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I've climbed Mount Kilimanjaro over 300 times and now guide others. Even fit, healthy tourists are often unprepared for how difficult the hike can be.

Ashley Couto   

I've climbed Mount Kilimanjaro over 300 times and now guide others. Even fit, healthy tourists are often unprepared for how difficult the hike can be.
  • Justin Stephen Mtui has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro over 300 times as a porter and guide.
  • He started his tour company Climbing Kilimanjaro in 2008 to improve the treatment of porters.

This as-told-to story is based on a transcribed conversation with Justin Stephen Mtui, a Kilimanjaro summit guide. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

I've always been an active hiker and hiked local hills and mountains in Tanzania. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was a personal goal, but the only way I could do it in the early 2000s was as a porter. Government regulations on hiking meant you had to be taken to the summit by a guide or work for a tour company.

There weren't a lot of high-paying jobs in Tanzania, so becoming a porter for a tour company was a good financial decision that also came with adventure.

The hike is seven days — about three and a half days up the mountain and three and a half days back. It's filled with amazing flora, fauna, and its fair share of challenges. Hikers can experience altitude sickness, and we can encounter challenges with camps and health and safety like any extreme sport. I've climbed Kilimanjaro over 300 times.

The hike is grueling for porters with heavy luggage

A porter carries a climber's luggage on their back while the guide leads groups of hikers toward the summit. It was grueling. Sometimes, I'd have 35 kilograms on my back.

My first hike up Mount Kilimanjaro was my first time hiking with big luggage. I thought about quitting many times during that first hike. Halfway up the mountain, the other porter decided he couldn't do it. I stuck it out because porters are well-paid, and I knew I'd struggle to find a better job.

Porters don't usually get to the summit, but after a few weeks, I grabbed all the gear I'd need and stayed with a guide.

The summit is the most amazing thing I've ever experienced. I remember telling other porters, "If you haven't gone to Kilimanjaro summit, you can't say you're hiking Kilimanjaro."

I became a guide in a transitional period in the industry

When I started in the early 2000s, porters had to bring their own food and gear. You had little control over your income or the tips. The guide controlled your pay, and getting a shot as a porter was hard.

I wanted to change how porters were paid and give hikers a better experience, so I became a guide. I had to take a course and a basic exam to ensure I could safely get people to the summit.

I started taking people up Mount Kilimanjaro with my company, Climbing Kilimanjaro, around 2008.

Every hike starts with information

Even if you've researched before arriving at Kilimanjaro, there's much to learn. I lead the hikers, help them navigate the environment, and provide physical and emotional support. Every morning and evening, I prepare the group so they know what to expect on that day of the hike.

As a guide, I run my crew, which includes a chef and all the porters. I have to check that everyone has the right equipment, and at every camp stop, I assess the team's well-being and ensure that every area at each campsite is operational. I also ensure the porters are fed, the tents are well-pitched, and everyone is happy and safe.

The industry has changed over the years

Before the internet, tourists would arrive with their Lonely Planet guide, and we'd know they were coming to climb or do a safari. They would bring a hiking bag and equipment or lots of money to book a local tour company.

The industry has changed a lot since then. I started my company when people transitioned to looking up travel operators online. I've had to learn to be a digital marketer because people now reserve and pre-pay online and plan their trips much rather in advance.

Social media has helped make the Kilimanjaro hike more popular. It's more common for travelers to see smiling photos from the summit of Kilimanjaro online and book without knowing what the climb requires.

Many tourists arrive unprepared

Before we start a hike, we check that every climber has the necessary gear. Some people get altitude sickness, too, and I've had to do evacuations. We try to prepare people as best as possible, but it's hard.

One time, a lady showed up dressed like she was on a beach vacation. I warned her that it was a tough mountain. She didn't realize it would be multiple days of camping. After day two, she turned around.

People don't realize there's no showering for seven days to get to the summit and back. For even limited cellphone reception, you must get a local SIM card, which can be a bit of a production.

The only thing you can do on the mountain is hike and be in nature. It's a very secluded world. The most common thing people say when they reach the summit is, "This is the hardest thing I've ever done in my entire life."

Getting to the summit is the most rewarding experience

As a guide, I have to be prepared for anything. Other than altitude sickness, which is the biggest risk, we've had many times where someone's so tired that we have to help them go to the bathroom and physically pull their pants down. Even some physically fit people are completely exhausted by the end of a hike day.

But when people reach the top, they feel like they've conquered the world. Time stops for them. The oldest hiker I've helped summit was a 75-year-old man. He found it difficult but was so happy when he reached the top.

I love hiking with people from different countries and cultures. Everyone — myself included — learns a lot from their fellow hikers and the people they share a base camp with. I've learned not to underestimate anyone. People can push through a lot for the reward of getting to the summit.

As a company, we'll summit Kilimanjaro 66 times in 2024. It's exhausting, but, in the moment, you forget about it because you are excited to give people the best experience and help them fulfill their dreams.




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