Trekking

Knee-busting and ankle-twisting

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The trail coming off Kilimanjaro carries a lot of trekkers and, in certain seasons, a fair amount of water. In places it follows a rocky wash. This kind of terrain challenges the knees and ankles, especially after the rigor of summit night. I have no statistics in my pocket, but I’d be willing to guess that the majority of injuries on Kilimanjaro are not related to the elevation (that everyone fears) but are of the more mundane ankle-twisting variety. Most probably occur somewhere in route to Mweka Camp.

I can’t say enough good things about trekking poles.

Our little group takes a breather. Muhammad is behind the camera and kindly shared this image.


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Since Mohammad didn’t make the picture above, I snuck him in the thumbnail.

If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator, let me hear from you. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor academic experiences in the lands of the Bible. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities. See our list of future trips here.

Kandoo Adventures can do!

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Salute to these guys! What a great team! They got us safely and comfortably up and down Mt Kilimanjaro. Big hearts (and good lungs) and attention to detail set this group apart. Raymond, our lead guide is on the far left. His assistant, Ambrose is beside me on the right.

The trip was our second engagement with Kandoo Adventures (https://www.kandooadventures.com/) headquartered in the United Kingdom. I can’t say enough good things about this company or about Rachael Bode, adventure travel consultant in Kandoo’s main office.

We’ll be using Kandoo again next summer for our Everest trek.

The photograph above was shot by Bryan, one of our Kilimanjaro teammates.


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We left the mountain by minibus for a return to Moshi.

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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.

Going down

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Coming down from a mountain feels more laborious than going up. Our 2019 experience of Kilimanjaro proved this once again.

Going the distance no sleep is an effort, but that’s not what beats you up. It’s the elevation (and absence of adrenalin!). After climbing through the night to reach the summit, we turn and walk off the cap and lose 9,000 feet. It is a difficult 9,000 too; much of it follows a boulder strewn wash. The brain is tilted and the knees are gone.

Ambrose demonstrates how to skip from the top of one boulder to another with a full pack. I tell him that my shock-absorbers won’t let me do that anymore. I would lose teeth before it was over.

I turn and shoot one last pix of the mountain. We have covered the distance from that frosty head to the steamy embrace of a rainforest.


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Colobus monkeys clamor in the trees overhead. Their distinctive black and white markings make me think of tree-climbing skunks.

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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.


Eat cake!

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What does one do after stumbling down from the summit of Kilimanjaro?

Eat cake, of course!

Chef Julius and his assistant Richard provided us with a celebratory cake when we came off the summit. How in the world Julius managed to create such deliciousness in a mess tent on a mountain and bake it at elevation, I’ll never know.

What I do know is that this was tastiest cake I’ve ever had. We happily shared it with the entire crew.


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I eat cake in Africa, but I spend my summers 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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.


Perfect timing

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Raymond timed it perfectly.

He led the way through the night, walking, scrambling, resting. Bryan, Karen, and I followed, headlamps bobbing in a line. Slaa, a strong climber and experienced porter brought up the rear.* No one said much; each life was lived within the confines of the illuminated beams.

The sky warmed as our little troop crested the rim of the caldera.** We rested one last time behind some boulders, stomping feet and rubbing hands back to life, then rose. We turned off the lamps. Passing walls of glacial ice, the silhouette of the Kilimanjaro summit sign swung into view. I walked up the rise and grabbed it with a mitted hand.

The sun cracked the horizon and I shot this image.

I continue to marvel at Raymond’s timing. He set a pace for seven hours that put us on top of Kilimanjaro within 15 minutes of the sunrise.


*Our assistant guide, Ambrose, returned to base camp with Muhammad after he began experiencing trouble.

**We rested at Stella Point on Kibo’s rim. Stella Point marks the end of a difficult stretch of loose gravel on a steep slope. From here the grade is gentle to Uhuru Peak, the true summit of Kilimanjaro.


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Raymond joins me for a sunrise selfie on the summit.

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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.


On frailty and power

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One never conquers a mountain. That’s foolish talk.

The human being is a creature of frailty and mountains are primordial objects built by forces beyond comprehension. Those forces continue to operate right up to this very second, and, in the span of that second, can turn to fury. It takes very little to set one off: a rolling pebble, a drifting snowflake, a shifting wind, a growl that creeps up a volcanic throat. Conquer? I don’t think so.

Mountains are not alive, but they do pulsate. They have no feelings, no malice or joy, but somehow they stand among the proudest of all creation. They are impervious to the flags of victory that we raise above them and they are deaf to the claps of congratulations that we share (before scrambling back down to safety).

No. If someone claims “I’ve conquered a mountain,” they are either dull or worse—a liar. Mountains are climbed only when conditions are right, when the body cooperates, when supports are in place, when the other demands of life permit, and, ultimately, when it is within the will of God.

The truer claim acknowledges this constellation of conditions, peers into the dark haze and humbly says “thank you.” Thank you God for creating something as majestic as Mt Kilimanjaro. Thank you for the granting us the gift of its experience. I am so out of my league.

“In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also” (Psalm 95:4).


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I play in Africa but work 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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.


A two hundred-mile shadow

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Kilimanjaro casts a shadow upon a veil of vapor. The colors are magnificent. Deep tropospheric blues are warmed by the rising sun. Striations build upward from the horizon: purple to mauve to grey and orange. Cutting through these layers are rays of light; these transparent slashes converge with the shadow.

It is frigid at 19,000 feet, but there is little wind today. It is a gift of the morning.

All mountain shadows have this same triangular shape regardless of the mountain’s profile. This is a phenomenon known as perspective effect. The finite size of the rising sun behind me causes the shadowed air to taper away to a vanishing (or anti-solar) point. It is not unusual for large mountains like Kilimanjaro to cast a shadow that is two- to three-hundred miles long.

I inhale the scene and its colors. It is cold in my chest.

The slope has become gentle. From here it is a stroll to the summit.


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I play in Africa but work 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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.

The sky warms, the ice glows

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Climbing through the night with few points of reference is a mind game. I focus by keeping my headlamp on the heels of the person in front of me. I think about breathing. Slowly. Breath hangs about each face, illuminated.

A companion rises over Mawenzi. He is not quite full, someone has taken a big bite out of this moon-pie.

Another companion loses touch with the group. A guides falls back to assist him. Their two lights grow smaller and smaller and then disappear. Time passes. The moon clears the horizon and floats overhead. We hear on the radio that the two of them are headed back down.

Previous experience on the mountain has taught me not to be anxious. Raymond is in front of us, minding the trail. Stella Point is above us, invisible on the rim. We’ll know we’re close when the sky warms with color and the ice becomes visible. In the meantime just keep moving. Poley, poley.

One of my water bottles is frozen. I sip from the second.

The sky warms. The ice glows.


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I play in Africa but work 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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.

Frozen on the equator

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The glaciers of Kibo’s rim are visible above Barafu Camp. In order to reach that icy summit by sunrise we go to bed after dinner and try to get a few hours of sleep. The wake-up call comes at 10:00 pm. We try to eat something (altitude has a way of suppressing the appetite) and depart the camp by starlight at 11:00 pm.

Packs are stripped to essentials. Water bottles are wrapped in socks and buried upside down in the pack. Water freezes in the mouths of bottles carried right-side up and renders them useless. Exposed bottles freeze solid before sunrise.

So do fingers, by the way.

This photograph of Barafu Camp was taken by Mohammed my tent-mate.


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Even before summit night we’ve had troubles with ice forming in unprotected bottles. Drinking hoses and pack-bladders are useless in these conditions.


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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.

High base camp

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Barafu in Swahili means “ice.” The name is given to Kilimanjaro’s high base camp where ice and snow are always possible. Barafu grips a hog’s back, exposed to weather on all sides. As viewed from above, colorful tents cluster along the trail that runs through the center of this last stop before “the roof of Africa.” Inside this scatter of gossamer fortresses, trekkers capture sleep or make preparations for an assault on Kibo’s summit.

Obstacles that stand in their way include loose scree, boulders, high winds, sub-zero cold, five kilometers of switchback and scrambles, and about 4,100 vertical feet. By themselves, these obstacles are not that difficult, but taking them on at extreme high altitude (anything over 18,000 feet) adds a new layer to the physical challenge that has carried the climbers to this point.


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Our team of four reaches Barafu Camp on a brilliant day. We nap for a few hours and wake up for a summit attempt before midnight.

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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.


Nice shot

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Karen and Bryan stand on Kibo and look toward Mawenzi. Kibo is the centerpoint of the Kilimanjaro massif and the highest peak in Africa (19,341 ft), Mawenzi, just six kilometers away is the third highest on the continent (16,893 ft). While similar dynamics created both, the two are a study in opposites (you really should read our stories here and here). Kibo rises gently to a circular flat top. Mawenzi soars abruptly and is topped by a series of crumbling pinnacles. While thousands of trekkers have a go at Kibo every year, Mawenzi is attempted by only a few technical climbers. In fact, numerous fatalities on Mawenzi have prompted authorities to close the mountain periodically.

The story of two fatalities sends shivers up the spine. It is told by John Reader in his book Kilimanjaro and repeated in many places.* After reaching the summit of Mawenzi successfully, two climbers attempted a new route down the mountain. One detached himself from the rope and fell to his death. The second, continuing, also fell and died, but because the rope snagged on an overhang, his body was left dangling midair. When the would-be rescuers found the cliff too dangerous to climb, they resorted to a rife. The dead climber was brought down by a marksmen who managed to sever the rope with a bullet.

Yikes!


* I read it on pages 100-101 in Alex Stewart’s Kilimanjaro: Ascent Preparations, Practicalities, and Trekking Routes to the ‘Roof of Africa’ (Cumbria: Cicerone, 2018).


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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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.

See here for a list of future trips. I promise we will stay off of Mawenzi.

Look down at the ceiling

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The trail upslope from Karanga Camp is a slow grind. There are plenty of opportunities to look around and contemplate the great alpine desert that begins where the shrubby moorland ends. Note the clouds socking in the African hills below.

By this point all of Kilimanjaro’s popular routes (Machame, Shira, and Lemosho) are joined for a single run (metaphor! metaphor!) to the summit. All trekkers are ferried to the base camp at Barafu (15,239 feet). The trail is not particularly difficult at this stretch; the challenge is simply one of physical adaptation and altitude.

According to Wikipedia (see here), the average summit success rate across all climbers and routes on Kilimanjaro is 65%.


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Bryan catches his breath on the trail to Barafu Camp.

I play in Africa but my “real” summer work is 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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.

See here for a list of future trips.

Swapping stories

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Raymond, a mountain guide with Kandoo Adventures, greets a mountain guide from another team. Many (most?) of the guides and porters on Kilimanjaro are young men from the Chagga tribe who have grown up on or near the mountain. They work through the ranks of trekking companies like Kandoo, gaining not just an intimate knowledge of the mountain itself—its ways and weather, rocks and animals—but a knowledge of human behavior in all of its wonder and mystery.

I learned a long time ago that controlling the information needed to be an effective guide is the easy part. Learning how to deal with individuals who can be wonderful and generous and ill-prepared and difficult and gracious and entitled is the challenge. Mix these individuals into a group of diverse strangers, throw in a dollop of adversity and discomfort, put them in an unfamiliar environment for an extended period of time and (wowzer!) you have a potent stew. What will the outcome of this recipe be? And more to the point: how can it be managed?

Bottom line: mountain guides earn their wages honestly.

Now don’t you wonder what they’re chatting about?


The photograph above was shot by Bryan, a friend and member of our 2019 Kilimanjaro Kandoo team.


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I play in Africa but my “real” summer work is 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. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor 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.

See here for a list of future trips.

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.

Well-adjusted

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The mountains of East Africa (Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya, Mt Mero, etc.) are a great place to consider how plants and animals adapt to their environment. Each of these mountains have specific life-sets that are arranged vertically from bottom to top (corresponding with temperature and rainfall). They also demonstrate mutation as one moves from mountain to mountain. The broad plains between these “sky-islands” isolate these life-sets and encourage “customization.”

Our friend and guide, Ambrose, is pictured here with a giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari). The groundsel is a perfect illustration of the principle described above. At least 17 different groundsel species have been identified in East African alpine belts, and, with few exceptions, each appears on a different mountain!*

Believe it or not, the groundsel is a member of the dandelion family with a leafy terminal rosette above and a woody stem below. Unlike back-yard varieties, however, these “mutant weeds” can grow up to thirty feet tall, have a rosette that folds at night, keep their leaves as a shaggy mane for protection from extreme cold, and possess a natural anti-freeze. They also seem to grow successfully at altitudes above 14,000 feet.

All of this sounds wonderful, but keep in mind that that that giant groundsel has a seedling survival rate of less than one percent.

I wish the same were true of the dandelions in my lawn.

For more on the giant groundsel, see our post from 2017 here.


*See D.J. Mabberly, “Evolution in the Giant Groundsels,” pp. 61-96 in Kew Bulletin 28/1 (1973).


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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.

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.