This week, we’re “off” to Africa, to lay imaginary tracks down the majestic and enormous Kilimanjaro volcano in beautiful Tanzania. Now – a bit of clarification – we’re not getting on a plane or anything…I’m still writing this from Tahoe. I wasn’t very clear last week and some of my mates from NZ thought I was in town to ski Taranaki – I wish!
Sadly, until Robert Redford starts reading this series and thinks “man, what a great indie film doco it would make to go ski 10 exotic volcanoes and make a film about it!” the trips will be taken within the confines of my, and your, imaginations. Sorry about that, but hopefully you’re still willing to take the mental voyage.
Kilimanjaro volcano rises a staggering 5,895m or 19,340 feet above sea level, standing as the highest equatorial volcano on Earth, and earning it the honor of being one of the Seven Summits as hte highest point on the African continent. The mountain has several different names. The Masai call it Oldoinyo Oibor, meaning “white mountain. To the Swahili, it is Kilima Njaro, meaning “shining mountain.”
Geologic Background and Eruptive History
Kili lies at the far eastern end of a chain of ~20 volcanoes that run through Africa’s Great Rift Valley, also known as the East African Rift. Some of its notable neighbors include Odoinyo Lengai, a sodium-lava (carbonitite) volcano, and the famous Nyiragongo caldera in the Democratic Republic of Congo which inundated that nation’s capital, Goma, with lava flows in 2002-2004.
Boasting 17,000 feet of relief, Kilimanjaro is said to consist of 1,150 cubic miles of erupted lava. If you spread that out over Lake Tahoe, it would represent lava 6 miles deep. The earliest recorded major eruption of Kili was 360,000 years ago, and the most recent activity beyond degassing was in the late 1800s (although reports of ash at the summit ~200 years ago are unconfirmed).
Kili has not had an explosive eruption in modern times. The volcano consists of three separate stratovolcanoes that lie upon one another in a NW to SE trend. The tallest and most recently active cone is Kibo. Lying 7-8 miles to it’s west is Shira which is topped by a broad plateau. Lying to the east of Kibo is Mawenzi, which is a rough, steep-sided peak surrounded by tall cliffs.
At the top of Kibo lies a suite of nested calderas, which are still active in the sense that they are constantly venting steam via several fumaroles. The overall caldera complex is 2.4 by 3.6 km in size. There are over 250 satellite volcanic cones on Kili, and they are sprinkled around the volcano but lie mostly on a NW-SE trending line, following the overall trend of the Rift Valley.
Global Warming and Glacial Melt?
As far back into history as 12,000 years ago and up until the late 1880s, the upper reaches of Kilimanjaro was entirely covered with snow and ice. Several different glaciers even cascaded down the volcano, depositing their ice into rushing rives and streams on the mountain’s flanks. One such glacier, the Furtwangler glacier, is located near Uhuru, the summit of Kili. The Furtwangler and it’s neighbor glaciers are but sorry specks of the once massive ice cap that covered the entire summit of the volcano. Scientists forecast that the retreat of all of the ice on Kili will occur in the next 8 years. So if you have plans to ski this volcano – you had better get yourself together and head to Africa ASAP.
NOVA ran a great program about the vanishing ice of Kilimanjaro in 2003, which you can watch on their website here. Is the retreat of the glaciers caused by global warming? The answer is yes. Is the global warming the result of man-made influence on the climate? I’m not touching that one with a ten foot pole! But it is beyond debate that the ice on Kili is vanishing – and fast.
The first recorded attempt by Europeans at climbing the volcano was in 1861 by the German Baron Carl Claus von der Decken along with British geologist Richard Thornton. Several other parties attempted the summit in that period, but none were successful until 1889 when German professor Hans Meyer and Austrian climber Ludwig Purtscheller made the summit on October 6th. Over twenty years went by until people set foot on the top of Africa, and today, thousands of trekkers make the summit.
Climbing Kili takes you through six discrete ecological zones. Your trek begins in the tropical forests that lie between 1850 and 2800m in elevation. After you pass 3,200m you enter the expansive moorlands, until you crest 4,000m and walk through the alpine deserts. The overall slope of the volcano steepens to 30 degrees above 13,000 feet. Above 5,000m, plant life is relegated to lichens, and you encounter the first remnants of glaciers. Thanks to our friends at NOVA, you can even take a virtual tour of the six ecological zones of the volcano on their website.
There are many available routes to climb Kili – Marangu, Machame, Lemosho, Umbwe, Shira, and Rongai (Naro Moru). Marangu is the main tourist route and is the most popular. This means it is the easiest, and this the most crowded. This route takes five days to complete, and there are sleeping huts with beds for every one of those nights. They even sell chocolates, sodas, and beer at every single camp. Luxury!
Machame is the most “scenic” route. Lemosho is unspoiled and goes through forests that might be inhabited by cape buffalo and elephants, thus requiring a park ranger and a high powered rifle for your protection. Umbwe is the shortest route but also the most difficult. There are caves on this route by the first night’s camp location, but beware of bats that might have the Ebola virus.
The Shira route allows an approach by 4×4 to over 4,000 meters (13,100 feet). You’ll need to allow an extra day at your first camp to acclimatise unless you have red blood cells like Chris Davenport’s. Rongai route departs from Kenya, but you must pay the appropriate fees to the Tanzanian park at the Marangu gate. Only ascent is allowed on this route, as the Marangu route must be used for descent. This route also has caves. The Mweka route may only be used as a means of descent after an ascent of any of the western routes.
Now here’s the rub – skiing and snowboarding are NOT ALLOWED on Kilimanjaro. The official policy of the National Park is that “no pleasure devices” are allowed. This means no skis, no snowboards, no paragliders, etc. Has Kilimanjaro been skied before?
Yes. Snowboarder Stephen Koch became the first person to snowboard the volcano along with photographer Wade McKoy in 1997 by smuggling his snowboard up the mountain in the dark of night. He experienced gripping turns on 40 degree blue ice, and had to unstrap halfway down oh the second day during the descent because it became too steep to keep going:
The sun soon gave way to fog, which led to 20% visibility, and the sound of my board on the ice was like a front end loader on blacktop. Nevertheless, after a couple hours of descent, we got back to the bivy at 17,800 feet. It was cold and I was stiff and sore. From here on out the slope steepened, eventually smoothing out and becoming more exposed. Now riding with a 25-pound pack, the hardest part was still ahead of me. While I had thoughts of downclimbing, I knew I would have always wondered if I could have done it. I had to try.
The first few turns were treacherous, but then I found my rhythm and was having a blast turning in front of the Breach Icicle. The crux, though, at 17,500 feet was too steep even to sideslip with the ice axes. I took my back foot out and put on a crampon and using that, my board as an anchor, and the axes, I blurred the line between climbing and boarding. When the angle mellowed I was able to strap my snowboard back on and ride again until the bottom of the glacier, which was too icy, forcing us to downclimb to our camp at 15,500 feet.
You can read the full account of his adventure here.
Skis would be harder to smuggle up a mountain, but you know what would be perfect? Snowblades! You could be the first person to snowblade Africa’s member of the Seven Summits, and also probably the highest snowblader in the world while doing it. Who wouldn’t want that accolade for their resume?
As one of the Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro is well-trodden. Numerous tour companies compete for your business to be able to lead you to Uhuru. Rates range from $1200-$1900 depending on your route choice, and whether you are solo or in a small group.
Here’s some links to a few tour companies:
First though you need to get yourself and your gear (remember, no skis or “pleasure devices”, they are ILLEGAL!) to Tanzania. Reno to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania will run you around $1600 as a base fare. You’re probably going to want to upgrade that one to first class, in anticipation of the fame to come from your about-to-blow-up snowblading career.
Where to Check in with the Local Scientists
Kilimanjaro is monitored by the Geological Survey of Tanzania, but not directly. Back in August, the government of Tanzania gave notice that they were to begin a study of Kibo at the top of Kilimanjaro to see if there were any signs of the volcano reawakening. I wasn’t able to find much on whether this survey has begun, or what the particulars are, but the GST states on their geohazards page that they are concerned only with monitoring landslide hazards on Kili.
Given the fact that Kilimanjaro is so well traveled (celebrities even climbed it to raise $ for charity in a reality show), it is fair to surmise that an resurgence in activity would be noticed and reported, and the park would most certainly be closed. Unlike some of the other volcanoes I have written about for this series, where you would be well and truly out in the wilderness on your own, on Kili you will probably be surrounded by large groups of people led by knowledgeable guides. This is now, however, an excuse to not keep your wits about you and remember that you are climbing an active and very, very tall volcano.
If any hazards escalate, the GST will report about them on their website.
For live, real-time volcano monitoring, there’s a webcam here. Good luck, be safe, and have fun!