Nepali pioneers new route on Kilimanjaro

Dawa Sherpa (extreme right) on the summit of Kilimanjaro (5,895m) on 22 August after blazing a new trail to the top. All photos: courtesy Dawa Sherpa

Three-time Everest summiteer and climate activist Dawa Steven Sherpa has forged a new route up Africa’s highest mountain to help Tanzania with an innovative eco-tourism project.

Sherpa helped explore the new Kidia Route and reached the summit of Uhuru Peak (5,895m) on 22 August along with rangers from the Kilimanjaro National Park. The Tanzanians want to promote it as a ‘VIP Route’ by pricing it higher for those who want to avoid the crowds on the Mweka or Machame routes.

“The summit is at about the height of Everest Base Camp, so it was not particularly difficult,” Sherpa said on return to Kathmandu this week. “But we had to explore a new route and see if it was feasible and safe for a low-volume, high-value trail that can help raise local incomes and make tourism itself more sustainable.”

Before Covid-19, there used to be 50,000 visitors a year to Kilimanjaro National Park with up to 200 climbers a day on the busier trails which had been nicknamed ‘Coca Cola Route’ or the ‘Fanta Route’ and where tourism income does not really trickle down to local communities. With the pandemic the numbers are down to 30%, affecting the park’s revenue for conservation.

The plan now is to limit trekkers on the Kidia route to only 20 a day, employ more porters, depend more on local produce, and charge tourists higher fees — a bit like an ‘executive class’ on Kilimanjaro, and similar to the Nepal government’s practice in Mustang and Dolpo

Besides being the highest in Africa, the dormant volcano is also one of the tallest free-standing mountains in the world, rising 4,000m from its base. Uhuru is the highest point, and situated on the Kibo cone.

En route to the summit of Kilimajaro along the Kidia trail earlier this month.

Even though the Kilimanjaro climb ends at an elevation where the ascent of Everest begins, Dawa Sherpa found a lot of similarities between the two mountains — the terrain on the higher reaches, friendly people, porters singing as they carry loads, and the Tanzanian camp staff preparing chapati and samosa for breakfast.

When posing for group photos in Nepal, porters often ask trekkers and climbers to smile and say “Yak Cheese”. On reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro, their porter instructed Sherpa’s team: “Say Chapati.”

“Africa gets a lot of bad press, but what I found were super friendly people, and like Nepalis they are very relaxed and polite,” says Sherpa. “Tanzanians are very conscious about the environment, there is very little garbage.”

The new 7-day route starts in Kidia village on the southern side of the mountain, the 25km trail first passing through pastoral land, thick forests of the national park, then the moors higher up leading to an alpine desert terrain similar to Mustang. 

Back home, besides running his family's tourism and climbing business, Dawa Steven Sherpa supports the clean up the garbage from the base camps of eight of the world’s highest mountains in Nepal.

Dawa Sherpa with his Tanazanian team members before heading out from the base of Kilimanjaro to explore the new Kidia trail.

The Tanzania National Parks Authority has included the Kidia route project into its strategic plans not just as a new marketing tool but also to use tourism income to directly help local communities at the base of the mountains. 

“Both in Nepal, Tanzania and in other fragile parts of the world, you have to look after the people so they will look after the natural areas they live in,” explains Sherpa. “Eco-tourism can make local communities the custodians of the ecosystem, so they are an integral part of conservation.”

Sherpa’s team had to break a new trail around dangerous scree slopes on Kilimanjaro, and avoid cliffs, recording the path with GPS devices. After they reached Stella Point on the crater rim, Sherpa let the Tanzanian rangers go ahead to Uhuru so they could be the first to climb the new route to the summit.

Sherpa has been involved in raising awareness about the impact of climate change in the Himalaya, and what he saw on the summit of Kilimanjaro shocked him. 

“In fact, climbing Kilimanjaro is possible mainly because the glaciers and snow slopes are gone,” he says. “Every year, more snow is melting, and this year there were huge wildfires at the base of the volcano due to a drought, just like we had in Nepal.”

Kilimanjaro in 1935, when it was still snow covered. Africa’s highest peak is located at the equator and has lost 90% of its ice cover in the last century due to climate change.

Indeed, Kilimanjaro, which is situated at the equator, has lost 90% of its ice in the past century, and at the present rate experts say all the ice will have vanished by 2040.

Back in Nepal, Sherpa is getting ready to continue where he left off before the monsoon to clean up the garbage at the base camps of Manaslu, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri.

Sun rising from behind the summit of Mawenzi peak (5,149m) from Uhuru peak.

Read Also: Spring returns to Nepal's mountaineering, Tulsi Rauniyar 

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