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Last Updated: Friday, 18 March 2005, 18:35 GMT
The last snows of Kilimanjaro
By Euan McIlwraith
BBC, Tanzania

Mount Kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro seems set to become just another mountain
My first glimpse of Kilimanjaro is awesome. As dawn breaks in the town of Moshi in the north of Tanzania, the snow-capped peak of the mountain emerges from the mist.

Six kilometres (19,500ft) above sea level, the snow and ice hurt the eyes in the African sun.

Kilimanjaro, literally the "mountain of snow", is a place where God was said to live, a provider of water for the local Chagga people and, today, the single largest source of tourist dollars in a struggling economy.

But the ice is melting and once it is gone, there is a real concern that the 20,000 tourists who come to climb the mountain each year will be gone too. After all a mountain without snow in Africa is just another mountain.

The precise reasons why the ice fields are shrinking are complex, but deforestation and global warming are commonly blamed.

Frozen archive

Phil Ndesamburo, the MP for the area, remembers the mountain of his childhood covered in snow. Now, in his seventies, Phil shared his concerns for the future.

"Without this mountain, we cannot live. It provides water for the coffee and banana plantations at the base of the mountain, and without water there is no life," he said.

Kilimanjaro glacier
The crater glacier is a shadow of its former glory
We set off just after dawn. At the gate to the Kilimanjaro National Park, the porters, guides and would-be climbers are massing for the ascent. With the hazards of altitude sickness, more than half of them will not reach the summit.

Each porter carries a massive 20kg (45lbs). My pack weighs in at four. For four days, we climb steadily upwards, camping each night until we reach the ice.

Professor Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University, US, has been studying the ice cores his team took from the mountain in 2000.

They were drilled in the Northern and Southern Ice Fields and in the thin Furtwängler Glacier within the crater.

The cores are a frozen archive with 12,000 years of climatic history locked in the ice.

His research shows that over 80% of the ice cover has been lost since 1912, and given the current rate of decline, he predicts that the ice fields will be gone completely in the next 15 years.

Small withdrawals

At one o'clock in the morning, my guide wakes me for the final push to the top. Ahead of us we have a 900m (3,000-ft) climb in the dark to reach the crater near the summit - an almost vertical cliff, and the oxygen level is down to a quarter of the level on the plain.

It is hard work and my head throbs. In the eerie light from my head torch, we climb parallel to one of the arms of the glacier. Five hours later we reach the crater.

It is here in the black volcanic dust that the scientists pitch their tents when they come to take measurements from the Automated Weather Station on the Northern Ice Field.

Julianna Adosi, a scientist at the Tanzanian Meteorological Agency, recently returned from her first trip up the mountain. She likens the glacier to a bank account where small withdrawals are being made every day until there will be nothing left.

Reduced glacier

As I near the summit, altitude and lack of oxygen begin to take their toll. My head feels about to burst and mental awareness is at an all-time low. Two hundred feet to go and I am convinced I can't make it.

Uhuru summit
A sense of achievement at reaching the summit is tinged with sadness
The air here is too thin for helicopter rescues so the only way out is on foot or the "Kilimanjaro express", a one-wheeled stretcher which is said to be the scariest ride in the world.

I start pulling off my hat, balaclava and gloves - the early signs of hypothermia. Emanuel and a porter pull me through the snow until I finally reach Uhuru summit.

Below me the reduction in the ice is clear to see. The glacier which once filled the crater stands out sharply against the black dust of the mountain, now a fraction of its former glory.

For me there is a great feeling of personal achievement, but it is a feeling tinged with sadness as I know that my generation will be the last to see the fabled snows of Kilimanjaro.

A radio documentary, The Snows Of Kilimanjaro, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2100 GMT on Monday, 21 March, 2005.

Kilimanjaro's ice 'archive'
18 Oct 02 |  Science/Nature
Kilimanjaro's white peak to disappear
19 Feb 01 |  San Francisco


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