The famous snows of Kilimanjaro are melting and may soon be gone. A combination of evaporation, too little snowfall, and internal heat from the dormant volcano have reduced the mountain’s ice and snow cover by 90% from historic levels—and it continues to retreat about 1 m (3 ft.) a year.
The Masai tribesmen called it Oldoinyo Oibor, or “White Mountain.” In Swahili, it’s Kilima Njaro, or “Shining Mountain.” Ernest Hemingway titled his famous short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Clearly, those majestic snow-capped peaks are what make this the most famous mountain in Africa, along with the fact that it’s the continent’s highest peak. That snowy plateau, rising 4,600m (15,100 ft.) above the Tanza-nian plains just south of Kenya, is a mesmerizing sight indeed—here, in equatorial Africa, standing all by itself, is a mountain-top with snow.
As world-class peaks go, it’s a relatively easy climb, though it takes several days round-trip to reach the summit; climbers overnight at a series of huts on the mountain. Nearly 30,OOOclimbers a year attempt it, though at least a quarter of that number fails to reach the top. Ascending, you pass through four radically different climate zones. First comes the lush, steamy Kilimanjaro Forest Reserve surrounding the base; then the grassy moorlands of the shouldering slopes; above 3,900m (13,000 ft.), the mountain suddenly becomes steeper and more barren, with rocky scree underfoot. Last of all, you hit glacial ice fields, dazzling in the reflected African sun. It’s not a technical climb, but it’s a strenuous steep hike, and the extreme altitude makes it physically challenging if your body hasn’t acclimated properly.
There are several routes to the summit. One of the most popular, the Western Breach, has already been closed due to rock slides caused by receding ice. The 5-day Marangu Route—nicknamed the Coca-Cola Trail—is currently most popular; it starts from the Marangu Park Gate: The Lemosho Trail, which takes off from Londorossi Gate, is easier and more scenic, though it takes 9 days. Whichever route you take, you must obtain park permits and hut reservations in advance (available through a licensed tour operator or local hotels in Moshi); at the park gate, you’ll hire a guide, and possibly a porter (you won’t be allowed on the mountain without a guide). Park fees are substantial, but they include hut accommodation on the mountain; guides and porters ask ridiculously low wages, hoping for generous tips on top. If you book with a tour operator, most of this, along with a cook to prepare all meals en route, is included in your package. Standing on the snow-capped summit? That’s priceless.