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Peak(s):  Kilimanjaro 19,340 ft
Mt Meru 14,980ft
Date Posted:  09/28/2023
Date Climbed:   09/06/2023
Author:  kiwiliam
 I recommend climbing Kilimanjaro via the Western Breach, and do it with Team Kilimanjaro   

A quick summary for those of you who don’t want to read

Why The Western Breach

  1. It is not crowded,
  2. It is the most scenic approach,
  3. It grants you access to the crater floor, while other routes skirt the rim,
  4. You don’t go up and down the same way,
  5. It is more challenging (class 3 scramble), but also more dangerous,
  6. It can be done in 6 days, but includes 2 sleeps above 15,000ft which means better acclimatization (especially if your used to 14ers already),
  7. You’ll get to see Kilimanjaro’s shadow as the sunrises on the other side of the mountain.
Kili's shadow from high on the Western Breach. Lava Tower is the light colored area just beyond the cliffs the bottom right of the photo. Shira Camp (Day 2) is halfway between Lava Tower and the Shira ridge in the distance.

Why Team Kilimanjaro

  1. They helped re-route the Western Breach trail after the 2006 accident,
  2. The guides know where they are going, which is important on an unmarked rock scramble in the dark,
  3. They are local, cut out the middle man, who will be hiring locals anyway,
  4. They clearly get the climb high sleep low principle,
  5. They have a Green Porter program,
  6. They were responsive to our needs: After climbing Meru we were able to adjust our Kili menu, by striking off fish, melon, papaya, cilantro (coriander) and Red Bull and adding butter, and more cheese. This saved the porters carrying up stuff we were not going to eat. Discuss the menu beforehand.
  7. They had better equipment.

Mts Meru and Kilimanjaro seen from the flight from the Seregenti back to Kilimanjaro International Airport

Other Observations

  1. We acclimated by climbing Mt Meru (14,988 ft). 3 days on Meru, a rest day and 6 days on Kili would be better than 8 days inching your way up Kili,
  2. None tells you about the trash, including the human shit: Bring plenty of hand santizer and a couple of WAG bags,
  3. Diamox. I don’t use it on 14ers, but Kili is a one-off experience, so why roll the dice? (Tanzania is like Mexico, you can buy Diamox and traveler’s diarrhea meds over the counter.)
  4. Team Kilimanjaro offers a minimalist package for people who want a DYI backpacking experience. Even then, you have to hire a guide, who will want a porter. Uncomfortable as I was having someone dust my boots at the end of the day, going up with full support crew does employ people, plus at my age its nice not to have to haul a full backpack
  5. If you have time definitely do a Safari in Tanzania, It is worth the trip alone, but understand bumping around in a land cruiser all day, focused on finding the elusive rhino, is not a restful vacation,
  6. Bring large denomination notes for tipping the climbing crew, but also plenty of lower denomination notes for tipping drivers and making the excess baggage fee at the airport disappear (yes, that happened).
  7. Malarone for Malaria: It was dry season when I was in Tanzania. During the three weeks I was there, I encountered one mosquito: inside my bed netting at the most expensive place we stayed! But it gave me peace of mind without any obvious side effects
Low denomination notes were handy to pay the guy who washed the mud off my boots at Mbewe Gate at the end of the trip.

The Full Story

Sunset on the Western Breach from Arrow Glacier Camp. The weather on when we were on Kilimanjaro followed a pattern of clearing in the hour before sunset, remaining clear overnight and then clouding in from the north by mid-morning. The route up the face essentially follows the rock rib casting a small but defined shadow in the middle of the shot.

The Western Breach

I was strangely ambivalent the opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro presented itself. After starting on Longs Peak, my 14ers journey quickly focused on Class 3 scrambles, and the fact both wife’s sisters had done Kili, suggested it was really just a high altitude walk up, which didn’t really appeal. But then again climbing Huayna Potosi 6,088m/19974ft in Bolivia 25 years ago was the hardest thing I had ever done, so the specter of an adding 5,000ft above my 14,000 foot comfort level, hung over me.

Then I discovered the Western Breach, the most challenging of the tree summit assault routes up the mountain. (There is actually a fourth route accessing the summit from the North, but this was only offered by one company.) Kilimanjaro has an awesome symmetry to it. It is huge. When we were driving to the mountain and the guide pointed out the top was visible through a break in the clouds, I initially failed to look high enough in the sky to spot the summit. But up close that symmetry is kind of mundane, at every turn another ridge leading up to the snow-capped crater in the same smooth curve. The Western Breach breaks that profile: Bound by cliffs to the north and south and topped by cliff bands that spill straight out of the floor of the crater it is the most spectacular face of the mountain.

It is also the most hazardous route to the top. So much so that it is not commonly listed as a route at all. There have been many accidents on the Breach, but the January 2006 rock fall that killed 3 Americans is the one everyone focuses on. It resulted in re-routing the trail to minimize the time spent in the rockfall death zone. Even so most pages dedicated to the Western Breach seem positioned to discourage people from attempting it (Click here and here). I can understand. The Breach is not a place for the average Kili aspirant: 19,340 ft is plenty of challenge for most. But anyone deep into 14ers should consider it. Objectively the risk of rock fall is higher on the Breach. Is it any greater than climbing in the Elks? I don’t know, but it is about understanding an accepting the risks.

This is where Team Kilimanjaro entered my calculation. John Rees-Evans and Joseph Paul Nchereri the founders of Team Kilimanjaro were prominent in analyzing the cause of the 2006 accident and recommending changes to the route (Accident Report). They made sure I knew what I was doing before agreeing to take me up that way.

Full disclosure. After hearing three rock falls in the Breach in the two days we were acclimatizing at the bottom, I stood with one of my climbing companions, more a marathoner than a mountain hiker, and discussed his concerns. This started with the observation that mountains tend to erode in chunks, rather than as individual grains of sand being knocked off one at a time. The huge cliff to the south, where we had seen a rock fall earlier, was an example of that principle and the reason we had not visited the Arrow Glacier which would have required crossing the runout gully at the base of this cliff. We were able to see the r-shaped glacier that had released the 2006 rock fall and follow the fall line to where it had crossed the old route up the face. My companion was relieved to see the new route up the Stone Train spur to a natural break in the cliff bands at 17,500 feet had a much smaller catchment above it than the zones we had seen rocks tumbling down.

Team Kilimanjaro’s site highlighted another danger with the Western Breach, namely that once you are 500ft (150m) below the lip of the crater evacuation down the Breach is judged to be more risky than continuing up, and crossing the crater floor to Stella Point before starting a descent. This is obviously not ideal if you are suffering altitude sickness, but we were assessed over a cup of tea before passing the point of no return.

Lunch at Lava Tower. Within 2 hours the place was deserted save for that days contribution to the trash pile.

The Western Breach is accessed from Lava Tower (15,100 ft), which is a lunch stop on Day 3 for groups doing the southern circuit of the mountain from Machame or Lemosho Gates. Lave Tower will be packed when you arrive, but if you do the Western Breach you will soon have the place to yourself as your porters set up camp and everyone else descends to Barranco Camp (12,800 ft). Day 4 will be a short hike up to Arrow Glacier Camp (15,900 ft) while those on the standard routes doing a 6-day climb will spend the night at Barafu camp (15,300ft).

When we started our Summit Assault at 2:45am on Day 5. We had spent 15 hours above 15,900ft and almost 38 hours above 15,000 feet since arriving at Lava Tower. Those aiming to meet us at the summit had probably spent about 12 hours above 15,000 feet, and had walked an additional 6 miles to get to their starting point. We were better acclimatized and well rested.

I can’t separate out all the reasons, but the altitude did not bother me. Perhaps in the Andes I paid for my youthful confidence and “she’ll be right” Kiwi attitude. I’m sure the Diamox helped, but I was better acclimatized and rested, and the guides did a create job keeping you fed and watered.

Plus, there was no hurry. At times the Kili mantra of “pole, pole” Swahili for “slowly, slowly” was annoying. Julius our lead guide had mastered the art of walking like a turtle, so much so that I almost fell backwards a couple of times trying not to bump into him. But this approach meant I was seldom stooped over my hiking poles heaving for breath as I am prone to do when pushing up 14ers with half an eye on avoiding an afternoon thunderstorm.

That said one of our group did suffer from the altitude/a head cold, so we ended up abandoning the idea of camping in the Crater. Planning for a night in the crater was another reason I opted for Team Kilimanjaro. They would have us Summit and then descend to the Crater camp. Other outfits offering the crater camp defaulted to summiting the next morning before descending. This seemed like such an obvious violation of climb high and sleep low, that if made me question their whole operation.

The other thing I liked about Team Kilimanjaro was the tent was big and spacious. I was able to stoop in and out of the vestibule rather than having to crawl into it. I saw other companies securing tents with wooden stakes. TK was not the cheapest local option, but it seems you get what you pay for.

My only concern was the TK sleeping bag might not have handled a night in the Crater. It turns out they actually stuff their own bags but cleaning them after each trip reduces the loft so it is a constant battle to keep them functioning. I suggested a special set of sleeping bags for people wanting to camp in the crater might be a solution. You could take your own sleeping bag, but understand if you fly anywhere of a Cessena 208, the default Safari airstrip plane, you will be restricted to a small bag (I had a 45L Patagonia duffel), that can fit through the cargo hold door, and you probably won’t want to fill a 1/3 of it with a three season sleeping bag.

Mt Meru

Meru is Kili's little brother, 40 miles to the west. It looms over the city of Arusha, which is a perfect base for exploring northern Tanzania. Climbing it seemed a much better way to acclimatize than spending the same amount of time working your way around Kilimanjaro

Meru (14,980ft) is a larger version of Mt St Helens. Within its crater is an ash cone and a remarkably lush rainforest: it literally seems to make its own weather. You will see more wildlife on Meru, but also you need a ranger with a rifle to protect you from the onery buffaloes. We didn’t see any, but we certainly saw plenty of buffalo poo and a hyena track in the mud. Climbing Meru involves staying in huts, which is good as rained heavily on the first night. We did it a 3day/2night trip which required descending the whole mountain after summiting on the third morning. We were thankful for the rest day the following day and for the “ambulance” ride down from the first hut, which saved our tired legs another 2-3 hours walking. This was courtesy of the park ranger, and another reason to carry some low denomination bills. It added an extra day or two to the whole itinerary but I would thoroughly recommend it in its own right, let alone as an acclimatization hike for Kili.

Near the end of the first day on Meru, we saw this fellow in the bush. Kind of Surreal.

Three points about Meru.

  1. The group who had been in front of us all the way up let us pass them on the final ascent. I thought they might be suffering with the altitude. It turns out their guide didn’t know the route and wanted our guide to lead the way.
  2. If you can scramble up Meru, you can do the Western Breach. There are chains on a section of Meru, they are more a psychological aid than a safety device.
  3. There is also a lot of human waste on the summit ridge. After a 1 am start, I took my gloves off on descent, as it was clear to me I could have inadvertently placed my hands in all sorts of shit on the way up in the dark. Which brings us to…
The chains on Meru.

Trash and Shit

I am not a particularly neat freak, but the amount of trash, especially at the camp sites really detracted from the experience. Even on the Western Breach there was trash, including the most random item, a hacksaw blade, at 17,000 feet.

I’ve been trying to understand why more people don’t mention this. Is it because, for many the experience and achievement are so great it causes the trash to pale in comparison or as time passes the good memories our weigh the bad? Tanzania has managed to ban single use plastic bags, and the porters had to separate out organic waste when we exited the park, so this is not a black and white issue. But the Tanzanian National Park Service needs to handle this better, lest it kill their golden goose. If any 14er was covered in this much trash I'd bet even the most "freedom loving, don’t tell me what to do" users of this site would be drawing a line.

We hired a green porter to clean up the mountain as we went. I could have hired 6 and they might have made a dent in the problem.

Even then the Green Porters balked at one subset of the trash: Human waste. There seemed to be plenty of toilets, but they are not cleaned regularly and they were all squatters which are not as well designed for containing explosive diarrhea as a bowl toilet. This compounded the cleanliness issue.

If this grosses you out, head to Switzerland.

At camp we had a toilet tent which was emptied into the squat toilets. That said, please take a couple of WAG bags with you. Given you are encountering a whole new gut microbiome, the chances you will need to go between regular toilet stops is a little higher, and on summit day with its alpine start you will probably be out of camp before your body wakes up.

We approached the Uhuru summit from the opposite direction to the main trail. One of our party was lagging, so I waited about half an hour for him, to ensure we could all summit together. I spent that time kicking sand over all the shit left by people who had summited from the main trail and thought it would be ok to pop down the far side and take a dump.

Looking east to the Crowds massed at the summit, and the view to the West, where my friend is looming in the mist. Every white patch is toilet paper, which I had yet to kick sand over, not snow.


Photo Diary

Meru Day 1: The Giant Fig tree on Meru. On the way down we drove right through it.


Meru Day 2: Started in the rain at Miriakamba Hut, before climbing through an inversion and entering the sunshine just below the Saddle Hut.

Meru Day 2: The Saddle Hut complex on Meru during a acclimatization hike up Little Meru
Meru Day 3: Looking back up the Ridgeline on Meru which kept its head in the clouds most of the time.
Kili Day 1. There is plenty of commerce, and the best wifi I found in Tanzania, at the Machame Gate. Even a few Colorado flags for sale.
Kili Day 1: In the rainforest with tree ferns

Kili Day 2: starts with a steep climb out of the Machame Camp which is visible in the center of the shot.This day is mostly spent in the heather moorland

Kili Day 3:. Porters leaving Shira camp with Kilimanjaro in the distance.

Kili Day 3: Alpenglow on the Western Breach from Lava Tower Camp

Kili Day 4: Leaving Lava Tower for the short walk up to Arrow Glacier

Kili Day 4: Looking back to Lava Tower with the trail leading to Shira Camp (Day 2) in the distance

Kili Day 5: Passing through the first cliff band near the top of the breach.
Kili Day 5: Climbing the the jumbled wall of rock was a lot like a giant staircase.
Kili Day 5: Above the prominent cliff band the obstacles are more easily negotiated on talus slopes and with the odd scramble.

Kili Day 5: The final stretch before entering the Crater.

Kili Day 5: Summit night was the only night the clouds didn't clear completely resulting in this cool rind of frozen mist on the rocks a we entered the crater.

Kili Day 5: The Furtwangler Glacier used to terminate at the breach wall. It is fast melting from the western side.

Kili Day 5: A little Last Chance Tourism. Yes, flying to Tanzania is part of the problem.

Kili Day 5: A panoramic shot of the crater floor. The Western Breach is on the left, the "active crater" is behind the Furtwangler glacier in the center. Stella Point where the main trail joins the crater rims is the low point just to the right of the largest person. Uhuru, the summit is the darker of the two points on the right side of the crater rim. Crater Camp is among the large rocks on the Crater floor just below Uhuru

Kili Day 5: There was plenty of gravel on the descent from Stella Point the was the perfect consistency for plunge stepping your way down. Apparently the uphill trail is different but I definitely "ran" past some people heading up the same trail below Stella Point.

Caption Here

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