Scaling the Heights to the Top of Africa – Climbing Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru in Tanzania

The sultry breezes, the Southern Cross and the smell of Tanzanian coffee beans wafted down from the slopes of Kilimanjaro on our arrival in Tanzania.

An hour later we were at the Keys Hotel for dinner, with a chilled beverage and a quick review of the maps for our upcoming ascent of both Mt. Meru and the Western Breach route on Kilimanjaro. We had a quick two weeks and two peaks before us.

On the slopes below Mt Meru, the approach is made through a game reserve – an African mini-safari to start the climb. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

With our training, our scrambling, our packing, our vaccinations and our international flights all behind us, we were all set for our big adventure. We were three family groups, the four infamous climbing Dentists, two rough and tuff individuals, and my then 11 year old son Myles.

Early the next morning our 12-member group set off and just after lunch we were already walking through the tall grass; with zebra, water buffalo, giraffes and wart hogs as our neighbors. A relaxed four hour walk led up through the thickening rain forest, with trees overlaid with moss, ferns growing from their sides, in a profusion of deep green. The U.K. was only a few days, but another world behind us already.

We reached the Miriakamba huts where we bunked four to a room, dining in a common hall with several other groups, and a balcony set out over the edge to watch the sun set behind the slopes of  Mt Meru. Unlike Kili however, the mountain was virtually deserted, we walked alone and on our climb to the summit, were the only group on the heights.

From the slopes of Mt Meru at dawn, Kilimanjaro silhouetted in the distance. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Dinner was our introduction to camp food – a fresh cucumber soup, generous platters of pasta with vegetable and meat sauces, just the beginning of an ongoing repertoire of fresh foods that would be also be carried up to the heights by our porters, all to tempt our palettes.

Next morning we moved rapidly up through the forest, passing through moss covered trees that thinned as we moved higher, before bumping into a troop of Black and White Colobusses monkeys swinging through the trees above us. By mid-afternoon we were settled into the Saddle Hut, with 4 enthusiastic members heading up another 300 meters to the summit of Little Meru for some added acclimatization. They now had their first bonus peak behind them already.

The next morning, if you can call midnight that, started with a quick bowl of porridge. It was an easy introduction to the trail, winding through volcanic boulders and low brush, angling around and up onto the base of the crater. Climbing under the Southern Cross and a profusion of stars practically bright enough to light our way, we soon reached Rhino Point, complete with bleached Rhino bones glowing in our headlamp beams.

A thin rocky ridge led us through the darkness on both sides, and the rough scaly texture underfoot led to some  sideways scrambling to keep us on our toes and wide awake, before we started the long upwards traverse around the back of the crater and onto the summit.

But like many peaks, ‘around the next corner and over the next hill,’ on Meru happened more than once, as the crater rim curved around and finally up a final steep scramble to the top.

Aided by encouragement from our local guides Cha Cha, Moses and Rayson, the team reached a summit higher than any in the lower 48 states of the U.S., attaining 4,556 meters (14,980 feet),  just 4 days after departing the UK. We were off to a strong start, with a number of members already reaching new heights on the planet – in some cases climbers were doubling or even tripling the altitudes they had previously reached.

And we were also furthering our acclimatization so a faster and more pleasurable ascent of Kilimanjaro was both possible by a far more interesting route than the normal one, as well as having a much easier ascent and being able to properly enjoy our adventure.

The following day we descended back down the trail, crossing a set of leopard tracks along the way, just to remind us that climbing in Africa holds a surprise around every corner. Our local guide had a large rifle slung over his shoulder, “just in case,’ he said.

In the final fields leading back to the bus, we paused to let a troop of 50 or more baboons pass by on the trail directly in front of us, the baby’s cavorting through the grass in the sunshine.

After a refreshing night back under our mosquito nets at the Keys Hotel, we made the 2 hour drive up the slopes of Kilimanjaro, passing through lush banana and coffee plantations to reach the Umbwe trail.

With our lead local guide Moses assembling our staff of exactly 50 supporters (to carry the essential tables, chairs and dining tents, not to mention the bushel baskets of fresh potatoes, bananas, mangos and cucumbers) we set off up through the tunneled track into the rain forest.

The gentle sloping trail was a welcome introduction to Kilimanjaro, following a shallow road, that soon led to a steeper track leading up wooden stairs set into the hard packed soil, to the Rain Forest Camp. It was an idyllic spot canopied by towering, intensely green trees, with just enough space cut into the rolls of the volcanic earth to set up our seven spacious camping tents. There was no-one else around, we were encapsulated by jungle, only rustles in the darkness and the stars blocked by trees.

The intensity of the darkness, with imagined leopards prowling about, had us settled into our tents early and we were then up at dawn the next day to continue our walk.

An excellent path wound up through the deep forest, turning and twisting, the rain forest soon feeding into towering palm like fronds sprouting 5-meters high around us as we broke out into a prominent volcanic ridge.  A small group passed us heading down, but otherwise were were alone for the day.

Kilimanjaro, western breach, Myles anderson.
Kilimanjaro, from the Barranco Camp. Certainly one of the most spectacalar places to camp out on any of the worlds’ seven summits. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Ascending into the bright equatorial sunshine, the precipitous heights of Kili’s magnificent Breach Wall reared directly in front of us. We walked along the razors back of the ridge leading up to it, each side dropping away steeply into the dark rain forest valleys on each side of us. It was a day that released us from the dark forests below and now set us free to climb into the heights of the worlds’ tallest free-standing mountain.

At the crest of the ridge we moved out into a basin below the glaciers and towering walls of Kili to the Baranco Camp at 3,900 meters.

The next day we had a quick hike 300 meters up the Baranco Wall, acclimatizing and taking in a new perspective on the sweeping ice glaciers extending down from the top of Africa nearly 2,000 meters above us. With luck, we’d be rolling over the top in less than 2 days time.

To move into position for our final ascent, we moved up from the Baranco to Arrow Glacier camp at 4,800 meters, quickly leaving all signs of vegetation behind and climbing up and over a series of ridges to land in a high alpine alcove, the Western Breach wall rising dramatically directly in front of us.

Having started the day in pure sunshine, we’d climbed up into thick mist, which now cleared just as the sun rolled off the world in a final blazing orange orb on the equators horizon.

From Kilimanjaro, looking back at Meru, which we had just summited a few days previous as part of our acclimitazation. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

We were up at 2 a.m. for our summit assault, frost coating the tents, dining on porridge or fresh potato soup, a special request for the kitchen that they served up in an oversize steaming pot – servings dependent on whether we were feeling more like a very early breakfast or a post midnight snack to start out climb.

By 3:30 a.m. we were following our headlamps up the scree, soon moving onto the steeper but solid volcanic rock ribs running down from the crater rim. Our single trail of headlamps was the only sign of humanity, beyond the flickering village lights kilometers away below us on the plains. We had left early enough to climb successfully to the summit, but not so early we would be forever climbing through the long hours of night, a common mistake on Kilimanjaro that leads to little more than misery for many.

We transitioned back to steep scree with a wandering trail leading us up to the final cliffs. From below the cliffs had looked dark, vertical and virtually impenetrable, but as we drew closer, the way traversed and shot up steep gullys, along exposed ridges and through delicate traverses that were far more spectacular than difficult.

Touching the top of Africa, Myles Anderson headed down the hill alongside the rapidly melting glacier. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

And as we climbed through the cliffs, the sun rose behind us, illuminating Mt Meru, then the shadow of Kilimanjaro on the horizon, before Kili’s shadow settled into the plains of Africa and slowly shrunk from orange to pink to the brown of the plains.

Shortly after 8 a.m. we pulled over the rim and into the immense crater of Kilimanjaro, ice cliffs rising on the left and a quick but final ascent up to the summit. With the day resplendent in sunshine, the first of us were on top before 10 a.m., in virtual shirt-sleeve weather with only a light breeze and a 360 degree panorama across Africa.

The Jagged Globe team atop Kilimanjaro.

With plenty of time for photos, and an early lunch behind us, we started the quick descent, traversing over the summit and down the top of the normal route, before curving off into a rapid descent down the loose scree of the Mweka route. By late afternoon we were all in Millenium Camp, with fresh vegetable soup, popcorn and endless cups of tea at hand.

A final days walking led us down into the forest again, descending rapidly through Mweka Camp, then into the cooling rain forest and along a well packed trail to the park entrance. We fare-welled our porters and a quick half hour later were back to the hot showers and cold beverages at the Keys Hotel.

We had ten solid days of walking and climbing behind us, from the plains, brimming with wild animals, to the depths of the dark forests at 1,600 meters, up to the Alpine heights at the summit of Mt Meru and across the top of Kilimanjaro. I had been a truly rare opportunity to fill each day with a host of new experiences that will be with us all for a lifetime.

 

From an ascent of Mt Meru and the Western Breach route on Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, organized by Jagged Globe and led by Robert Anderson. I’m returning 13 September, 2024, to again climb Meru and Kilimanjaro by the Umbwe route to the summit, (but not finishing on the Western Breach as described here), if you would like to join us? Before the snows of Kilimanjaro are no more?