Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa

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To this day, local tribes offer prayers to the gods living on its summit, the same magnificent white crown that 19th-century explorers initially mistook for a gathering of fluffy clouds

The facts are now known: Kilimanjaro, in the northern reaches of Tanzania, is Africa's highest peak (19,341 feet) and is covered not in clouds but in glacial ice. Its famous snows are melting, and some forecasters predict the mountain will be bald in 15 years. That's even more reason to make the ambitious climb to the shimmering plateau on top, and soon.

Getting there

Climbers take on Kilimanjaro year-round. The best times to do the trip are during the warmest, driest months: September, October, January, and February. Northwest Airlines, with its Dutch partner KLM, flies daily through Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. (From New York, round-trip prices start at around $1,100, plus $100 for taxes and fees.) The many tour operators offering guided Kilimanjaro climbs usually arrange airfare as well. As for which tour company to choose, it pays to go with a reputable one, such as Bio Bio Expeditions (800/246-7238, Guides lead you up the mountain, feeding and sheltering you for the weeklong trip, for as little as $1,900, not including airfare. Beware of companies charging much less: They'll probably take you up the Marangu Trail, which is the fastest way to the top, but is also crowded and touristy. (It's so commercialized that everyone calls it the Coca-Cola Trail.) Also, because the Marangu is so steep, hikers have little time to adjust to the altitude, meaning fewer reach the summit than on longer trails, such as the Machame or Lemosho. "Polepole," a good guide will tell you in Swahili: "Slowly." The more gradual your pace, the better your odds of eventually standing on the peak.

You made it

Kilimanjaro isn't a technical climb, but it is a serious one. The hazards of high altitude make it all the more important to hire an experienced guide--someone who recognizes altitude sickness and knows how to treat it. Weather conditions can also be extreme. The climb is a journey from tropical jungle to glacial fields; consult your tour operator for a list of gear to pack. The price of most tour packages includes porters who carry heavy loads of food, tents, and even covered toilets on the more expensive trips. Be sure to bring additional cash ($100-$200) to tip guides and porters at the end of the trip.

Who knew?

Kilimanjaro is often described as the world's tallest freestanding mountain--which isn't quite correct. It was actually formed by three volcanoes, which constitute its three separate peaks: Kibo, Shira, and Mawenzi. Over millions of years, eruptions from each caldera piled higher and higher to create the flattop mountain that exists today.

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