Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa)

In High Places

By: Burton Falk


By the time we were ready to begin our climb of Kilimanjaro, we'd been in East Africa for almost two weeks. The four of us were happy to be there: my son Bret, a recent Berkeley graduate, just beginning his career as an industrial engineer; my old climbing friend, JB, licking the wounds from a recent divorce, Doug, young bearded and eager, whom we'd met only three months earlier while rock climbing at Joshua Tree, and me, enjoying a respite from a slumping steel foundry business.

Starting off in Nairobi we first headed west across the green hills of Africa to the open plains of the Serengeti, where we spent three days viewing the enormous herds of grass-eaters and the regal but fly-bitten lions who stalked them. Each evening, with drinks in hand, we gazed at the sun, giant and orange, as it sank into the haze in the west.

We then swung north passing through villages of red-robed Masai, redolent of sweat and smoke, a people who believe that the universe revolves around them on our way to the soda lakes of the Great Rift Valley, where we spent another day photographing pink flamingos against a storm-darkened sky.

Our last venture in Kenya was to be a climb of that country's highest peak, 17,057 Mt. Kenya. To our dismay, however, after only two pitches, a sudden, violent storm beat us off the eroded volcanic plug, forcing us to return to the 15,715' Austria Hut. Not willing to turn back completely empty handed, that same afternoon we made the easy, non-technical ascent of 16,331' Point Lenana, the third highest peak on the Mt. Kenya massif, and three days later we were back in Nairobi, where we discovered that, for political reasons, Kenya's southern border had been closed, and that the only way for us to get to Tanzania was to fly north to Ethiopia, then back south to the Kilimanjaro airport.

That was cause for a long day, including a 4 a.m. wake up call; an in-transit hour and a half in the Communist-controlled Addis Ababa airport, under the humorless glares of AK47-bearing teen age militiamen (and a thankful farewell to arms upon leaving); a heated argument with the immigration officials upon our arrival in Tanzania as to whether Doug, with a South African visa stamped in his passport, could enter their country (an obvious, but unsuccessful- I threatened to call our embassy-attempt for baksheesh); and, finally, upon checking in, bone-tired, at our hotel in Arusha, to find that there was no hot water for showers, and that the garden below our second floor windows teemed with boisterously drunken locals.

Three days later, following a dusty, jolting ride out to the Leaky diggings at Olduvai Gorge, and a day of viewing game in Ngorongoro Crater (our lodge on the crater's rim was anything but a clean, well-lighted place, i.e., we were issued a single low-voltage light bulb to illuminate our room), we pulled in at the old German woman's hotel in Marangu, at the base of Kilimanjaro.

It was while we were checking in that the proprietress, Fraulein von Lany, introduced herself, explaining that her father had immigrated to East Africa prior to WW 1, when the country was still a German colony, and that she had lived there all her life. On the walls of the lobby hung several yellowing photographs of herself, along with other nordic-looking climbers, on the summit of Kilimanjaro, a peak she had climbed four times when she was younger. Now nearing seventy, von Lany was, with Teutonic determination, making ends meet in her miserably poor homeland. For dinner we were served stewed chicken and vegetables, both of which had been raised on the premises by the hotel staff. After our meal, the Fraulein invited us into her small office, where she explained the logistics of the climb.

"It will take three and a half days to reach the summit," she said, "and one and a half days to come back down." She then listed the clothing, and equipment we would need to take along, and informed us that her porters would carry everything except for our day packs, in which we were to tote our own cameras, snacks and rain gear. Each of our four nights on the mountain would be spent at a National Park hut, at which the porters would prepare our meals. When she was finished, she added, with a twinkle in her blue eyes, "I wish I was your age so I could climb the mountain just once more." She then bade us goodnight, leaving us alone in the dimly lit foyer, a cloud of insects buzzing around the dimly pulsating fight fixture.

We began our climb at 11.45 a.m. the next day, Aug. 19, from the Park headquarters building, located at the 6,000' level on the south-western flank of the Kilimanjaro massif. Starting out in partial sunshine, on a trail lined with Japanese cherry trees, the weather soon turned cloudy and drizzly, which-considering we were entering a rain forest, was no real surprise. At the outset of the ascent JB and I agreed to take photographs every fifteen minutes (me on the hour and half hour, JB at : 15 and .45 after), as we thought it would be interesting to view the resulting slides rapidly, like a child's flip-page book, speeding up the gradual change in vegetation as we gained altitude. Joachim, our guide, and our three porters seemed to be good fellows. They grinned, laughed a lot and gnawed roasted corn on the cob at each rest stop. On the trail, Bret hailed fellow climbers with "Sambo" rather than the traditional Swahili ... Jambo."

Our first night's destination was the Mandara Camp, a group of A-frame buildings, located at 8,900', a gift to Tanzania from Norway, in hopes of increasing tourism in that cash-strapped socialistic country. Upon visiting the camp outhouse, I found that previous users-perhaps not familiar with indoor plumbing-had squatted directly on the fixture, feet on either side of the seat, sometimes missing the hole entirely. I changed my plans, walked across the campground and into the trees, where, the moment I lowered my pants, the mosquitoes began feasting.

On our second day out we continued upward and westward, passing through a belt of giant, mossdraped heather, reaching the 12,340' Horombo Camp about noon. Although it had been overcast and misting most of the morning by the time we arrived at Horombo we had climbed above the clouds, and because of the clearing we should have been able enjoy a handsome sunset that evening. Unfortunately, the display was spoiled somewhat by the gawky silhouette of the radio facilities of the nearby National Park ranger station.

On the third morning which dawned bright and sunny, we climbed to the 15,000' saddle between the Kilimanjaros sister peaks, 17,453' Mawenzi and 19,340' Uhuru Point on Kibo Crater, the actual high point of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and the entire African continent. Only a few tufts of grass and a bit of scattered lichen softened the otherwise barren volcanic landscape, which stood out in stark relief under the bright ultra-violet rich sunshine.

Lunar-like, I thought, not too originally.

About 1 p.m., we pulled into the 15,520' Kibo Hut, a large stone building located at the base of the trail leading up Kibo Crater, to the west. We dumped our gear inside the dank structure, and returned outside at once, hoping to soak up a little warmth under the fragile high-altitude sun. Unfortunately, the immediate vicinity of the hut reeked of the urine from a thousand nocturnal whizzes, so we moved further off into the surrounding rocks, and spent the balance of the afternoon reading and napping as best we could.

About 5 p.m, as the sun began to slip behind the crater, we reentered the hut, where, by the light of . a dim pressure lantern, we downed a meal consisting of com mush and cocoa. By 6:30 p.m. we were curled 'up in our sleeping bags in an almost useless attempt to get a little sleep before an early morning wake up call.

At 1 a.m., Joachim shook us awake, and a scant thirty minutes later we were plodding up the trail. I don't remember much about the night's ascent other than that the moon was so bright that we didnt need headlamps, that it was so cold we could wear parkas comfortably, and that the high altitude climb didn't seem as demanding as I had anticipated. About half way up the trail we stopped for a break in the cave, where in June 1887 Count Samuel Teleki, for whom a campsite on Mt. Kenya is named, rested before turning back on one of the many early attempts to climb the peak. (Kili was finally conquered by Hans Meyer and his alpine guide, Ludwig Purtscheller, on Oct. 6, 1889).

By the time the eastern horizon began to glow dull red ("Ah, the sun also rises," I thought), we had reached Gillman's Point at 18,530', on the rim of Kibo Crater, directly above the Kibo Hut, where we stopped for a few moments to watch a magnificent Technicolor sunrise in full wraparound Cinemascope. I remember it dawning on me (n.p.i.) that I was in a very exotic place, indeed.

In my journal I described the final portion of the ascent as follows: "Even though I'm pressure breathing like a steam engine, I fall behind on the last leg of the climb, and by the time the rest of my group reaches the summit, I'm lagging by about five minutes. I can see the guys up ahead of me, however, dressed in a brilliant array of yellow, blue and red parkas, and the effect is magnetic. When I do reach the top, I spend a few moments catching my breath, then I start taking photos. Mt. Kenya to the north is hidden by clouds, but Mt. Meru to the west and Mawenzi, just across the saddle, are beautiful in the rich high altitude sunlight. About a half hour after our arrival, a group of eight European climbers also arrive on the summit. They seem totally exhausted. A man and woman, holding hands, lie down and fall asleep immediately."

Regarding the famous snows of Kilimanjaro, although there were gigantic mesas of ablated glacial ice looming up like the prows of ghost ships to the south and west, on the summit and the surrounding crater itself only a few inches of seasonal snow remained. Crampons were not necessary.

Turning back about 9 a.m, we were soon racing down the scree slopes of the crater, toward the Kibo Hut, where our porters, who had been waiting there, served us tea. That afternoon we returned to Horombo Camp, where that night I slept for eleven hours straight.

We arrived back at the hotel in Marangu the following day, Aug. 23,d , and on the 2411, we flew from the Kilimanjaro Airport to Tanzania's hot and humid capital city, Dar es Salaam, on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The next morning we caught an SAS flight to Copenhagen, via Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Athens, Greece, a route which took us high over the Nile River Valley. A very stirring sight, indeed.

And that was the short, happy life of Burt Falk during the summer of 1982. 1 still remember much of the experience in vivid detail, and I still marvel at how well the whole affair turned out. Unfortunately, the steel foundry business to which I returned didn't. But that's another story, which-should I ever get around to write it up-1 think I'll entitle "To Have and to Not Have," or something similar.

Odds & Ends: Want to read more about Kilimanjaro? Three of my favorite books on the subject include: 1. "Kilimanjaro," by John Reader, a profusely illustrated coffee table-type volume, including a history of the discovery and the early climbs of the peak, plus descriptions of the author/ photographer's own ascents. 2. "Snow on the Equator," by the always engaging H. W. Tilman, including, among other African adventures, accounts of his and Eric Shipton's 1930's ascents of Kibo and Mawenzi, and, 3. "The Breach," by Rob Taylor, a book with a double entendred title, describing both the author's ill-fated attempt on Kili's Breach ice route, and the breach of the trust by Taylor's climbing partner. The graphic descriptions of the author's long hospitalization in Tanzania are truly hair-raising.


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