American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Africa, Tanzania, Killimanjaro, First Descent, and New Route

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

Killimanjaro, First Descent, and New Route. On February 10, we left the Impala Hotel for the Umbway route, a drive of a few hours. The Umbway route is known to the local porters and guides as the Whiskey route because it is steeper and more technical than the normal route (the “Coca-Cola” route). Our plan was to make the first snowboard or ski descent of the mountain and to document it on video (Scott) and with photographs (Wade). As far as we could find out, Kilimanjaro had not had a true descent. Rumor had it that someone carried skis up the Coca- Cola route and put them on near the summit on the glacier for a few photos, took them off and walked down their route of ascent.

Once we got permits and porters, we began our ascent of Kilimanjaro. The snowboards were brought in under cover of darkness as “no pleasure devices” were now allowed on the flanks of Kilimanjaro. We hiked through dense jungle for about six hours before we made our first camp at 9,650 feet. The next day, on the 11th, we hiked through moss-covered trees and, soon after, were treated to the sight of the giant groundcell trees, multi-headed trees found only at these elevations in Africa. We arrived at the Borranco Hut camp (12,800') then continued up to make a gear drop at an elevation of 14,800 feet. This would be our last camp with porters. Our mandatory “guide” had never been on the snows of Kilimanjaro. We would be going alpine style from there.

On the morning of the 13th, Jason woke early and told us he was sick and wouldn’t be able to go up. We went down to Borranco camp, hoping the descent of 2,000 feet would be sufficient for him to recover. It was not, and on the morning of the 14th, Jason was escorted by our guide and a porter down to the Impala Hotel in Arusha, where he would try to recover and meet up with us when he was able.

That same day, Wade, Scott and I went back up to our camp at 14,800 feet, planning to begin the technical climbing up the Heim Glacier the next morning, going alpine style from there. After a couple hundred feet of ice climbing, Wade decided to go down and around the mountain on a more moderate route. Scott and I lowered Wade off the ice, then continued up. The route was much steeper and icier than it looked from the guide book; it had receded much over the years, and, in doing so, steepened. The climbing involved one grade V ice pitch. Scott and I made rapid progress to 17,800 feet, where we put up our small two-man tent. It snowed for about an hour soon after we got the tent up. I thought the snow might enable me to descend the icy slopes. The following morning, Scott and I set out for the top of Africa at about 6:30 a.m. and summitted at 8:30 a.m. Soon after we arrived on top, we saw Wade nearing the summit. He had been going for 28 hours with a two-hour nap via the Arrow route. We took a nap at the top before heading toward the Kersten Glacier (where I left my snowboard, not wanting to get our guide or porters in trouble for having a pleasure device).

Scott and I climbed the ice serac near the top for fun while Wade shot photos. The clouds were rolling through at high speed: beautiful and sunny one moment and no visibility the next.

I made the change from mountaineer to snowboarder by exchanging my crampons for a snowboard. I still was not convinced I would be able to hold an edge on the icy slopes below, but with ice axes in hand, I had to try. I made one turn and then continued down. Scott shot video as we went. Wade took a couple of photos at the top and descended the way he had come up.

Scott and I made it to our high camp after a couple of hours. The following morning, we packed up all our gear and continued the descent, this time with a full pack and cold, sore muscles. After a couple of scary turns, I finally got my rhythm and continued down. The crux of the descent was too steep and icy to hold an edge, so I took my back foot out of my board and put on one crampon. I then downclimbed for about 30 feet of 70° ice until the angle mellowed and I could snowboard again.

Back in camp, Scott and I planned on climbing an ice line that snaked its way down from the Heim Glacier. In the morning, Scott was sick and I set off alone. The route was fantastic. I belayed one pitch near the top and soloed the rest. I called it Sick Day (VI, 700m).

Stephen Koch

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