Towering at an impressive 19,341-feet Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s tallest mountain and the world’s highest free standing one. The mountain formed as a result of the activity of three volcanic cones with the highest peak located on the Kibo cone. Kilimanjaro’s Kibo has lain dormant for the last 150,000 years, while its other two cones are extinct.
By 1860, the mountain was known to Europeans, who had explored the area. The origins of the name ‘Kilimanjaro’ are unclear with some records saying it was the name of the mountain in Kiswahili and others stated that it was called ‘Kilima Njaro.’ Another possibility that many tend towards is that it comes form the Kikamba word ‘Kiima Kyeu.’
Even though the outside world only discovered Kilimanjaro in the mid-19th century, human activity has been in the region since 1000 BC or even earlier. Stone bowls dating back to this period have been found on the local landscape. These early inhabitants would have been drawn to the area for its rich resources of food, fresh water, and materials for constructing shelters. However, this early period of the mountain’s history will have to forever stay mysterious, as very little archaeological evidence or ancient stories have survived.
The earliest records that have be discovered are sparse and often inaccurate descriptions noted down from what the author heard instead of actual first hand experiences. The first likely mention of Kilimanjaro was made by Ptolemy of Alexandria sometime around 145 AD. In his writings he mentions the ‘great snow mountain’ to the south of Rhapta in East Africa. However, it is unknown how he came to know about the mountain, since it is highly doubtful he ever saw it. It took another 1,000-years before Kilimanjaro was mentioned again in writing. The mountain makes brief appearances in the 13th century and again in the 16th century. In the mid-1800s Europeans began mentioned the mountain more.
The first records of people attempting to reach Kilimanjaro’s summit began in 1861 when Carl Claus von der Decken, Richard Thornton and their porters tried to climb the mountain. However, this attempt was a failure with weather forcing the group to retreat after only reaching 8,200-feet. The two explorers where able to make some progress with facts about the mountain by accurately estimating its full height and that it was volcanic. Several more attempts were made over the next several years when in 1889 Hans Meyer finally succeeded on his third attempt to climb Kilimanjaro. They key to his success this time was his establishment of three camps along his route. It is worth noting that Meyer’s climb was much more difficult than it is today, as the mountain had much more snow, no marked path, and a difficult local Moshi chief.
After Meyer’s success there were very few successful attempts. It took another twenty-years before another person made it to the top in 1909. By the time World War I broke out only six attempts had been successful since Meyer. During the war dangerous fighting in the region, including in Moshi, prevented anyone from climbing. The first woman to reach the summit was Sheila MacDonald in 1927.
Today, Kilimanjaro is one of the most accessible mountains to climb in that it requires relatively little training and specialist equipment. Climbs of the mountain turned touristic in 1932 with signs and huts established. Over time the number of people visiting Kilimanjaro gradually increased to the some 35,000 people that attempt to climb it today.