A Trek up Mount Kilimanjaro 1) Ascent to Shira

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Thursday, March 11, 1999

Mt. Kilimanjaro has fascinated me ever since I read Ernest Hemingway's classic novella, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro".  Little did I know as a schoolboy that I would one day walk its slopes.  As it turned out my journey to the Roof of Africa was one of my greatest travel experiences. 

Some facts about the mountain:  At 19340 feet (5895 m) above sea level, Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa.   Even though the mountain is near the equator, it's so tall the summit is always covered by ice and snow ("Kili" means cold.); this snow-pack is an important source of water for the foliage and animals living around its base.  The lower slopes of the mountain are fertile and yield coffee, plantains and timber.   These crops and the revenue tourism generates are important for the economy of the villagers who live at its base.

Mt. Kilimanjaro was formed by fusion of three extinct volcanoes (Kibo -- 19340'; Mawenzi --16896'; Shira -- 13000').   It is one of the Seven Summits (those peaks that dominate each continent).  Kilimanjaro is also one of the largest free standing mountains in the world having a base that is over 50 miles wide.   Part of what makes Kilimanjaro a unique place to visit is that summiting this tall peak does not require technical mountaineering expertise.  You can literally walk to the top (although in places some fixed ropes would be handy).  It's a fairly safe trip although as with any mountain and high altitude there's always some danger.

A trek up Kilimanjaro can not be done alone, as one might to a peak in North America.  The Tanzanian government requires that you hire a guide and porters to accompany you on the ascent.    Fortunately all these arrangements had been made will in advance by our tour company, Wilderness Travel.  So after completing our Tanzanian safari, which stretched from Serengeti National Park to Lake Manyara National Park, we drove to the trail-head on the eastern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, some 7500' above sea level.  Between guides, cooks and porters, around 80 people (of whom 10 were clients) began our week-long ascent of the mountain.  It seemed we were part of a small village on the move.

There are several routes up Mt. Kilimanjaro most of which are very steep and get you to the summit in a few days.  For all but the most experienced climbers these are not the best routes as they have a less than 50% summiting rate.  The best route for most (fit) tourists is via the Shira Plateau & Western Breach, a route pioneered by (among others) mountaineering legend, Scott Fischer (who had died a few years earlier on the slopes of Mt. Everest).  The Shira route provides a more gradual ascent (over seven days) on the southwestern slopes of the mountain allowing time for proper acclimatization to the high altitude and providing a summiting success rate that exceeds 90%.   

When climbing the mountain you pass through four distinct climate zones, starting with jungle around the base and ascending to moorland, tundra-like desert and finally an Arctic environment near the summit.  This transitioning of vegetation zones adds to the fascination of being on the mountain.

The first day and a half are spent climbing through a thick and humid rain-forest, the Kilimanjaro National Forest Reserve.  We saw lots of birds and monkeys and fresh elephant dung but did not directly encounter any large animals.  It had rained and the trail was slick, muddy and dangerous (sharp macheted stumps protrude from the ground adjoining the trail, much like sharp spears).  The porters and cooks lead the way, off early and usually quickly out of sight until we encountered them at the end of the day, our camp set up and cozy tents awaiting our arrival.  The service we were provided by this staff was superb and let us focus on just carrying out day packs, water bottles and cameras.  This allowed for a much easier ascent and lots of time to enjoy the experience of being on the mountain. 

Our ascent from the jungle took us through a large area of recently burned out moorland (fire moved through here just a month earlier) in which we walked half a day.  It was a rainy dreary day and the mist limited our visibility, though there was not much to see except for ashes.  But as we reached the rim of the Shira plateau (around 11,600'), the clouds broke and we were exposed to a beautiful extinct volcanic crater.   The vegetation is thick but mostly bush and grasses.  Much of the vegetation here is unique to the mountain and some exotic and beautiful plants were found.  We spent two nights on the plateau to help with the acclimatization process.  The first camp was Shira Ridge camp at around 11,500'.  The second camp was "Fischer's camp" on the eastern edge of the plateau at around 13,000', named in honor of famed mountaineer and trailblazer, Scott Fischer.  The camp provides wonderful views of the glaciated peak of Kilimanjaro and of the Shira plateau. 

By the time we reached the Shira plateau many of us were feeling mild altitude sickness (loss of appetite, mild nausea and headache), but good hydration has prevented any serious illness to this point.  The scenery and little things -- like the zillions of star in the clear night skies, or cries of monkeys in the distance -- all helped make for a special journey.

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