Photos: Ice Climbing Kilimanjaro’s Disappearing Glaciers
See what it's like to climb this otherworldly ice.
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“Like climbing icebergs in an ocean of sand” is how ice climber and consummate adventurer Will Gadd described ascending the melting glaciers on 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak, in late October 2014.
“The ice is really old, so it fractures very dynamically and easily—it’s scary, surprising, and beautiful,” says Gadd, who was named one of our 2015 Adventurers of the Year for making a bold paragliding traverse of the Canadian Rockies with Gavin McClurg. “Oddly, the ice felt very similar to icebergs in the ocean, probably due to the really big difference between surface and interior temperatures. Also, the ice in bergs is very old, same with this.”
Scientists have been studying glacial retreat on Kilimanjaro for decades. As for the ice Gadd climbed, it may already be gone. “I’d be very surprised if [the ice] were still there now,” says Gadd. “The guides said it was radically different every week they were up there—a huge glacial system in its death throes really.”
Adventure: Is there a lot of ice like this in the world? Either in deserts or high up on mountains?
Will Gadd: I don’t think so, I’ve never seen anything like this in the Himalaya or Andes.
A: What was the quality of the ice like? How did it behave when you climbed it? Did it surprise you at all?
WG: Poor—it’s really old, so it fractures very dynamically and easily. Scary, surprising, beautiful. Oddly, the ice felt very similar to icebergs in the ocean, probably due to the really big difference between surface temperature and interior temp. Also the ice in bergs is very old, same with this.
A: Was it like any other ice you had climbed? Was the ambient temperature very warm?
WG: As above, ambient probably between -10c and +20, massive temp fluctuations.
A: Did you all hike the standard route to get to the ice you climbed? Had you climbed Kili before?
WG: We went on an amble around the side of the mountain to look at possibilities, but there aren’t really any non-standard routes on Kili unfortunately. I’d never been to East Africa before, beautiful place!
A: Do regular hikers/climbers visit these glacier slivers, too? Is it off limits?
WG: Anyone can visit them, but most people are so hypoxic and messy from the rushed “summit at all costs and fast!” approach that they can’t do much up there. The only other people to do any ice climbing on top were the researchers who spent a month up there. Their conclusion is that the ice isn’t going to last much longer…
A: How long will those slivers of glacier you climbed last?
WG: I’d be very surprised if they were still there now.
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A: What did you learn about the water system on Kili? Do the glaciers provide water for the communities living down the mountain?
WG: The main reason the glaciers are melting is that the weather patterns have changed dramatically in west africa due to warmer ocean temperatures and other human inputs–there really isn’t a second rainy season like there used to be, and the atmosphere is warmer. These two factors combine to both melt the ice faster and for much less moisture on top of Kili. It really is a desert now, but it used to snow a LOT up there. This loss of moisture in the area has made life a lot harder for many people in East Africa.
A: You had been talking about this trip for a year or two. Did the ice retreat significantly while you were planning?
WG: I’d wanted to do this trip for about 10 years, but when I started reading that there might not be anymore ice in as little as five years I had to really focus on getting there, and yes, the ice retreated massively. It’s not really “retreating” anymore like a normal glacier, it’s more getting dissected in place. There is no accumulation zone anymore, it’s just all falling apart. The guides said it was radically different every week they were up there, a huge glacial system in its death throes really.
A: You and photographer Christian Pondella are such great team. How did you and Christian sync up and plan out each shot?
WG: Christian is willing to suffer hard for his shots, really suffer, and pull his weight for the team in addition to shooting. And he always has a great attitude in addition to being an incredibly solid photographer. I love his work, but it’s really christian’s work ethic and attitude that allow us to be successful working together in crazy situations.