|Day 7 (Sept. 8, 2005): Western Breach Climb to Crater Camp|
DIARY OF THE CLIMB
We woke-up before 5 am to eat an early breakfast before our start up the Western Breach. When we left camp at 6:30 am, it was light enough to see without a flashlight or headlamp. I wore quite a few layers to keep warm, because it would be several hours before the sun rose high enough above Kibo to give us direct sun light. Elias had us all wearing climbing helmets and daisy chain harnesses around our waists that could be used to lock-in a climbing rope for safety on the rock scrambles. Rick, Pauline, Ellen, and I were accompanied by Elias, Luka, Bosco, and Michael (with the emergency medical gear).
Most of the sections of the Western Breach turned out to be
straightforward mountain trail. We were used to going up steep grades
maintaining a very slow pace. A lot of the trail was scree covered (loose
rock, ranging down to fine powder). Many of the trails that I hike back
home are also covered with scree, and it didn't seem like a big deal.
Early in the hike, we reached the first section of rocks where we used
the climbing ropes for insurance. The scramble was not hard, but would be
rated a "Class 3." You had to use your hands to help navigate the
sections, using rocks for handholds, and giving some thought about what you
were doing. The "exposure" (that is, the potential consequence of falling
and hurting yourself) was minimal. Having a "spotter" below you (someone
to help break your fall) would just as well have eliminated any real risk.
So, as expected, using the ropes was a very conservative safety
precaution. At the next rock scrambling section, they asked each of us if
we wanted to use the rope. Only Pauline took them up on it this time.
Although there were a couple more scrambling sections, we never saw the
ropes again. The descriptions that I had read on the internet of the rock
scrambles on the Western Breach varied a lot. One of the reasons that I
really wanted to climb this route was to find-out for myself what it was
like. I would describe the sections as "fun," and nothing to really worry
about. There were a total of four such rocky sections on the Western
Another thing that many people talk about is the "exposure" of hiking up a 2,800' scree field, and being able to look down such a dizzying slope the entire route. Before the climb, I had also wondered what this would be like. I had no prior experience climbing such a big mountain, although I hike in the 10,000' mountains back home every weekend. I am normally pretty cautious, and don't seek-out risks just for an adrenaline rush. On the Western Breach climb, I never felt any fear of "falling off the mountain, and plummeting 2,000' feet to my death." Although the trail is steep, it is still only a 30-40o slope. A fall while hiking up the Western Breach would most often involve tripping and falling forward. At worst, if you fell sideways off the trail, you could get quite skinned-up from the rocks. However, you would probably tumble 10', but not 2,000' down the mountain. If there were actually any sections where "a slip of the foot could lead to death," I never saw them (maybe I was too busy concentrating on hiking up the slope at 18,000'). I found the hike up the Western Breach to be beautiful and spectacular. It was the highlight of the trip, and the memory of a lifetime. If you have the chance, I highly recommend it.
It took our group 7 1/2 hours to complete the trek up the Western Breach. As usual, Pauline's pace was the slowest. However, any time the front of the group got very far ahead, we just would stop to rest for a few minutes while the back of the pack caught up.
I was tired, but elated when we arrived at the top of the crater rim. The first thing that we saw was the 40'-tall Furtwängler Glacier, a couple of hundred yards in front of us. The glaciers at the top of Kilimanjaro are steadily shrinking, and many estimates say that they will all be gone within a couple of decades. There was no snow cover at the top, because our climb coincided with Tanzania's dry season. The volcanic crater floor was covered with fine volcanic ash; when you walked across it, you would leave footprints a couple of inches deep.
We walked an additional 1/3 of a mile to our camp site, at 18,800'. Elias said that after we rested for a hour or so, we could take an optional hike to see the volcano crater ash pit. This is a raised, circular inner rim, the inside of which slopes down to a flat floor, and then a 400'-deep inverted cone (hole) at the very center of the volcano. Kilimanjaro has one of the most perfectly formed volcanic ash pits of any mountain in the world. I had seen so many photos of the ash pit, that I really wanted to try to go.
It turned out that only Rick and I decided to make the hike; Pauline and Ellen had had enough fun for one day. We were accompanied by Michael and several other porters who we didn't know. I had heard that it was a very tiring hike, which turned out to be true. From all of my reading, I never knew that the rim surrounding the ash pit was so high. Our climb up the soft scree slope topped-out at 19,200'; this is only 140' lower in elevation than Uhuru Peak, the actual summit of Kilimanjaro. The view of the inner crater and ash pit was amazing, and Rick and I were very happy that we had gone. This spot is much more beautiful and awe-inspiring than Uhuru Peak itself. (Of course you "have to" go to Uhuru Peak just to say that you've done it, but the inner crater and ash pit were the most impressive landmarks that we saw on the mountain.)
It was on this hike up to the crater rim that we found out that Michael spoke English, and very well. So he had been at the tail of our 8-member trekking group for the past seven days, and we were just finding that out? Amazing. The group dynamics and hierarchy amongst the guides, assistants, porters, and clients were just too inscrutable for me. Oh, well. Michael was a very nice fellow, and a lot of fun to talk with. I just wish we had figured that out earlier in the trip.
Elias had us all take a double dose (250 mg) of diamox for the final night at altitude before our summit climb the next morning. Our blood oxygen levels all had dropped to the 70% range. Elias was pleased that they had stayed as high as that level. Our lungs were also all clear of fluid. We had acclimatized very well on our slow ascent (seven days).
Another group at camp was doing very badly, however. Four of the six trekkers who had come up by the Umbwe Route were in bad shape. Their climbing company did not have all of the health / safety equipment that our Tusker Trail trek provided. Just as importantly, their guide did not have the high-altitude emergency medical expertise that Elias possessed. Elias was called on in the middle of the night to help one particular climber. His lungs were full of fluid, and he had been coughing up blood that night. Elias measured his blood oxygen level at a dangerous 41%. He gave the fellow most of the oxygen supply that our group had left (one of our oxygen bottles had already gone down the mountain with Kevin when he was evacuated). The next morning, none of these four climbers were able to go to the summit. They had to take a direct path from the Crater Camp over to Stella Point, then down the mountain. (This is the route that most of the porters take, if they don't need to go to Uhuru Peak.)
We had all been worried about the camping that night at the Crater Camp. Since the temperature had dropped to 15o F at Arrow Glacier, almost 3,000' lower in elevation, I was worried that it would drop to well below zero. However, that night it got down to only a "cool" 10o F. We all used the hand warmers and toe warmers that Pauline had brought, and managed to get through the night in good shape. I did find it very difficult to sleep at this high elevation. Actually, I should clarify that; I didn't sleep at all at this high elevation. I had heard that this was pretty common, so I wasn't too surprised or concerned about that. I had brought along an MP3 player, and listened to music to pass the time, just waiting until our 4:45 am wake-up call to begin our summit day. Of course, there was always the getting up to pee to keep from getting too bored, as well. (The stars are very clear at night from the top of Kilimanjaro.)
© Copyright 2005. Michael E. Coltrin, Albuquerque, NM. All rights reserved.