Thursday, February 14, 2013

Everything you need to know about the Western Breach of Mount Kilimanjaro is presented here in images and video. The Western Breach is a special place.

This is a series of articles written by Eben Schoeman, founder of the very successful Taraji Kilimanjaro. Eben has scaled Kilimanjaro seven times using different routes and has advised more than 1,000 clients on their quest to reach the summit of Africa's highest mountain and the highest freestanding mountain in the world. More importantly, his company consistently delivers an incredibly high summit success rate on Kilimanjaro. In 2004, they achieved the near impossible - a 100% summit success rate (more than 100 clients) using mostly the 9-day Lemosho-Western Breach Route.

Please visit to read the rest of the articles.

Why the Western Breach route on Kilimanjaro? 

The truth is, the Western Breach is not actually a route in itself - it is a short section of many routes to the summit. 

And this is part of the confusion that continues to plague the Western Breach - turning it into the most talked-about yet misunderstood topic on Kilimanjaro.

There are more than 15 different routes to the summit of Kilimanjaro! At least 5 of these routes include the Western Breach as an approach option near the summit.

The Many Routes to the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro!
The Routes to the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro -  many lead to the Western Breach!  

Most trekkers who scaled the Western Breach agree that it is an awesome experience to reach the Crater Rim via this challenging section of their route to the summit. To read daily real-time reports from Western Breach routes and to see images of these routes, go here!

In fact, I still believe the 9-day Lemosho-Western Breach-Crater Route is the best trekking option on Kilimanjaro. Please read my article about the best Kilimanjaro routes.

Western Breach Kilimanjaro -
The spectacular views from the Western Breach Trail on Kilimanjaro

But it is also the most exposed part of any trail on Kilimanjaro in terms of potential rock falls. Therefor it is very important for every trekker to learn about the Western Breach, to be able to separate fact from fiction, to choose the right outfitter for the Western Breach and to be mentally and physically prepared for the challenge.

Anyone with some measure of limb flexibility can scale the Western Breach. Young children have done it, couch potatoes have done it, grandparents have done it, and trekkers with severe physical disabilities. The moment you read that the Breach is for experienced mountaineers ONLY, immediately leave that website and DO NOT BOOK with that company as they are trying to mislead you or discourage you from requesting a Breach trek. 

Please read the section below about the Angel's Landing Trail in Zion, Utah. Is that trail for mountaineers only? Absolutely not, yet it is several times more dangerous than the Western Breach trail!

Just in case you are still wondering if the Western Breach is right for you, let's discuss some important facts. Look at the pictures below and watch the videos. Then decide for yourself if you are ready to go and do something extraordinary in Africa - Climb Kilimanjaro via the Western Breach!

The Western Breach Trail

Here is an animation of the Western Breach trail to the Crater rim.

The Dangers of the Western Breach

1. Rock Falls

At 19,340' Kilimanjaro is a very high mountain. It is also "alive". Inside its belly only about 400 yards below the surface is a sea of molten lava and gases - you can feel the heat and smell the sulfurous gases near Reusch Crater at the summit. As a result minor quakes can be expected causing additional instability in the rock formations already subjected to severe ice-induced erosion. 

Rock falls happen on mountains and Kilimanjaro is no different. I've seen major rock falls above Karanga Camp and between Arrow Glacier and Barranco. 

But it is the tall rock faces of the Western Breach section that demand our full attention. Please look at this image of the Western Breach.

Western Breach Kilimanjaro -
Arrow Glacier Camp is in the foreground. Can you spot the danger zones?

You do not have to be a rock scientist to spot the potential for major rock falls about half-way up the Breach route and anyone should be able to see where the red zones are. Once on the trail you cannot completely avoid the danger zones, but you can minimize your time of exposure.

Here are the major danger zones on the Western Breach and the trail to the rim. 

Western Breach Kilimanjaro -
Western Breach Route and Danger Zones

Experienced outfitters minimized the risks of the danger zones in several ways:

  • Depart Arrow Glacier around 5am in order to traverse the danger areas before 8am while the rocks are frozen in place from the cold night.
  • Keep groups small and nimble so that an escape response is both fast and efficient.
  • Make clients aware of the dangers of the Breach so everyone is on alert and can signal a warning of rock falls when needed.
  • Use approach routes that ensure the clients are strong and properly acclimatized while scaling the Breach. Tired and extremely slow clients should not allowed on the Breach trail.
  • Make smart decisions when the Breach is covered with snow and/or ice. Ice axes must be used by the support crews to carve steps but during severe weather it is simply better to avoid the Breach and to reroute the trek via Barranco Wall.

The next picture shows an unsafe trail, the current preferred trail and the major danger areas in more detail. Even the untrained eye can see how the rocky ridge in the center can be used to avoid avalanche-type rock falls and it is sensible to stay as close to the ridge whenever possible. In fact, the safest place seems to be on top of the ridge and this is the trail I prefer.

In the picture the main threats are marked in red and a secondary threat in pink. The average trekking times from Arrow Glacier Camp are shown in blue - about 6 hours on a good morning including a 30 minute snack break. 

Western Breach Kilimanjaro -
Main rock fall threats on the Western Breach and the proposed trail

The section of the trail between 100 min and 150 min (basically one hour) is the most exposed and must be completed before 8:30am whenever possible. An early traverse is safer because the unstable rocks above are still frozen together from the previous night of freezing. During prolonged periods of strong wind and dry conditions, it is wise to be very alert and aware of your surroundings while in the danger area. 

Take a look at the next picture. It shows a long train of trekkers high up in the danger zone without protection! The preferred trail is shown in green and it is clear to see why it is much safer in case of rock falls. And it is much safer to climb in smaller groups.

Western Breach Kilimanjaro -
Using the wrong trail on the Western Breach! The green trail is preferred.  

Before booking with a trek outfitter please make sure they understand the dangers of the Western Breach. Do not book with anyone who is negative about the Breach (but willing to take you regardless) because it shows they do not have the confidence or experience to guide you safely.  

2. Point of no return

Once you reach the 240 min mark in the picture above, it is no longer possible to evacuate you safely back down the Western Breach. It is simply to rocky and steep to carry someone down and you then have to cross the danger areas once again - but this time it is much later in the day and the ice-glue may have melted. A much higher chance for rock falls.

When you fall ill, your crew has to evacuate you over the Crater Rim, across the glacier area, up over Stella Point and down to Barafu and beyond!  This is a major undertaking that requires an experienced crew. 

Western Breach Kilimanjaro -
Western Breach Evacuation after the point-of-no-return was reached

3. Lack of Acclimatization

Your guides will have to determine your "readiness" for the Western Breach BEFORE you depart camp. Due to the issues described above it is not the kind of route to "try and see how it goes". 

You must be properly acclimatized to do the Breach safely. This means at least 3 nights prior at altitudes near or above 15,000'. Do not attempt the Breach after a rushed approach. You will put yourself at great risk.

Please read my article about the best approaches when planning to scale the Western Breach.

4. Snow and Ice

The Western Breach is best in crisp, clear conditions when you can see forever. It is then when your hard work is truly rewarded with stunning views back to Lava Tower and beyond.

Snow and ice are not necessarily bad conditions on the Breach! A bit of ice glue the rocks together and snow makes the whole experience almost surreal. 

The problem is knee-high snow and thick fog. While rock falls are minimized, the trail becomes a very arduous and slow trek in steep, slippery and unsure conditions (you are not sure if the snow is covering a gap). 

In severe snow and fog conditions it may be best to avoid the Breach. Your guides will have to study the conditions while you are camped at Arrow Glacier or nearby and then make the re-routing decisions early enough so you have time to reach the summit via Barranco and beyond.

Late December to March are especially susceptible to snow conditions. Most outfitters do not offer the Breach in April and May.

5. Night-time on the Breach

Some outfitters scale the Western Breach at night. They basically follow the same plan as those who summit via Stella Point. The difference is they start at Arrow Glacier Camp or even Lava Tower before midnight and then reach the summit at daybreak.

I will never understand why they do this and why people book such as a trek.

A few things about this arrangement really worries me:

  • Can guides get lost in the dark and lead clients into dangerous sections? On a clear moonless night probably not but in snow, thick fog or blinding ice rain anything is possible. There are some trip reports on the internet about guides getting lost on the Breach so this is a concern.
  • Freezing water can crack rocks and start rock falls. Have you ever left a water bottle in the car in winter only to find it cracked in the morning? Water expands while turning into ice which acts as a lever to move rocks. At night while freezing happens, you cannot see boulders tumbling down the mountain.
  • Evacuations are terribly cold and slow. Should something go wrong above the point-of-no-return it is a very serious situation. The process of carrying someone in the dark over the steep rocky terrain towards Crater Camp and then down over Stella Point is extremely challenging. 
  • Are the risks worth the trouble? You will not see anything unless a full moon lights up the mountain on a cloudless night, so the scenic benefit is lost. And you cannot see rocks kicked loose by climbers above you. 


The Scrambles of the Western Breach

Once you made the decision to scale the Western Breach, you have to prepare yourself for some scrambling! Nothing too serious but nevertheless you will be lifting your legs high and do a lot of stepping up while steadying yourself with your hands. 

The following video is 7 minutes long but please watch it. It shows all the scrambling sections. Most trekkers are more than capable to overcome these scrambles with relative ease, but you have to feel comfortable before booking your Breach trek.

Please note - as indicated the videos were filmed before helmets were a requirement. Nowadays, no-one should be on the Breach without a light-weight helmet. 

While these may not protect you from an avalanche of large boulders, it will protect your head from dings caused by loose rocks kicked free by others above you.

How intense is the Western Breach?

Unfortunately an internet search about the Western Breach returns page after page of junk information. Breach day is a stunning 6 to 8 hour hike up the Western face of Kilimanjaro with the most amazing views you can imagine. It is nothing like so many people (with questionable motives) describe it! 

Yes, it is steep (but not more so than the Stella Point and Gilmans Point approaches), prone to rock falls and not recommended in severe ice and snow conditions. But it is not at all a death-defying hike on ridges with edges straddling the abyss! 

Let me give a more descriptive perspective. Please search the internet for Angels Landing in Zion, Utah. When I researched this hike, the internet was scary. Lots of horror stories about hikers falling 2000' to their deaths (which is true). On the morning of my trek I had butterflies in my stomach until I saw parents on the trail with kids strapped to their backs, young people carrying picnic baskets and older gentlemen in their late 70's or maybe older. The actual hike was very steep and the drop-offs were very real and dangerous but all of us made it to the top including the older folks, the picnic party and the parents with their kids!

Angel's Landing, Zion NP, Utah.
Angel's Landing, Zion NP, Utah. The Western Breach is not nearly as dangerous as this.

I can say without a doubt, the Western Breach of Kilimanjaro is not nearly as intimidating or dangerous as the Angel's Landing trail. Not even close. All those regular people I saw on the Angel's Landing Trail that morning will have zero problems on the Breach (ignore altitude for a moment). If the Landing is rated an 8 out of 10 in terms of the danger factor, the Western Breach should be a 2 and no more! 

1 comment:

  1. I climbed the Western Breach in June 2015 at age 69. It was 7 hours of pole pole with a few very short breaks. It was far less strenuous than I anticipate. We reached the crater and had an afternoon of exploring the crater and glaciers. The next morning we reached Uhuru Peak and began our descent.