Separating the Fact from the Fiction
There has long been an aura of risk about climbing Kilimanjaro via the famed Western Breach. The matter came to a head in early 2005 with the death of three American climbers as a consequence of a rockfall. The route was briefly closed and assessed, perhaps more an act of protocol than safety, and opened again soon afterwards. It must be remembered throughout that these types of endeavors carry with them an inherent risk, and although every effort is made by climbing outfitters to both sanitize the risk and talk up the adventure, accidents happen, and the random nature of a tumbling scree of boulders hitting a tent, or knocking down a moving climber, is no more statistically likely than being knocked off a bike while riding on a busy highway: this bearing in mind the numbers of people that summit the mountain on an annual basis.
Having said that the percentage of climbers using the Western Breach is quite small comparatively, but only comparatively – check out the condition of Crater Camp as evidence of this – and the record of deaths is very limited. Bob and I climbed summited via the Western Breach in late 2009, and both of us by then being older climbers, we were each surprised to find the physical outlay and demands somewhat less than the awful midnight summit advocated on the Stella Point Route – awful because of the cold, the scree and the crowds. The night spent at Crater Camp was not uncomfortable, neither on this or other occasions I have found, while arriving at the summit in late afternoon was a more personal and certainly a more comfortable experience.
Don’t be put off by the hype
So while I am not advocating the Western Breach route of Mount Kilimanjaro as a preferred option for older climbers, I am saying that one should take the hype with a pinch of salt, bearing in mind that a handful of companies that specialize in the Western Breach route have much to gain by over mythologizing it, and touting it as something out of the ordinary.It is true that rock falls do occur, but they are not inevitable, and probably no more likely than similar climbs in the Alps. The recent warming of the permafrost conditions have tended to loosen already loose rock formations, and it is true that the mid-morning thaw is probably the most risky period. But the risk is quantified, and acceptable by any climbing standards.
In fact climbing the Western Breach is a slow and steady trudge, made easier by the fact that the ground is relatively firm underfoot, with places where the terrain resembles a steep and rather length flight of steps. From Arrow Glacier Camp the climb up to Crater Camp occupies about five or six hours, more if you take your time, after which a very nasty but thankfully short summit push gets you to Uhuru Peak by mid-afternoon. The temperatures at that time are moderate, there is usually no-one around, after which the return to Crater Camp is dusty but not unpleasant. Sleeping at some 19000ft is uncomfortable, but not excessively so, since if you have made it that far the chances are you have adjusted well to altitude.
Get in touch with us today
My advice to anyone contemplating the Western Breach is to do it, making sure to use a reputable guiding company, pay what the trip is worth to avoid absolute novice guides, and attend to your own well being as you would on any mountain anywhere in the world. Get in touch with us at Eco Travel Africa if you would like to arrange an oldies climb of Kilimanjaro, in the company of either Bob or I, which will take a lot of the guesswork out of the trip. Or fill in the form below and we will bring you up top speed on what trips are being arranged.