Excerpt from Zombies on Kilimanjaro: A Father-Son Journey Above the Clouds.
By Tim Ward
“Your guide will probably tell you,” Ezekiel said, when we first met at the Kilimanjaro Airport, “that the name Kilimanjaro comes from kilima, the Swahili word for ‘mountain,’ and jaro, the Maasai word for ‘white capped.’ But that’s just for the tourists. We Chagga people who have always lived here, we believe the name comes from our own language: kilema-kyaro, which means ‘Impossible to Climb.’ ”
Flying south from Nairobi earlier that day, I had seen Kilimanjaro for the first time. Gazing through the plane window at 17,000 feet in the air, I looked up at the peak. Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa and at 5,850 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level it’s the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. I stared at it hard. I have hiked in the Rockies, the Alps, the Himalayas. Yet my mind struggled to fit this solitary, staggering mass of rock into the rest of the landscape: a glacier-ringed mountain at the equator; a rainforest in the middle of a desert.
From the Serengeti plains to the Indian Ocean, East Africa is mostly yellow sand and red clay. But from the white-streaked crown of Kilimanjaro’s volcanic cone run streams and springs that trickle down through miles of grey lava and scree to create a green girdle of rainforest in the foothills. A vast, flowing skirt of cultivated, fertile land encircles the mountain for hundreds of square kilometers below. As if by some mysterious power, the mountain makes its own weather. It conjures clouds from the hot air, bringing down rain and dew that nourishes the land even during the long, arid months when the surrounding savannah turns as dry as bones.
“It’s like walking from the equator to the North Pole in a week,” Ezekiel told me as we waited for my 20-year-old son Josh’s flight to arrive. Josh and I were about to being our own seven day climb of the iconic mountain.
The first recorded reference to a “great snow mountain” in Africa comes from the Greek mapmaker, Ptolemy, in the 2nd Century A.D. Sixteen centuries later, rumors of a mountain “topped with silver” spread from slave traders on the East Africa coast to Europeans. The first European to explore the mountain’s bottom slopes, a German missionary named Johannes Rebmann, recognized that silver as snow. But when in 1849 he reported an ice-cap on the equator to his geographic society back home, the experts declared this was impossible. They concluded that Rebmann must have been suffering from malaria-induced hallucinations.
Once Europeans established the mountain was real, they immediately set about trying to conquer it, only to be turned back again and again by steep walls of ice covering the top two kilometers of its cone. The peak was not summited until 1889–with a second ascent only succeeding twenty years later. Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro made the mountain famous throughout the Western world. Hemingway described flying in a small plane towards the peak, “wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun.”
But this vision of Kilimanjaro was not the same mountain I had seen earlier that day as I flew in on my own small plane. Today Kilimanjaro is mostly grey at the peak, with streaks and splotches of white that look as if the mountain is wearing not a crown of ice, but a fractured tiara. In fact, in the past hundred years close to 90% of its permanent ice has disappeared.
Al Gore showed pictures of Kilimanjaro’s vanishing glaciers in An Inconvenient Truth. The shocking loss of ice in photos from 1970 and 2000 turned the iconic mountain into a geological poster child for Climate Change. Although rapidly retreating glaciers have been documented all over the world, Gore’s choice of Kilimanjaro created great controversy. Skeptics pointed out that Kilimanjaro’s ice fields have been shrinking for at least a hundred years, whereas the rise in global temperatures attributed to Climate Change only began in the 1980s. As a result, each new scientific study of this remote peak becomes the focus of furious debate: Are Kilimanjaro’s dying glaciers a harbinger of a human-caused catastrophe that we could still avert? Or are they result of natural processes beyond our control? Regardless of the cause, scientists agree that within the next twenty years, the last of the glaciers will have disappeared from Kilimanjaro.
With the melting of the ice, the mountain formerly known as “Impossible to Climb” has turned into a relatively easy trek, at least in terms of technical ascent. About 40,000 people make the attempt each year. But only an estimated forty to fifty percent make it all the way to the top.
The reason so many trekkers don’t make the peak is Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), commonly called altitude sickness. At the summit, air pressure is so low there is only half as much oxygen as at sea level. It’s like living in a partial vacuum. The sickness hits people in different ways, most often with headaches, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, disorientation and exhaustion. On average ten trekkers die each year on Kilimanjaro–most from altitude sickness, and a few due to rockslides.
“You know Dad, it seems it’s not a vacation with you unless there’s a chance we’ll die,” Josh said to me while discussing AMS before our trip.
“Hmm. I guess that’s true,” I replied. “But it’s that risk that makes a vacation an adventure!”
Read the rest of the story in Zombies on Kilimanjaro: A Father-Son Journey Above the Clouds. www.ZombiesOnKilimanjaro.com
Tim Ward is the author of Zombies on Kilimanjaro: a Father-Son Journey Above the Clouds, the first literary narrative of climbing Kilimanjaro.
“A High-Altitude Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – James O’Reilly.