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The Roof of Africa

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

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Say you wanted to climb the highest mountain on an entire continent, but you’re not an expert climber and you don’t want to expose yourself to too much danger. Where would you go?

Well, Asia is out – even the easy way up Mt. Everest is very hard work indeed. Europe (Mt. Elbrus) and North America (Mt. McKinley) present similar challenges – both peaks are ice bound climbs suitable only for professionals. Things get a little easier with certain routes up Aconcagua in South America, but not much.

Your best bet, and the most popular choice for small-Mount Kilimanjaro scale mountaineers and hikers with large-scale dreams, is Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. More specifically, it – or at least the route you will likely use for your ascent – is in Tanzania. Anyone who is in reasonable good health can attempt the ascent to the main summit, Uhuru, at 19,340 feet. Every year around 15,000 people try, mostly as members of guided expeditions. Around forty percent of them make it.

The main reason for failure to reach the summit is not fatigue, or lack of fitness, or injury, or adverse conditions – it’s simply the enormous grinding work of doing anything at altitude. If you have signed up to climb ‘Kili’ with a reputable trekking company – and it’s strongly recommended that you - then your group leader will have you spend several days taking exercise at moderate altitudes before your assault on the main summit. The purpose of this is acclimatization. In the same way that divers who ascend too quickly from the depths of the ocean put themselves at risk by not letting their bodies get used to changes in pressure, so climbers who do not properly acclimatize to walking at altitude risk illness and even death from trying to exert themselves in the rarefied atmosphere.

Several precautions are taken to make things a little easier for you if you are not an experienced climber or mountaineer. First, your group leader will arrogate to him or herself all decisions about who is and is not fit to climb the mountain on any given day (the ascent usually takes three), on the basis that your brain doesn’t function quite so well at high level if you’re not used to it. Also, you will probably find that local porters – who are well used to the physical demands that altitude places upon the body – are around to carry your personal kit, as well as all the gear required for a couple of nights camping on the side of the mountain.

Room with a View: Toilet Facilities at 4600 meters The going itself is pretty easy – experienced climbers and hikers might even consider the sections of relentless slog a little boring. Everything, though, is worth it for the fantastic views of the African savannah stretching out as far as the eye can see below you.

If you are feeling a little ill through altitude, you may find yourself subject to a traditional remedy. Roibosch (‘redbush’) tea is a drink rather similar to ordinary tea. Caffeine-free, it’s made from a plant that grows all over southern Africa which is rumored to have all kinds of miraculous healing powers.

If you are fit for a summit attempt, the chances are you will rise very early in the morning in order to ‘bag’ the peak and make the descent from the mountain in a single day. If you’re lucky, and catch sunrise from the summit, it will be an experience you never forget, no matter how exhausted you are by the altitude.

You may or may not come across snow at the summit. There has been a regular cap of ice on the top for most of the past eleven thousand years. However, in recent times, under the pressures of man-made global warming, the snow and ice has receded significantly – if you climb Kili, by the time you make the summit it may have disappeared altogether.

That’s a terrible shame, and an illustration of the impact human civilization has on the environment. But there are still great beauties to be appreciated from the highest summit of Kilimanjaro – including the sight of the curvature of the earth. This is something you can usually only appreciate from an aircraft, but here you can see it stretch beyond the confines of a tiny window.

Everyone should climb a mountain at least once in their life, and, if you’re set on making your mountain one of the big ones, Kilimanjaro is probably the hill to go for. It’s a powerful and humbling experience to stand, if not quite on top of the world, then a darn sight nearer to it than most people get during their lives.