The White Mountain Of Africa

Article by Dave Pickford
Monday 15th February 2010

- all photographs copyright David Pickford / -

Outside I look up and see the clouds over the summit have gone and stars alone light the lava rocks like a dim photograph…. Above there is a great black hole the shape of the mountain cut out of the studded nightsky and in the centre a vertical line of twinkling lights of those trekkers even more foolish than ourselves who have beat us out of camp.

- Rick Ridegway, from ‘The Shadow Of Kilimanjaro’

Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak seen at sunset from high above Shira 2 camp, on the southern Shira Plateau. This point usually marks the second or third evening of the Lemosho or Western Breach routes. Once here, the presence of the mountain completely dominates the surrounding landscape. 

Africa’s highest summit has captured the imagination of explorers and climbers for over a century. The flat-topped white dome of Kilimanjaro, rising to 5,893 metres from the open plains of north-eastern Tanzania, is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain and one of the most striking landmarks of the entire continent. It is a dormant stratovolcano, with a huge summit crater surrounded by the triple peaks of Mawenzi, Shira and the highest, Kibo. It last erupted seriously 360,000 years ago – about a third of its short lifetime ago.

Trekking through the lush jungle beyond Big Tree camp, en-route to the Shira Plateau, at the start of the Lemosho Glades route.

Since its first ascent in the late nineteenth century, it was the subject of intense attention for European adventurers in Africa until the mid-twentieth century, when it experienced a quiet period during the post-colonial era. Summiteers returned throughout the late 1960’s and 70’s, and today - as part of the sought-after ‘Seven Summits’ quest to ascend the highest peaks on all the world’s continents - its status in world mountaineering’s hall of fame is sealed.

Camping on the Shira Plateau with Uhuru Peak illuminated by a rising moon in the distance.

But Africa’s highest mountain is as replete with mystery as it is steeped in history. There can be few peaks with such an enchanting name, and the intricate syllables of ‘Kilimanjaro’ gain a sudden, exotic power as they roll off the tongue. The origin of the name is uncertain, but is thought to be a combination of the Swahili word Kilima, meaning “mountain” and the KiChagga word Njaro, which denotes “whiteness”, thus translating roughly as White Mountain. This poetic fusion of local languages reflects the peak’s most impressive and beautiful feature: the multiple hanging glaciers that spill from the crater rim and extend down the volcano’s upper flanks.

A solitary tent under a giant Dendrosenecios tree - one of the most striking indigenous plants of Kilimanjaro - at the Barranco campsite, with the awesome, sheer 500-metre south face of Uhuru Peak in the background. The large icefield just below the summit is known as Diamond Glacier. The challenging Western Breach route climbs to the shoulder on the left, directly above the tent.

The first sight of the snows of Kilimanjaro’s summit is undoubtedly one of the world’s most awesome high-altitude visions. Perhaps even more awe-inspiring, and troubling, is the fact that in twenty years or so they may no longer be there. Kilimanjaro’s dramatically receding white lines are arguably the most powerful piece of visible evidence of climate change we have. The rate of glacial retreat on Kilimanjaro has been estimated at 82% since 1912, and 33% since 1989.

A giant Dendrosenecios stands amid the swirling mist at circa 4000 metres. These giant groundsels are endemic to the higher altitude zones of equatorial East Africa, where they form a conspicuous element of the flora. Kilimanjaro's subalpine forests, which grow up to 4100m, represent the highest elevation cloud forests in Africa.

Despite – or partly because of – this fact, there seems to be no more appropriate time to climb Kilimanjaro than now. There are certainly more people on the mountain today than there have ever been, but its sheer vastness easily absorbs our presence. Just stride a few steps away from the bustle of even the busiest campsite and you’ll find yourself in a place of eerie silence, perhaps in the midst of a glade of surreal Dendrosenecios trees, looming like Doric columns amid the swirling cloud. On the summit ridge, if you stride away from the crowds around the Tanzanian government sign and look out across the crater rim, you can still feel the almost impossible elemental force of the tectonic event that blew the Rift Valley apart a million years ago. Here, in the quiet and cold of Kibo, the geological marvel of Africa's highest peak becomes suddenly apparent. You are standing atop an immense hill of rock and lava just a few nanoseconds old in geological time, decorated by a landscape more extraordinary than the wildest inventions of science fiction, dramatically dividing the Serengeti Plain from the Indian Ocean.

A grove of surreal giant Dendrosenecios thriving under the Barranco Wall at just under 4000m. This section of the Lemosho route involves some steep but non-serious scrambling.

Even though the central characteristic of this remarkable mountain - its signature white summit - may be gone in less than a generation, it remains one of the world’s most alluring natural wonders. The ascent itself is made particularly memorable by the climber’s sudden arrival – usually in the magic hour of dawn - in a vast, lunar, glacial environment at over 18,000 feet, after the long trek through sub-tropical, sub-alpine, and high-alpine biomes. For this reason most of all, there is no better time than now to pay homage to the fading glory of Africa’s greatest peak, Kilima-Njaro, the White Mountain of Africa.

Local Tanzanian porters carrying loads to the summit of the Barranco Wall as Kilimanjaro's characteristic afternoon cloud rolls in. Trekkers must be prepared for sudden changes in the weather - a few minutes after this photograph was taken, a fierce hailstorm swept in. 

Camping at Karranga, the final camp before the steep climb up to the Barafu base camp from which the summit attempt will be launched. The fickle weather for which the mountain is well known is clearly evident! 

Dawn on summit day: Greg Annandale looks out across the cloud sea towards the emerging summit of Mawenzi and a technicolour sky. The morning of our summit bid was accompanied by spectacular pre-dawn lightning from distant electrical storms - the remaining evidence of which is clearly visible beyond Greg in the left of the photograph. 

The receding seracs of Uhuru's Eastern Icefields lit up by the first few seconds of morning sun. It is a sobering reflection of the pace of climate change that, based on current evidence, this beautiful glacier may be completely gone in less than a generation.

Anne and Stephen Lockwood leading the way on the last push to Uhuru Peak in very thin air at nearly 6000m, with the seracs of the Decken Glacier in the background. 

The White Necked Raven - a presiding spirit of Kilimanjaro

Looking east towards a sinister sky over Mawenzi from the summit slopes of Uhuru Peak, an hour after sunrise. Time to go down! 

Solitary figure on the ridge above Millenium Camp, on the tortuous 2-day descent down to the Mweka Gate at 1800 metres from the summit. That's an altitude loss of 4000 metres!

A spectacular final glimpse of Kilimanjaro through a window in the jungle on the last section of the trail down to Mweka Gate.


Trekking Kilimanjaro: Useful Information

The photographs in this article document the Lemosho Route, an unspoilt, remote, less-used and beautiful way up to Kibo Peak via the Shira Plateau. Climbers sometimes use it to ascend the Western Breach route, or follow it with the Kibo South Circuit to ascend by the easier Barafu Route. The first day of the route is rich in game animals, and armed rangers may accompany a climbing group temporarily. The standard route takes 7 days on the mountain, and is sometimes extended to 8 days with a stay at Karanga Valley.

Lemosho Route Outline

   1. Drive from Moshi or Arusha to Londorossi Park Gate (2250 m, 2 hours). From here a forest track requiring a 4WD vehicle leads to Lemosho Glades (2100 m, 11 km, 45 minutes) and a possible campsite (park fees are not paid to camp here). Walk along forest trails to Mti Mkubwa (big tree) campsite, (2750 m, 3 hours).

   2. The trail gradually steepens and enters the giant heather moorland zone. Several streams are crossed then it gains the Shira Ridge at about 3600 m and drops gently down to Shira 1 camp located by a stream on the Shira Plateau (3500 m, 5 hours). This campsite could be omitted.

   3. A gentle walk across the plateau leads to Shira 2 camp on moorland meadows by a stream (3850 m, 1.5 hours). A variety of walks are available on the Plateau making this an excellent acclimatization day.

   4. Continue east towards Kibo passing the junction, then east towards the Lava Tower. Shortly after this, you descend to Barranco hut (3940 m, 4 hours).

   5. A short scramble to the top of the Great Barranco and then a traverse over scree and ridges to the Karanga Valley (4000 m, 3 hours), beneath the icefalls of the Heim, Kersten and Decken Glaciers. After climbing out of the Karanga Valley the trail ascends a ridge to the Barafu Hut, a bleak location with little vegetation at 4600 m, (3 hours walking).

   6. An early start for the ascent to the rim of the Kibo Crater between the Rebmann and Ratzel Glaciers, (4 hours); the last section before the rim can sometimes be snow-covered and an ice-axe or ski stick is useful for balance. From here a further hour leads to Uhuru Peak, from where there are often fine views of Meru to the west and the jagged peak of Mawenzi to the east. Descend to the Barafu Hut for a rest and lunch before continuing on down to camp at Mweka Hut in the giant heather zone on the forest edge. Those with energy on the summit may wish to descend to the Reutsh Crater and visit the dramatic ice pinnacles of the Eastern Icefields.

   7. A 3-4 hour descent through beautiful forest brings you to the Park gate and your waiting transport.

Tanzania - Travel Information:

Getting There:

Kilimanjaro lies on the north eastern edge of  The United Republic Of Tanzania, close to the Kenyan border. The closest airport is Kilimanjaro International, just thirty kilometres from the town of Moshi, which lies at the base of the mountain and is the normal starting point for expeditions. A number of European airlines fly direct to Kilimanjaro, including KLM and Lufthansa.

Visas and red tape

It is possible to purchase a single-entry Tanzanian visa on arrival, valid for 30 days and costing $50. It is much easier (and more reliable) to organise an expedition on the mountain through a reputable European trekking agency than directly from Tanzania. Jagged Globe runs several treks a year on the mountain: visit their website here.


Since conditions on the mountain can vary enormously  (from hot, dry weather on the lower slopes to alpine winter conditions at nearly 6000m) it is essential to take clothing to cover all requirements, from shorts and t-shirts to hats and gloves, thermal insulation, and hard shell jackets and trousers. An excellent pair of hiking boots are essential. Cramnpons and ice axes are no longer required on the normal routes to the summit, but are for the more ambitious Western Breach route.

When To Go:

The best times to climb Kilimanjaro are during Tanzania’s two dry-seasons -  January and February (into early March), and June to October.

Dave Pickford was leading the Lemosho Glades route for Jagged Globe, the world's leading provider of mountaineering expeditions & treks, climbing and skiing courses: visit their website here.

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