“Pole pole.” This phrase is burned into the memory of anyone who has attempted to summit Africa’s highest mountain.
Reaching 5,895 meters, Mount Kilimanjaro boasts a snow-capped peak that rises dramatically above the northeastern Tanzanian skyline. The mountain attracts more than 25,000 hopeful trekkers a year, partly because it has a summit that almost anyone can conquer.
The key to a successful summit is acclimatising to the lack of oxygen. Guides, porters and fellow hikers will continuously remind each other to move “pole pole,” or “slowly, slowly.” It almost feels like walking in slow motion at times, but everyone agrees that it’s the best way to safely reach the top.
Since I was a teenager, I dreamed of standing on the roof of Africa. Watching the sun rise from Uhuru Peak, struggling to catch my breath in the thin air, was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I am privileged to have seen the glaciers of Kilimanjaro, glinting in the sunlight.
Sadly, it won’t be possible to replicate this experience in the future.
Kilimanjaro’s climate is undergoing extreme change. Researchers estimate that the 10,000-year-old glaciers will disappear before 2030. Since they were first measured in 1912, more than 85 per cent of the ice has vanished, and this decline is accelerating.
The loss of ice is attributed partly to a rise in the temperature of the Indian Ocean. The mountain’s lower slopes are also facing deforestation, resulting in less moisture in the air and causing ice to evaporate more quickly. The mountain sees less snowfall than ever before.
Guide Erick Marimbo says in the years he has been climbing the mountain, he has observed the retreating glaciers at the summit. He adds that if the loss of ice continues, it could impact the ability to access water at various camps.
In fact, the Arctic zone at Uhuru Peak could disappear entirely. Climbers who summit the mountain won’t see the snows of Kilimanjaro made famous in Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name.
Kilimanjaro National Park earned $51 million in revenue in 2013 for Tanzania, making it the second-most profitable park after Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The mountain is popular partly because of its accessibility. It doesn’t require any technical know-how to summit and brings climbers through unparalleled ecosystems.
The mountain is formed by three volcanic cones — Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira — which are incorporated into various climbing routes.
I chose to summit via the six-day Machame route, which is becoming increasingly popular due to its scenic trails. While Machame is known for having slightly steeper climbs, as well as some scrambling, the acclimatization schedule also gives hikers a high success rate of summiting.
The Machame route doesn’t disappoint.
It brings hikers through five distinct climates, starting in a lush rainforest and ending in an Arctic desert of frigid beauty. The journey offers up flora and fauna found nowhere else and picturesque vistas of the surrounding area.
Weeks of preparation included packing everything from sub-zero sleeping bags to waterproof gear to hiking polls for descent.
From the southern side of the mountain, I spent two days hiking through thick forest into the moorland zone, characterized by shrubbery and rocky outcrops. With the occasional bit of scrambling, climbers continue to the Shira Plateau, walking through heavy mist. Kilimanjaro boasts amazing biodiversity, from flowers found only on the mountain to the giant groundsels that look as though they emerged from a science fiction novel.
On the third day, the environment transitioned suddenly into a sparse alpine environment as I made my way to the 4,600-meter tall Lava Tower, a large rock spire that is visible on clear days. After reaching this landmark, hikers descend to sleep at a lower camp to allow the body time to acclimatize.
Porters on Kilimanjaro are seriously impressive, carrying heavy packs while running past breathless hikers. They are able to navigate the more difficult areas of the climb effortlessly and set up camps within hours of leaving the previous location.
The fourth day of the climb includes the intimidating Barranco Wall, clambering over rock on a narrow trail in the early hours of the morning. At this stage, I felt the first real effects of altitude sickness, including headache and nausea. From the Barranco Wall, I continued to hike through alpine desert to the Barafu camp to rest for a few hours before the summit attempt.
I woke up at 11 p.m., feeling nervous about the seven-hour climb to the summit. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears, which is another common side effect of altitude. A trail of hikers wearing headlamps lit up the sandy path that snakes upwards. We began our ascent, hoping to reach the summit for a majestic sunrise. Though the weather on Kilimanjaro is temperamental, I was lucky to have clear skies and bright stars throughout the night.
Reaching the summit is a grueling experience. It requires physical stamina, but mental willpower is by far the greater force at play. The reward is worthwhile — seeing Tanzania sprawled out against an orange horizon at dawn.
While anyone can hike to the peak of Kilimanjaro, it’s not a mountain to be trifled with. When I descended, four people were rescued from a higher camp and brought down the mountain on stretchers. They had stayed at high altitude for too long without acclimatizing and suffered mountain sickness.
This can turn from minor symptoms of headache and nausea to severe issues such as cerebral oedema, or swelling of the brain, which can be fatal. It’s essential to listen to the guides about your condition and trust that they know if you are fit to summit.
I heard stories from several guides about people who refused to turn back, despite being warned that they were in danger. This led to long hospital stays, or in extreme circumstances, death.
Climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro is an awe-inspiring experience. From the remarkable scenery to the mountain’s unique biodiversity, it was a fascinating six days. It will be a different mountain in years to come, lacking the snow and ice that hikers now find at the top.
Maybe one day I will summit it again. When I do, I’ll already know the trick. I’ll appreciate everything the mountain has to offer and I will walk “pole pole.”
This story was originally published in The Citizen on Jan. 10.