Kilimanjaro Western Breach

Kilimanjaro Western Breach, A Kilimanjaro ascent via the Western Breach route is the most challenging and also by far the most dangerous way to scale Kibo and reach Uhuru Peak.

The danger lies not in the climb itself, it lies in the melting glaciers above the route. As the glaciers retreat they release previously bound up rocks.

In January 2006 rock fall killed three American climbers on the Western Breach Route.

The route was closed while the circumstances were investigated. The investigation revealed that the route is not safe. More rock slides are expected to happen. To minimize risk to climbers the route was changed to minimize the time spent in the highest risk area.

The Western Breach Route was eventually reopened. There are still enough agencies offering a Western Breach ascent, and there are still enough climbers who cannot resist the challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro on the most difficult route.

How dangerous is the Western Breach Route?

There have been several accidents on this route, but only one—the most tragic—received widespread attention:

On the fourth of January in 2006 a group of American climbers was making their way from the Arrow Glacier Camp to the Western Breach. They were not far from the camp when the foot of the glacier 150 m above them released some 39 tonnes of rock.

It was a very windy day and the climbers likely did not hear it coming until just before the rocks struck them.

Three climbers were killed, one other along with four porters were badly injured.

The investigation that followed confirmed the initial suspicions that the rock fall was due to the glacier melting and retreating. Rocks that were previously locked up in the ice are freed and fall. Sometimes isolated rocks fall, but in this case a whole deposit broke loose.

The glacier is still melting and retreating, so more rocks are expected to fall. While it is impossible to predict when rocks will fall, it is possible to predict where. The accident investigations revealed a defined high risk area, dramatically called the “death zone”.

There is no way to avoid this “death zone”. There was, however, a way to minimize the exposure by changing the route

The route that the American climbers—and everyone else who climbed via the Western Breach before the tragedy—followed, spent nearly an hour in this high risk area. The new path reduced that time to about five minutes.

It’s a vast improvement but it doesn’t eliminate all risk. (In fact, according to the investigation team one variation would even add a new risk from rock falls in another area.)

The Western Breach is not the only Kilimanjaro route that has experienced rock falls in the past. Small falls have occured on both other ascent routes as well.

However, the objective risk associated with the Western Breach Route is considerably higher than on the two other routes.

There is another risk factor associated with this route that hasn’t been mentioned yet: at a height of 5500 to 5600 m you come to a point (the “Rock Steps”) that is considered a “point of no return”.

If an evacuation becomes necessary above 5600 m, the only way is UP!
A descent on the Western Breach Route would be too difficult and take too long.

Even if someone suffers from life threatening altitude sickness symptoms, they would have to continue the ascent for the remaining 150 or so metres to the rim and then follow the rim for nearly one and a half kilometres before being able to descend to Barafu.

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