Sverre Aarseth
Mountain skyline
All-Round N-Body Guy, Mountaineer and Wild-Life Enthusiast

Expedition report: Kilimanjaro 1976

An account to celebrate 30 years since the ascent of Mt Meru and Kilimanjaro, based on diary notes and a vivid recollection.

The story begins on 21st August when I was taken to the forestry training school at Olmotonyi, near Arusha, where a student agreed to be my guide. We set off at 4.30 in the morning on an empty stomach, accompanied by a second guy who needed to do the climb for credits. There was a long walk-in which is usually done by car but this was not available. Along the way we met a party who had failed the attempt in spite of having a car. From the hut it was a strenuous 3 3/4 hr to the peak which was reached at 2. Some sections at the critical angle were quite hard because the scree did not provide any firm support until the last 1000 feet and there was no trail. The view into the crater with its ash cone was spectacular and Kibo summit was very photogenic some 80 km away. A 45 minute scramble got me down to the ruined hut. On the walk-out we encountered Colobus monkeys and could admire many beautiful flowers as well as the famous pyrethrum bush. Finally Olmotonyi was reached at 7 p.m. after what turned out to be one of the hardest hiking days in my life: ascent from 5000 to 14978 feet and back plus a long walk-in. As it turned out, my companions were fit due to the rigorous training. No wonder only 30 people had signed the summit book during the last 4 months. They were most likely assisted by car and still taking two days for the trip. After this energetic exercise my diary states that Kilimanjaro will be a picnic.

Most of the following week was spent on safari with a few nights useful acclimatization near Ngorongoro. On the 29th I showed up at the Marangu hotel for a briefing by the venerable Czech lady owner who is well versed in warning hopeful clients on the hazards of Kilimanjaro. My resident sister had booked the fittest guide called Gibson as the obligatory companion for using the huts. We would form an independent two-man team, supported by an additional food porter. After a lift to the Park Gate some 4 miles further along we eventually started our trek at noon. A brisk 1 hr 50 min walk saw us at the Mandara Hut (9000 feet) which is the traditional stop on day 1. From there the standard time to Horombo Hut (12340 feet) is 5 hr but Gibson thought I could do it in half the time. In the event we spent 3 hr 15 min so his estimate would be realistic after a night's rest - and he himself was fully acclimatized as well as a terrific walker. Along the way we passed everlasting yellow flowers, scented bushes and some giant lobelia about 10 feet tall near 12000 feet. I had the luxury of sleeping in my own brand new hut and also experienced a cold night. Since we had leap-frogged the route, we were now supposed to have a rest day for acclimatization purposes. First we ambled up to the saddle and found the Mawenzi climber's hut. Gibson decided to spend his free time with another guide but asked if I wanted to go on. The temptation to explore further proved irresistible. However, the peaks of Mawenzi are quite tricky and require technical support as I had just learnt from two climbers at the hut. I scrambled up one of the lesser peaks on brittle rocks by a route that would be too risky for descent but discovered an easy return on the other side. In a later picture from Gilman's Point, my minor summit (ca. 16000 ft) is clearly visible on the right.

In the morning we soon pass the warning sign for the last water where I fill up with 6 litres while Gibson does not even take one drink for refreshment. After gaining the saddle it is an easy stroll to the old Kibo hut (15520 ft) which is reached in 3 hr 27 min and Gibson is again pleased. Around 2 I set off up the path to test my strength and breathing. Before long I reach Hans Meyer's Cave and realize it is half way to Gilman's Point (which qualifies for the Certificate). The opportunity to make it a solo is too good to miss. Some 3 hr 5 min later I gain this famous vantage point (18635 ft) and gaze on the ice castles seemingly floating on the black surface below the crater edge. By this time the shadow from the setting sun is half way across the saddle but it only takes 25 min running straight down the scree slopes.

On summit day we delay setting off until 4 a.m. because of our fitness, while the first failures from the 1.30 a.m. start have already returned. Gibson is in high spirits and lets out war cries in between singing. There is no cold wind and the scree trail is easier than going up Meru. Sunrise is observed at 6.30 and we reach Gilman's Point in 3 hr exactly so I can claim consecutive sunset and sunrise from this lofty location. (The two fit climbers had taken 4 hr 15 min.) We proceed along the crater ridge to Uhuru Peak (19340 ft) in another 1 hr 30 min even though we step onto the glacier for diversion. Here I find and photograph a beautiful ice cave. Needless to say, we have the summit to ourselves and it is a perfect day. Not content with this prize, we climb down the crater wall and enter the outermost caldera. On reaching the second rim, Gibson hesitates but soon follows me down into the second depression. At this altitude, every step uphill is an effort but I have spied a lower exit point on the opposite side. At the edge of the central explosion crater, which is perhaps some 300 feet across, we can only look down into the pit since this part would require a roped descent. Along the way out I spot a fumarole with hot air which was new to the guide. Finally, near the end of a long day we struggle up to the crater rim and traverse to Gilman's Point, arriving at base camp around 1 p.m. after a fantastic day. A short rest and Horombo is reached in 2 hr flat.

On the last day we make a detour after Mandara (2 hr) to a small crater where there are many beautiful flowers. The rain forest further down is kind to us and we conclude at the hotel around 1 p.m. after a truly remarkable trip to the roof of Africa via its fifth highest peak. I spend the afternoon relaxing, soothing my tender feet in the river and enjoy the sight of luscious banana plants and other profuse vegetation which make this area such a contrast to the desert-like landscape below. The combined walking times from the Park Gate to the summit and back again amounted to some 22 hr (excluding the first ascent of Gilman's Point), of which the summit hike took 9 hr. On my return visit to Marangu 13 years later the Czech lady who was still running the show told me that Gibson continued to be the strongest guide.

Sverre Aarseth, 7/5/06


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