Kilimanjaro

Height: 5895m

Location: Tanzania, Africa

Kilimanjaro is the world’s highest free-standing mountain, the highest point in Africa and is one of the world’s largest volcanoes at 5895m high (over 19300 feet).

Serious attempts by Europeans to climb Kilimanjaro began back in 1861, and continued through the 1870s and 1880s, but most groups turned back at the snowline, then around 4000 metres, if not before. Finally, on 5 October 1889, Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller became the first Europeans to reach the summit.

Ascent

Ascent date: 16th January 2005

Alongside fellow Assynt Mountain Rescue Team members, Mark Campbell (38) from Lochinver, Doug Graham (52) from Thurso and Chris Warwick (38) from Achmelvich, I successfully reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro on the morning of Sunday 16th January 2005. This achievement was the climax of six months careful planning and preparation.

Success on Mount Kilimanjaro was not guaranteed as the huge and rapid altitude gain makes it hard to acclimatise. However, lessons learnt from Mark and Chris’s previous experiences of high altitude ascents helped to improve the odds for the team.

Mount Kilimanjaro is a mountain of contrasts and extremes. You walk from tropical rain forest into arctic conditions through a landscape formed by ice and fire. There are at least ten trekking routes that begin on the lower slopes of the mountain but only three continue to the summit. Having studied the available options, we decided to tackle the mountain by the Umbwe route to get to their second camp at 3950m and then to use the Western Breach route to reach the summit.

The Umbwe route is much steeper than other trekking routes but it is a more direct way up the mountain. The guidebooks describe this route as a very strenuous walk up steep, slippery paths with many fallen trees to negotiate. The middle section follows a narrow spectacular ridge with magnificent views of the Great Barranco and Southern Icefields. The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro is then reached by a very steep section up the Western Breach.

This route is often covered in snow or ice which can make it impassable or extremely dangerous. Many trekkers who attempt this route without proper acclimatisation are forced to turn back. An indication of the seriousness of the route chosen is that until just a few years ago, the Western Breach was considered a technical mountaineering route.

After reading these guidebook descriptions, we were looking forward to our strenuous mountaineering experience, and all hoped that the cost of the trip would not be wasted due to failure to reach the summit.

Many preparations were required for this expedition but some of the most important ones were getting visas/permits for Tanzania, getting immunisations and medication for the area, and ensuring that everyone in the team was suitably equipped.

Immunisations that were needed included Diphtheria, Tetanus, Polio, Typhoid, Yellow Fever, etc. Medication required included Antimalarial drugs, Antihistamines, drugs for treating High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), etc.

With all of the preparations complete we drove to Edinburgh through the Scottish snows to catch our first flight. We flew with KLM from Edinburgh to Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro International Airport. This involved about 9 and a half hours of flying to get to 3 degrees south of the equator. Upon arrival in Tanzania, we were transported to our hotel near Moshi and immediately started trying to acclimatise to the tropical heat by drinking a few pints in the bar (It costs about 50 pence a pint for the local Kilimanjaro Lager).

The first full day in Tanzania was spent recovering from the flights, getting used to the heat and visiting the local town of Moshi. On the second day we were transported to the start of the Umbwe route in a Land Rover that had done more that 400000 km. During this drive up the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro, the first vegetation zone was seen.

Kilimanjaro has five habitat zones that encircle the mountain for around 1000 metres of altitude, each with its own climate, plant life and animals. The higher that you go, the colder it gets and the lower the rainfall, limiting the number of species, and demanding remarkable adaptations for survival.

The natural vegetation on the lower slopes is typically bush and lowland forest but there are also numerous subsidence farmers cultivating maize, coffee and bananas in this area.

The Land Rover went up to about 1600m altitude and parked at the start of the Umbwe route. Here we met our porters, chef and guide for the trek. Guides, and at least one porter (for the guide), are obligatory on Kilimanjaro. These expeditions are a major source of income for the local Tanzanians. A group photo was taken and then we started to walk towards the mountain.

The route quickly entered the rain forest zone which lies between 1800 and 2800 metres. As we walked through this zone many black and white colobus monkeys were seen leaping through the trees above us. The first day of walking was fairly short and we camped in the rain forest at about 2400m altitude.

The second day of walking took us along a narrow ridge through the upper reaches of the rain forest where fine tall trees decked with streamers if bearded lichen were seen. Near the upper reaches of the rain forest we had to scramble up a very exposed section of rock to allow us to continue up the ridge. Above this point, we met some very ill looking people descending the Umbwe route. These people were descending because they had began to suffer Acute Mountain Sickness associated with altitude. If these people had not descended then HAPE or HACE could have developed with fatal consequences.

Seeing these people descending put some doubts into our minds about the rate of altitude gain. The second camp was only going to be at 3950 metres altitude. My previous highest mountain was 3693m (Gunnbjørnsfjeld, the highest peak in the arctic) and Doug had previously been at just over 4000m for a short period of time whilst skiing the Haute Route in the Alps. So, psychologically the route was beginning to get harder. Would we have to bail out due to poor acclimatisation?

Above the 2800m contour line we entered the heath and moorland vegetation zone. In this zone giant heathers (Erica arborea), various grasses, and giant groundsels (Senecio kilimanjari) growing up to about 18 feet tall were seen. We eventually reached our second camp near the Barranco Hut at 3950 metres and we were all pleased not to be feeling the effects of rapid altitude gain.

Upon arrival at this camp, our support team made some warm drinks and popcorn for us. We took in the atmosphere of the area and a few small alpine chat birds approached us.

We had scheduled the third day on the mountain to be an acclimatisation day and also to give our porters a rest. During this day, we ascended up the Barranco wall then went up to about 4400 metres before descending back to camp for lunch. The Barranco wall is described as a steep exposed scramble and is one of the hardest sections of the main Machame tourist route. All four of us had no difficulties with the Barranco wall and we all felt that this short trip helped us with our acclimatisation.

After another night camping near Barranco hut, we headed up to our next camp at the Lava Tower which was at an altitude of 4600m. During this short walk we left the Heath and Moorland vegetation zone and entered the high desert vegetation zone. The temperature in this zone can vary from 35-40°C in the noonday sun to well below freezing every night. Only the hardiest plants and lichens can survive in this zone.

As we ascended up to the Lava Tower it is fairly obvious to us that the glaciers and snows had only fairly recently (geologically speaking) left this altitude. In the 1860s-1880s the snowline was about 4000m on Kilimanjaro.

We had a comfortable nights sleep in our tents near the Lava Tower before ascending up to the Arrow Glacier at just over 4900m (over 16000ft) the next day. This had been another short day but this allowed us plenty of time to acclimatise and rest before our final push for the summit of Kilimanjaro the next day.

At 4:45am local time (1:45am UK time), we left our camp and started up the Western Breach route by torchlight. As we ascended this route, we sensed that there was less oxygen present in the rarified atmosphere. Due to the lack of oxygen, we had to progress slowly to ensure that our muscles were well oxygenated. About half way up the Western Breach, the sun began to rise over Africa and we were pleased to be able to see the route that we were tackling. We steadily gained height and scrambled to the top of the Western Breach.

The top of the Western Breach is at about 5700m altitude. From here, there was a final pull up of about 200 metres to the summit of Kilimanjaro. This final section was covered in snow and we were basked in glorious sunshine. All four of us summitted at about 10:30 am local time (7:30am UK time). The air pressure was about 499 millibars at the 5895m summit. Therefore we were working with about half the amount of oxygen that we would normally have at sea level. No wonder that we had to progress slowly to ensure that we didn’t become hypoxic!

After the customary summit photos and mobile phone calls we began our descent of the mountain. (Note: mobile phone coverage was better on Kilimanjaro than it is in northern Scotland). We had decided to descend down the Mweka route. This route is badly eroded and is for descent only. We quickly descended to 5000m and had lunch in a more bearable oxygen rich environment (530 millibars). We then continued our rapid descent to the Millenium Hut at about 4200m.

Lager was on sale at the hut and we celebrated with a little alcohol. We then continued our descent to the Mweka Hut (3100 metres). At the Mweka Hut we met up with our porters again and after a short discussion we decided to continue our descent to the bottom of Kilimanjaro. Normally people spend 2 to 3 days descending Kilimanjaro but we were feeling fit and beginning to look forward to the comforts of a hotel. We were meant to camp near to the Mweka hut but if you had a choice between camping in a rain forest or staying in a hotel, what would you do?

Although we were beginning to tire, we completed the descent down to about 1500m altitude and met our trusty old land rover to take us to the hotel. In the end, our final day on Kilimanjaro was 13 hours of sustained effort but by 7:00pm local time we were back at the hotel and sampling the local beers again.

At the end of the trek we tipped all of the locals that had helped to facilitate our expedition.

As we had descended the mountain a day early, we were able to squeeze in a one-day safari to the Arusha National Park. During this safari we saw abundant animal life, including giraffes, waterbucks, buffaloes, warthogs, baboons, etc.

Then over the next two days we gradually headed back to Scotland and normality.

Overall the trip was 100% successful for all of the team members. We all got to know how our bodies responded to rapid altitude change, and it was an enjoyable and memorable experience.

Media and online coverage

Interview with Myrddyn Phillips – YouTube

Relative Hills of Britain website

Ascent photos – Facebook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *