Death on the Western Breach – Kilimanjaro’s trail from Hell

Some people call Kilimanjaro, “Everyman’s Everest,” because so far as big name mountain climbing goes, Kili is relatively tame.  It is a non-technical mountain, meaning that you do not need special skills and equipment like ropes and crampons.  Uhuru peak, while high, still has 40-50% oxygen pressure so most folks can reach the peak without supplementary oxygen.

BUT Kili is not to be underestimated.  It is an extremely challenging trek of 45 miles one-way over extreme terrain, climbing from around 5000 feet to 19341 feet over the course of less than a week.  Some of the gurus tell us that the surest way to get yourself screwed up on Kili is to underestimate it.

The Western Breach of Kilimanjaro

Trekkers-on-Western-Breach-low-resThere are 7 trails ascending the mountain but one trail is considered so incredibly dangerous that expert mountaineers get clammy thinking about it – the Western Breach.

It seems that some bazillions of years ago, part of the western rim of the crater sloughed off and crashed downward, carving out a gouge down the side of the mountain.  The Western Breach trail funnels climbers up this insane trough to the floor of the crater, which is the attraction of that route – if the crater floor is your destination (instead of Uhuru peak) then the Western Breach will take you there without having to climb all the way up to the rim of the crater.

But the problem with this trail is that the same geographic features that funnel climbers into the crater funnel rocks falling off the mountain right onto the climbers.  This has become more of an issue in the past few years because heretofore, the glaciers have kept the rocks locked in place.  But now with accelerating climate change, the glaciers are melting, releasing the rocks that were formerly frozen in place.

Death on the Western Breach Trail

In the past decade or so, there have been a several really highly publicized deaths associated with rockfalls on the Western Breach trail.

In January 2006 a group of hikers was struck with a rockfall of an estimated 29 tons of rock tumbling down the Western Breach.  It was a very windy day so it is thought that they never heard it coming until it was upon them.  It killed three climbers and severely injured one other climber and four Tanzanian porters.

Another incident happened in September 2015, when a mixed group of experienced alpine scientists and relative amateurs were ascending the Western Breach.  When the rockslide came, the experts barely had time to dive for meager cover and when they picked themselves back up they found that one of the more novice climbers had been struck by an SUV-sized rock and his wife was trying to resuscitate him.

This amazing, engaging, harrowing, and instructive story can be read (from both sides) in this National Geographic article by James Balog and in this blog entry by the wife of the stricken climber.  STOP NOW and go read both of those articles – James Balog’s and Chelsea Dinsmore’s.  There is meat there for both your mind and your soul.

And when you come back, you can rest assured that the Roaming Parkers are not going to be crawling up the Western Breach of Kilimanjaro.

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Categories: Adventure, Mountaineering

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