Christian Pondella
Credit: Christian Pondella

It takes a lot to really get me wound up in the mountains.

But I just returned from the most tourist-infested “real” mountain in the world — Mt. Kilimanjaro, which sees somewhere around 40,000 climbers per year — and I am wound up

I went to Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, to do something that seemed like a great idea in the safe glare of my computer screen: climb the radical glacial ice atop it. I’d like to start a myth that all my expeditions are carefully planned and researched, but the truth is, I had an idea to climb ice on all seven continents and Kilimanjaro has ice on top of it, research done. I filed the idea under “Gotta get there one day,” and almost forgot about it until I read an article a few years back that said the ice on Kilimanjaro could be gone by 2020. Seriously? The mountain that inspired Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro will be ice-free? I moved the idea into the “Gotta get this done soon” file.

As I looked for pictures of Kili’s ice, I started to learn more about why this ice is disappearing so quickly. Surprisingly, it’s not directly due to warmer temperatures, which is the primary reason for the dramatically shrinking glaciers of the Rockies. In the tropics — Kilimanjaro is only three degrees south of the equator — the temperatures haven’t risen as much as they have at our northerly latitudes. So why is the ice on Kili disappearing so quickly, if not due to warmer temperatures? And what was even left to climb?

When I, as well as the dozens of other climate-change criminals (jets are atmospheric gasoline on the fire of climate change), disembarked our carbon-spewing Boeing at Kilimanjaro International Airport, we could see its namesake mountain in the opaque distance. It was a surreal, dull brown cone compared to the Alps or Rockies, and is, in fact, the world’s largest volcano. But there wasn’t much white on it, which is a concern when you’ve just dropped around $10,000 to climb ice, and have a photographer and videographer in tow along with your climbing partner. The first-known pictures of the mountain, taken more than 100 years ago, show the entire upper reaches covered in ice. Since then, more than 90 per cent of this ice has disappeared. 

Eventually, we started our expedition’s conga-line up through the stunning rainforest at around 2,000 metres. I felt a little lonely when we temporarily lost sight of our 34-person crew, but was kept on track by the constant reams of toilet paper adorning the sides of the trail. Human waste is a real problem on Kili. So many people, so few toilets, the equation is simple, but a little education and planning would go a long way to reduce the problem of human waste. It’s very difficult to climb Kilimanjaro without the park-legislated crew of porters, a cook or two, a large tent, chairs, foodstuffs and enough people to cart all of this up the side of a mountain. If you’re after a wilderness experience, Kilimanjaro is not for you. And everywhere, there are piles of human waste.

As we walked higher on the mountain, the remaining glaciers became visible over the most amazing trees I’ve ever seen: Senecio trees. (Now I know where Dr. Seuss got his ideas.) Our primary guide, Julias Minja, helped me understand what I was looking at. But the glaciers made no sense. According to my five-year-old topo map, I should have been seeing icefields, not the odd thin runnel of sad glacial ice. If you spend enough time in glacial terrain, you can read the terminal moraines, cirques and features that should have glaciers in them. The features on Kili were fossils; most of the glaciers were no longer even visible.

After six days of walking, we reached the 5,895-metre summit and started climbing the oddest, most beautiful, most endangered ice I’ve ever climbed. The intense tropical sun literally vapourizes the ice, skipping the liquid melt stage entirely. The 12,000-year-old glaciers on Kili had survived a 300-year drought with no issues, but today, climate change has radically altered the atmosphere’s humidity and snowfall patterns, and for this reason, not just temperature, the ice on Kili isn't being replenished each winter. All glaciers have a deposition zone and a melt zone, but all that’s left on Kili is a melt zone. There isn’t enough new moisture to replace what’s lost each year. That’s a first in more than 12,000 years — and it rules out natural fluctuation, according to researchers. 

The situation felt surreal as I walked across burning sand in bare feet at 5,800 metres toward a vertical fin of ice rising from the sand. The thousands of layers in the ice indicated it should be the side of a massive glacier, but it was less than a metre thick. This once-mighty glacier was literally vapourizing before our eyes. I’ve climbed icebergs in the ocean and these were similar — endangered and doomed ice remnants in the middle of a desert. 

At sunrise on the last day of our trip, I climbed a 30-metre wall of overhanging ice just below the summit of Kili. It was the tallest piece of ice I’d seen, and it took everything I had to swing my tools into this hard ancient ice as the thin, dry air ripped my lungs. On top, I could see the sunrise-shadow of Kili reaching out over the plains of Africa, atop the more than one million people who depend on the mountain’s moisture. I thought of the combination of extreme beauty, the human waste, the wonderful trees and the vanishing ice. These are all related. As a species, we can’t even make the effort to keep things clean in an incredibly beautiful environment in the short term — this is the same mentality that means Kilimanjaro will be ice-free within the decade. I know we are the last people to climb many of these ice features and the photographs are now part of the record of vanished animals, trees and places in the world.

I’m now committed to exploring the world’s vanishing places and documenting them before they are gone. I’m not going to leave toilet paper in the woods anywhere — and I’m going to try to share what we are losing.  

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2014 issue.

Photo by Christian Pondella.