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The Planet Ice Project: Kilimanjaro

Up to the Summit Glaciers of Kilimanjaro
By James Martin - April 15th, 2007

Editor's Note: 

Writer and photographer James Martin, author with Mark Twight of Extreme Alpinism, has turned his attention to the vanishing ice of planet Earth. Embarking on a new book, Planet Ice, Martin will blog exclusively for GreatOutdoors.com over the next two years as he visits the polar regions, the last of the Equatorial glaciers, and the ice of more temperate mountains, to document how they show, all too clearly, the devestating results of global climate change. For this, his second dispatch, he c limbs Kilimanjaro for a look at the vanishing summit glaciers.

On the Coca Cola Route, some of the camps are as big as frontier towns.

"Pole, pole," advised the porter--slowly, slowly. After struggling on a tough hike in the Mountains of the Moon, I felt like hiking "fast, fast" on the groomed trail up the Coca Cola route on Mt. Kilimanjaro. This is the most popular and most despised route up the mountain. You can order a coke or a beer at the highest hut at well over 15,000 feet, and some of the camps are as large as frontier towns. A small army of porters, guides and cooks wearing castaway clothing lead small groups of summit aspirants from hut to hut. There is no illusion of self-sufficient wilderness travel, but the cloudy window into local life and economics has its own rewards and the ever- changing terrain keeps interest from flagging.

Climbing Kili is 90% approach and descent. The actual climb consists of grinding up a use trail over scree in the dark and requires only five hours or so to reach the crater rim above 19,000 feet, unless altitude sickness lays you low.

Most groups on the Coca Cola hike to high camp in three days, hoping to arrive at the summit by dawn of the fourth day, an altitude of almost 20,000 feet. This is a prescription for altitude sickness, pulmonary edema, and cerebral edema. Kilimanjaro turns away about half of the climbers trying to rush the summit this way. When someone gets in serious trouble, the guides may try to revive him or her with small cans of O2 before rushing them to lower ground. From the high hut four porters can guide a makeshift gurney composed of metal tubing, wire mesh, and the wheel from a motorcycle down the trail to whisk a sick climber to lower altitude.

The trail to Mandara Hut began at the Marungu Gate, climbing from 5,900' in a classic rainforest replete with vines and hanging moss, more open than the "Heart of Darkness" image from the Congo Basin, but much easier to bash through than a North Cascades valley. Small streams tumbled over waterfalls. A tree hyrax calmly watched me pass from his perch below the canopy. A Forest alive with bird song surrounds Mandara Hut complex.

The trail to Horombo Hut (12,400') climbs over 3000 feet, but again the grade and condition of the trail make for easy hiking. The trail emerges from the forest and sidehills toward the mountain, which appears for the first time on the trek. The trail that girds the mountain intersects the climbing trail at Horombo, and the convergence of hikers traveling to the four corners has created a small city of vagabonds.

After passing through a steep, brushy section, the hike to the Kibo Hut high camp (elevation 15,420') traverses a rocky moonscape of red and black volcanic rock devoid of vegetation. From here the route to the top is evident, the use trail zig zagging through the scree. We can see the remnants of a lone glacier trailing down Kilimanjaro's western rib, but the rest of the slope has no snow or ice.

Climbers went to be early to sleep a few hours before the midnight wake-up call. A large group arrived late and enjoyed a loud, boisterous dinner, undeterred by complaints, tantrums, and threats from the annoyed climbers. By 1 AM 70 people were trudging up the trail under a clear sky, headlamps trained a few feet ahead of their toes. I felt great and passed the throng easily, but a thousand feet from the top, altitude sickness hit me nearly instantaneously. I felt the cold for the first time. My pace slackened lest I lose breakfast and dehydrate myself. I played a grim game, trying to feel good enough to move but bad enough to know I was near the limit. I was determined to be in place to photograph by sunrise no matter what.

We reached the ridge an hour and a half before sunrise. If we hurried, we could make the summit at first light, but I was interested in shooting ice. We hiked on slick, concrete-hard snow. I couldn't see into the crater in the dark. My boots didn't bite at all, I still wobbled a bit from altitude, and I could visualize the slide to the bottom with cinematic clarity.

A few hundred feet below the summit we came to an outlook beside the small glacier I had seen from the Kibo Hut. Since first light would hit it from this angle, I called a halt, grateful to sprawl while waiting for the sun. I shivered as a light breeze stirred volcanic dust.

I got my shots as the eastern sky lit the ice. As always, the best light occurred long before sunrise, getting less and less dramatic until the moment direct light hits the subject when the waning color returns stronger than ever for a few minutes. Although I was close to the summit, I retraced my steps to shoot a dying Eastern Ice Field on the crater rim before the light died altogether. Satisfied, we followed the rim toward the trail down.

We encountered a knot of people surrounded a woman sitting on the ground. An older lady left the group.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"She can't breathe," she said as she passed us, heading for the top.

The group murmured encouragement while a guide prepared a small canister of oxygen the size of canned air for cleaning camera gear. I couldn't see how we could help as there were plenty of people with her, so we descended through the scree, which absorbed the impact of our steps like soft snow.

Back at Kibo, we rested for a couple hours before continuing down to Horobo. I swapped my mountaineering boots for a pair of Crocs to give my feet a rest. As we packed up, four guides strapped the woman we had seen on the rim onto the gurney. They trotted down the trail, a guide at each corner. I'm sure they arrived in the parking lot before sundown, thus saving her life with $10 dollars in parts instead of a helicopter.

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