North side of Lava Tower
Lava Tower is a vertical protrusion of volcanic rock poking skyward out of the side of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. It is a very imposing castle of rock that at first sight looks very technical. It is situated at 15,100 feet on the way up the western side of Kili. Climbers heading to the summit via the Lemosho route, up the Western Breach will spend one or two nights camped at the base of Lava Tower.
You may also get to see it as a lunch stop or in passing if you are climbing the Shira or Machame routes.
Our route going right up the middle
If you are planning to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, this impressive feature is a must see. The Lemosho route to the Western Breach is the most fun and exciting way to climb Kili with the added benefit of camping at the base of Lava Tower. If however you choose to climb by another route, consider either the Shira route or the Machame route and make sure your guide does a detour to see the tower up close.
During the preparations of our Mt. Kilimanjaro climb, we strategically planned to spend two nights and one entire rest day camped at the base of Lava Tower. This would enable us to spend some time rock climbing different routes up it. It was suggested to me ahead of time that no one ever does this and it would be a very cool way to spend an acclimatization rest day. So we packed two 60 meter ropes, a bunch of slings and biners, some nuts and some tricams hoping this would be enough to protect the climb.
We booked our trip through Embark Adventures. They recommend and exclusively climb via the Western Breach. From my experience and research, this is absolutely the best company to book your trip through! Check them out at http://embarkadventures.com/.
The 5.7 face and crack climbing section
When we arrived after our hike up from Shira 2 camp at 13,000 feet, I was eager to scout out routes to climb. Four of us in our party set out to find a couple of gems. We headed around the North side first and immediately found two different dihedrals high on the face that looked promising. One of which looked exceptionally clean and challenging.
The next day part of our group set out on a hike and a couple of our group stayed in their tents not feeling well. Scott Morrison and I grabbed our gear and scrambled to the summit via the 4th class approach route.
Once on top, we built an anchor to belay on and I had Scott lower me while I cleaned the route of all loose rock and boulders. There were quite a few land mines, so this took awhile but was a must. Once that was completed, it was time to climb.
The route starts next to a new looking anchor bolt that is the first of three used to set up a handline to protect the 4th class scramble route on the northwest side of the tower.
From this bolt I climbed up over a bulge and angled up and left underneath the obvious protruding buttress. Climbing 5.6 to 5.7 face holds up the left side of this buttress, the jagged crack on the right could be used for some clever gear placements. I made my way through some chossy rock until I was standing on the ledge at the base of a smooth, almost feature-less left facing dihedral. The crack in the center of a dihedral was hand sized for good jams but it was chock full of black moss and lichen. When I started my sequence of hand jams, it took three or four tries before I had cleared away enough lichen to make solid contact with the rock beneath. In so doing, however, I created a cloud of black dust that covered my face and upper body. Due to the altitude, I was also sucking in large quantities of oxygen while at the same time, sucking in large quantities of airborne moss and lichen!
To make matters worse, with the exception of one small ledge for my left foot, there was nowhere for my feet as the walls on either side of me dropped away in a smooth sheen. At sea level this may have been considered 5.9 climbing but with all of the slippery lichen and the 15,000 plus altitude I give this section a grade of 5.10a
By the time I jammed my way to the top of this crux feature of the route, I found a knob of rock out to the right to match on, and another matching option higher on the left at the very top of the wall(depending on body position one or the other is going to be easier to reach).
After I pulled over the bulge at the top of the dihedral and stood up on a large blocky area, I stopped and gasped for breath for at least 5 minutes. Unless you've done it before, you have no idea how much harder it is to do this stuff at altitude!
After that the route moves up through a narrowing chimney with 5.7 to 5.8 climbing. At one point the rock pushes you out and you have to really look around to find anything positive to grab. The cracks here are very thin and will only take very small gear. A little bit of stemming and a mantle or two later you find yourself on the upper slabby section of the route.
From here, climb straight to the top on 5.6 blocks or go out to the left and wander up a 5.5 friction slab.
Big blocks at the top of the route make it easy to build a belay anchor if you have long enough slings.
After we completed our climb, our guides Freddy and Leonce from "Real Life Adventure Travel" told us that in over 20 years of guiding on Kili, they had never seen anyone even attemt to climb on the north face of Lava Tower.
That of course made us feel really good about what we had accomplished.
Scott climbing just below the overhanging crux dihedral
The length of the route is approximately 200 feet so it requires a full 60 meter rope to climb it in one pitch. It's a bit run out but clever placements of nuts, tricams or cams will protect it well enough to be fun and safe(3" or smaller). Be careful of the rock quality in some places, however. This is volcanic rock and some sections are less solid than others. Beware the portable handholds!
We named the route "Big Bunny" for fun because of the cereal that we had for breakfast. It has a picture of a large cartoon rabbit, resembles corn flakes and is considered by the manufacturer "brain food" that helps promote good concentration.
The whole group got a kick out of the side panel that gave four step instructions on how to properly eat your cereal!
Well, we thought that it took a lot of concentration to stay on task and complete this route at 15,000 feet so "Big Bunny" became the name of our new route.
Scott starting to lieback the dihedral Our summit shot with The Western Breach in the background!