As it turned out, we had simply been lucky

26 January 2008 | 05:02 Code : 16608 Geoscience events
This was the last week of January — nearly a year ago — and the middle of....

  This was the last week of January — nearly a year ago — and the middle of the dry season. But several weeks of heavy rain and snow preceded the arrival of our group, 10 mountaineering clients and a professional guide from International Mountain Guides, based near Seattle. That made for a freakishly well-fed snow pack and the classic snowy image portrayed on travel posters, the label of the local Kilimanjaro Premium Lager and the T-shirts hawked in Moshi’s tourist bazaars. But to many climate scientists and glaciologists who have probed and measured, the disappearance of the summit’s ice fields is inevitable and imminent.Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University who has studied Kilimanjaro’s ice fields for years, photographed the summit a year to the week, coincidentally, before we were there. He found only a few, isolated snow patches in shaded areas, a drastic difference from what we encountered. Even on the world’s highest free-standing volcano, seasonal snow doesn’t remain on a peak so close to the Equator.One of our Tanzanian guides, John Mtui, a tall, bespectacled and soft-spoken Chagga — the people who inhabit Kilimanjaro’s southern foothills — began climbing the mountain as a porter 25 years earlier, when he was 18. “When I first started climbing, we had big snow, big glaciers,” Mr. Mtui said. “The glaciers were bigger and taller than now. And also, the weather changed. We had heavier rain than we have now.”Like other exotic destinations widely believed to be threatened by degradation from climate change, the mountain’s precariousness has become a marketing opportunity. The adventure travel industry sends about 30,000 climbers a year toward Kilimanjaro’s summit. Scientific and outdoor magazines mention the imminent loss of the ice fields. So do guide services and outfitters on their Web sites. Our climb leader, Justin Merle, a mellow 6-foot-4 man in his late 20s who has a world-class mountaineering résumé, said of the typical adventure-travel article: “It’s like, ‘See Kili Before the Snow Is Gone.’ That’s almost a catchphrase.”Given Kilimanjaro’s snow, glaciers and volcanic upbringing, it didn’t look all that different from peaks I’ve climbed in my native Northwest. From my living room in Seattle, I can gaze at Mount Rainier, which I’ve climbed a dozen times. Even in the dead of summer, it retains a mantle of ice that makes it seem like a hulking life form. Kilimanjaro is almost unimaginably bigger: nearly a mile higher, it covers 1,250 square miles abutting Kenya.And yet, unlike Rainier, climbing Kilimanjaro required no real mountaineering skills, no ice axes, ropes or crampons, merely strong legs, hearts and lungs for trudging more than three and a half vertical miles above sea level. That, and a supply of Diamox, to fend off altitude sickness. Our approach was on the Machame, the most scenic and second-most heavily traveled — a distant second — of the six designated routes to the summit. Even so, our six camps along the way, five on the ascent and one on the descent, were 200-tent metropolises. The most heavily congested approach is the Marangu, called the “tourist” or “Coca-Cola” route, a reflection of its overcrowded, touristy ambience and the ubiquitous soft drink, which is sold at camps along the way. Our longer, more macho Machame is known as the “whiskey route.” The trip to the summit and back down again covered 39 miles. Most of my companions were seasoned hikers and backpackers but had scant mountaineering experience. Two exceptions were Todd Ziegler, an orthopedic surgeon from an Atlanta suburb, and his friend, Julie Nellis, a physical therapist from Atlanta, a diminutive but tireless, multisport athlete and the only woman on the trip. Both had climbed Rainier and major summits in the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, Mexico and elsewhere.Mr. Merle had already guided expeditions to four of the Seven Summits — Aconcagua, Everest, McKinley and Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Kilimanjaro was his easiest. We 11 Americans were the pampered tip of a human iceberg that included three Tanzanian guides and 38 porters and cooks, all Chaggas. They cooked and served our meals, boiled our water and carried much of our individual gear along with cook pots, food, our sleeping tents and a walk-in dining tent. As we’d trudge with our day packs up the mountain, the porters — some in their midteens — would overtake us while hauling on their backs our duffels containing our sleeping bags and extra clothing, tents and plastic armchairs. “Jambo,” they’d murmur, Swahili for “hello”; it was a polite way of saying, “Coming through. Step aside.”

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