Friday, March 08, 2002

On the roof of Africa

Crowned by eternal snows, the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro (19,340ft) is the highest point in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. It dominates its landscape unlike any other mountain. Located in Tanzania, this extinct volcano looms over vast African game reserves, and the ascent passes through five eco-systems; starting in rain forest and progressing through moorland, desert then alpine to the permanent ice cap.

Inspired by DES expeditions, last year Eleanor Crooks (Moonlands 98 & Dragon Mountain 00) and Tim Edmans (Dragon Mountain 00) took a crack at Mt Kilimanjaro. Here is Eleanor’s report of their journey.

(Photo by Sam Gawler)

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro had been an ambition of mine ever since I first heard its poetic name. Looking for a demanding, but attainable (or so we hoped) challenge, Kilimanjaro seemed the perfect choice. So at the end of July (2001) we found ourselves on a plane heading for Tanzania.
We had one evening to get to know our four trekking companions – an exceptional bunch – and to wonder what we had let ourselves in for.

Morning dawned, and we set off to Marangu Gate, and the start of the trek. We also met the man charged with getting us to the top, the wonderful ever-smiling Tomsifu. We had chosen the most popular Marangu route to give ourselves the best chance of success.

The first day was a gentle 1000m climb through tropical jungle, concentrating primarily on trying to spot monkeys. One of the most amazing aspects of Kilimanjaro is its five distinctive ecological zones, from jungle to glacier in just five days. However, it was hard to believe we were actually on a mountain as the weather was more ‘Welsh’ than ‘African’, and visibility was no more than a few metres. It was a rather soggy party which arrived at Mandara Huts.

No sign of improvement in the weather, so the second day began much like the first, as we made our way steadily upward. Jungle gave way to moorland – very reminiscent of Dartmoor in the rain. We soon got used to being passed by heavily laden porters – all ill equipped, but seemingly oblivious, although the man wearing a suit and wellies was almost unbelievable!

At around 12000ft the moorland became a rockier, Alpine environment. Just when it seemed as if we would never actually see the mountain, we broke through the cloud layer and saw Mawenzie, Kilimanjaro’s incredibly photogenic peak, towering above us. Its jagged summit is now out of bounds to climbers, as previous expeditions had experienced a 50% fatality rate.
At 12,500 ft, Horombo Huts were right on the edge of the clouds, but allowed us glimpses of the snow-capped summit, Uhuru Peak.

The next day was all about acclimatising, and a short climb, which afforded good views of Mawenzi and Uhuru. This day gave us a chance to ‘recharge our batteries’ for the summit push. The altitude was already noticeable, with everything requiring that little bit more effort.
The fourth day felt long and hard. Vegetation became scarce as the icy winds swept across the saddle between Mawenzi and Uhuru Peak, the barren ground resembling a moonscape. Finally we reached Kibo Hut, perched at the foot of the crater itself. Sleep was the priority for the rest of the day as it was going to be a long night.

At 12:30am we were ready to go, and luckily for us the temperature had risen to a balmy minus 10C! It was a perfect, cloudless night, with an almost full moon providing an eerie half-light. The crater wall is basically a very steep 1000m scree slope, and by far the hardest part of the trek. The scree wasn’t completely frozen, so it was a case of two steps forward and one back. Tomsifu decided that speed was the key to keeping warm, and we gained height fairly rapidly. Soon we were the leading group – nicknamed ‘the bullet train’ – we’d have been perfectly happy with the normal ‘Railtrack’ service as we puffed away in the rare atmosphere. The moon sank below the crater rim and it became noticeably colder as we passed 17000ft and then 18000ft. The terrain became rockier, and then finally we reached the crater rim at Gilman’s Point. Reinvigorated by hot, sweet tea – a stroke of genius on behalf of Tomsifu – we set off for the summit. We still had 700ft to ascend and half the crater to traverse, but mentally we were ‘there’. It was very satisfying to look down on the twinkling head torches snaking their way up the crater wall on the Machame route.

At 6:31am an orange glow spread across the horizon, and the sun illuminated the mountain and the sea of cloud far below. It was hard to believe we were now looking down on Mawenzi. Five minutes later we were standing on the roof of Africa, and it was f a n t a s t i c.

Eleanor Crooks