By: Justin Abrams
I was 23 years old and it was 2012. As a kid I was an avid athlete. But not in the traditional sense. Yes, I played soccer and baseball, but team sports just weren’t for me. I was always better off as an individual contributor. I think it's because I was competitive to a fault. I was often so hyperfocused on the victory that I forgot about the journey. I was always drawn to "extreme sports;" finding myself immersed in mountain biking, rock climbing, snowboarding and mountaineering. Anything that could challenge my comfort zone and allow me to challenge myself. I was 22 years old when I saw an opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain, reaching to the sky at a height of 19,341 feet of dormant volcano. Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain on the African continent and is the tallest freestanding mountain on earth. Not being part of a mountain range, it rises up out of the flat Tanzanian desert with nothing to distract from its grandeur. I was intrigued, scared and motivated.
I flew out of Dulles International in Washington DC and had two connecting flights in Abu Dhabi and Kenya before arriving at Kilimanjaro International Airport 27 hours later. I was meeting a guide service coordinator there from Zara Tours, who was to pick me up at the airport to take me to my hotel. He didn't arrive for 3 hours. The entire time I was waiting, there must have been over 100 men viciously soliciting for me to take a cab ride with them. I had over 100 pounds of gear and various pieces of luggage which ended up in the trunk of multiple different vehicles. A trying situation for anyone, let alone a bright eyed kid in a third world country. I was struggling.
My first wildlife encounter in Africa occurred the second we exited the airport, after I was finally picked up by the guide service. In the middle of a 2 lane highway stood a gigantic Wildebeest with huge horns that was easily the size of a horse. Seconds later we passed a 6 foot ant hill on the side of the road. I was instantly intrigued and intimidated. Driving through the streets of Arusha, the scene was humbling. There are huge stretches of farmland and crop, with intermittent roadside stands selling varieties of fruits and vegetables, toys, clothing, and many other creature comforts. There was even a roadside stand called “Best Buys” that sold electronics like televisions, computers, cell phones and more. The markets were buzzing with every mode of transportation on a mixture of dirt roads and rutted pavement. The children, the businessmen, the mothers; I saw one mother carrying an infant on the front of her with a toddler on her back and a massive weave basket filled to the brim balanced on her head. She was then carrying multiple plastic bags of groceries in each hand. I was so humbled and felt at the time that she must have been the strongest woman in the world. There was such an overwhelming feeling of controlled chaos. It made me extremely uneasy, yet so grateful for the life that I am accustomed to. I noticed something fundamental about Africa, that I have come to look forward to in all of my travels around the world. The less people appear to have by western standards, the happier they appear to be.
However, I remember the pollution vividly. There is no sanitation department in Arusha. The heaps of trash and filth emitting an odor that physically affected me was practically unbearable. Clean water and simple hygiene are a rarity to most who populate this city and region. What is incomprehensible is how this one common denominator, Kilimanjaro, has become the life source for this area. What little resources the people have here are all provided by this mountain in some form. Over the next 8 days I would hike the 43 miles of the Marangu Route up and down Kilimanjaro and find out a barrage of interesting and shocking facts about the mountain and the effects that pollution and environmental neglect have had on it.
Kilimanjaro covers nearly every terrestrial micro environment or ecosystem found on earth. Cultivated land, rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and an arctic summit make up this extreme landscape. Despite direct human contact, the people that work on Kilimanjaro as guides, cooks, porters and builders, take a keen care of the cleanliness of the mountain. While Kilimanjaro is heavily populated and sees roughy 25,000 to 35,000 visitors a year, the mountain appeared to be in relatively clean condition. My guide Mudi, who had climbed and summited 69 times in his lifetime, had seen massive change over the years and showed me along the way, what had occurred. Pollution from cities at the base of Kilimanjaro, littering the circumference of the mountain, have caused much of the destruction on the mountain.
My summit day had the most notable evidence. We had left the final camp for our summit attempt at 2AM. Climbing through the night in -20 degrees F, but a clear, perfect night nonetheless. By the time we had reached snow, it was sunrise. The scene was incredible, but missing something that the books and the movies had promised me; massive glaciers. The infamous snows of Kilimanjaro. It was shocking to see how massive it was when I finally found it, but even more shocking to find out how much it has shrank over the years from my guide. The mountain’s snow caps are still diminishing, having lost more than 80 percent of their mass since 1912. In fact, they may be completely ice free by the year 2030, according to scientists. The environment at this elevation can no longer maintain a sub-arctic condition due to unsustainable levels of greenhouse gases emitting from Arusha and the cities circling the mountain below. All the pollution, gas emissions, sewage and waste have caused an environmental shift to occur at a rate that is irreversible. I realized that this was a prime example of global warming. This was the hardest blow. I realized in that moment, that my future child, and the next generation looking to tackle this mountain, will not experience it the way that I did.
Human impact on the world is nearly irreversible. In an extremely short period of time, we have managed to destroy our home, particularly, the places that most of us will never see, because our lives revolve around the urban environment. What else needs to disappear, go extinct, mutate or dry up before we do something about our impact on our own homes?