Kilimanjaro: Volcano of distinction

Although anyone can walk up Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro remains one of earth’s great challenges. Each year, more than 20,000 people start the climb. Perhaps half of them reach its summit. By Alison Westwood

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 ‘Here, on the scree, I think it is willpower that keeps one going more than anything else,’ wrote Petty Officer Jim Rowe with frozen fingers. ‘The oxygen is scarce and I took 10 steps and then stopped for a while to regain my breath. The top seems never to get any nearer and one feels inclined to say “Oh what’s the use anyway,” and turn round and come back.’

It was 1944 and Rowe had taken a few days leave during World War II to walk up Kilimanjaro. He had no Polar fleece nor Gore-Tex boots, but his expedition was roughly similar to a trek up today’s Marangu Route. With him were two fellow soldiers, six porters, a cook and a guide. They slept in huts, saw no wildlife but lizards in five days of walking and, of the three officers, only Rowe made it as far as Kibo crater.

Ever since a German geology professor named Hans Meyer became the first person to scale Kilimanjaro in 1891, thousands more have stood on the summit at Uhuru peak, including a nine-year-old boy, an 87-year-old man, scores of blind people and a man with no hands or feet. People have cycled up Kilimanjaro, climbed it wearing fancy dress or walking backwards. An Italian named Bruno Brunod once ran up in just five hours and 36 minutes. No special skills or fitness are required. You don’t even need a walking stick.

But it would be a mistake to think climbing this mountain is easy. According to official statistics, for every three people who succeed, one won’t even reach the crater – and this figure is optimistic. Altitude sickness, the most common cause of failure, starts as a vice-like headache and progresses into nausea and vomiting. If a climber’s body can’t adapt in time, they start stumbling, slurring and falling asleep. The only choice is to descend immediately or die.

You don’t climb that mountain – the mountain climbs you, someone had told me. I remembered this as my plane descended towards Kilimanjaro International Airport, butterflies bouncing in my stomach. Then I saw it, a great peak rising level with my window, the silvery summit of Kibo shining whiter than the clouds far below, the jagged black rocks of the second peak, Mawenzi, a reminder of its fiery past. I stared down, imagining I could see tracks, tiny footprints in the snow:  Jim Rowe’s, Hans Meyer’s, Bruno Brunod’s and countless others. Soon, I hoped, mine would be among them.

Kilimanjaro Factfile

  • The official height of Kilimanjaro – 5895 metres – is too high. In 2008 the Kilimanjaro Precise Height Measurement Expedition used GPS to get a figure of 5891.8 metres. Similar techniques also ‘shrank’ Everest.
  • Nobody’s sure where the name Kilimanjaro comes from or what it means. One possibility is that it means ‘Mountain of Greatness’. Another is that it derives from the local Chagga words kilelema (impossible) and njaare (bird), meaning ‘that which is impossible for the bird’.
  • The first white man to see Kilimanjaro was Swiss-German missionary Johannes Rebmann in 1848. It took 14 years before the rest of the world would believe he’d seen snow in equatorial Africa.
  • There’s a story that Queen Victoria gave Kili to her grandson Wilhelm II as a birthday present, but the real reason for the kink in the Kenya-Tanzania border was so the seaport of Mombasa would fall into British territory. (The Germans already had Dar es Salaam.)
  • Recommended reading: Kilimanjaro – A trekking guide to Africa’s highest mountain by Henry Stedman (Trailblazer).
  • Wild Frontiers has been arranging climbs up Kilimanjaro since 1990 with a success rate of 97 per cent.

First published in the April 2009 issue of Getaway Magazine

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