To Die On Kilimanjaro, Part 3

Around 750,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries, an apocalyptic explosion along one of East Africa’s many fault lines, vomited up lava and fire for thousands of years, giving birth to the first of Kilimanjaro’s three separate but closely aligned peaks. Shira, the mountain’s first volcanic cone, eventually collapsed. Mawenzi arose soon after, then went dormant. Forty thousand years later came the last and most famous cone, Kibo.

Kibo holds the summit and its famed and imperiled snows. The first non-Africans to see Kilimanjaro were mostlikely Arabs who traveled the contient’s caravan route in the sixth century C.E. However, Ptolemy wrote of a ‘snow mountain’ around 100 C.E. The next known reference to Kilimanjaro came from an Arab geographer and Chinese writer who, at the turn of the 15th century, wrote of a ‘great mountain’ west of Zanzibar. In the early 16th century, a Portuguese geographer noted the existence of an “Ethiopian Mount Olympus.” No one in the West was aware that a “giant, snow-crowed mountain existed so close to the equator until 1848.

If one follows the history of Kilimanjaro [even from a distance] you know that the first known ascent was in 1889 by Hans Meyer, who, along with Ludwig Purtscheller, predicted that all of the mountain’s ice would disappear within three decades.

In 2001, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that Kilimanjaro’s ice cap would be gone by 2020. This latter prediction has proved more accurate than the first. A third of the ice has disappeared since 1990. Mayer, however, was not entirely wrong; more than 80 percent of the glaciers have melted since Meyer’s time, and it is thought that as recently as the 15th century the snows of Kilimanjaro began at the upper edge of what is now the forest zone.

Global warming has a way of killing people on Kilimanjario. In January 2006, at the Western Breach while approaching what is called ‘Kibo’s Arrow Glacier, three Americans were killed by a rockslide estimated to have been traveling at more than 125 feet per second. The cause of the slide was linked to Kibo’s receding ice, which causes rocks previously frozen to the mountain’s face to loosen and slip. The Western Breach route to the summit, once one of the most popular, has since been closed and may never open.

Thousands of people climb Kilimanjaro every year, and have been doing so since the 1930s. It is estimated that this year about 30,000 will make the attempt, which as we are told in promotional literature printed by such companies as Thomson Safaris (; Tusker Trail ( and Mountain Madness ( or the more expensive ( and Tanganyika Film & Safari Outfitters ( requires no “technical skill.” It is true that of those 30,000 only about 18,000 will make the summit. And each year between 8-9 people do die, from heart attacks and Acute Mountain Sickness.

Back in the summer of 1958 Gina’ husband and his “boys” had no ‘technical skill’ and little equipment when they went for a long walk up Kilimanjaro, but as the Brits in Arusha would learn people die from other causes on the mountain, not just heart attacks or AMS. Phillip, however, would not die on Kilimanjaro. On the terrace of the British Club he turned to Gina and said he wouldn’t leave her.

[End of Part 3]

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