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Highlights by Mt. Kilimanjaro Climbers Fanina Kodre-Alexander, Emmakate Young and Tim Challen

The 2009 Kilimanjaro Initiative Climb concluded on Wednesday, 4 March after 14 of the 31 climbers reached Uhuru Peak – the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania - the rooftop of Africa. The fourth annual climb saw disadvantaged youth join members of the private and public sector in order to raise awareness on climate change. Timothy Challen of UNFCU led the climb which was part of the UN’s global campaign to “UNite to Combat Climate Change.”

KilimanjaroDay 1: After the flag off - where the UN Secretary General (SG)'s message was read to the climbers and the UN flag raised for the event - we walked through the rainforest. Where even two years ago streams were bubbling and waterfalls thundering, now all seemed drier and quieter. Once teeming with wildlife, the forest seemed silent. A lone chameleon made his slow way across our path. Villagers have found their way into the forest to graze their livestock and collect wood for their fires. After the sevem kilometer uphill hike, we reach Mandara hut - 2750 meters - just before sunset and are grateful to our guides, cooks, and porters for the hot meal.

KilimanjaroDay 2: From the rainforest we walk up into the open moorland. Evidence of the recent forest fire is all around us. The sparse trees stand like skeletons in the fields, but the erica brush is missing. Fortunately the Giant Groundsels (Senecio) were not affected by the fire. There are fewer Lobelia (Deckenii) but overall the area is green and seems to be on its way to recovery. The arduous uphill walk ends well before sunset at Horombo hut and we have a chance to chat with our chief guide Mzee Emanuel Menjah, who at 79 has summited the mountain over 3000 times since 1947. As we sit at 3720 meters and admire the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is still more than 12 kilometers away, Mzee Menjah tells us that in his youth the glaciers came to where we are now gathered. The melting glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro are often used as the “poster-child” for global warming. While there is still a debate over the cause of glacial melting on Kilimanjaro, there’s no doubt that the glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. Mzee Menjah has personally witnessed the reduction in ice and snow at the summit. “All I can do is worry. I don’t know why the ice is melting, so all I can do is worry.”

Day 3: We slowly hike up from the open moorland to the alpine desert. We are above the clouds now and have difficulty getting enough oxygen into our lungs. We reach Kibo hut by 4:00pm and try to rest before our final ascent scheduled to take place at midnight. Some of the climbers have already succumbed to altitude sickness and started to descend. The rest of us try to sleep, but it is difficult to breathe at 4750 meters. A storm rages outside, snow and hail, with thunder and lightning. At 10:00pm we think we may have to call the climb off, but at 11:00pm the mountain presents us with clear starry skies.

KilimanjaroDay 4: We start the final ascent at midnight. Despite the lack of ice and snow at the summit, we enjoyed last nights' heavy snow storm, and while it made for a difficult accent, we arrived to a snowy wonderland when we reached the summit. We reached Gilman's point at sunrise, and saw the sun shine its first rays onto the small glacier. After a quick cup of hot tea we proceeded towards Uhuru peak. Temperatures, with the windchill factor, hovered around minus 25 C. At Stella point we saw the second glacier, the one that years ago extended some 15 kilometers lower. If we still had any breath in our lungs it would have been taken away. We stopped to admire the glaciers' white - blue - aqua hues and listen to the guide explain how much it has receded over the years. We would like to stay there longer, partly because we want to admire its beauty, partly because we are exhausted and want to rest, but our guide pushes us on so we do not freeze and become part of the stunning landscape. We do not know where we find the energy to continue when we have already pushed ourselves well beyond the limits of our endurance. The first climber to reach the summit was 23 year old, Neema Mawalla of Marangu, Tanzania. From the summit we see the third glacier, and are hopeful that it will still be there for future generations of climbers. While locals enjoy the beauty of living at the doorstep to Kilimanjaro, it is rare that residents climb the mountain other than as a porter or guide. With the help of proud guides and porters along the way, Mawalla welcomed in the rest of the climbers to the “rooftop” of Africa. The sub zero temperatures, the high winds, and the lack of oxygen only afford us a short stop at the summit. We fly the UN flag and take a number of photos. We try the satellite phone to call the SG's office but cannot get a connection. None of the cell phone work here either. We start our rapid descent. From Stella point we are finally able to connect to New York and leave a short message. From Kibo hut, despite our fatigue, we must descend further to Horombo hut. After the additional 10 kilometer walk we have the best nights sleep yet. From Horombo we once again call the Secretary General's office in New York and report our success to Mr. Janos Pasztor.

Day 5: We somewhat recovered enough to descend from Horombo to Mandara and then further to the main gate of the Mt. Kilimanjaro park. That evening we hosted a dinner ceremony for our guides, cooks, and porters without whom we would not have been able to make it to the summit. Certificates were distributed to the five climbers who reached Gilman's Point and 14 who reached Uhuru Peak.

Kilimanjaro Initiative recently gained NGO status and has opened offices in Nairobi, Kenya. This has allowed them to extend their outreach activities beyond the annual hike. In a recent project, the Initiative worked with local youth and residents in the Kibera slum of Nairobi to clean-up a soccer field. Once a hotspot for crime and other illegal activities, the field is now a safe haven for the community.  

The Kilimanjaro Initiative will hold another hike next year, the dates have yet to be determined. For more information on the climb contact Tim Challen.