Dare to dream: climbing Kilimanjaro

by Jon Surmacz on December 23, 2005

It all started in Sacramento on October 30, 2003, when a great friend and I witnessed (the word “saw” just doesn’t do it justice) the IMAX film Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa. After that experience, I realized that someday I had to climb that mountain. With a little luck and a new exercise regimen, this dream will come true for me in the summer of 2006.

The snowy peak of Mount Kilimanjaro rises majestically above the gently rolling hills and plateaus of northern Tanzania, its slopes shimmering above the rising clouds. The mountain’s ecosystems are as beautiful as they are varied: five distinct climate zones from the base of the mountain to the summit. The thick lowland forest that covers the lower portions of the mountain breaks into lush meadows as the air begins to thin out. Closer to the summit, the landscape is a barren expanse of rocks and ice. From here, the view of Africa stretched out below you is breathtaking.

Hiking on the “Rooftop of Africa” — at 19,340 feet, it is the highest point on the continent — is the adventure of a lifetime. Provided the trek is well paced, everyone from seasoned trekkers to first-time enthusiasts can scale Kilimanjaro all the way to her snowy peak. But if you are to experience this thrill, you need to go soon. Scientists warn that global warming may eliminate the snowcap in as few as 10 years. Once this happens, our planet will have lost another natural wonder, just as we lost the Yangtze River in China.

“Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa” was perhaps the most moving movie I have ever seen, and I want to literally trek in the footsteps of filmmaker David Breashears. After a little research I found I could do that with an outfit that Breashears himself endorses: Thomson Safaris, based in Watertown, Mass. Their nine-day “Western Breach Route” follows the route taken by Breashears and his crew when they filmed the movie.

Come along and dream with me.

Day 1. After a hearty breakfast and a briefing, we’ll head to the Londorossi Gate (elevation: 5,900 feet) to begin the day’s four-hour climb. This first trekking day is through dense rainforest (it receives an average of 80 inches of precipitation a year) under a tangled canopy of moss-coated vines, which are home to black-and-white colobus monkeys, blue monkeys, and a vibrant array of exotic birds. When we reach camp, in the lower heather belt, we get a hot dinner in the mess tent. This night is spent at Forest Camp, at 9,500 feet.

Day 2. Once out of the forest, we’ll take a steep track into a savannah of tall grasses, heather and volcanic rock draped with lichen beards. We’ll climb through the lush rolling hills below the Shira Plateau, finally reaching camp at the edge of the plateau after six hours on the trail. The view of Kilimanjaro from across the plateau is amazing. We’ll bunk down at Shira 1 Camp, at 12,200 feet.

Day 3. Our third day is a full four hours of hiking but not too much climbing, so there is time to fully explore the Shira Plateau. Shira is one of the highest plateaus on earth, with an average elevation of 12,500 feet. We trek east toward Kilimanjaro’s glaciated peak, finally arriving at Shira 2 Camp, at 12,600 feet.

Day 4. After breakfast we’ll head out on a four-hour hike across the Shira Ridge en route to Moir Camp. The camp is nestled below a large bluff surrounded by cliffs in the upper heather zone at 13,800 feet.

Day 5. Day 5 will be a difficult day as we proceed steadily upward over expansive ridgelines of high desert to our camp, which is set in a striking spot at the base of Lava Tower (yes, Kilimanjaro is a volcano). If any energy remains, I might test my ardor by climbing to the top of Lava Tower for some of the most spectacular panoramas on the trek. Day 5 has us sleeping at Lava Tower Camp, at 15,100 feet.

Day 6. Today we get a taste of a mountain range with freezing temperatures and snow squalls. The trek is only two hours to Arrow Glacier Camp, but we will have climbed another thousand feet. All that remains here of the Arrow Glacier and Little Breach Glacier are some snow patches and terminal moraine, but nowhere on the mountain is there a more spectacular view of the Western Breach headwall, which glows red in the setting sun.

Day 7. This is the roughest hiking day: eight solid hours in frigid terrain. We will be on our way by 6 a.m. and will climb to our next station at 18,750 feet, spending the night at Crater Camp. The camp is set in the wide crater of Kilimanjaro’s summit, in an arctic moonscape.

Day 8. This is the culmination of the trek, the last 600 feet to Uhuru Peak, at 19,340 feet. This is the reason people climb mountains: the sheer wonder and exhilaration of being up so high, with the world spread out below you. After spending some time at the top of Africa, we’ll start back down. Over the course of the afternoon, we will descend nearly 10,000 feet. We’ll spend the night at Mweka Camp, at 11,000 feet.

Day 9. We’ll finish our descent with a two- to three-hour hike through the rainforest to the Mweka Gate, where we will be met and returned to the lodge for a much-needed shower and some merry convalescence.

Make no mistake, this is not your average vacation. There are no beaches, no umbrella drinks, no cathedrals, no theme parks, no king-size beds and no in-room bar. While some may consider a roadside motel roughing it, this trip gives you the real deal. You do need to be in reasonable shape to be able to withstand the changes in altitude, and you will need to keep pushing yourself further and harder, but the rewards are substantial.

Very few people get to realize their dreams, but this summer I will. Hmm … I wonder what my friend from Sacramento is doing for two weeks in July.

John Frenaye

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