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Tragedy on Kilimanjaro

A photographer recounts a deadly rockfall on Africa’s tallest peak.

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An aerial view of Mount Kilimanjaro

My terror of that wall of crumbling rock makes me fear writing this. I wish it weren’t so because there were, in fact, certain victories during the trip. I climbed the mountain and photographed a melting glacier I had long wanted to see. But the gritty, godforsaken peak took one life and nearly claimed 11 others.

Well before I started the Extreme Ice Survey in 2007, Mount Kilimanjaro beckoned. The tallest mountain in Africa at 19,340 feet (5,895 meters), the snows Ernest Hemingway had celebrated—they were glaciers made of ice, actually—were melting. Finally, in September of 2015, I traveled to Kili, as the Tanzanians call it, figuring I could never consider the EIS portfolio complete without photographing the mountain’s glaciers. Along with four Tanzanian porters, I recruited my longtime mountaineering partner, Dick Stone, to join me. A veteran of many big mountains, including Everest and Denali, the man is as steady as a wall of Yosemite granite.

Kilimanjaro balances between geologic life and geologic death. The mountain is a gargantuan layer cake of lava and volcanic ash that surged out of faults along the eastern edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. The summit massif is a 4,500-foot-high (1,372-meter-high) volcanic cone known as Kibo. Volcanic effusions have continued to slather ever more mass onto it. At the same time, rain and snowmelt wash it away. Water freezes and shatters the bedrock. Landslides eat away chunks of it. Glaciers abrade it.

On the seventh day of our trek, the arc of our hiking route carried us from Moir Camp to Lava Tower, and we came face-to-face with the gigantic horseshoe-shaped gouge on the sloping flank of the mountain. The gouge, nearly a mile (1.6 kilometers) across at the top and 2,800 feet (853 meters) high, is known as the Western Breach.

While there are several standard, all-hiking routes to the top of Kili, their popularity and crowded conditions have prompted some trekking agencies to pitch the Western Breach as a less-well-traveled option, and we chose it as our gateway to the summit. Unfortunately, it is also a massive bowling alley in which the lithic debris eroding off Kilimanjaro are the bowling balls—and climbers are the pins.

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A nighttime shot of Mount Kilimanjaro's Furtwangler Glacier

The Breach formed eons ago when a landslide slumped off the side of the Kibo cone. The top 1,000 feet (305 meters) of it are vertical and near-vertical layers of soft, loose, ice-shattered rock. Icicles dribble down these rock bands and fracture the rock. Some earth scientists speculate that the freeze-thaw cycles have gotten more intense in recent decades because of the melting ice in the summit glaciers. Below the head wall are 2,000 vertical feet (610 meters) of 30- to 45-degree mountainside. It collects rocks falling from all across the head wall and propels them into a relatively narrow chute lower down. As we got closer, we noticed that none of the big rocks had stopped mid-slope. They shot all the way to the bottom of the funnel.

Our route would go right up through this suspect terrain. This kind of territory was perfectly possible to climb—Dick and I had made many ascents like it, and a trail up the Breach has been in place for years—but with how shattered and unstable the place looked, I was worried. “Look at those cliff bands, Dick,” I said as we continued above Lava Tower and headed to our final camp before we headed for the summit. “The trekking agencies might take people up this as an alternative to the crowded routes. But I really don’t like the looks of it.”

Heading to the Summit

Only one other group of climbers occupied Arrow Glacier Camp the night before we started up the Breach. Our camp mates included two Americans from Minneapolis and two of their friends from San Francisco, Scott and Chelsea Dinsmore. Scott and Chelsea, married for five years, had sold all their possessions back home and were on a yearlong hegira around the world. Scott was something of a social media phenom, known for his self-help mantra Live Your Legend. Our new friends were excited to be nearing the summit, Chelsea especially. We got the impression they were ingénues to the mountains: They were in awe of our alpine war stories and didn’t understand how much harder tomorrow’s hike would be compared to the trade routes elsewhere on the peak.

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Mount Kilimanjaro, looking out from Shira 2 Camp to Moir Camp to Lava Tower

Our team woke at 3 a.m. By 4:30, our team—Dick, me, and four of our Tanzanian staff—were hiking uphill by headlamp. We passed Scott and Chelsea’s team of six, wished them good morning, and kept going. The only sounds were the crunch of our boots, the creak of rucksack straps, and the breath of the breezes falling down the Breach from the cold summit crater.

At about 17,000 feet (5,1182 meters), we were just to the right of the center of the funnel, zigzagging up and farther to the right. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the other team 450 feet (137 meters) down the slope below us. They were smack in the center of the funnel.

A bizarre metallic bang, as if someone threw a bowling ball at the side of a metal truck, split the morning.

“Holy f***! What was that?” Dick and I blurted simultaneously.

The sound could only have been something falling from above.

A Deadly Rockfall

Every alpinist learns a critical sequence of reactions when rocks are falling. First, you look up and try to figure out which direction they’re coming from. Then you get out of the way. Finally, you attempt to minimize how much of your body, particularly your head and neck, is exposed to the advancing rocks.

As it turned out, the other team didn’t have the years of mountaineering experience to ingrain those reflexes. Chelsea later told me they hadn’t even keyed into the fact that the metallic explosion above was something to be worried about.

I looked up. A thousand feet or so above us, a huge black boulder, approximately the size of a big SUV, had launched off a cliff. The boulder was airborne and coming straight at us. Smaller boulders were raining down on either side. The metallic bang apparently marked the moment that the expansion of ice in the head wall had split these rocks off the Breach head wall.

Two decisions followed so fast I would never claim they were the product of conscious thought. They were pure, raw, animal reflexes—but reflexes trained by hard-won experience. I saw that the slope we were on was slightly convex, bowed a little bit outward away from the mountain, and that we were a bit right of center.

The momentum of the rocks flying off the cliff band pushed them toward our side of the slope. But if we were really, really, really lucky they might stay more in the center, on the crest of the convexity. There was no other hope.

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This photo shows the approximate location on the Western Breach where the deadly rockfall occurred.

“Go right!” I shouted to our team.

A calm, quiet voice inside my head said, “You’re going to die.”

For the next few milliseconds, I dashed right, looking for a rock to hide behind. But all the big boulders had long since rolled to the bottom of the funnel. Nothing much bigger than a softball lay on the slope. A gray rock, two feet (0.6 meters) by three feet (0.9 meters) wide, appeared. It wasn’t much of a shelter, but this pathetic little rock was my only possible salvation. In a split second, the rocks would be upon us.

As I flew through the air, diving for shelter behind the rock, there was that serene voice again: “You are dying. You will never stand up again.”

The rock was barely high enough to protect my helmeted head. I dug my face flat into the dirt. My hands clutched the back of my neck. My back and legs were completely unprotected.

Half a second later, the rocks were upon us. By the grace of our good luck, most were pounding down just left of us. A small one grazed my rucksack and kept going. Gingerly, barely daring to look, I turned my head left: evil, malevolent, horrible black streaks were going by so fast the rocks were invisible. Eventually, thank God, they stopped.

I stood up and looked around. Incredibly, everybody else on our team was upright and moving too. But we remained in terrible danger. More rocks threatened to fall any second. Farther to our right was a pale tan rib of solid bedrock. It was out of the main fall line of the funnel. The rib had a couple of small ledges, with walls on their uphill sides. It didn’t offer much protection, but it was the only haven around. “Keep going right. Don’t stop. Just go!” I shouted to my team. “Get on that ridge.”

We scrambled as fast as we could.

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A view of the Furtwangler Glacier from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

After a few breathless minutes—a part of my brain was wincing in anticipation of more rocks pouring down any second—we arrived at the ledges. “Are you OK?” we asked each other repeatedly. Miraculously, we all were. The big rocks had fallen a few yards to the left of where we had been standing.

We turned our attention to the team below us. In the shadowy light of early dawn, we were having a hard time seeing exactly what was going on with them. Eventually we realized that five people were standing and that a shape well below them on the slope was a person.

We were now in rescue mode and needed a lot of help. As the leader of our team, I took up organizational duties on the radio, in collaboration with our chief porter, Augustine Nderingo. Good luck had put another one of our walkie-talkies with one of our men, who was a couple thousand feet down at Lava Tower, where the camp swarmed with superfit Tanzanian porters. They started racing up the mountain.

While this was happening, Dick decided to assist the other team, which by now was clustered around the prone figure on the slope, and do whatever first aid he could (just weeks before, he had completed an emergency medicine course). As he descended, I saw someone kneeling and doing CPR to the figure on the ground.

My heart sank.

After a few minutes Dick reached the others. I radioed to him: “What’s happening? Head wound?”

I saw him pull back a few yards away from the group. He quietly responded through the static, “A head wound would be the least of his problems. I’ll get back with you.”

Five minutes passed. I called Dick again. This time, he moved even farther away from the accident scene before responding. Almost whispering, he said, “It’s Scott. He’s been very, very badly injured—amputated in fact—by the rocks. I had to help them understand that he’s dead.”

Chelsea Dinsmore had been doing CPR on her dying husband.

Not the First Time

It is being what a mountain is, doing what a mountain does. Ice and rock, terrain and gravity, follow their own impulses: They break a mountain to pieces, roll its particles closer to the level plain, and fulfill the destiny of their tectonics.

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Balog and his team celebrate reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, after a trek from Arrow Camp up the Western Breach through Crater Camp, September 12-15, 2015.

In the following weeks we learned that this wasn’t the first time the Breach head wall had taken a life. In January 2006, three Americans were killed when a rockfall swept down the funnel, through the Arrow Glacier campsite, and smashed into their tents. The route up the Breach was closed. A consulting geologist and team of Tanzanian guides recommended the ascent route be moved from the center of the funnel and onto the rock rib we climbed after the slide. It wasn’t. Not long after, the route was reopened in more or less the same place it had always been.

The simple fact is that the objective hazard of the Breach makes it a route completely unsuited for ordinary hiking and trekking. The outfitters and trekking agencies may try to persuade you otherwise. Between the two of us, Dick and I have well over half a century’s experience in big mountains, and to us it’s a route appropriate only for serious alpinists who imagine that a summit is worth a serious risk of death. Our recommendation: Pick one of the several other routes up the mountain.

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