The mountains of East Africa that inspired Hemingway are being dissolved by climate change. Jason Patinkin reports.

When Kenyan mountaineer Nikunj Shah first climbed Mt Kenya as an 18-year-old, he and his friends strapped plastic bags to their boots to keep their feet dry as they crossed a glacier on the way to the 5199m peak.

Since then, in 1989, Shah has gone up Africa's second-highest mountain — after Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania — 52 more times, making him one of its most experienced climbers.

Shah — a trustee with the 65-year-old Mountain Club of Kenya — has better gear these days for his two annual climbs, but he no longer needs to worry about snow filling his boots.

The glaciers Kenyans have looked at in wonder for millennia are disappearing as a result of climate change.


"In the late 1980s and early 90s, 90 per cent of the walk [above the high camp] was in the snow," Shah says. "But you don't walk on snow any more. You use the [rock] ridge."

A tramper en route to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. Photo / 123RF
A tramper en route to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. Photo / 123RF

The white caps of Mt Kenya, Kilimanjaro and Uganda's Ruwenzori mountain range are national icons, with images of black peaks dabbled with white snow being shown on bank notes and beer bottles. The mountains earn the three countries millions of dollars from the tens of thousands of tourists who climb them each year.

Now the tourism industry fears that if the snow goes, so will the tourists.

Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro could "all disappear", says Keith Alverson, head of climate change adaptation and terrestrial ecosystems at the United Nations' Environment Program (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi.

Eight of Mt Kenya's 18 original glaciers are gone. The largest one, the Lewis Glacier, has decreased in volume by 90 per cent since 1934, according to a 2011 study by Innsbruck University.

The ice cap atop the 5895m Mt Kilimanjaro measures less than 2sq km, according to a 2009 study by two US universities, compared with 20sq km measured by German explorers in the 1880s.

Forecasts show Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro could be without ice in a decade.

Mountain climbers such as Shah need no climate models or satellite imagery to know the snow is melting.


"I have seen the glaciers recede with my own eyes," he says.

Shah says he first noticed the trend on the Lewis Glacier in 2008, when he went up Mt Kenya's western route after a heavy storm and saw a large rock formation poking through what had previously been an unbroken plain of snow.

"I was shocked," Shah says. "The second thought that came to mind was, we need to get a lot of people out here to see this snow on the equator before it disappears."

Shah has also climbed Kilimanjaro five times and reports a similar glacier retreat there. Similar phenomena have been observed in the Ruwenzori, according to local media reports.

Mt Kilimanjaro at sunset. Photo / NZ Herald
Mt Kilimanjaro at sunset. Photo / NZ Herald

Some of Mt Kenya's wonders are already gone, such as an ice cave and a frozen field, which have been reduced to a pond of water.

Scientists disagree on whether the primary driver of the glacier recession is direct melting from rising temperatures or increased evaporation due to changing weather and precipitation patterns.

"In either case, it is related to the climate change that humans are causing," Alverson says.

The disappearing glaciers are more than an aesthetic loss and a potential threat to tourism, which accounts for about 12 per cent gross domestic product each in Kenya and Tanzania. Millions of farmers also depend on water from the mountains.

"If [the glaciers] melt, there is actually more water coming down and people will develop more agriculture. But if it goes away entirely, [farms] will be just rain-fed, and that is more erratic and unreliable," Alverson says.

The mountains also feed some of Africa's top game reserves, such as Kenya's Amboseli National Park near the Tanzanian border, where herds of elephants splash in cold water running down from Kilimanjaro, which rises in the background.

"That is a local ecosystem that could be devastated," Alverson says.

There is little that can be done to save the glaciers short of drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

Shah, who calls Mt Kenya his "second home", says he will continue climbing it, with or without snow.

"It is sad," he says. "The world will lose the awe-inspiring beauty of the mountains in East Africa. After the glaciers disappear, there might be a different kind of beauty. But definitely not a black and white beauty."

Getting there: Emirates offers daily flights from Auckland to Nairobi, via Dubai. Local carriers continue on to Kilimanjaro Airport.