Kilimanjaro’s Western Breach is notorious as being the most dangerous and difficult route to the summit.
The Western Breach actually describes the last part of your climb. Once you are at the bottom of the crater rim, at your “base camp” there are three main routes that take you to the top:
- From Kibo Huts in the East, up to Gillman’s point on the crater rim.
- From Barafu Camp in the South East to Stella Point on the crater rim
- Via the Western Breach, from Arrow Glacier camp to an opening in the crater wall, straight into the crater. Strangely enough, this is located on the West side of the mountain.
The Western Breach is described by many as “the most difficult route”, “the most dangerous”, “too technical for most people”, “need mountaineering experience”. Enough to strike fear in the hearts of all but the most hardened climbers.
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It’s tough. All routes to the summit are tough. Anyone who skips down the mountain proclaiming it to be “easy”, is either telling huge porky pies (lies) or spends most of their vacations high up in the Himalayas, doing more trekking than beer-drinking.
What are the advantages of the Western Breach:
- It’s shorter than the routes via Gillman’s Point and Stella Point
- It’s less crowded
- You don’t have to go down it(!)
- It makes you feel you are doing something a bit “above and beyond” the usual Kilimanjaro climb
- It’s easier. BUT.
WHAT? What was that last point? It’s certainly NOT easier if you read most of the literature!
So let me qualify that statement.
It’s easier than the other two routes IF:
- You are extremely well acclimatized
- The training you did before you arrived at Kilimanjaro gave you legs of iron.
- You don’t suffer from vertigo.
- You have a healthy respect for what you are about to attempt, and you are aware of the very real danger of rock fall.
- You have an excellent guide who knows the route – which is not one single route, and not a well-cut path.
- You have availed yourself of all available literature regarding the elevated risk you are taking by using this route.
If – and only if – the above points apply to you, then it is in fact easier. It’s much shorter, so you spend 4 hours climbing instead of the long 7-8 hour slog through the scree. The endless switchbacks can be tedious, the views are amazing (if you can stomach the exposure).
Did I mention legs of steel? It’s very steep, so if you have spent a lot of your training making sure you’ve got thighs that would make Serena Williams proud, this route might be considered.
It’s an extremely steep rock face, very much the “straight up” route. Once you get beyond a certain point, evacuation is impossible – in order to go down, you have to go up and through the crater over to the other side.<
What are the disadvantages?
- Very tiring, hard hike on a very steep rock face.
- You may need to wear a helmet and be roped in with your other climbers/guide
- The danger of rock fall is very real. If this happens, it can be fatal.
- Substantially higher risk route than the other two routes.
- Very exposed in some areas, those with Vertigo should look away
- The last part is a scramble. Over rocks the size of the average refrigerator.
- High risk of altitude sickness, if your ascent profile is quite rapid.
The most widely-reported accident on the Western Breach occurred in January 2006. (Incidentally, I was one of the last climbers to scale the Western Breach before this accident). Three American climbers were killed and many local porters were injured. This was attributed to the melting of the glacier which would otherwise be “holding” the rocks in place. The route was closed to all climbers whilst an investigation was launched, the results of which can be found here.
Getting to the base of the Western Breach is normally done via the Lemosho, Machame or Umbwe routes. You would need enough time in your schedule to acclimatize. Only the most experienced climbers should attempt this via the shorter Umbwe route. After a night at Lava Tower camp, it’s a short hike to the Arrow Glacier camp, and a higher, acclimatization hike is recommended. It’s an early start. Leaving Arrow Glacier at around 5-5.30am reduces the risk of rockfall as the ice is still frozen at this time.
Owing to the much higher risk profile of this route, before assessing your capability to tackle it, you need to consider how much risk you are prepared to shoulder in order to get to the summit. For some, that’s an easy answer. Why take more risk than necessary, for no real, tangible reward? For others, the risk is part of the adventure.
Most websites you read about the Western Breach are written by people who have not attempted it. Out of the three routes, I did in fact find it the easiest, and others I know have said the same. However, a few points to consider:
- I climbed the Breach before the 2006 disaster, so there was not so much publicity and information available about the severity of the risks involved.
- I have quite a high risk-tolerance. (Is this another way of describing “stupidity”?)
- I had strong legs, used to pushing a lot of iron in the gym.
- My acclimatization was very good
- I had a guide who I trusted implicitly.
With the new information that has come to light about this route, I’m often asked whether I’d climb it again. Maybe. Maybe not. Put this way, if someone said to me “come, let’s go to Kili tomorrow”, I’d say “yes, let me pack”. If someone said “come, let’s climb Kili via the Western Breach tomorrow”, I’d pause for thought.
Overall, more people have survived the Western Breach than died on it. By a long chalk. But is the Summit worth the risk? That’s the question everyone considering this route should ask themselves. Carefully.
If you do decide to climb the Western Breach, it will be a tough, but exhilarating experience. If getting to the summit and having an amazing mountain experience is your goal, without the increased risk associated with this route, then one of the other two should be your choice.
I’ve done it. Would I do it again? Probably not. But if I hadn’t already done it, I might be tempted.