Mountaineering

Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!

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The top of the Barranco Wall is a setting for celebration. It is still far from Kilimanjaro’s true summit, but with its menacing appearance, the Wall provides a mental test for every climber. Working hard at more than 13,000 feet of elevation is also good preparation for the physical challenges ahead.

Exposures on the Wall are limited but real. Serious injury is just one slip away. According to the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), the Wall is a Class Four scramble, meaning it is a simple climb with some exposure, serious enough to require both hands and feet (Class Five is rock climbing in earnest, requiring ropes, protection, and technical moves).

At the top of this 850 foot barrier we do a little party, a little food, and a little dancing.

Photographs demonstrate that old white guys can jump, just not very high.


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The Barranco Wall is a challenge. The good news is that it looks worse than it really is. Note the true summit (Kibo) rising higher on the left.

Most of my working summers are spent in Israel-Palestine. If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. We partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities.

Five-star? Add a million more.

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Some hotel stays are forgettable—the location is noisy, the beds have standard sheets, the salad bar looks old, and the concierge is rude.

Others hotel stays you remember the rest of your life. They have it all: inimitable style, discreet (but sharp) service, destination restaurant-worthy food, a balcony view, and more.

You make your choice. I’ll make mine. Then we’ll compare notes.


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I spent several weeks in Africa this year but my regular work is focused on Israel-Palestine. If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. We partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities.

Three in one

It is alpine desert up here.

It is alpine desert up here.

I look back from the Lava Tower trail to the Shira Plateau. I stand on one volcanic cone and gape through the clouds to another. Kilimanjaro is not one volcano after all, but three: Kibo, Shira, and Mawenzi (see our stories on this stuff here and here).

All three of these stony blisters were born in different geological moments, but all three are centered on the same crustal weakness. That weakness is located about 80 kilometers to the east of Africa’s Great Rift.

Geologists tell us that this landscape began to take its current shape about 500,000 years ago. Molten lava pushed to the surface, elevating a corner of the earth’s crust. Shira was created first, and then collapsed. Mawenzi (not pictured here) followed suit. Finally, mighty Kibo topped the other two calderas and grew into the iconic outline that most folks today call Mt Kilimanjaro. Together, this volcanic trinity forms the largest freestanding mountain on the planet.

Kibo, incidentally, is still active (it fumes and puffs), although it has not erupted in the last 200 years.


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My regular summer work with the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies (JCBS) centers on Israel-Palestine. We partner with with faith-based groups and institutions to create and deliver an academic, enjoyable, and memorable experience. JCBS offers pastors, teachers, and leader the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, but without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities. Interested? Contact me at markziese@gmail.com.

So close, so far

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It looks like an easy scramble from the Lava Tower Camp (at about 15,000 feet) to the crater at the top of Kilimanjaro. Don’t be fooled. While the trail (leading up from the little green tent) appears be the shortest hop to the top, it is also one of the steepest (approaching 45 degrees) and the deadliest on the mountain. Melting ice has released rockfalls that have killed several trekkers here in recent years.

This “bowling alley” of ice and loose rock above Lava Tower is a deathzone and an infamous feature of Kilimanjaro’s Western Breach. The Breach itself is a gigantic slump where the mountain rim has collapsed downslope and continues to do so (if you want a good scare, check out this eyewitness report from National Geographic).

Nope. Not going there.

We arrive at the base of Lava Tower for the view and for the sake of the acclimatization. Later, we descend back to 13,000 foot camp to sleep. “Climb high, sleep low” is the formula for success on the big ones. We will circle around to the other side of the rim to make for the summit. There, the slope is kinder and more stable.

Pole, pole. “Slowly, slowly.”


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At 15,000 feet, effective oxygen levels drop to around 11.8%. This is about half of what is available at sea level (21%). At the top of Everest, that number is nearly halved again, dropping to 6.9%. Some might not consider such air-sucking a vacation!

My regular summer work is focused in the area of Israel-Palestine. If you are interested in experiencing the geography, history, and culture of the Bible Lands, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here.

Obsidian, asphyxiation, and other fun stuff

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Obsidian litters the ground of Kilimanjaro. This brittle stone is formed by the rapid cooling of lava and disintegrates to sharp slivers (it makes good blades!). The accumulation of black lava and ash from Kibo’s repeated eruptions covers a footprint of 388,500 hectares (larger than the state of Rhode Island). It offers a striking contrast to the white ice of the summit.

I cannot think about obsidian and stratovolcanoes without thinking about Pliny the Elder. Pliny was a naturalist from the era of the Roman Empire. He wrote many volumes dedicated to geography and the natural world.

In volume 36 of his magisterial Natural History, Pliny gives attention to a volcanic glass called “Obsian.” He gives it this name because one “Obsius (or Obaidius in an older reading) discovered (it) in Æthiopia” (see more here).

Iconically, the man who handed the word “obsidian” to the modern world died in a volcanic eruption of his own. Pliny was asphyxiated when Mt Vesuvius blew its top in AD 79.


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When approaching the Western Breach of Kilimanjaro’s summit, the hiker is confronted with great flows of volcanic rock. A formation known as Lava Tower appears on the upper right side of this image.

Kilimanjaro was a break for me. My regular summer work focuses on the area of Israel-Palestine. If you are interested in experiencing the geography, history, and culture of the Bible Lands, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here.

Maybe a hundred

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Despite his youth, Raymond is a veteran of Kilimanjaro. He grew up in a Chaga* village within sight of the ice-capped mountain. He started early as a porter and worked his way up through the ranks. Today he is a lead guide with Kandoo Adventures, a premier trekking company based in the U.K. In alpine conditions—pleasant, adverse, and everything in between—he oversees expedition teams that sometimes number more than 50 people, counting porters, assistant guides, support staff, and clients.

During the climbing season he alternates between a week at home with his family and a week in the mountains with clients.

I asked him how many times he has summited the 19,341-foot peak. He guessed with a laugh, “maybe a hundred.”

That kind of duty can make a man cynical, arrogant, or weary. But not Raymond. He is patient, soft-spoken, and generous.

It is an honor to call him friend.


*The Chaga people migrated from elsewhere in Africa to the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro sometime in the 11th century. They are high-elevation specialists and agriculturalists who grow coffee, bananas, and millet. They are numbered among the earliest tribal groups in East Africa to convert to Christianity.

**For more on Kandoo Adventures, see their webpage here.


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I cannot say enough good things about the friendships that are born in the mountains. Facing, tackling, and overcoming challenges in the context of teams is as rewarding as any experience I have known in life.

It is a blessing to work with positive professionals like Raymond. Time and time again, my faith in the human spirit and thankfulness for divine grace is renewed.



Kilimanjaro, no trouble!

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Our second day on the way to the summit of Kilimanjaro started with an introduction of the porter team. Lead guides Raymond and Ambrose introduced us to the group that does much of the hard work on the mountain. One by one we learned their names and their supporting roles.

Following these introductions, the porter team offered us a song of encouragement. The Jambo Song is often heard on the mountain. It repeats the phrase, Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata (Kilimanjaro, no trouble!) and featured Richard, our tent specialist, who freewheeled a little along the way. Fun was had by all.

The words, sung in Swahili but translated into English, go something like this:

Hello! Hello sir!
How are you? Very well!
Guests, you are welcome!
Kilimanjaro? No trouble!

Walk slowly, slowly. No trouble!
You’ll get there safe. No trouble!
Drink plenty of water. No trouble!

Kilimanjaro! Kilimanjaro!
Kilimanjaro, such a high mountain.

Also Mawenzi, also Mawenzi!
Also Mawenzi such a high mountain.

Like a snake, like a snake!
Like a snake you wrap around me

You wrap around me, you wrap around me
Trying to eat me like a piece of meat.

And by the way, these dudes work at high and extreme elevations regularly. They are not just singers but serious athletes.


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The porters from several climb teams work to break down the camp and move it further up the mountain.

Kilimanjaro was part of a summer vacation for me. Most of my regular work is focused on the area of Israel-Palestine. If experiencing the geography, history, and culture of the Bible Lands is of interest to you, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here.

Mountains of the moon

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Spectacular!

Yesterday’s POTD (see here) revealed clouds creeping upslope from rainforest to the moorlands inside Kilimanjaro National Park. Here you can see these clouds cresting the jagged rim of the Shira Plateau. This plateau is the collapsed caldera of an ancient volcano adjacent to Kibo, the celebrated peak of Mt Kilimanjaro.

For stories of our encounter with the Shira back in 2017 see here and here.

For more on Africa’s “mountains of the moon” see here and here.


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A nylon tent makes a decent home for a season. If it doesn’t leak it’s even better!

We hobnobbed in Africa for the better part of July, but are home now, making plans for future study-tours in the lands of the Bible.

If experiencing the geography, history, and culture of Israel-Palestine is of interest to you, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here. I promise you won’t have to sleep in a tent!

Really tall trees

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The tallest trees in the world are often associated with the giants sequoias of the Pacific Northwest or the massive eucalyptus and gum trees of Australia. All of these species reach heights of more than 90 meters.

Late entries in this “game of the biggest” come from the rainforests of Africa; their lateness is due to inaccessibility and lack of study. In 2016 a whopping stand of Entandrophragma excelsum was discovered in a secluded gorge at the base of Mt Kilimanjaro. E. excelsum belong to the mahogany (Meliaceae) family. One specimen measured 81-meters in height.* A perfect storm of fertile soil, lack of disturbance, temperature and rainfall, made these giants possible.

One wonders how many more of these trees have been lost to illegal logging in the region.

Dominating another elevated ecosystem on of the same mountain are camphor trees (Ocotea usambarensis). Some of these, as pictured above, are also old and enormous (up to 45 meters tall). Camphorwood has a distinct smell and is harvested for local medicines and timber. Like the E. excelsum, camphor trees grow very rapidly (up to 2 meters a year when young), a requirement for overcoming the rainforest’s creeping vines.

I scan the soaring canopy with my friend Mohammad. We are looking for Colobus monkeys!


*See the article by Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, “Africa’s tallest tree measuring 81m found on Mount Kilimanjaro” in the daily newsletter of NewScientist (24 November 2016). You can read it online here.


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The earth is so amazing and diverse!

We hobnobbed in Africa for the better part of July, but are home now, getting ready for fall semester classes and making plans for future study-tours in the lands of the Bible.

If experiencing the geography, history, and culture of Israel-Palestine is of interest to you, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here.

The elicitor

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Steep hairpin ahead!

The response of an organism to external stimuli varies widely. Some pray. Some curse. Some alternate between the two.

The narrow and unimproved road between the Cendere Bridge and Nemrut Dağ elicits a wide range of responses.

Put differently: the lack of guardrails means that every rocky cliff, yawning chasm, and eroded roadwash may be fully appreciated without obstruction.

Nimrut Dağ is a 7,000 foot mountain in southeastern Turkey. It is one of the highest peaks in the eastern Taurus mountains.


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Travel in Eastern Turkey is tough these days, but trips to Israel-Palestine are in full swing. We have openings right now for trip scheduled May 25 through June 4, 2019. Inclusive price out of Washington Dulles is $3,963. Other departure cities are possible. Write me at markziese@gmail.com for more information or check our full list of study-travel opportunities here.


Required reading for explorers (part 1)

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East Africa is not among the Lands of the Bible, but I can’t help but wave this paperback under your nose. National Geographic considers Felice Benuzzi’s No Picnic on Mount Kenya (1953) among the best 100 adventure stories ever written. It is certainly the most entertaining book I’ve read in a long time. It unexpectedly combines two story lines: a daring escape by three men from a WWII prison camp and their attempt to climb a 5,000-meter mountain.

The twists are many. Beyond the self-effacing humor embedded in author’s suffering and the creativity required to manufacture their own alpine gear, there is the purpose outlined from the beginning of the book: should they be successful in breaking out of the camp and making it up and down the mountain alive, they must then break back into the camp. It is a matter of honor. On the way out they left a note for the captors promising to return.

I am no spoiler: the hero at the end of this well-told story is the indomitable human spirit.

Benuzzi, far right, with friends from the prison camp. Image from    here.

Benuzzi, far right, with friends from the prison camp. Image from here.


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In addition to our usual trips to the lands of the bible (see our 2019 schedule here), I think there might be a few more mountains in our future. The invitation is always open for you to join us—either on the heights or in the depths.

Contact me at markziese@gmail.com for more details.

Frozen furls

The stratovolcano rising above the intersection of Turkey, Armenia, and Iran is known locally as Agri Dagi (Turkish, "mountain of pain"). It is more famously remembered as Mt Ararat, associated with the story of Noah's ark (Genesis 8). Getting to the summit flag at nearly 17,000' is a strenuous effort, but the view is worth it. "Little Ararat" (12,877') rises in the distance.