This was the final stage of my journey. Having left Barranco camp, I carried on westwards in a zigzag fashion, descending 984ft (300m) until I reached the Machame Trail junction at 12,139ft (3700m). Turning right onto the trail I knew this was the final ascent but also where my breathing would be challenged the most.
Trekking through alpine desert, the sun was strong and glaring and the temperature cold and dry. As I gained more altitude, the air thinned out further. It became very important to set the right pace to manage my heart rate and oxygen intake. Move too fast and I would get dizzy, lose energy and fatigue the muscles. Move too slowly, I’d fall behind and potentially run out of time to summit.
With a slow and steady approach, I arrived at Lava Tower. At 300ft (91m) tall, Lava Tower is a volcanic plug. During one of Kili’s past volcanic explosions lava erupted out of a vent, cooled then hardened like a plug. Luckily Kili is no longer active because this kind of plug could build pressure below the surface that could potentially erupt violently.
There was a time when the tower was climbable but due to safety concerns it is now prohibited. Those who had the chance to climb it in the past said the views of Uhuru Peak were just amazing. At the base of the Tower is the Lava Tower Camp. Set a little lower, the camp provides an opportunity to rest and recover from the lengthy ascending hike and effects of high altitude.
From Lava Tower there are two ways to climb up to the Summit. Either via a descent to Barranco Camp, before an ascent to Stella Peak and then Uhuru Peak or the treacherous Western Breach Wall.
I opted for the latter. Although the Western Breach Wall is known as one of the most hazardous routes to the summit, I chose it for several reasons. One, it was the shortest route to the top. Summit is done during the day rather than overnight and no traffic jam at the top. I was also able to sleep in a crater and explore glaciers.
Now the downside is that the Breach Wall, which is a gap formed by lava flow, is made up of soft loose rocks, the result of a rockslide. The top third of this wall is very nearly vertical and the rocks here are often held together by the glaciers above. When the glaciers melt and retreat the previously bound rocks are released and tumble down the mountain. Beneath the wall is a 30-45 degree mountainside which collects the fallen rocks from above and shoots them down a narrow chute to the bottom.
As such, the difficulty was not in the climb itself, even though there were many switchbacks to tackle, but the ever-present glaciers that gave no indication if they had retreated and loosened the rocks above. Although I had to trek through the dangerous chute, my time was kept to a minimum and as quickly as was possible at that altitude I traversed to a safer pathway. It didn’t completely eliminate the danger but I was in a better position than if I had climbed directly through the ‘danger zone’.
When I reached the top the first thing I saw was the remnants of an ice cap that once used to cover the summit. Named Furtwängler Glacier, it seemed almost odd, looking at this large block of ice sitting atop very fine beach-like black sand. It was interesting to see the glacier and the sand cohabitating in the same space. Sadly in the last century almost 85% of the glacier had vanished. There was a time when Kili had 16 named glaciers and 3 icefields. In the last half a century at least four have vanished and at the rate they are melting it is predicted that in less than 50 years there will be no ice left on the mountain.
I skirted the crater rim to Crater Camp, elevation 18,865ft (5750m) to refuel and pondered that last stretch. I was a mere 475ft (145m) below the summit and about half a mile (800m) in terms of trekking distance. Of course without further ado, I pushed for that final ascent. Slow and steady over the next hour, focusing on just one step in front of the other, I wound my way up to the weathering summit sign and the spectacular views of Mount Meru, another volcanic mountain, to the southwest; Kibo’s three concentric craters; and the Northern Icefield beyond the crater.
In Swahili, Uhuru means Freedom. Here at the top of Africa, I felt free and unconstrained, just like this tall free-standing mountain called Kilimanjaro.