by Tim Ward, author of Zombies on Kilimanjaro (May 2012, Changemakers Books).
Why do 40,000 people a year seek to climb the world’s highest freestanding mountain – a mountain so popular it has become known as “Everyman’s Everest?” Here are the top ten reasons (from the viewpoint of one climber) from the most practical to the most profound:
1. Kilimanjaro is technically the easiest to climb of the Seven Summits (the highest mountain on each continent). You don’t need ropes or special mountaineering gear, or even any previous mountain climbing experience. The youngest person to reach the summit was six years old, and the eldest (as of 2011), was 87. That does not mean Kilimanjaro is not without its risks. Rockslides and acute altitude sickness kill on average ten climbers each year (the subject of a forthcoming post).
2. Paradoxically, Kilimanjaro is both remote and accessible. Kilimanjaro is located in Tanzania, just south of the equator, next to the Serengeti. But regular flights fly nonstop from Europe to the Kilimanjaro airport. Around the mountain there’s surprisingly good support infrastructure for such an impoverished country – decent hotels, outfitters, gear to rent, ground transportation. On the mountain there are sleeping huts along the main route, with porters who carry and set up tents and kitchen facilities on the other routes.
3. Kilimanjaro remains surprisingly pristine. While the base camp of Everest is strewn with trash, Kilimanjaro National Park is comparatively clean. Park Rangers weigh all the bags coming on and off the mountain and trekking companies pay heavy fines if the bags come down light. This greatly reduces dumping on the trail. There are basic outhouses along the way what while far from luxurious, provide privacy and keep the mountain clean. There are only seven trails up to the summit, and no roads. As a result, despite relatively heavy traffic, the mountain has retained its wild nature.
4. Kilimanjaro one of the world’s great natural wonders: a snow covered mountain on the equator, an ocean of green forest surrounded by dry savannah. Climbing Kilimanjaro is like walking from the equator to the North Pole in a week, providing dramatic changes in vegetation and animal life day by day. Kilimanjaro is also a “sky island.” Its high altitudes have created habitat for strange and unique life forms found only on a few other peaks on the planet – such as the delicate elephant flower and the bizarre, tufted Kilimanjaro tree taht looks like something created by Dr. Suess.
5. Kilimanjaro is a hot spot for studying Climate Change. Al Gore showed photos of its rapidly shrinking glaciers in An Inconvenient Truth. Ice cores show the glaciers to be 11,700 years old – and yet they will all be gone in the next 20-30 years. Teams of scientists are working on the ice to better monitor and understand exactly why this is happening. One researcher I met said to me: “You can stand next to the ice and see the glaciers turning to vapor before your eyes.”
6. Climbing Kilimanjaro contributes to a thriving local economy, generating about $20 million/year. Guides, porters, cooks, hotel staff, food producers, travel and trekking agencies, merchants, construction companies and banks all create local jobs in a region that remains one of the poorest on earth.
7. Kilimanjaro inspired a continent to freedom. Kilimanjaro belongs to Tanzania, the first nation in Africa to win independence from colonial powers (it was then called Tanganyika). Before independence in 1959, soon-to-be President Julius Nyerere said: “We, the people of Tanganyika, would like to light a candle and put it on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where before there was only humiliation.” Today, the summit is called Uhuru Peak – Uhuru is the Swahili word for “Freedom.”
8. People Climb Kilimanjaro to mark a personal accomplishment. Individuals climb the mountain to mark important transitions: their graduation, their retirement, a marriage or a divorce. The event is significant enough that every year dozens of local newspapers write the story of a town resident who makes the journey to the peak.
9. Many people climb Kilimanjaro to draw attention to a worthy cause or charity: to raise money to cure cancer or bring attention to a condition such as autism. Individuals with disabilities have climbed to mountain to demonstrate that with courage perseverance, a disability need not be a limitation.
10. Kilimanjaro inspires transformation. When you climb Kilimanjaro and stand on the roof of Africa, you see the world a different way. What seemed impossible in your life might just be doable. The mountain top is a place for vision, inspiration, and a new beginning. As the famous song by Juluka goes: “I’m sittin’ on top of Kilimanjaro, I can see a new tomorrow. I’m sittin’ on top of Kilimanjaro. I cast away all my sorrows.”
Tim Ward is the author of Zombies on Kilimanjaro: a Father-Son Journey Above the Clouds, the first literary narrative of climbing Kilimanjaro.
“A High-Altitude Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – James O’Reilly.