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A woman’s guide to climbing Kilimanjaro

Article by Clare Woolston

Clare Woolston

Posted: May 1, 2019

From climbing Kilimanjaro to showing great strength when socioeconomic odds are against them, women have demonstrated, and still do demonstrate, great power in Tanzania.

In 1927, when mountaineering was still dominated by men, Sheila MacDonald, a 22-year old woman from London, was the first recorded woman to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Not only did she show power by doing the climb, but during her feat, as reported by The Guardian, she “set the pace” for her two male companions and pressed on when one of the men “couldn’t go on”.  

In a sign of the times, she had to plead to the men to be “allowed to finish the ascent”.

Imagine sitting on the summit, as Sheila did, gazing down on the plains while bathed in the warm light of sunrise. To summit Kilimanjaro you need self-discipline for training, new skills and mental strength.


Original photo: “Uhuru 13” by Abeeeer is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Travelling responsibly while attempting Kilimanjaro

But summiting Kilimanjaro isn’t only about personal achievement. Travelling in Tanzania also requires you to be a responsible tourist, and contribute to empowering the communities who live around Kilimanjaro.  

So how does one prepare to emulate the feat of Sheila McDonald, while being aware of and sensitive to the day-to-day realities that local women around Mount Kilimanjaro face?

To give you the best chance of climbing Kilimanjaro all the way to the summit, and to contribute to empowerment initiatives with local women, we’ve put together top Kilimanjaro tips.

For training advice, notes on how to select a reputable provider and opportunities to work with local women while spending your final weeks training in the local area, read on.

What is good training for climbing Kilimanjaro?

Original photo: “untitled shoot-012.jpg”by pmakholm is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

In short, endurance, overall fitness and training your quads are essential when preparing for Kilimanjaro. This will help you to cope with the altitude and descent.  

Sheila was very fit, as recorded by The Guardian, who reported that she “excelled in outdoor games and horse riding”.

To be fit like Sheila our training tips are:

  • Start training at least two months before your summit attempt.
  • Hike on weekends with a seven-kilogram daypack, working your way up to a daily distance of 18 kilometres. This is the distance you will hike on the summit day part of your Kilimanjaro trek.
  • Do multi-day hikes to simulate what will happen on the trek. The length of the Kilimanjaro trek will vary depending on which route you take. On average, you may hike around ten kilometres per day.
  • Are there no hills or mountains close by? Jump on the stairmaster at the gym with your daypack on.
  • Do cardio for up to an hour at least three times per week so your heart is used to working hard with little oxygen, like at altitude.
  • In the week before your summit attempt, spend time at altitude.



If you volunteer on the girl empowerment in Kilimanjaro project, you could do your final training hikes in the Kilimanjaro foothills. You could also spend your final weekend acclimating to high altitude.

The Tanzania base is in the town of Moshi, a tourist town at the foothills of the mountain. Moshi has gone from a military camp established by Germans to a town that accommodates between 30,000 and 40,000 Kilimanjaro climbers per year.


Will I get altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro?

At 5,895 metres, Mount Kilimanjaro falls into the extreme altitude zone. Altitude sickness can strike anyone regardless of age, sex or fitness.  

Signs and symptoms of altitude sickness


Altitude sickness is serious business. If it goes unheeded and you continue to ascend, you risk getting high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). Both are life-threatening.

Sheila climbed her first mountain when she was 12, and spent time learning the essentials of mountaineering with her father. She would have known the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness. So, like Sheila, empower yourself by knowing what to look for and when to stop.



The classic signs of altitude sickness are:

  • feeling worse in the morning
  • headaches
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • disturbed sleep.

If this happens, tell your guide, stop ascending, rest, hydrate and acclimatise.



If you have any of the symptoms below, tell your guide, as you need to descend immediately:

  • shortness of breath or elevated heart rate at rest
  • trouble balancing
  • feeling confused
  • vision disturbances.

They are early signs and symptoms of HAPE and HACE. Don’t give in to “summit fever” and place your life at risk.

We will never know for sure, but Sheila’s male companion who couldn’t go on because of “physical exhaustion” could have succumbed to altitude sickness and made the smart decision to stop.


How can I prevent getting altitude sickness on Mount Kilimanjaro?

There is no guaranteed way to prevent altitude sickness, but you can decrease the likelihood by training, hydrating and choosing a minimum of a seven-day tour. Ascending slowly gives time for your body to adjust to higher altitudes. Even Sheila and her companions took seven days to climb Kilimanjaro.

While volunteering in Tanzania before your trek, you could spend the final weekend before your summit attempt acclimatising at the nearby Ngorongoro Crater. Its forested rim is at 2,200 metres and the expansive crater has wildlife viewing opportunities.

What is the best Kilimanjaro route?

Original photo: “untitled shoot-062-2.jpg” by pmakholm is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

There is no one best Kilimanjaro route. The different routes match different skill sets and desires.

The Lemosho Route, and Northern Circuit Route are good for acclimatisation as they are longer routes, taking between eight and nine days. They are also both wilder and have fewer crowds. The Northern Circuit Route also goes close to the path taken by Sheila, on the northern slopes of the mountain, if you would like to follow in her footsteps.

The Machame Route is also good for acclimatisation, as it follows the tried and tested “climb high, sleep slow” philosophy. It is also scenically varied. However, due to its popularity, it will have crowds.

How do I choose a reputable operator?

Original photo“Kili082” by Ricky Tay is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When travelling, it’s important to make informed choices. This is so your tourism activities can help empower local communities.

To help make an informed choice about a good, safe operator that helps empower the local community, here are a few factors to consider other than client success rates (percentage of clients that reach the summit) and price:

  • What is their safety record like?
  • Are their guides certified and are they trained as wilderness first responders?
  • Do they have a large guide to client ratio? (You want enough guides to continue on with clients if some clients in the group succumb to altitude sickness.)
  • How does the company treat their porters and care for the environment?



Go for a company that is transparent with information that answers these questions. A good company will have nothing to hide.

A good place to start is looking at companies listed under the partner program of the International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC).

The IMEC is behind the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP). The companies listed as partners treat their porters as recommended by the project and pay them a fair wage.

If you are booking with an international company, their on the ground partner should be listed, rather than the international company itself.


Original photo: “Porters vs Mountain” by choefnagels is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

What should I pack to climb Kilimanjaro?

You want to pack as light as possible, so your porters are not unfairly burdened. 15kg is the limit they’ll carry. We like this tried and tested list.

What summits do Tanzanian woman have to climb?

Tourism revenue from Kilimanjaro climbers contributes to improving the lives of communities in the local area, as reported by the World Bank. However, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Tanzania is still one of the lower ranking countries in terms of gender equity and general rates of poverty.



Similar to Sheila, there are Tanzanian women who demonstrate power and push through boundaries between the genders. Women like Monika, who found ways to support her six children despite experiencing adversity.

Monika’s story, as told to the UNDP, is reminiscent of many Tanzanian women. Her first husband died. She eventually remarried yet still faced social and financial isolation while raising six children.

But Monika learnt to invest money in farm activities, and developed entrepreneurial skills to generate more income. As a result of this, she was able to eventually purchase land. But this is still rare for Tanzanian women. Only 9% of Tanzania women own a house or land in their own right.



GVI works to facilitate women’s empowerment in Tanzania, and abroad. With increased access to opportunities, women like Monika have a higher chance of pushing against gendered boundaries.

Volunteers on the girl empowerment in Kilimanjaro project teach literacy, conversational English, and entrepreneurial skills. They also facilitate women’s empowerment workshops. This is to provide opportunities for Tanzanian women, like Monika, to empower themselves with as many skills as possible.

Sign up now if you would like to spend your last few weeks training in Kilimanjaro’s foothills while helping Tanzanian women to summit in life.  

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