Have you ever climbed the highest mountain on a continent? If not, a good one is waiting for you in Tanzania.
Kilimanjaro – “Kili” for those who love it – is 19,341 feet high. The name is a combination of two Swahili words – Kilima means “mountain” and Njaro means “shining” – the shining mountain. And for a good reason. When we were Peace Corps volunteers in 1964 it was covered in snow with 80 foot blue ice glaciers all year round and it was great but now that climate change is consuming it the mountain is bare rock. The shine is gone and with it the beauty.
I clearly remember the first time I saw Kili.
We took a bus to Northern Tanzania and idly looked out of the windows at the passing area. The day was broken white clouds with nothing special. I looked ahead and high up in the sky in a small patch of clear sky was another white thing that didn’t look like a cloud – and suddenly I realized that it was Kilimanjaro that was so far above us. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I immediately fell in love with her and knew I had to climb this mountain and visit her summit. Over the next few years, I’ve done it – five times.
Kili has two main peaks – the big one, which we all know is called Kibo, and the smaller one – at just 16,893 feet – is Mawenzi. The peaks are very different as Kibo has all of the glaciers and is basically an ash cone and Mawenzi is solid rock. Kibo is easy to get to and Mawenzi is a tough climb.
The first time I went up Kili was the traditional tourist climb. It takes six days for the 38-mile round trip and there are three cabins on the way to sleep. Porters carry the loads and meals are prepared for the tourist so it is fairly easy to just follow the trail and enjoy the walk. The highest hut on the third day is at 15,430 feet at the base of the scree slopes. The guide will wake you up early in the morning, like 1am because the idea is to be up at sunrise. That last 4,000 feet is a long, slow hike through the air.
I have large and efficient lungs so getting to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the continent, was no problem and the view is wonderful – you see above the clouds. When I turned and looked down into the crater, there was the pretty little castle glacier and then the real heart of the mountain. The concentric rings went down to the cinder pit, a four hundred feet deep, vertically sided hole that represents the mouth of the mountain. I really wanted to see all of this up close, so I told the guide that I would like to go down into the crater. He was skeptical.
“Do you think you can do it?” he asked.
“Only one in about 1,000 people who climb this mountain can do it,” he said.
“Are you sure?” he asked himself.
Yes I am sure. So we went down. Kili is not a dead volcano – it is slumbering. At the bottom of the crater, fumaroles blow sulfur-containing steam, and around them are solid blocks of pure sulfur that have precipitated from the steam. For the local Chagga tribe of people who live around the mountain, sulfur is an important and expensive medicine. Hence the guide was delighted to fill his backpack with sulfur blocks and make good money.
The second climb was a wild rabbit idea over a weekend. I did the whole thing on my own in three days. The third was an attempt at Mawenzi that was abandoned due to a lack of technical equipment, the fourth was a guide for some visitors and the fifth was a successful conquest of Mawenzi summit.
Great adventure and I’m still in love with Kili.
If you decide to climb Kilimanjaro, google Kilimanjaro for a wealth of information. You are on your way and happy to come to you.
Dr. Andrew Clark is a veterinarian with national and international professional experience who lives in Pendleton.