The Western Breach
Kilimanjaro’s Western Breach is a path that leads up the western slopes of the mountain’s snowy summit, Kibo. Trekkers on the Lemosho, Shira, Machame and Umbwe Routes can all choose to approach the summit via the Western Breach, rather than the normal route via Barafu Huts.
On the map above you can see the Western Breach label. The trail begins at Lava Tower, at the eastern end of the Shira Plateau. From there it heads towards the snowy Kibo summit. (Though we haven’t marked the actual Western Breach trail on the map above, the Lava Tower Campsite and Arrow Glacier are marked on it. Both of these are on the Western Breach.)
Having reached the Crater rim at the top of Kibo, it’s just a couple of hours to the actual summit itself, Uhuru Peak.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF TAKING THIS TRAIL RATHER THAN THE REGULAR ROUTE?
There are three main reasons why you may want to take the Western Breach rather than the regular route.
The first reason is that the path leads directly to the crater of Kibo. So it is the most convenient path if you want to explore the crater and see some of its features – the Reusch Crater, Ash Pit, Furtwangler Glacier etc – for yourself.
The path is also mercifully quiet when compare to the crowds that swarm around the southern slopes of Kibo. This is the busiest part of the entire mountain and at times can be unbearable. But you won’t get those crowds on the Western Breach.
Finally, the trail provides more of a challenge than the regular route. There are places where you need to scramble and haul yourself up to the top using your arms as well as your legs. It’s not quite climbing – but it is more challenging than the normal trail, and more of a rush.
AND WHAT ARE THE DISADVANTAGES?
The single biggest disadvantage of the Western Breach is that it is more dangerous. Indeed, the whole of the Western Breach was closed for several years a decade ago following the deaths of three trekkers and several porters. A rockfall killed them as they climbed. Though the trail is now open again, little if anything had been done to make the path more safe. Indeed, with global warning melting the glaciers on Kili at an alarming rate, ever more rocks are being released from the ice’s grip.
In other words, these kind of tragedies may well be more likely to happen, rather than less, over the next few years.
For this reason, some companies refuse to take people on the Western Breach altogether. And even those that do demand that trekkers wear helmets. You will also have to sign a waiver form before they agree to take you on this trail.
These precautions will probably do little to prevent the next tragedy. But that’s not the point of them. Instead, they’re designed to prevent the companies being sued if and when there is another accident.
DOES IT COST MUCH MORE TO CLIMB THE WESTERN BREACH?
In theory a trek up the Western Breach shouldn’t cost much more to climb than the regular route. That said, if you plan to stay at Crater Campsite – which is right on the path of the Western Breach – then there’s usually a US$100 premium to stay there. You’ll also have to pay the extra wages for the porters. After all, they are not used to climbing Kibo and will probably have been paid an incentive to get them to climb this time.
Of course, the agencies may also charge a premium for the Western Breach in order to dissuade you from taking it. They probably don’t want the added hassle that comes with organising a trek on this route. They may also be concerned about the increased chance of there being an accident. So for all these reasons they may either refuse to take a booking on the Western Breach, or charge a high premium for it.
KILIMANJARO’S WESTERN BREACH ITINERARY
Note that in the following itinerary, day 1 of the description (ie Lava Tower to Arrow Glacier) won’t be your first day on the mountain. You will already have been walking for several days to get to this point, the exact number of days depending on which route you took.
So, for example, if you are on the Lemosho Route – the most common approach taken by trekkers heading to the Western Breach – you’ll reach Lava Tower on your fourth afternoon or fifth morning.
Similarly, if you’re on Machame it will be your fourth afternoon/ fifth morning when you join the Western Breach and set off from Lava Tower to Arrow Glacier.
While if you’re on the Umbwe Route, you probably join the Western Breach Route on your fourth morning on the mountain, having spent the previous night at Lava Tower.
DAY 1: LAVA TOWER TO ARROW GLACIER
Distance: 2.5km; Altitude Gained: 244m
It is usual for people planning on climbing via the Western Breach to camp at Lava Tower. Hopefully, any altitude sickness we may be feeling now is relatively minor. Indeed, we hope it will have gone altogether by this morning – because from now on it’s all uphill.
By our reckoning this particular leg, even if taken pole pole, lasts little longer than 75 minutes. But it’s not unusual for trekking agencies to set aside an entire day for it. In one respect this seems a little over-cautious. It also means that, apart from those 75 minutes, you’ll be spending the rest of your day freezing your butt off inside your tent.
On the other hand, it’s a good idea to take your time at this altitude. After all, save for the Crater Camp this is the highest place where we can pitch your tent on the mountain (the altitude of Arrow Glacier Campsite being 4871m); and that kind of altitude should always be taken seriously.
Furthermore, the walk, though only 75 minutes or so in duration, is still quite exhausting, it being uphill all the way.
You begin by crossing a stream or two before climbing steeply to Arrow Glacier. Engulfed by avalanches, this place has always been a bit of a mess and little has changed. But if we’re not spending a night on the summit, we won’t spend a full night here and will be away by 2am. Happy Camping!
DAY 2: ARROW GLACIER CAMPSITE TO UHURU PEAK AND DESCENT TO MWEKA CAMP
Distance: 4km; Altitude Gained: 1024m
Though we’ve talked as if there is one set path from campsite to crater rim, this isn’t actually the case. The path changes as snow and rockfalls dictate. Whatever route we take, rest assured it will be steep, and it will be exhausting. Our guide will doubtless aim for the rocky ridge that you can see from Arrow Glacier Campsite. It’s a ridge that runs from the rock towers near the crater down towards the camp. This ridge goes by the name of the ‘Stone Train’).
From there we hit the Rock Stairs – natural steps that, after the shifting scree, come as something of a relief. These stairs are also viewed as a ‘Point of No Return’ by the porters: once they see that you’ve reached here, they break camp and march off to Mweka. (Unless, of course, you’re planning to sleep at Crater Camp, in which case they’ll be right behind you.)
The trail now picks its way between the rocky towers crater before finally gaining the crater rim (5729m). Furtwangler Glacier, on our left, is the first of many spectacular sights up here. Walking on level ground for a change, Crater Campsite (also 5729m), set amongst boulders, is just 10 minutes away.
To the summit (and down again)
From here, the stiff switchback climb up to Uhuru Peak takes 50 minutes. We can see the path clearly etched into the crater wall. It’s a hard climb and you’ll be cursing every zigzag and switchback on the way. But keep going: because the sense of achievement at the top is beyond compare. And it’s a feeling that will stay with you all the way down, and all the way back to your home country. Because if you get to the summit, you’ll believe you can do anything.
Oh, to be able to bottle that feeling…
After a rest at the top, we continue to Barafu Camp. Here you’ll take breakfast and relax for an hour. We then continue our march down the mountain on the Mweka Trail. We will walk back down through the alpine desert, heath and moorland zones until once more entering the forest zone via Millennium Camp (3827m).
There, amongst the trees, we find the Mweka Campsite (3106m), our final stop on the trek. We should arrive there at about 4pm – and we have been walking for around 16 hours, less breaks! Exhausting but, if you made it to the top, you’ll think it was worth it!
DAY 3: MWEKA CAMP TO MWEKA GATE
Distance: 9.1km; Altitude Gained: 1473m
It’s just a couple of hours further now from the campsite to Mweka Gate (c1633m). Once there, those who made it to the summit or Stella Point will collect their certificates. A car will be waiting to take you back to your hotel, and a land of warm showers and cold beers. Your trek is at an end.