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Climbing Kilimanjaro

Where is Mount Kilimanjaro?

Mount Kilimanjaro is located in the North-East of Tanzania – near the border of Kenya. The mountain proper covers an area of 100 kilometres long and 65 kilometres wide.

Mount Kilimanjaro is in fact a large stratovolcano (i.e. it is built up of many layers of strata consisting of lava, volcanic ash, pumice and tephra). The mountain consists of three peaks or volcanic vents. Shira is the oldest but only stands at 3,962 meters (13,000 feet). Mawenzi is the second oldest and stands at 5,159 meters (16,893 feet). Both Shira and Mawenzi are extinct volcanoes. Kibo is the youngest and houses Uhuru Peak at 5,895 meters (19,341 feet); the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Kibo is still dormant and could erupt again. The last eruption from Kibo is believed to date back 150,000 to 200,000 years ago; however gas-emitting fumaroles still occur today and have resulted in several landslides and rock-collapses.

Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world (note: free-standing means it is not part of a mountain range). It is also one of the Seven Summits (i.e. tallest mountain on each of the seven continents).

Kilimanjaro, the name

Its height has given it the colloquial name, ‘Roof of Africa’; however, the precise origin of the name ‘Kilimanjaro’ is unknown. Early accounts show that Europeans were using the name ‘Kilimanjaro’ by 1860 claiming it was the Kiswahili name for the mountain. German missionary and explorer, Johann Ludwig Krapf, claimed in 1860 that the name Kilimanjaro was used by the Swahilis and that it meant ‘mountain of greatness’ or ‘mountain of caravans’, with ‘Kilima’ meaning mountain. This seems inconsistent or perhaps a European confusion with the actual etymology of the word ‘Kilima’ which means ‘hill’, and ‘Milima’ which means ‘mountain’ in Kishwahili.

Other theorists have surmised that Kilimanjaro comes from the Kichagga ‘kileme’ which relates to ‘defeat’, or ‘kilelema’ which relates to ‘difficulty’ or ‘impossibility’. Following this line of linguistic reasoning, ‘jaro’ could be derived from ‘njaare’ which means bird, or ‘jyaro’ meaning caravan.

What is certain though is that when the Germans took control of the country in the 1880s they called the mountain ‘Kilima-Ndscharo’ using the Kiswahili name component. When Hans Meyer, a German geographer, became the first European to reach the summit on Kibo he named it ‘Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze’ (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Peak’). After independence from the British, the Tanzanian authorities renamed the summit to ‘Uhuru’ meaning ‘Freedom Peak’ in Kiswahili.

Weather

Because Kilimanjaro is such a large geographic structure it essentially creates its own weather.

South-East winds from the Indian Ocean hit the Southern slopes of Kilimanjaro, causing the air to rise and cool and the pressure to drop. As the air rises it condenses forming clouds and precipitation (rain and snow).

The South-East trade winds from the Indian Ocean typically arrive in March and last well into May (before being interrupted by the North-East Anti trade winds), making this time of the year the rainy season on Kilimanjaro.

That being said, the Northern slopes, tend to be buffeted from the winds and are considerably less wet (hence they are also more barren). If one wants to trek Kilimanjaro in March – May it is best to consider the Rongai Route which follows a trail on the Northern side of the mountain.

Anti-trade winds from the North-East arrive between May and November and don’t carry much rain as they lose their moisture before hitting Kilimanjaro. They also generally blow quite strongly forcing their way through the Saddle (the valley between Kilimanjaro’s two peaks – Kibo and Mawenzi). The strength of the anti-trade winds mean that the South-East winds are kept below them and hence rain is common up to the 3000 meter mark but quickly disappears above this altitude. This makes late May to November a great time to climb.

The North-East Monsoon arrives between November and February and brings some rain to the Northern slopes. This wind however has travelled a long way over the continent and doesn’t have a high moisture content which means that the season is generally quite light on rain.

NOTE: Weather is of course unpredictable. Sometimes we climb in mid-March and experienced rather good weather. The main concern is not the weather on the lower reaches but the weather on upper slopes of Kibo. These cannot be predicted but gale force winds are common as is snow and sleet. Prepare for a difficult summit night and hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised.

Climate change and Kilimanjaro

When Mount Kilimanjaro was first observed by Europeans more than 150 years ago, its cone lay beneath a thick crust of ice. Since 1912 though, we know that 85 percent of this ice has vanished. In fact, Hans Meyer, the German geographer we mentioned above, was horrified to find that glaciers had retreated by almost 330 feet when he returned nine years later in 1898. Glacier shrinkage on Kilimanjaro is nothing new, but now scientists concur that it is happening faster than ever: around one percent a year from 1912 to 1953 but 2.5 percent a year from 1989 to 2007.

In 2009, the most recent study of the mountain warned that climate change could cause Kilimanjaro’s glaciers to disappear within 20 years. The study, which took seven years to complete, used data from ice cores drilled from the top of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers. Shockingly the study found that ice between six and 17 feet thick had vanished since 2000. Almost a quarter of the ice was lost from 2000 to 2006 and one of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers, the Furtwängler Glacier, became half as thick from 2000 to 2009. The study showed that Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are evaporating rather than melting. The main theory for the observed evapotranspiration and loss of glacial cover on Kilimanjaro is less moisture and greater dryness in East Africa. No factor other than climate change can account for this.

Climatic zones

On Kilimanjaro you are going to walk through four climatic zones, each with its own distinct fauna and flora.

Rain forest zone (~800 meters – 3,000 meters): From the earliest part of your trek you are going to be confronted with tropical rain forest. Humidity is high and light mist or sometimes drizzle is common. Various flora such as orchids, ferns, fig and olive trees cover this area of Kilimanjaro. You will likely see Blue and Colobus monkeys, and if you are trekking from the North-East Rongai route or Western Lemosho, Shira or Northern Circuit you may even see elephant, buffalo and large antelope.

Low alpine zone (~3,000 meters – 4,200 meters): At approximately.3,000 metres the rainforest rapidly gives way to semi-arid grasslands and moorlands, this area is known as the low alpine zone. Heather and small shrubs cover the landscape, the weather is significantly less humid and temperatures can get to sub-zero in the evening. The most prominent flora features in this zone are the Senecios and Giant Lobelias, which look like deformed palm trees. Fauna is sparse; however you will likely see crows overhead foraging for food.

High alpine zone (~4,200 meters – 5,000 meters): This zone is characterised by an arid desert environment that is rather inhospitable. During the day temperatures are hot and solar radiation is high (make sure to apply lots of sun-cream). At night temperatures plummet to below freezing. From this zone the slopes of Kibo and Kilimanjaro’s summit come into perfect view.

Glacial zone (~5,000 meters to 5,895 meters): The final zone houses the upper reaches of Kibo and Mawenzi and consists of high altitude artic conditions. Life is very scarce in this zone as oxygen levels are near half what they were on the lower reaches of the mountain. Fine glacial silt covers the slopes that reach up to Kilimanjaro’s summit and large glaciers are visible from Kilimanjaro’s crater rim. Due to the high solar radiation during the day, freezing temperatures at night, gale force winds and low oxygen levels, this zone is not one where you want to stay too long!
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Rainforest Zone
Low Alpine Zone (Grasslands and Moorlands)
High Alpine Zone
Glacial Zone
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Altitude zones

Mount Kilimanjaro can be classified into three altitude zones.

High altitude (2,500 – 3,500 metres) is the first zone you will experience. You will spend approximately 2-3 days in this zone. The onset of acute mountain sickness in this zone is low but increases as you breach the 3,000 meter mark.

Very high altitude (3,500 – 5,500 metres) is the second zone. Typically you will spend 2-3 days in this zone as well. It is recommended you have an acclimatization day in this zone where you climb high and sleep low. Most people experience some degree of altitude sickness in this zone.

Extreme altitude (above 5,500 metres) is the zone you experience when you approach Kilimanjaro’s summit. You will likely only spend a few hours in this zone as you trek from the upper reaches of Kibo to Uhuru peak and back. The onset of AMS in this zone is high, particularly if you have not given your body enough time to acclimatize in the lower zones. Many people trekking Kilimanjaro experience mild to moderate AMS in this zone, but begin their descent before conditions escalate.