Mt. Kilimanjaro is famous for being the home of Africa’s highest point, and being the tallest free-standing peak in the world. What most people don’t know about the mountain is that it isn’t simply ‘a mountain.’ There is a long and storied history behind the formation of Kilimanjaro, and it revolves around the fact that not only is it classified as a stratovolcano, but the mountain is actually composed of three separate volcanic cones.
Geologists believe that Kilimanjaro actually began life as a volcano now known as Shira, which erupted about 2.5 million years ago. At the time, it was likely about 17,000 ft tall, but has eroded over the ages to a mere 13,140 ft, making it the shortest of the three cones. Much later, approximately 1 million years ago, Kibo and Mawenzi erupted, now standing at 19,341 ft and 16,893 ft, respectively. These two volcanoes were separated by what is now known as the Saddle Plateau, located at 14,400 ft. Aside from being the tallest of the three, Kibo is also the largest, over 15 miles wide at the Saddle Plateau altitude. It’s also noteworthy that, while Shira and Mawenzi are extinct, Kibo is technically dormant, meaning that it still has the potential to erupt.
The earliest known written record of Kilimanjaro comes from Ptolemy, an Alexandrian mathematician, astronomer, and most importantly in this case, cartographer around 100 AD. He wrote of sailor’s reports of a “Moon Mountain” with references to the Nile, which may indicate Kilimanjaro or any of several other African mountains. Whether or not Ptolemy was, in fact, speaking of Kilimanjaro, nothing more was recorded about the mountain for over 1,700 years. In 1848, a German missionary named Johannes Rebmann became the first European to officially report the existence of Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, his reports were considered unreliable by the Royal Geographical Society, and confirmation of Rebmann’s claims were not made until 1861.
Almost no time passed before explorers began making attempts at the peak. Prussian officer Baron Karl Klaus von der Decken made an attempt in 1861, but bad weather foiled his plans. He tried again a year later and made it to 14,000 ft before turning back. Hungarian Count Sámuel Teleki and Austrian Lieutenant Ludwig von Höhnel were a bit more successful in 1887; Teleki made it to 17,400 ft.
Numerous others tried and failed to reach the coveted peak until 1889. German geology professor Hans Meyer made his third attempt at the summit of Kibo, with the assistance of Ludwig Purtscheller, an Austrian mountaineer. They established several camps stocked with food and supplies ahead of time to prevent to allow for multiple attempts without making a full retreat. Finally, on October 6, 1889, the pair reached Kibo’s summit and were the first to confirm that it had a crater.
Some may wonder why it took several trained professionals multiple tries to reach the peak of Kilimanjaro, while today untrained tourists do so on a daily basis. It’s a good question, and one with a simple answer – ice. In Meyer and Purtscheller’s day, there was a layer of ice over the top of the mountain, so thick that they had to spend quite a bit of time carving footholds in it just so they could proceed. These days, the ice has retreated, allowing for reliable routes to the different peaks of the three volcanic cones.
Kilimanjaro has consistently changed over its several million-year history, and it’s not stopping now. Due to global warming, scientists predict that the ice on Kilimanjaro, the remains of ancient glaciers, could be gone by 2060, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Kibo still has the potential to erupt. While it doesn’t appear that there is anything we can do about these changes, perhaps we should simply be grateful that this picturesque geological marvel is available for us to experience during our lifetime.