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Kilimanjaro is a stratovolcano that lies approximately 80 km (50 miles) east of the tectonically active Rift Valley. Its geologic age is relatively young at less than a million years old. The ash pit is the highest volcanic centre and is thought to be only several hundred years old as evidenced by the residual volcanic activity in the form of steam and sulphur fumaroles.
South Slope of Kilimanjaro
There are 3 volcanic cones on the mountain, namely Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo. Shira and Mawenzi became inactive before Kibo and Kibo remains the best preserved of the three cones. Kibo itself has 3 concentric craters and the outer crater rim rises to its highest elevation at Uhuru Point. The other 2 craters are called the Reusch Crater and the ash pit. Neither of the two inner craters are visible from the summit.
The outer crater was breached by lava numerous times during Kilimanjaro's active phases. It was one of these events that created the visually stunning Western Breach. Ascending Kilimanjaro via the Western Breach is more challenging than the other walk up routes and is the only non-technical route that offers scrambling with minimal to moderate exposure.
The breach viewed from Barranco
The Western Breach of Kilimanjaro was closed in 2006 after rock fall killed 3 Americans. The route remained closed while the circumstances surrounding the deaths were investigated. The investigation concluded that the route used by the victims spent considerable time in an area prone to rock fall caused by melting ice. The report recommended a new route up the breach that reduced the time in the danger zone to about 5 minutes from the 60 minutes required by the old route. The report also recommended departing from the Arrow Glacier Camp early enough in the day so that the danger zone would be crossed before sunrise. The sub-freezing night temperatures are critical to safe passage as they greatly reduce the severity and frequency of rock fall in the danger zone
Since the conclusion of the investigation the Tanzanian park authorities implemented the recommendations of the report and the route has been re-opened.
The breach is the least used non-technical route on the mountain. The breach route can be approached via the Machame, Shira, Lemosho, or Umbwe routes. On day 3 or 4 of the climb the route changes and camp is set at either the Lava Tower or Arrow Glacier Camp. From this point until the summit is reached there will be virtually no traffic. We did not see any other groups during our last three nights before summiting. We approached the breach via the Machame route which is visually stunning. For a small sacrifice in scenery one could use the Lemosho route and eliminate the traffic associated with the first three days of the Machame route.
We flew to Kilimanjaro International Airport via Amsterdam. Alternatives to this are to fly via Nairobi if you are departing from a different EU country. One detail that can save some time at the airport is to get your visa in advance. This lets you skip the long line at the airport after you land and you proceed straight through customs.
To get your visa in advance download the application form (just Google "Tanzanian Visa" and you will find it) and courier your passport with the completed form and money order to the nearest Tanzanian Embassy. You also need to include a prepaid return courier envelope. We did this and had our passports back with the visas in 2 weeks. The fee is $50US for non-US citizens and $100US for US citizens. You will also need to include 2 passport type photos with the application.
Day1 - Arusha National Park - Slope of Mt. Meru - Elevation 6800 feet (2070 metres)
From the airport we drove to a tented camp on Mt. Meru inside Arusha National Park. The camp was located at about 6800 feet (all elevations on route based on a cheap Garmin GPS). This is considerably higher than the elevation in Arusha (4600 feet - 1400 metres) or Moshi (2900 feet - 890 metres). I think that spending the first two nights at this elevation allowed a safer and more efficient acclimatization on the mountain.
Arusha National Park
We did not arrive until about 11:00 pm local time and after 30 hours in transit from Toronto I do not remember too much other than it felt good to finally lie down.
Day 2 - Arusha National Park - Slope of Mt. Meru - Elevation 6800 feet (2070 metres)
We woke up at about 7:00 am to a great breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, pancakes, local fruits and juice. An hour or so after breakfast our head guide visited us to inspect all of our gear to make sure it met with his approval. He was most interested in a pair of Kathoola micro spikes that I had brought. They were a just in case item as the breach can often have some snow and ice on it. In fact he actually said right to me that he would be most grateful if I would leave them after the trip (which I did).
After our gear inspection we relaxed until about 11:30 and then ate another delicious meal. After the meal we took an acclimatization hike up to about 9000 feet (2740 metres) and then returned to camp for dinner and a beautiful sunset. Mt Meru is a beautiful place and is worth a visit if your schedule allows.
Mt Meru Hike
Day 3 - Machame Gate to Machame Hut - 6000 feet (1830 metres) to 9840 feet (3000 metres) - 18km (11 miles) - 4.5 hours
After another great breakfast we began the drive to the Machame gate at about 8:00 am. Once we had descended to about 3000 feet (915 metres) and before we began climbing again our guide checked our pulse rates and blood oxygen saturation. My stats were pulse - 45, O2 Sat - 98%. I think this is pretty normal but I do not actually know - in any event the guide seemed happy with it.
Once at the gate we had to wait around for about an hour getting permits and signing a waiver saying we knew about the rock fall danger associated with the breach. Finally at about 11:00 am we started hiking. Our guide was continually telling us to slow down (Pole, Pole). This would become a familiar mantra and I am sure everyone who has been to Kibo knows it. We arrived at the Machame hut at about 4:00 pm and checked in with the ranger on duty there. Our porters had our tent set up and snacks and hot drinks were waiting. Although not something I would want to do too often, the porter thing was a nice break from the typical backpacking and canoe trips I usually take.
The vegetation at this point had switched from the rainforest at the start to giant heather. The weather was sunny and warm (probably about 75F or 23C). After dinner the guide checked our pulse and oxygen levels again - pulse 51, O2 sat 95%.
Day 4 - Machame Hut to Shira Camp - 9840 feet (3000 metres) to 12650 feet (3850 metres) - 5km (3 miles) - 4 hours
We woke up at 7:00 am and found that there was patchy frost on the ground. The temperature quickly rose and by the time we left at 8:30 am the sun had made it quite comfortable outside. Our guide set a noticeably slower pace and it was a very relaxing hike to our next camp. The vegetation was slowly transitioning from tall heather to shorter heather and mosses. Once at camp we were treated to our first views of the Western Breach in the distance.
Breach viewed from Shira Plateau
After a great dinner we did our ritual pulse and oxygen checks. Pulse - 53, O2 Sat 94%. So far so good, no noticeable adverse altitude symptoms for either my wife or I.
Although the traffic on the Machame route can be quite heavy it was interesting to meet some of the people and to here where they were from. Lots of Europeans, Americans and a few Aussies but we never met any other Canadians.
Day 5 - Shira Camp to Barranco Camp - 12650 feet (3850 metres) to 13000 feet (3960 metres) - 10km (6 miles) - 6 hours
We woke up to another day of perfect weather and maintained our leisurely pace. We stopped at the Lava Tower (15,100 feet - 4600 metres) for lunch. It looked like it would be fun to climb but my wife was not feeling quite right at this point so we decided to press on to our next camp.
The trail between Lava Tower and Barranco has hundreds of outlandish giant senecio and lobelia plants. They are fascinating examples of adaptation. They absorb heat during the day and have a type of wool insulation that keeps them warm through the freezing night temperatures.
Depending on your schedule some trips camp at Lava Tower and then move directly to the Arrow Glacier Camp the next day. We added an extra day to our schedule so we could "climb high sleep low" to try and maximize our acclimatization. We figured this way we would have more energy to explore the crater.
After we reached Barranco my wife retired directly to our tent and skipped dinner as she was not feeling well. I did the ritual pulse and oxygen readings. Pulse 58, O2 Sat 94%. The guide did not seem to worried about my wife as her O2 Sat was at 91%. He indicated that this was fine given the elevation.
During the night my wife begin a brutal bout of vomiting and diarrhoea about every 20 minutes for about 10 hours. In the morning she managed to keep some immodium and cirpo down. The guide suggested she try to sleep for a few hours and then see how she felt. The guide felt that it was microbiological in nature and not altitude. After a few hours rest my wife indicated that although nauseous she wanted to continue.
Day 6 - Barranco Camp to Arrow Glacier Camp - 13000 feet (3960 metres)to 16000 feet (4875 metres) - 5km (3 miles) - 5 hours
My wife slowly managed the days hike although she was clearly dehydrated and nauseous. By the end of the day she was managing to keep small amounts of water, immodium and cirpro down. Once we reached camp she retired directly to our tent and skipped dinner again. Through the night she continued to improve and was able to drink more water but was still unable to eat anything.
Once we departed Barranco Camp we left all the traffic behind and had the trail completely to ourselves. The Arrow Glacier Camp is located at the base of the Western Breach and enjoys spectacular sunsets and views of the Lava Tower and the Shira Plain - and we had it all to ourselves.
In clear weather Mt Meru 80km (50 miles) away is clearly visible. The terrain here is barren rock with little or no plant life. Temperatures at night dropped to about 15F or -10C.
Arrow Glacier Camp
Sunset at Arrow Glacier Camp
Interesting fact: The Arrow Glacier Camp is where Ann Curry (host of the Today Show) had to abort her attempt due to altitude sickness. She was hoping to broadcast a show live from the summit on climate change.
Dinner time stats - Pulse 56, O2 Sat 92%.
Day 7 - Acclimatize and Rest at Arrow Glacier Camp
We had a leisurely sleep in to about 8:00am. My wife was further recovered and was able to eat some food at breakfast. It appeared the guide was correct and it was microbiological in nature and the cipro and immodium appeared to be working.
After breakfast we took a short hike part way up the breach to 16,700 feet (5090 metres) to help acclimatize. After the hike my wife continued to rest and recover while I went exploring and climbing the odd bit of rock here and there. Just before dinner our guide gave a safety demonstration on how the emergency oxygen and gammow bag would be used if necessary. He made it very clear that if he decided someone needed oxygen than that person would be descending immediately and that the oxygen was not there to help anybody summit.
Rest Day at Arrow Glacier Camp
Around dinner time it clouded over and began to snow. The following morning there was about an inch (2 or 3 centimetres) of accumulation. Good thing I brought those micro spikes for the breach climb. More interestingly there were some type of cat tracks outside of our tents. Our guide thought they were leopard but said he had never seen leopard tracks at this elevation before.
Once again we had this beautiful camp all to ourselves
Day 8 - Arrow Glacier Camp to Crater Camp - 16000 feet (4875 metres)to 18800 feet(5730 metres) - 2km (1.2 miles) - 5 hours
We woke up at 4:30 am, had a quick breakfast and were hiking by 5:00 am. My wife appeared to be fully recovered with a normal appetite.
The bottom section of the breach is steep loose scree that slowly gives way to steeper firmer rock. The top third of the climb involved scrambling with minimal to moderate exposure. Because of the snow that had fallen overnight I was grateful for the micro spikes on the bottom of my boots. Strictly speaking they were not necessary but they definitely made it easier. In two places our guide actually used his ice axe to cut steps. I think this may have been more for the porters who are poorly equipped and carrying heavy loads.
View looking down the breach
We reached the rim of the outer crater at about 10:00 am. It was like climbing into another world. I have never been anywhere that seemed so alien. We spent the remainder of the day exploring the Furtwangler Glacier, The Reusch Crater and the Ash Pit. The rim of the Reusch Crater is at about 19200 feet (5850). This is only 140 feet (45 metres) below the summit elevation. The Ash Pit is in the centre of the Reusch Crater and is 1300 feet (400 metres) wide and 425 feet (130 metres) deep and is complete with stinking sulphur and steam fumaroles. If you are particularly energetic you can even trek to the Northern and Eastern Ice Fields.
The Ash Pit in the Reusch Crater
The Furtwangler Glacier
Prior to attempting the breach it is very important to assess acclimatization as the Crater Camp at 18800 feet (5730 metres) is very high and sleeping at this elevation can be very dangerous if acclimatization is in doubt. Another concern is due to the nature of the route. There is a point of no return about 500 feet (150 metres) below the rim of the crater where if evacuation becomes necessary the only way out is to go up and then hike 1.5km (1 mile) across the crater before descent can begin.
Dinner time stats - Pulse 62, O2 Sat 82%. This was the first time on the trip that I felt like I noticed the altitude. I had a minor headache in the afternoon that quickly resolved with 400 mg of Ibuprofen.
Temperature overnight dropped to 4F (-16C) and once again not only did we have the camp to ourselves but we had the entire crater to ourselves.
Day 9 - Crater - Summit - Mweka Hut - 18800 feet(5730 metres)to 19330 feet (5895 metres)to 10200 feet (3100 metres) -14km (8 miles) -8 hours
We left the crater at 5:30am and arrived on the summit at 6:30am to watch the sunrise. The ascent of the outer crater wall is steep but more defined than the breach. Once again it had snowed overnight and I was grateful for the micro spikes. Our guide had to use his ice axe once to cut steps. We spent about an hour on the summit. and then descended to Barafu for lunch.
The breach viewed from the outer crater rim close to the summit
Sunrise on the summit
While on the summit my wife displayed some behaviour that I can only attribute to the altitude. While the sun was rising on a once in a lifetime setting she was crawling around the summit sign on her hands and knees looking for some pin that a friend said they left there. I was pretty quick to ask what the hell she was doing and when she responded I was able to convince her to forget the pin and checkout the view.
The descent was pretty uneventful but was still full of spectacular views - oh and unlike the past three days there were other people on the route.
Day 10 - Mweka Hut - Mweka Gate - 10200 feet (3100 metres) to 5400 feet (1645 metres) -14km (8 miles) -3 hours
Pretty uneventful as well but still beautiful.
If you want to see parts of the mountain that most people miss and want to do it in relative peace and solitude than the Western Breach combined with Crater Camp is the route to take. Just make sure you build enough time into your schedule to acclimatize properly. Not only is this safer, it will ensure you have some energy left to actually explore the crater.