Mt. Kilimanjaro – A Primer, The Prouty Mountaineering Program

Mt. Kilimanjaro – A Primer, The Prouty Mountaineering Program

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Mt. Kilimanjaro – A Primer

19,341 Feet

The Prouty Mountaineering Program
(the first Prouty Challenge Event benefitting Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center)

December 9, 2012

Wes Chapman

The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 1937

“Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai”, the house of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

Preface of, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway, 1938



I read these words when I was 16, and they poured gasoline on the fires of my youthful climbing ambitions. I’d knocked around the mountains of Maine and New Hampshire, and loved it, but suddenly this was all different – Kilimanjaro was a place apart.  The sheer altitude of the mountain and the mystery of the leopard – a creature out of place – driven by unknowable motivations – I found the entire adventure absolutely compelling.

To my simultaneous joy and misery, I feel the same way today – 41 years and maybe a thousand mountains later. There is something about this Hill that sets a hook you just can’t dislodge.


The Snows of Kilimanjaro 2010

Kilimanjaro is uniquely solitary – a mountain of superlatives. It is the tallest standalone mountain on earth, the second tallest of the volcanic 7 summits, and the 4th most prominent mountain in the world. Kilimanjaro is a very young mountain – only 750,000 years old, formed of a “hot Spot” along the rift zone between the Victoria and Somalia plates. To put the relative youth of the mountain in perspective, there has been human habitation in the area for over 2 million years – this may be the only place on earth where humans antedate the mountain that they live on. The mountain is the classic strato volcano shape, with 3 integrated cones – Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira – and slopes at the angle of repose of 33°.

Kilimanjaro is located in Tanzania, just 3° off the Equator on the Kenyan border. There are 6 major trails to the summit, and the one we are climbing – Machame – is longer, more scenic and steeper in portions than the others – Marangu, Rongai, Lemosho, Shira, and Umbwe.


The Machame Route on Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro is a hike – no mountaineering gear, training or skills are required. As I’m fond of saying, it is the highest mountain in the world that can be readily climbed by middle aged people who have jobs. But the mountain is extremely high, and many more people have died climbing on Kilimanjaro than Everest. While Everest might get 300 climbers in a big year, normally over 20,000 climb Kilimanjaro annually, so the comparison must be probability adjusted. Most of the deaths on Kilimanjaro are from acute mountain sickness – either high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). With the exception of a few remaining ice climbing routes, it is really hard to be injured or killed in a fall on Kilimanjaro, but almost certain to suffer some ill effects from altitude.

Tanzanian officials report that the success rate of summiting is around 40%, but I feel that is a very low estimate which includes day trippers – I’d guess that more like 75-80% of serious climbers make the summit. The keys are to take enough time on the Hill to acclimate properly – at least 5 days at altitude before the summit push – and walk very slowly – pole pole in Swahili. It also helps to be reasonably physically fit.

There are two seasons for hiking, December – March and May through October. These are dictated by the rainy seasons rather than temperature variation. The temperatures on the Hill are largely a function of elevation – with tropical temperatures and vegetation at the base, and below zero temperatures encountered in the summit crater at night.


Camping in the crater of Kilimanjaro at 18,500 ft.

The famous glaciers at the summit are a function of precipitation and temperature, and some combination of higher temperatures and lower precipitation are reducing the glaciers at a rate of 2.5% per annum. The glacial ice has retreated over 80% in the last 100 years, and is estimated to be completely gone in the next 20-25. There has been ice in the crater of Kilimanjaro for at least the last 11,000 years, and with luck, we’ll live to see the last of it.

Kilimanjaro is a classic Afromontane sky island – its unique alpine environment literally grew in place, separated from other high and cold environment. Consequently, it has enormous biodiversity (over 1,200 species of vascular plants) and a number of unique sub-species. It is the highest cloud rainforest in Africa, and offers the climber the odd spectacle of looking down from the high camps on the tops of thunderstorms occurring on the slopes below – very cool. Trade winds blowing from the east over the Indian Ocean cool as they blow up and over the mountain, producing enormous amounts of precipitation – particularly in the rainy season.


Guide Seke Godson beside some very old, fast melting ice

Kilimanjaro was first climbed in 1889 by a German geologist, Hans Meyer, and an Austrian mountaineer, Ludwig Purtscheller. Imperial Germany had taken vast areas of East Africa by force of arms in the last half of the 19th century, and in keeping with the cultural sensitivities of the era, they named the peak Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze (Kaiser Wilhelm Peak), a name which stuck until after WW I and the passing of the territory to British rule. .

Tanzania was formed in 1964, through the political merger of the recently independent Tanganyika and the island nation of Zanzibar. Zanzibar was an Arab trading port since the first millennium, and was the center of the Arab slave trade. At its peak in the 19th century, up to 90% of the indigenous population was enslaved. There is a fairly substantial Indian and Portuguese trade influence on the coast as well.

Like many nations in Africa it is defined by European colonial boundaries, and includes over 120 separate ethnic groups – all in a country of 42 million people, roughly the size of Texas and New Mexico combined. Tanzania has two official languages (English and Swahili), with each ethnic group pretty much having its own local tongue. The political system is based on a predictable one party system, but Tanzania sports an amazingly complicated and robust judiciary, with five levels of courts, administering three types of law – English Common Law, Islamic Law and Tribal Law. Topping it all off, Arusha (at the base of Kilimanjaro) serves as the seat for the adjudication of International Crimes for Africa – genocide and the like – and is unfortunately routinely busy.

The economy is typical – supported by mining, agriculture and tourism – both big game safaris and climbing Kilimanjaro. To an amazing degree, Kilimanjaro ties the country together. Tanzanians love this mountain – they renamed the summit Uhuru (freedom) and send runners up to the summit with flaming torches at every conceivable event. It forms the foundation on the nation Coat of Arms – the same way that Mozambique’s includes AK47. People in Tanzania identify with Kilimanjaro in much the same way that the good citizens of Roswell, NM identify with space aliens – it’s who they are and it’s why people come to visit.

Picture 6-1

Uhuru Peak – Sweet Success, 2010

Finally, the origins of the name Kilimanjaro may shed some light on the mystery of the leopard noted in Hemingway’s iconic preface to The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro is clearly a composite word, and is the European interpretation of the various words used by the indigenous people for the mountain. “Kilima-Njaro” is a direct modern translation which means mountain of greatness. There are a lot of other possible interpretations in more archaic origins, but my favorite is the combination of “Kileman-Jaro” – mountain that defeats the leopard.


Jambo, from Kileman-Jaro

Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

8 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    December 11, 2012

    Wes, what a fantastic mini-history of the mountain. Rich with detail, lore, and personal insights, it quite takes one away – right to the heart of Tanzania and the summit of the mountain that bested the leopard. Thank you for this mini-trip for those of us who can’t get away. Have a fantastic trip – regards to all in the party.


  2. Avatar
    December 11, 2012

    Happy hiking Wes; keep the blogs coming so I can enjoy my vicarious climb up the hill.


  3. Avatar
    December 11, 2012

    Great post and great memories. Enjoy every minute.

    Pole! Pole!



  4. Avatar
    December 11, 2012

    GO, CHAINSAW, GO !!!! Mulderig and I are pulling for you as we recall our own trek up Kili 17 years ago … never found the leopard but found a somewhat dried out cow at about 12K by the Castle rocks. Wonderful summary of Kili and loving the posts! JT


  5. Avatar
    December 11, 2012

    Wes, thanks for another deeply engaging and edifying read. I see much more clearly why this summit draws you to it. “In boca al lupo!”, as they say in Italian. In English: good luck!


  6. Avatar
    December 11, 2012

    I’ll spot you Four pair of hiking boots for your charity, if you’d be so kind as to say a small prayer of appreciation at the summit for those people who’ve had their prayers answered and survived this awful disease and for those who’ve received the answer to their prayers and discovered the initial diagnosis was wrong.

    One quick question…

    Was it a male or a female leopard?

    Hi Boy.


  7. Avatar
    December 11, 2012

    Hey Wes

    Have a blast on the hill. When are you going to take up bullfighting and auto racing so you can become the complete Hemingway sportsman?

    Zanzibar is also great place for post-climb R&R on the beach with fabulous seafood and has a historic New England connection. It was the center of another sordid Arab industry-Ivory. The slaves were used as beasts of burden to pack out the tusks from the interior then sold along with the ivory. The carnage included the Kilimanjaro tusks which at 454 lbs were the largest ever recorded. Thankfully, none of the former were sold in New England but 90% of the American tusk trade made it’s way up the Connecticut River to Ivoryton where it became piano keys and billiard balls.

    All the best


  8. Avatar
    December 12, 2012

    hi Wes,
    Wishing you the very best and happy summiting!!