NOT take yourself from sea level to 3500 metres that fast.
The key to preventing altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro is taking your time. Altitude sickness is not just a result of the absolute height you are at, it also depends how fast you got there!
Even though our susceptibility to extreme altitude varies and is impossible to predict, we do know that the body adjusts to it eventually. There are many things you can do before and during a Kilimanjaro climb that will lessen the risk of altitude sickness symptoms.
Most people book their Kilimanjaro climb well ahead, and this is where you can make the first mistake.
There are several climb routes up Kilimanjaro, and there is a huge number of operators. A Kilimanjaro climb is expensive, so it's tempting to look for the cheapest deal.
The cheapest Kilimanjaro climbs are also the shortest. Every day on the mountain will add a few hundred dollars to the price. It is possible to book a five day or even four day climb, and it would be a mistake to do so.
No responsible operator should be offering four day climbs to people who have no previous experience at high altitude trekking and are not acclimatised.
The (admittedly highly unreliable) statistics from the registration books at Mount Kilimanjaro National Park indicate that of all climbers on five day routes, only little over a quarter reach the summit!
All the five day routes offer an opportunity to add an extra day for acclimatization. Do spend the money on that extra day!
If you want to increase your chances of reaching the summit further, consider choosing one of the longer routes.
(Though this is only recommended for people who are used to camping out. If you aren't and if you don't like it or don't sleep well in a tent, then a longer Kilimanjaro trek can have a negative effect.)
When you compare prices for Kilimanjaro climbs you will find huge differences between operators. Again there is the temptation to look for a cheap deal.
But on Kilimanjaro you will get what you pay for.
The quality of your guides, of your equipment, of your food, all that is reflected in the price and all that influences your chances of reaching the summit.
Operators who cut costs at every corner do not have your best interest in mind. They only want you to book with them, they do not care if you reach the top and they do not care if it will be an experience that you'll want to remember!
And there is something else to keep in mind: the low budget "cowboy" operators not only have lower success rates, there is also a bigger risk that something goes seriously wrong. And on Kilimanjaro that can mean that someone dies.
Most people prepare for Kilimanjaro with fitness training. While getting reasonably fit makes sense, the gym work outs or sprinting up flights of stair etc. will not prepare your body for the demands of a Kilimanjaro climb.
You do need to get your body used to walking for several hours in uneven country, for several days. But any fitness training beyond that will not increase your chances to reach the summit.
It's the altitude that will get you, not your lack of fitness.
So if you can, expose your body to some altitude before you tackle Kilimanjaro:
If you are living somewhere near mountains, climb them! If there is a chance to overnight at higher altitude, do it. (Note that for this to make a difference it needs to happen right before your Kili climb.)
Some people do acclimatization treks on Mt. Kenya or Mt. Meru before they climb Kilimanjaro. We did and can recommend it, but only for people with some previous trekking experience. Otherwise it may backfire. Read more about it here: Meru and Kilimanjaro.
There are other options: some operators offer cultural tours in the Kilimanjaro foothills, there are walking safaris in the crater highlands...
The Ngorongoro crater rim is over 2200 metres high and even the crater floor is at 1700 metres. If you think of doing a safari while in Tanzania, why not plan it so you can spend a night or two on the crater rim before transferring to Kili?
Look at where you will be spending the night(s) before your climb. Some agencies will put you up in Moshi, some in Marangu. Moshi lies at 890 m, Marangu at 1800 m.
No matter where you will be staying, definitely fly in a couple of days early!
Give your body time to adjust to the different climate, the food, to recover from the strains of a long haul flight and to get over the jet lag if you came from a different time zone.
Arriving early can improve your chances of reaching the summit by five percent or more.
That is Kiswahili for "slow and steady" and you will hear it day in, day out.
It's the single most important thing to keep in mind during the climb. I can tell you now, no matter what you expect, you will be surprised when you see just HOW slow your guides make you walk. Everything on Kilimanjaro happens in slow motion.
You walk so slowly, the first days it seems ridiculous. You may even feel you just CAN'T possibly walk THAT slowly. (If you have that problem, breathe through your nose only. That'll slow you down.)
Soon you will notice some changes. You stop for a photo and catching up with your group leaves you breathless. Drinking from your camel back while walking becomes an effort. The slow, slow speed does not seem so slow any more.
Whatever happens, do avoid exertion at all cost. Falling behind the group? So what? That's why bigger groups have several guides.
Do not be tempted into speeding up because others are walking faster. (Serious altitude sickness is more common in groups than it is during private climbs!)
Another group overtaking? Let them! You will pass their crumpled bodies soon enough...
There is NOTHING to gain on Kilimanjaro by being the first.
Do you know which group has the lowest success rate? Young males between 20 and 30, exactly the people you think would do the best.
But they overestimate the role of fitness and underestimate the mountain. Often they feel they have to lead, they want to be the best, they don't like being overtaken, and being strong and fit makes it just sooo easy to walk too fast.
Do you know that older people have a good success rate? They are wiser than that. And many of them just aren't fit enough to make the mistake of walking too fast.
Extreme fitness can be a trap. You don't feel the strain, but your body uses lots of oxygen all the same.
Ok, I think you got the message. Pole pole!
The first point is very important for avoiding altitude sickness and your guides will likely keep reminding you:
Keep drinking! It's VERY easy to dehydrate at altitude without noticing. The air is very dry so you breathe off more moisture. Also, your body adjusts to the high altitude by eliminating more water. Keep replacing it.
Also make sure you eat plenty! Most people lose their appetite at altitude, but the cold weather and the long days mean your body burns through a lot of calories. Keep replacing them. You will need them. High carbohydrate foods are better than fatty foods. (Any good tour operator will have considered that in their shopping and meal planning.)
And keep warm! The correct gear is a must, not just because shivering isn't nice and hypothermia dangerous, but also because staying nice and toasty will lessen your risk of succumbing to altitude sickness.
Keep your day pack light. Only take what you really need. Every extra kilo needs extra oxygen to carry.
And last but not least, avoid alcohol, tobacco, and most definitely do not touch sleeping tablets! Or you may not wake up again...
And that's about it. Even if you are not in a position to afford extra preparation for the altitude (e.g. a Mt. Meru climb), if you are healthy, pick a good route and operator, arrive a couple of days early and take on board all of the above tips, you have a very good chance of making it to the summit.