Climbing overhanging ice isn't easy. Want to make it harder? Try doing it at 5,895 meters of altitude – in Africa. Late last year, ice climbing legend Will Gadd (recently named a Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year – vote for him to win the people's choice here) travelled to the highest point of the dark continent to climb some of the last remaining ice on Mt Kilimanjaro.
Check out the action in the video below
While Reinhold Messner did climb ice on Kilimanjaro in 1978, to his knowledge, Gadd is the first person to climb this steep, technical ice on Kilimanjaro using modern gear. What makes the ice unique is how quickly it's disappearing. By 2020, there's a good chance there won't be any ice left there at all – turning what is a once-in-a-lifetime experience into a once-an-epoch one.
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The biggest challenges? Not Kili's infamously long approach on a busy mountain (it took Gadd and his crew a week of hiking to get there) or long routes like Will's project on Helmcken Falls (most of the Kili ice routes topped out around 60m) – but altitude.
“At 6,000m, it's tough to walk,” says Will.
Once arriving at the glaciers, they were greeted the surreal sight of “fins of ice sticking out of hot sand… like icebergs on a tropical beach!” according to Will. The ice has been on top of Kilimanjaro for 12,000 years.
As for the climbing, it wasn't easy. “The climbing is very technically challenging,” says Will. “Doing 50 pull-ups at sea level is tough. Doing them at 6,000m is a lot tougher.”
And what about the weather? Temps dipped well into freezing during the night, but well above during the day. In ice climbing – where cold weather means stability and safety – warming temps present additional risk. How fast are the glaciers melting? “We would literally climb stuff that wouldn't be there the next day,” says Will.
That's what made the climb so important to him. “I've climbed a lot of ice, but this was the last of it's kind. The glaciers are just small remnants truly in their last gasp. I felt very lucky to be there!”