American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Kilimajaro: The White Roof of Africa

  • Book Reviews
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  • Publication Year: 1986

Kilimanjaro: The White Roof of Africa. Harald Lange. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1985. 176 pages, 63 pages of color photographs, black and white drawings, photographs and maps, bibliography. $24.95.

This book is a major addition to the English-language literature on the highest peak of Africa. The exploration and eventual conquest of Kilimanjaro were carried out by the Germans. Much of the early literature was only available in German until the Tanganyika Society’s Commemorative Issue on Kilimanjaro appeared in English in 1965 (revised in 1974). Harald Lange has utilized much of this source material in presenting a well-organized, encyclopedic view of the mountain’s history.

The mountain was first viewed by a European in 1848 (the German missionary Rebmann). Von der Decken made the first serious attempt on the peak in 1861 and the English missionary, Charles New, was the first to reach the snow-line in 1871. Even after this, scientists “proved” that there could be no snow on or near the equator! The first ascent of the highest point went to Hans Meyer and his guide, Ludwig Purtscheller, in 1889. The second ascent would be no less than twenty years later. Although the terrain on the approach march was difficult, the extortionate trading practices and general intransigence of the tribal chiefs were more of a deterrent to climbers than any technical problems encountered on the mountain.

There is another interesting chapter, dealing with the derivation of the mountain’s name—much of the confusion resulting from the multiplicity of linguistic possibilities—Chagga, Swahili, Arabic, etc. Commonly accepted translations range from “mountain of whiteness” and “mountain of greatness” to “God’s house” and “the one who strikes down caravans.” Other chapters deal in considerable depth with such topics as the volcanic origin of the mountain, the flora and fauna of the various climatic zones and the Wachagga tribe which populates its base and provides the guides and porters which accompany most modem expeditions up the mountain. Today, hundreds of climbers reach the peak each year, and thousands attempt it.

Yet another interesting chapter is devoted to weather patterns and their impact on vegetation, these weather patterns seeming to affect what Lange calls “altitude zones.” For example, the rain forest lies between 1900 and 3100 meters, the variation in upper and lower limits depending upon the steepness of the terrain. From June to October, the southern half of the massif receives moisture carried by the southeast trade wind, while the northern and eastern sides lie in the rain shadow. By contrast, from mid-December until mid-March, the northeast trade wind blows on the northern half of the mountain from the Indian Ocean, while the southern half lies in the shadow. Indeed, this is the most favorable time to make an ascent by the Marangu (“tourist”) route. The early explorers, perhaps not understanding the reversal in seasons south of the Equator, made all their attempts in the winter season, running into considerable snow well before the crater rim. Today, it is generally agreed that the best chances for success are in January and February.

Despite the wealth of detail and scientific material, I found myself somewhat put off by the impersonal style of this book. By way of contrast, John Reader, in his Kilimanjaro, published in New York in 1982 by Universe Books, takes the reader with him on a personal adventure—a true safari. While Lange’s pictures are fine, I personally found Reader’s more involving. It was regrettable that Lange did not mention the names of any of his guides and porters in his dedication; surely in five days one could hope for some personal relationships. I found myself wondering if the third climber of Kilimanjaro—a Max Lange— was perhaps an ancestor of the author’s.

In addition to these stylistic quibbles, there were other disappointments of a more factual nature, errors of omission if not commission. While the Marangu route is by far the most frequented, surely a book of this scope might have devoted more than a sentence each to such appreciated routes as Umbwe, Mweka, Shira and Machame, as well as the well-documented roundabout. These could have been excerpted from the Mountain Club of Kenya’s Guide to Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, which is very difficult to obtain in this country. And, a few pages devoted to Mawenzi, the lower but more difficult peak, would have been most enlightening. Unlike Mount Kenya, where virtually all the routes are of a high (Alpine IV–VI) standard, there are numerous lower-level climbs on Mawenzi’s admittedly friable rock. One or two drawings showing the locations of such huts as Mawenzi, Mawenzi Tam, Barafu, Barranco, Mweka, Machame, Shira and Arrow Glacier, and the routes which they serve, would also have been most welcome.

It would also have been interesting to know how the other routes were opened and by whom, who built the hut system and how huts and trails are maintained today. Finally, one would be grateful for a brief appendix on how to organize expeditions for the various routes—whom to contact, outfitters, hut reservations or camping possibilities, camp and park fees, cost of guides, etc. All of this information is readily available.

Today, Kilimanjaro offers a wide variety of experiences to the mountain lover. The “tourist” route is probably one of the easiest ways to climb an isolated peak of nearly 20,000 feet. Hikes on other parts of the mountain are true wilderness experiences, with only a handful of guides competent to lead them. Rock climbing on Mawenzi offers a wide choice of technical routes to heights of more than 5000 meters. Reinhold Messner described the ice pinnacle on the Breach Wall as perhaps his most difficult ice climb. Thanks to its considerable scientific and historical achievements, this book is an invaluable addition to the English-language literature available on Africa’s highest mountain. What the author set out to do, he has done very well indeed. Both those planning a visit to Kilimanjaro and armchair adventurers are urged to read this book.

Frederick Jacobson

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