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Climbing up a volcano in Africa

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a unique experience of navigating different climate zones, terrain and vegetation

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.(Sujoy Das)

By Sujoy Das

LAST PUBLISHED 23.02.2024  |  07:00 AM IST

Mount Kilimanjaro, at 5,895m, is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, rising from the grasslands of Tanzania. It is also the highest peak in the continent and one of the fabled “seven summits". Though it is often touted as a non-technical climb, Kilimanjaro poses its own challenges, making it harder than the Everest Base Camp trek at 5,365m. The summit camps on Kilimanjaro are usually around 4,650-4,700m, making the final push to the top a relentless ascent of around 1,200m that does not end until you reach Stella Point. To make the climb more difficult, teams usually begin at midnight with headlamps to illuminate the trail, and the cold, and sometimes snow, pose further challenges to reaching the summit.

It is often said that to climb Kilimanjaro you pass through four seasons in four days, such is the scale of the mountain. In fact, unlike other mountains, which are mainly rock and snow climbs, Kilimanjaro offers an amazing range of climate zones and vegetation—including animal and bird life—which makes it a unique summit.

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Helichrysum blooms on the trail from Shira 1 to Shira 2 camps, at around 3,500m with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. (Sujoy Das)

There are seven different approaches to the top, which take between five and nine days, each presenting its own level of difficulty. The longer routes have a better chance of success as they offer more time for acclimatisation, which is a vital part of a Kilimanjaro ascent. After much research, we—there were six of us doing the hike in January—chose the eight-day Lemosho, which gave us a chance of good acclimatisation and has an 80-85% success rate. The Lemosho is one of the most beautiful routes and passes through the four climactic zones: the rainforest, the heather and moorland, alpine desert and the arctic summit.

The colobus monkey (‘Gureza colobus’) are found in the rainforest to the upper reaches of the montane forest. (Sujoy Das)

The rainforest, that stretches up to an altitude of around 2,800m, receives most of Kilimanjaro’s rainfall, and huge trees dominate the landscape, like camphor, fig, avocado and wild mango. Near the Mkewa gate (1,800m), enormous tree ferns flourish, while on the highest branches of the tallest trees, the raucous call of the colobus and blue monkeys are often heard. The flashing red underwings of the dark-green Hartlaub’s turaco are also seen. In this zone, fireball lilies in bright red, the Impatiens kilimanjari in orange, and protea flowers (with the malachite sunbird feeding on the nectar) are a common sight.

A dusky turtle dove at Shira 2 camp, 3,800m. (Sujoy Das)

The moor and heather zone is between 2,800-4,200m, and this is home to the helichrysums, with dry-looking flowers growing in large clumps over the moorland. This is also home to the most distinctive trees on the entire mountain: the giant groundsels, which grow in abundance around 4,000m, and are seen profusely on the trail, from the Barranco camp to Lava Tower. The distinctive Lobelia deckenii, which takes eight years to flower, is also part of this terrain. At most of the camps in this altitude, common visitors are the white-necked raven as well as the dusky turtle dove.

Giant groundels near the Barranco camp at an altitude of around 4,200m. (Sujoy Das)

The alpine desert above 4,200m or so sees only tussock grass and a few hardy plants like a yellow ranunculus and the white alpine rock cress. On the ice cap above 5,000m, nothing survives—it is mainly rock, scree, boulders and ice.

Mushrooms cling to the bark of a dead tree in the rainforest. (Sujoy Das)

The final summit push starting at midnight is the hardest part of the entire climb, and the ascent takes 7-9 hours. The eerie blackness, the ghostly white snow slopes and the relentless climb hour by hour certainly pushed us to our limits.

Dawn breaks over a sea of clouds on the final summit ridge of Mount Kilimanjaro. (Sujoy Das)

Finally, as dawn broke, we crested Stella Point at 5,745m. Ahead was a gentle snow slope—the final summit ridge. The last 150m took us about an hour, and at around 7am, the team was on top. The clouds were far below us covering the savannahs of Africa—truly a top of the world feeling.

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Sujoy Das is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer.