When deciding to climb Kilimanjaro, first things first, you need to choose a tour group to work with. We made the decision to book through Team Kilimanjaro rather quickly due to their reasonable prices and excellent reviews. This was a great decision in the end - the company was very good to us, everything ran smoothly, and I'd highly, highly recommend their services.
Next, you need to decide which route up Kilimanjaro you're going to take, keeping in mind that some routes are much more difficult and dangerous than others. Team Kilimanjaro recommended we take their 7 day Rongai route because of its relative ease and high success rate of climbers summiting. On this route, climbers summit from Barafu camp, which has a 98% success rate of climbers reaching the summit, compared to a 70 something % success rate when climbing from the more popular Kibo camp (according to our guides, anyway).
My biggest fear about this whole climbing Kilimanjaro thing was that I was going to spend a crap load of money and my body wouldn't be able to acclimatize quickly enough, I'd feel sick the entire time, and I wouldn't reach the summit. On this route, thankfully, I felt perfectly fine, which is likely due to the extra day that is allocated for acclimatizing (some routes are only 5 or 6 days in total). If you have the time for a longer route, take it!
The climbing/hiking/trekking itself was honestly not that difficult. Coming down was way, way, way, WAY more painful that going up. The name of the game on Kilimanjaro is "Pole Pole" which means "slow slow". I've never walked so slowly in my life, but it certainly paid off in the end. Because the air is so thin, once you're out of breath it's difficult to get it back. On summit night, we'd have groups of people pass us, only to see them throwing up 15 minutes later, or being led back down the mountain due to sickness. There's definitely no reward for going quickly.
As for what to expect about the amount of time spent walking and the difficulty level each day, here's a short description of our 7 days...
Day 1: 4 easy hours on relatively flat ground
The picture above shows a family of baboons we passed while walking through the forest!
Day 2: 8 long hours of fairly easy walking
Day 3: 4 1/2 hours of slow, steady, uphill climbing.
You can see the porters in the distance ahead of us, carrying all of our supplies on their heads.
Later that evening we did 2 more hours of steep climbing in order to acclimatize.
Here we are after climbing high, getting ready to go back down to sleep low.
Day 4: 4 1/2 hours of downhill walking to lower elevation. This was more difficult than the previous 3 days because going downhill hurts!
Day 5: 7 hours of slow, very steep, uphill climbing. This was still not overly difficult
because the climbing was so slow.
Follow the trail! When it seems to disappear, that means a lot of rock climbing ensues!
Day 6: Summit day! This day was the most difficult because you leave camp around midnight, after an already tiring day, with very little rest. This is a slow, very steep, cold uphill climb that took 8 1/2 hour. The day doesn't end there though. It took us about 6 hours to climb down to our campsite and that was just ridiculously painful. I hurt thinking about it :)
Almost to the top!
So close I can taste it!
Day 7: The last day is also quite painful because your feet and knees are so sore from the previous day. It's all downhill for 5 hours.
Stopping for a picture in the rain forest!
As for the trail conditions, from the pictures above you can see that you can expect anything from a flat neatly groomed trail to uphill rock climbing. The craziest part, which I regret not taking a video of, was coming down on extremely loose scree. We basically had to downhill ski through rocks and that is the only time on the whole trip that I was panting for breath! That is also the only time I fell (and ripped my pants - so sad!)
There you have it - that's basically what you can expect while climbing Kilimanjaro if taking the Rongai route! If I can do it, anyone can!