African Elephants Beneath Kilimanjaro

© DLILLC/Corbis

The small and rickety aluminum shelter at Barranco Camp shook each time I took another sleepless turn on the hard cot. The noisy movements kept my two climbing companions awake all night. All this commotion was counterproductive, considering we were trying to get some rest prior to our ascent of the tallest freestanding mountain on Earth—Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. But what to do? Sleeplessness is one of the milder and more acceptable symptoms of altitude sickness at 12,000 feet above sea level. At 2 a.m., I was kicked out of my down sleeping bag and showered with a barrage of bad curses and given nicknames such as “a noisy rotisserie chicken on a rotating spear!”

Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and one of the most popular “Seven Summits” to climb on each continent. Crowned with an ever-shrinking snow-cap of glaciers, this majestic peak can be found inside Tanzania’s iconic Kilimanjaro National Park. During colonial times, the mountain was originally given as a gift to the German Emperor from the British Queen Victoria, and it became part of the German East African colony of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania). The Queen of England got the shores of Lake Victoria instead!

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro has always been a serious endeavor. It was first climbed on October 6, 1889, by Hans Meyer, who reached the highest summit on the crater ridge of Kibo. He named it the “Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze,” a name that apparently was used until Tanzania was formed in 1964, when the mountain summit was renamed “Uhuru Peak,” meaning “Freedom Peak” in Swahili.

My Danish climbing buddies and I were touring East Africa and thought it could be fun also to summit “Kili.” At that time—about 40 years ago—there were  few tourism rules and regulations for climbers on the mountain and minimal tourism infrastructure had been constructed. So we just parked our old rusty vehicle at the southern Umbwe Gate, loaded up our bivouac sacks and camp food into our towering backpacks, and started marching up the mountain—with no guides or porters. We thought that doing it this way would also give us more freedom and solitude for our adventure.

Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

We did not have that many days left in Africa, so we chose to beeline it up the steep and less-visited Umbwe Route on Kilimanjaro’s southern flanks all the way to the Kibo Summit. The plan was to climb it in four days up and one day down. Well, the mountain punished our youthful optimism. Later, we learned that if you climb it that fast (even with porters), you only have a 25 percent chance of summiting successfully.

This wilder Umbwe route is known for its many caves, and the first night we slept at the Umbwe Cave Camp. The route initially followed a forestry track winding up through the natural rain forest. It then narrowed and steepened to pass over the ridge between the Lonzo and Umbwe rivers, with huge trees surrounding us. The path offered some spectacular views of deep gorges, and we were lucky to glimpse of Kilimanjaro towering above us in the distance.

From the Umbwe Ridge, we descended slightly to the Barranco Camp. This camp was situated in the valley below the Breach and Great Barranco Walls and provided us with a memorable sunset while we cooked up our freeze-dried meals. At this point, we already felt the beginning of continuous headaches—the first symptoms of altitude sickness.

We were in complete awe looking up at the vertical Breach Wall above us, a feature that was climbed just two years prior by the famous Austrian mountaineer Reinhold Messner. The crux of this climb was 250 feet of a free-hanging icicle, which Reinhold and his partner quickly free-climbed up using only crampons and ice axes.

Kilimanjaro glacier

The third day we got up at 2 a.m.—after that infamous restless night in the shelter—and ambitiously headed for the top of the mountain via Barafu Camp. At this point, throbbing headaches, occasional vomiting and dizziness were slowing us down, and we were completely delirious when we finally stood upon that flat mountain plateau on the Roof of Africa. We made the summit in a somewhat happy daze, then turned around quickly to get down to lower altitudes. One day later we bottomed out at the starting point, completely exhausted but happy—and I guess lucky that we had not succumbed to the debilitating mountain sickness.

What I remembered most was the “forest” of vertical ice spires standing straight up in the crater that we had to walk through to get to the summit. They were basically exaggerated sun-cups created by the strong equatorial sun circling straight above our heads.

When I look at current pictures of Kilimanjaro today, I am stunned by how much of the summit glaciers have disappeared—the irrefutable impact of global climate change. The famous icicle on the Breach Wall is gone—as well at the “forest” of large ice spires in the top crater that we marveled at. Scientists have measured that almost 85 percent of the ice cover on Kilimanjaro disappeared from October 1912 to June 2011. At the current melting rate, most of the ice on Kilimanjaro will disappear by 2040, and it is highly unlikely that any ice body will remain after 2060.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

Today, the magic summit of Kilimanjaro attracts 10,000-20,000 visitors each year and the mountain hikers generate irregular and seasonal jobs for about 11,000 guides, porters, and others. These days, strict park regulations require all climbers to hire porters and cooks for the hike up the mountain. The nearby town of Arusha that hikers fly into has prospered due to the influx of Kilimanjaro-bound tourists.

But you don’t have to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to enjoy it. There are a variety of safari lodge accommodations near Arusha, Tanzania, along with natural areas on both sides of the Tanzania-Kenya border that offer fantastic views of Africa’s most famous mountain.

So if you are ambitious, in good shape, and have extra time beyond your Tanzania safari, you might consider attempting to scale Kilimanjaro, because it truly is a magnificent experience. Natural Habitat’s Adventure Specialists can direct you to the best outfitters for the climb. But take your time—unless you want to end up with a headache, sleepless in Tanzania!

Elephants and Kilimanjaro

© Johanny Reyes