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    Snow on the Equator – Kilimanjaro: Kibo and Mawenzi

    H. W. ‘Bill’ Tilman was one of the greatest adventurers of his time, a pioneering climber and sailor who held exploration above all else. He made first ascents throughout the Himalaya, attempted Mount Everest, and sailed into the Arctic Circle. For Tilman, the goal was always to explore, to see new places, to discover rather than conquer.

    Tilman’s writing represents some of the finest tales of adventure and discovery from the last century. In this extract from the first of his mountaineering titles, Snow on the Equator, Tilman begins his famed mountaineering partnership with Eric Shipton as they make their way from Nairobi to Longido, Tanzania, through the Marungu Highlands, en route Kibo – the highest of three volcanic cones on Kilimanjaro.

    We reached Longido (130 miles) after dark, and stopped there for the night. There was a rest house, and hard by is Mount Longido, a conical scrub-covered hill rising straight from the plain to a height of 8500 feet. It was the scene of heavy fighting at the commencement of the War in East Africa in 1914.

    Next day a run of 120 miles over a better road took us to Marungu, a little place on the south-east slopes of the mount-ain at an elevation of about 5000 feet above the sea. We had driven round two sides of the mountain—the west and south sides—on which there is a considerable area devoted to coffee-growing by both natives and Europeans. The volcanic soil is deep and rich, the climate warm, while water furrows can be led everywhere from the innumerable streams descending from the forested slopes of the mountain above. At Marungu there is a small hotel where we put up, dumped our surplus kit, and arranged for twelve porters and a donkey to accompany us next day.

    When the Germans were in occupation here they built two huts on the mountain; one at 8500 feet, which is called Bismarck, and another at 11,500 feet, called Peters’s Hut, after Dr Karl Peters, the notorious German explorer, whose efforts to extend the German sphere of influence to Uganda, when matters there were still undecided, did not stop at opening the private correspondence of his British rivals. These huts, particularly the lower one, are in fairly frequent use by visitors to Marungu, which is popular as a health resort for people condemned to live in hot, unhealthy places like Tanga, on the neighbouring coast. Apart from the great altitude, there is nothing to stop the more energetic from going to the top, because on Kibo there are no climbing difficulties whatsoever. Perhaps that is putting it too strongly, for on any mountain much depends on the weather, and on Kibo in thick weather the finding of the summit presents more difficulties than usual. The reason for this will be apparent later, but, I suppose, up to 1930 at least twenty people had made genuine ascents, and a few others, like ourselves, ascents which were only technically invalid.

    Leaving Marungu, the track to Bismarck follows a broad spur at an easy gradient. On every hand are the huts, banana groves, maize and coffee fields of the natives, the lower slopes at this point being thickly populated and well cultivated by the Wachagga, who seem to have a good working knowledge of the art of irrigation. At about 7000 feet the cultivation comes to an end on the fringes of the forest zone. Inside the forest it is dark and gloomy; the undergrowth is thick; streams abound, and the trees are typical of those found in ‘rain forest.’ These are evergreen, the species numerous, trees of all sizes and shapes struggling together for space and light. Elephants abound, but are protected, and near the Bismarck hut their tracks lie everywhere, making the finding of the path to the hut difficult.

    This is a substantial structure of stone situated near the upper limit of the forest zone. Little more than four hours were needed to reach it, and that evening, after we had settled in, we climbed to a point clear of the forest to enjoy a good view of Mawenzi, a fantastically weathered peak of red volcanic rock, 17,000 feet high, separated from the higher but less interesting Kibo by a wide, flat saddle of shale. It looked difficult, and, if the climbing of Kibo was a duty, that of Mawenzi promised to be a pleasure.

    Rain fell heavily in the night, but we got away soon after seven to a fine morning, and reached Peters’s Hut in four hours, just in time to avoid a sharp hailstorm. The path lay over bare and boggy moors, where we saw for the first time the curious plants peculiar to the Alpine zone in the tropics. This zone lies between 10,000 and 14,000 feet, and the most remarkable plants found there are the giant groundsel and the giant lobelia. The first is like an enormous cabbage stuck on top of a thick stem six to eight feet high, while the lobelia is a long, columnar, feathery, green stalk, very unlike an ordinary lobelia. Besides these there are Alpines, balsams, heather-like bushes, and withal many more birds than are seen in the rather lifeless forest.

    The hut was a small wooden building with a tin roof and a very efficient stove, for which we had brought a supply of wood. Not unreasonably, the porters, whose quarters were distinctly airy, complained bitterly of the cold, while the little white donkey voiced the sentiments of all with a series of discordant brays, and looked very much out of place. The walls of the hut were sadly disfigured by the names of the many parties who had penetrated thus far, and who were not willing to have it forgotten.

    In the night there was a heavy thunderstorm, and, judging from the solid banks of cloud below and to the south, we feared that the ‘long rains’ were about to break. The rainy season generally sets in towards the end of March—slightly earlier, perhaps, in Tanganyika than in Kenya, because the rain spreads up from the south with the advance of the south-west monsoon. This unusually early onset of the rains foreboded for us not only unpleasant conditions on the mountain, but the possibility of getting stranded on the way home by rivers in flood.

    Nearing the 16,000-foot saddle, and within a mile of the hut, we came upon snow. Our head porter and guide, one Solomon, who had been very near to the top of Kibo, if not on it, pointed out our destination, the Hans Mayer Caves, across the saddle. It looked about half a mile distant, but it took us an hour to get there, and we realised the height was beginning to tell. The porters, who were anxious to dump their loads and get back from these inhospitable wastes to the comparative comfort of Peters’s Hut, went well, and we did our best, but our little white dapple had the legs and lungs of us all.

    The cave, like most caves, still seemed to be the home of many winds unreleased by Æolus, but we made ourselves fairly comfortable, and prepared for an early start next day. I had a slight headache, due to the altitude, but S. was fit enough. The donkey and all the porters had gone down except Solomon and one companion, who suffered together silently. There is nothing, I think, except cold which will reduce an African native to speechlessness, and that unusual state of affairs is perhaps accounted for by the impossibility of talking intelligibly with chattering teeth.

    We started at 4.30 a.m. in thick weather and falling snow. The route at first lay up snow lying thinly on scree at an easy angle. The climb is devoid of interest from a mountaineering point of view, so the reader is, for the moment, spared the arduous mental exertion of following the party up the perilous knife-edge ridges, stone-swept gullies, and precipitous faces which abound so plentifully in descriptions of a climb. On top of Kilimanjaro is a great flat-bottomed crater, possibly a mile across at its longest diameter, filled with ice and snow—what the Germans called on their map the Credner Glacier. On the rim of the crater is the summit, or summits, for on this great circumference there are numerous snow hillocks or bumps of varying height. The rim is gained by a notch at its lowest point, which is close on 19,000 feet, and then the climber turns left-handed to follow the crater-wall round to the south and west, passing over several of these bumps, until the highest of all, Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze, is reached.

    At half past ten we gained the first of these points, Gillman Point, in a mist, where, digging in the snow, we found a cairn and a visitors’ book. Solomon, with the wisdom of his namesake, now declared he had had enough, so we parked him there to await our return, and pushed on, well knowing that the official summit was still far off, though very little higher. I was not feeling very well myself; in fact I was being sick at frequent intervals; but we ploughed slowly on through waist-deep snow, presently reaching the top of another bump, which later we judged must have been Stella Point. Yet another top loomed vaguely through the mists some distance ahead, but I am obliged to confess that its challenge aroused little interest in us, and, after debate, we turned in our tracks. We picked up the patient Solomon, now the colour of a mottled and overripe Victoria plum, and at twelve o’clock started down.

Monte Bove

Last successfully climbed in 2011. Join for the fifth ascent of the mountain. Dates are 7/3 to 29/3 for 2020.

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