American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Kilimanjaro and Other African Climbs

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  • Publication Year: 1936

Kilimanjaro and Other African Climbs

Henry S. Hall, Jr.

ABOUT fifteen hours south of the rugged island of Madeira, on the voyage from England to Cape Town, we passed at night the Peak of Teneriffe, rising over 12,000 ft. from the sea, a dormant volcano, rather lovely under the summer moon. Only one other passenger had troubled to rise at 2 a.m. to take full advantage of the view of the passing Canaries, but we felt well rewarded. The moonlight surrendered to a brilliant golden sunrise behind Teneriffe which was in view altogether about seven hours.

On July 1st, twelve days later, we again saw land as the winter sun rose at twenty minutes of eight behind Cape Town’s Table Mountain; and by lunch time I was allowing my wife to eat my share at the restaurant on top of the mountain, while I took full advantage of the brief hour allotted to see as much as possible of the top of this curious 3500-ft. sandstone playground of the ardent members of the Mountain Club of South Africa. Up its steep sides, rising almost directly behind the city, there are well over one hundred recognized routes, ranking from an easy rock climb to the almost impossible, the actual climbing beginning at something over 2000 ft., after half an hour’s scramble above the automobile road.

Three days later, as we passed through the Hex River Mountains by rail, the snow was down to about 4500 ft., but in the much higher and drier Drakensberg on July 9th there were only traces of snow at 10,500 ft. The Drakensberg is less a true mountain range than a huge escarpment forming, along its highest section, the boundary between the native Protectorate of Basutuland and the province of Natal. The climbing is both difficult and dangerous. The routes are either up the face of the escarpment or on rock towers slightly detached from the main mass. I spent a night in the well-built stone hut recently erected by the Natal Mountain Club near the edge of the plateau, at 10,500 ft., on what is called Mont-aux-Sources, and the next morning walked for some miles along the edge of the 6000-ft, escarpment for a view as far south as Cathkin Peak, 40 miles away, something over 11,000 ft., and reputedly the highest point in South Africa. The Hostel, an attractive inn, at the foot of the escarpment (about 4800 ft.) is reached by road in less than three hours from Ladysmith, and is used as a base for many of the climbs in this district.

In Nyasaland, about 16 degrees south of the equator, there are also mountains, one, Mlanje, rising 7000 ft. above its base to an altitude of 9800 ft. This I tried to climb in one very long day, which included an automobile round trip of 160 miles from Zomba and an early start, but a grass fire on the summit plateau at about 7000 ft. blocked the shortest route, even by which a night is nearly always required for the complete ascent.

August 1st saw us at Merangu (4500 ft.), the starting point for the ascent of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. I had previously been in touch with Mr. P. Ungerer of Moshi, the secretary of the Mountain Club of East Africa, who very kindly met us at the airport and, after taking us to call on Major A. E. Perkins, president of the club, drove us to Merangu where at the Teachers’ Training School (a German Lutheran Mission) we met the Rev. R. Reusch, in charge of the mission, and the leading authority on Kilimanjaro, as well as, by pre-arrangement, Mr. E. W. D. Crawshaw of Tanga, an official of the Tanganyika government, on vacation, who also wished to make the climb.

Kilimanjaro has two summits: an extinct cone, Kibo (19,718 ft.), and the older, Mawenzi (17,290 ft.) a few miles to the east, the two being connected by a broad saddle, about 14,500 ft. high at its lowest point. Hans Meyer and Purtscheller reached the summit of Kibo on October 5th, 1889, and ten days later climbed the more difficult Mawenzi to one of its pinnacles, Purtscheller Peak (17,191 ft.). The highest pinnacle, Hans Meyer Peak ( 17,290 ft.), was reached by Oehler and Klute on July 29th, 1912. Only three subsequent ascents were made until 1925, and in 1927 Miss Sheila MacDonald was the first woman to reach the summits of both Kibo and Mawenzi, with W. C. West of Cape Town. Dr. Reusch made his first ascent of Kibo in 1926 and has since been up twenty-six times, at various seasons of the year, and has made numerous ascents of Mawenzi, as well, and discovered in June, 1935, a deep crater east of and near Mawenzi. Altitude, and sometimes weather, turns back, short of their goal, a large proportion of the fairly numerous parties attempting Kibo.

There are three huts, the Bismarck at 8900 ft., the Pieters at 12,000 ft., and the new Kibo Hut at about 15,800 ft., near which until recently an unpleasant night had to be spent in lava caves, before continuing the ascent.

In 1929 the newly formed Mountain Club of East Africa took over the huts from the government and is now responsible for their upkeep, a work in which Dr. Reusch especially interests himself. At Merangu we stayed at the comfortable Kibo Hotel run by Herr Kloss and his wife, while Dr. Reusch assembled porters, and we bought food at Moshi, and locally.

On the morning of August 3rd the party consisting of Mrs. Hall, Crawshaw, myself, Johannes, the native guide, and ten porters took leave of Dr. and Mrs. Reusch at the Mission. By an easy gradient the path leads past fields and native huts until the forest is reached at about 7000 ft. In cool mist we walked by the elephant trails through dense semi-tropical forest until mid-afternoon when, after only four hours of actual travel, Bismarck Hut came into view. Here were waiting two ladies whom Dr. Reusch had told us hoped to make the ascent—Miss Erika Burkhardt, of Munich, and Miss Dumas from England. We soon agreed to join forces. Straw mattresses at all the huts, and blankets which our porters carried made the nights comfortable, after meals which we cooked over wood-burning stoves, the wood being carried by our porters to the two upper huts, and water being carried from Pieters to Kibo Hut.

Still in mist and rain, our augmented party of five Europeans and eighteen natives started for Pieters Hut at nine the next morning. Dense forest gave way at 10,000 ft. to giant heather, and a few hundred feet higher there remained only grass which continues to 14,000 ft. Rising out of the rain and mist into bright sunshine we came in four hours to Pieters Hut, another 10 miles, where there is good water and a fairly extensive view to the south. The minimum temperature overnight at Bismarck in the rain had been 36°, and at Pieters in clear weather was 27°, at Kibo but 26°, and just before sunrise at 18,000 ft. on the slope of Kibo was 22°, with a keen north wind; all this at three degrees south of the equator.

Mrs. Hall took leave of us the next morning to return with two porters on her donkey to Merangu. At a moderate, steady pace, the better to become acclimated in the increasing altitude, we gained the saddle, which was swept by a cold north wind, rested, and walked on, each at his own pace, to Kibo Hut, again a short march, about 12 miles in four and one-half hours. After telling Johannes, much to his disgust, that we wanted to start at 2 a.m. the next morning, August 6th, we retired early, and except for slight altitude symptoms on the part of all but myself, slept well.

At the appointed hour, under the stars, long before daylight with a candle lantern, we started the final climb. Miss Dumas became rather badly distressed but wouldn’t give in. Miss Burk-hardt had the least trouble of any of us. Gradually we drew even with Mawenzi and then it sank below us. At 18,000 ft. we climbed only a few minutes at a time, but seldom stopped for longer than was necessary to restore the pulse and breathing to normal. The sun was a welcome relief from the rather biting wind when it reached us. The slope, composed of loose material, became gradually steeper. The edge of the ice-cap came into view when we were only a few hundred feet below it. Rather suddenly at 19,000 ft. a way opened between vertical ice-cliffs on the right and a rocky point on the left, and we walked into the shallow crater floor. We had taken four hours and twenty minutes from the hut, and no one seemed particularly tired, though Miss Dumas came up somewhat behind the others. After eating lightly we set out along the edge of the crater floor toward Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze. The ice formations were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Ice-block glaciers from 100 to 200 ft. thick with vertical sides stood around in a detached array for no apparent reason. They may be the isolated remnants of a once solid ice-cap. Fortunately there was no fresh snow at all on the rock, a frequent cause of exhaustion and defeat at this point.

As we began to climb the side of the crater wall I became unaccountably weak and sleepy, and this feeling increased to such an extent that I soon lay down for a nap. I awoke in fifteen minutes somewhat refreshed. The others had at my suggestion gone on, so I was the last to arrive at the summit at 10 a.m. We had made rather slow work of it, skirting the inner foot of the crater wall, and finally working up to the highest point of its broad southwesterly crest. All view below 15,000 ft. was cut off by a sea of clouds. The summit was dry rock between ice-cap and crater wall. A considerable glacier flows down the westerly side of the mountain, as yet only partially explored. The north and east sides of the mountain are so dry that there is scarcely grazing for the native cattle. The whole south slope below, 10,000 ft., is well watered and highly fertile.

After well over an hour in bright sun on the summit, during which all pulses were found to be about 20 or 25 above normal, we started slowly down at 11.30 a.m. From the gap in the crater we walked or ran at varying speeds down to Kibo Hut, stopped an hour for a light meal, and continued at a brisk pace to Pieters Hut, which we reached just at dusk, about 6 p.m. At supper we were surprised to find ourselves comparatively fresh after the ascent of 4000 ft., and descent of 8000 ft., a total distance of 20 miles in the previous sixteen hours. The day following in lovely weather we finished the remaining 20 miles to Merangu in seven hours. The total distance for the climb is 72 miles, and we were out five days and four nights. A party in first class condition might do the whole climb and back in three days, certainly in four, from Merangu, but we were told that the average time is six or seven days, because of the great range of climate from the sub-tropical at the base to the alpine or sub-arctic on top.

As we motored around the west side of Kilimanjaro, northward, to Nairobi, glaciers were visible extending several thousand feet down its side, and on our left rose Meru above the 3000-ft. plains to an altitude of just under 15,000 ft., though below the line of permanent snow and ice.

Mt. Kenya (17,040 ft.), its summit 10 miles south of the equator, came out of the clouds for two hours as we drove past its west side on the 6000-7000-ft. plateau. The last 1000 ft., a volcanic plug, is a very difficult climb, and has been ascended but five times altogether. Sir Halford Mackinder with two Swiss guides made the first ascent of Batian, the higher of the twin peaks, in 1899. Eric Shipton with P. Wyn Harris climbed both Batian and Nelion (first ascent) in January, 1929, repeating the climb two days later with G. A. Sommerfelt. In December, 1929, Shipton and R. E. G. Russell climbed both peaks by the same route, and in August, 1930, Shipton and H. W. Tillman made the first traverse of the twin peaks. The rock is difficult and generally ice-covered, the weather is treacherous, and the camping conditions often unpleasant because of wind, cold, storm and lack of fuel.

Ruwenzori obliged us with two perfect views of pink sunrises on the snows, from Fort Portal, followed by thunderstorms. It is said to rain or snow 350 days of the year on the highest part of this mountain mass which is some 50 miles long north and south, by 20 wide, with its highest summit, Margherita Peak (16,794 ft.), only 20 miles north of the equator. The highest peaks are approached both from Fort Portal in Uganda (Abruzzi’s route), and from Beni in Belgian Congo. The highest summits were climbed by the Abruzzi expedition in 1906, and the Belgian expedition led by Comte de Grunne in 1932. Dr. Noel Humphreys between 1926 and 1932 climbed some of the peaks, explored new parts of the range, and flew over it several times. The surrounding country averages 2000-4000 ft. in altitude and the mountains rise almost without foothills, but the actual summits are disappointing when seen from the plains, being proportionately small, and almost hidden by the intervening bulky shoulders.

The principal Virunga volcanoes, eight in number and ranging in height from 10,013 to 14,783 ft., in Parc National Albert, Belgian Congo, at the northern end of Lake Kivu were seen only through the bluish haze of grass fire smoke during our four days in the park. Coming from Kabale in Uganda, we drove to Askole and thence by a road opened only two months before, past Muhuvura (13,547 ft.), the easternmost cone, to Goma on Lake Kivu. Mikeno (14,370 ft.) in the gorilla reserve is the only one offering any climbing difficulties, which are due mostly to steep, rotten moss-covered wet rock, sometimes frozen near the top. With two Americans, Armand Denis and LeRoy Phelps, whom I met by chance at Goma, I climbed one of the two active volcanoes, Niragongo (11,250 ft.) on August 22nd, starting at 6000 ft. and spending the previous night in camp with the party in the bush forest at about 9500 ft. The chief interest lay in making a circuit of the vertical walled crater, about four miles around, and nearly 2000 ft. deep. There were really three craters, one inside the other. From vents in the lowest, issued volumes of sulphurous smoke which was partly pouring over the western rim as I walked around, giving me a rather unpleasant half hour. The vegetation on that side was withered for several thousand feet below the crater edge. On the opposite side small bushes came up to the very outer edge of the narrow rim.

The next day I walked from a point some miles north of Goma on the road to Rutschuru, up through the magnificent tropical forest on Mikeno to the saddle (10,300 ft.) between it and Karissimbi. Here is where Carl Akeley died in November, 1926, and lies buried in the very heart of his final work, the abode of the gorilla. Col. Hoier, an official of the park, was superintending the construction of a good-sized cabin, to be used to house scientific expeditions, and welcomed me cordially at luncheon. This is the starting point for the ascents of Mikeno and Karissimbi, but permission must be secured from the park authorities in advance to come even this far into the gorilla reserve.

In the vicinity of Beni a thick haze obscured all view of Ruwenzori from the west.

The last considerable mountains seen in Africa were probably those near the western tip of Abyssinia on a clear day as we flew north through the Sudan on September 3rd. Between Athens and Brindisi on the 6th we flew at 10,000 ft. over the 6000-8000-ft. mountains of western Greece, dotted here and there with tiny villages and monasteries perched on the steepest ridges, and connected with the outside world by nothing more than narrow foot or mule paths. Next day, a few breaths of the scented evening air of the Rhone Valley from the train window brought on an almost irresistible desire to jump off and dash up into the valleys and peaks of the Alps.

Principal References

Concerning the South African mountains (including Table Mountain and the Drakensberg), The Journal of the Mountain Club of South Africa, published annually at Cape Town, is informative.

For Kilimanjaro, Hans Meyer’s book, East African Glaciers, 1891, is the record of the first ascent and contains much scientific information as does H. H. Johnston’s book, The Kilma-Njaro Expedition, 1886.

For Mt. Kenya there is E. A. T. Dutton’s book, Kenya Mountain, 1930.

For Ruwenzori, De Filippi’s book, Ruwenzori, An Account of the Expedition of H. R. H., The Duke of the Abruzzi, 1908 ; also a special issue of Revue Alpine published by Club Alpin Belge, Brussels, 1932, on the work of the 1932 Belgian Scientific (and mountaineering) Expedition.

The 1932 (first and, to date, only) issue of The Ice-Cap, the journal of the Mountain Club of East Africa, headquarters Moshi, contains articles on, and lists of, first and other ascents of Kilimanjaro, Kenya, Ruwenzori and other Central African mountains, and a valuable bibliography on the same.

The Alpine Journal (London) and the Geographical Journal (London) both contain numerous articles on the mountains of Africa; Dr. Noel Humphrey’s recent articles in G. J. on his several trips into the Ruwenzori, being particularly valuable.

1Neither of the peaks has been accurately triangulated. Hans Meyer’s aneroid showed 19,718 ft., and other figures down to 19,331 ft. have been arrived at. I am inclined to favor Meyer’s approximate determination, though my aneroid misbehaved rather badly above the upper hut

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