While surfing YouTube the other day, feeling nostalgic for the mountains of Africa, I stumbled across David Breashears’ 2002 IMAX documentary Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa.
I hadn’t seen it before. While it’s not quite the same experience watching it on a modest tablet screen rather than in giganto-vision inside an IMAX theatre surrounded by hoofer-woofer speakers (or whatever they’re called) that didn’t matter to me. I’ve always been one for content over special effects.
The film is narrated by a Tanzanian guide called Jacob, who has climbed Kilimanjaro more than 250 times, as he leads a group of trekkers including mountaineering historian Audrey Salkeld, geologist Roger Bilham and supermodel Heidi Albertsen.
It’s a pretty good documentary, just 40 minutes long, which had me yearning to go back there. I’ve only climbed Kilimanjaro once, way back in 2002 at the very start of my journey as a high-altitude mountaineer, and I’m sure I would look upon it very differently now.
Back then getting to the summit was my main focus, and it was in doubt for most of the trek. I wasn’t as tired as I expected to be when I reached the top, but I’d expended quite a lot of emotional energy wondering whether I’d be strong enough.
Fourteen years and many mountains later it would be a straightforward hike these days, and I would be able to enjoy myself exploring a bit more of the mountain, just like the trekkers in the film, who make several side trips and follow a more interesting, extended itinerary to most commercial trips.
“To learn the secrets of Kilimanjaro, we must begin beneath the clouds – not in snow, but in mud,” says Jacob at the start of the film.
The different climate zones form an important feature of the film. They are a reason why Kilimanjaro is such an interesting mountain to climb.
We’re introduced to the group as they ascend through the cloud forest, amid curtains of hanging lichen, with shafts of sunlight penetrating the gloom.
Above the forest they pass into the alpine zone, full of weird species that are giant versions of plants that are common elsewhere. These include giant heath trees, related to the heather which carpets many a Scottish moor. Strangest of all are the giant groundsels, which Audrey Salkeld describes as “like great candelabras with pompoms on top” (she may have been drinking).
Above the vegetation zone in the area of high-altitude desert Heidi Albertsen does a rock climb up a 100m lava tower. At the top she finds Roger Bilham sitting on a rock, who launches into a lecture about how the mountains of East Africa were formed. This is an excuse of some breathtaking aerial photography sweeping across other rugged volcanoes and sparkling crater lakes in that part of Africa.
I can’t be sure, but it looks like the group climb Kibo (Kilimanjaro’s main central peak) by the Western Breach route. This is a more rocky ascent involving a bit of easy scrambling. Rather than completing it in darkness (which wouldn’t have been much help for the film crew) they climb during daylight and have one further camp beneath a glacier on the crater. I believe this must be the Furtwangler Glacier, which spills down from the crater close to the breach (or gap in the crater wall).
The glacier is incredibly clean. Giant columns of white like organ pipes stand in striking contrast to the dusty brown crater they sit upon. Roger Bilham explains how the glacier is shrinking not by melting into a mountain stream, but by sublimating straight into the air as water vapour.
The idea of camping on the crater just a short hike from the summit is a fantastic one. I’m sure the main reason most people don’t do this is because of the altitude. The camp is at 5500m, roughly 1000m higher than most of the high camps on Kilimanjaro. You need to be sure of your ability to acclimatise, but I’ve spent a couple of nights at 8200m without problems, so I reckon I’ll be OK. If I go back to Kilimanjaro I will certainly shop around for a local operator who is prepared to put in a high camp like this. Many won’t because it means porters will also need to climb up to that altitude.
But aside from the picturesque setting for a night, there are a couple of other benefits to camping up on the crater. That afternoon Jacob took Roger Bilham into the inner crater to stare down the perfectly concentric 150m ash pit at the mountain’s heart. Most trekkers only get to experience Kilimanjaro’s outer crater as they walk several kilometres around it to Uhuru Peak, the 5895m high point and the highest point in Africa. But the barren moonscape of the inner crater looks to be well worth a visit.
The second benefit to having a crater camp is the opportunity to walk during the day, take it easy and enjoy so much more of the mountain. The standard summit day trekking experience on Kilimanjaro is to set off at midnight from 4500m, and slog your way up in darkness for over 1000m to reach the crater rim as dawn is breaking. Many trekkers, who are not used to such an experience at extreme altitudes, are so exhausted they don’t remember much about it. The summit becomes a tick in the box.
I’ve never been a big fan of night climbing, and there’s no point doing it this way if you don’t have to. The trekkers in David Breashears’ film are able to leave at dawn and climb in daylight on each of two days. First they climbed up through the breach to camp on the crater floor, and the following day they left in daylight again for the short hike up the remaining 300m to the summit.
Either they were a strong group or they benefited from this approach. There was no drunken staggering to the summit and liberal use of expletives as there had been on my summit day (although the latter may just have been edited out). They all seemed to be walking normally and in a good position to enjoy their summit.
The emotions they expressed at the summit will be familiar to anyone who’s had the good fortune to climb Kilimanjaro.
“It’s just beautiful. I’m thinking of how happy I am to be up here, and that I made it,” says one of the trekkers in the film.
“It was such a relief to know that we’d all done it, and here we all were on the roof of Africa,” says Audrey Salkeld.
“At first I thought maybe I’ll make it, I didn’t know,” says Heidi Alfredsen, “but now I know, and I’m a stronger person than when I came, and I’m happy about that.”
“It’s a really thrilling feeling to be standing where all this rock poured forth less than a million years ago,” says Roger Bilham (well, OK then, maybe not so many people ever say that).
The last words go to Jacob:
Kilimanjaro is a place where ordinary people come to do something extraordinary, to leave their daily lives and stand in a place between heaven and earth.
That’s maybe over-egging it a bit, but I have fond memories of Kilimanjaro, a journey I made back in the distant past. I’d like to go back. I know it will be a very different experience second time around, but just as enjoyable.
Anyway, enough of my waffle, here’s the film. Kilimanjaro formed an important part of my journey to Everest, so if you enjoy watching it you might be interested in reading my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, which contains a whole chapter about Kilimanjaro.