This summer, a small international team scouted a route up Kilimanjaro for a paragliding attempt off the mountain, planned for February 2013. Award-winning adventure travel writer Jayme Moye reports in this two-part series.
Our team takes seven days, longer than most people spend hiking up Kilimanjaro, to reach the summit. We have a different goal. As the reconnaissance mission for the Wings of Kilimanjaroproject, we’ve been asked to identify the most logical route up the mountain and to determine campsite logistics for a group of up to 200 paraglider pilots who will attempt the first ever climb-and-fly in February 2013. We’ll also assess weather conditions and deduce the safest launch site on the summit.
In a week on the mountain, we’ve explored multiple routes and most of the campsites, circumnavigating Kilimanjaro from the northeast corner before making our summit bid. The combination of paths, and the altitude of the camps that we ultimately choose will be critical for the paraglider pilots. They need to acclimatize, as much as possible, in order to be clear-headed upon summiting the 19,341-foot peak so that they can launch.
On summit morning, I awake with a dull headache, which I attribute to having slept at our highest point yet—the 16,000-foot unnamed high camp above Barafu Camp. During the six-hour hike to the summit, the ache expands to a pulsing throb. We move at an unnaturally slow pace on the staircase-steep terrain, but at 18,000 feet, there’s no other way to move. McRae and his chief pilot Peter Bowyer, however, are amped. They’re encouraged by the weather—sunny and clear with moderate wind, ideal for flying. They position themselves in the #1 and #2 positions right behind our guide.
When we reach Stella Point, the crater rim at 18,829 feet, McRae and Bowyer are almost giddy in their excitement to explore possible launch sites along the short ridgeline to the summit at Uhuru Peak. Their plan for February is for the group to fly off the east side of the mountain and land near the town of Moshi, 20 miles away. For takeoff, they’re looking for a wide-open space that is big enough for up to 200 pilots and devoid of large rocks, scree, and ice—possible impediments to a clean launch.
I’m skeptical that the perfect launch pad for 200 people exists on top of the highest mountain in Africa, and assume some concessions will have to be made. But McRae is determinedly optimistic. He and Bowyer go ahead of the group to start scouting. The ridgeline isn’t very steep, so we can all move faster, but we’re careful not to push it—we’re approaching 19,000 feet, where oxygen is about half of what we breathe at sea level.
I watch McRae and Boyer walk off the path and explore each open space that could be a possible takeoff zone, then return to the trail. As we continue toward Uhuru Peak, I realize they’re running out of options. The closer we get to the summit, the more ice and snow covers the ground.
Suddenly, McRae and Bowyer are waving their arms for us to catch up. “Check it out,” McRae gasps when we reach them. We’re on a ridgeline point that’s a 15-minute walk west of Stella Point, about halfway to the summit. A wide expanse of dark volcanic ash lies between the trail and the drop off, sloping gently downward with ample room for takeoff. From this spot, paraglider pilots would launch and fly directly over Kilimanjaro’s iconic southern icefields.
It’s perfect. And beautiful. No one speaks as we stare out over the landscape. In that moment, I know we’re all thinking the same thing—imagining hundreds of colorful paraglider wings against the crisp blue sky, sailing over the bright white icefields. McRae breaks our collective reverie. “This bloody well could be it,” he says. He’s got a big grin on his face as he turns and begins walking the final stretch to the summit. The rest of us follow. I realize my headache is gone, but it’s hard to shift my attention to Uhuru Peak. I’ve got too many visions of the Wings of Kilimanjaro flying through my mind.