photo: Wade McKoy
ELEVATION: 19,340'   WHERE: Tanzania, East Africa

In February 1997 I went to Tanzania to again attempt the first descent (ski or snowboard) of Mount Kilimanjaro. I had tried to get official permission for the descent of the Heim Glacier in 1995, but the national parks director would not budge in his stance that no "pleasure devices" were allowed on the mountain.

"The ice was soft and wet with crumbly rock offering insecure footholds..."
Jackson Hole photojournalist Wade McKoy and I tried anyway that year, but at 17,500 feet, amidst a hail of bowling ball sized rocks we were forced to quit.

This time, we didn't ask for permission and planned to have the snowboards brought in under cover of darkness. The team — climber and videographer Scott Backes; climber and snowboarder Jason Schutz; McKoy and I met at the Impala Hotel in Arusha, Tanzania where we recovered from our jetlag and got to know each other a little better.

There isn't much activity on this side of Kilimanjaro. It is the Umbwe route that accesses the Breach Wall, Heim and Southern Glaciers. Our porters call the routes these "whiskey" routes because they are steeper, have no fixed huts for climbers and all have at least Grade IV ice climbing.

The Climb
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(video: Scott Backes & Rob Haggart; editing: Greg Bertrand)
We set out from 6,000 feet and spent the first night in a cave camp three thousand feet above. We began our hike early the next day through dense jungle that thinned out a few hundred feet above the cave camp. At 10,000 feet we saw our first groundsels, prehistoric trees with up to nine heads, that are unique to these elevations of Africa.

With its spectacular views of the awesome Breach Wall and the jungle below, we spent our second night in the Borronco Hut Camp at 13,800 feet climbing to camp III at 15,500 feet in the morning. It was here that, as visibility cleared, we were treated to a mountain on fire and saw a couple of pristine lines snaking down from the upper Heim Glacier at 17,500 feet. We made a plan to climb this route later.

Jason woke us at 2:45am that morning to say he wasn't able to go up. At dawn we descended to 13,000 feet where we hoped he would recover. But, he only got worse and exhibited signs of pulmonary edema. Our guide and a porter took him down and back to the hotel. We kept hope that he would be able to rejoin us.

Stephen Koch
photo: Wade McKoy
We started climbing from Camp III early. The ice was dirty and averaged 55° on the lower section. Too difficult for Wade, he decided to go back to camp II and climb the easier Arrow route, hopefully meeting us on the top the following morning.

As Scott and I climbed higher, the angle varied between 45° and 70— with a mean angle of 50°. As my frontpoints reluctantly bit into the blue ice at 17,500 feet, I thought, "this is impossible to snowboard." But, my desire was pushing me, telling me I could find a way; logic and experience, though, were telling me something entirely different. I had never snowboarded a slope this icy.

As we were setting up our main bivy tent at 18,000 feet, a wet, sticky snow began to fall and I was hopeful the accumulation would allow me to make controlled turns or, at least, prevent me from skidding into the abyss. We summitted at 8:30am and not wanting to be seen with a "pleasure device," I left my board at the top of the glacier before going to the summit. There we met Wade who had been climbing for 21 of the last 24 hours. The views were unbelievable — glaciers sitting on dark earth with nowhere to go.

The Descent

photo: Wade McKoy
As we walked to the start of the descent, I made the transition from climber to snowboarder and traded crampons for the board. The first turn would be the moment of truth and I was still unconvinced I could hold an edge on the ice. With ice axes in hand, I made the first turn on the low angle and my edge held, giving me confidence to make another and another as the slope steepened to 40°. The run was technical, but not too steep in the beginning. I felt like a rodeo rider getting tossed around on the icy terrain.

The sun soon gave way to fog, which led to 20% visibility, and the sound of my board on the ice was like a front end loader on blacktop. Nevertheless, after a couple hours of descent, we got back to the bivy at 17,800 feet. It was cold and I was stiff and sore. From here on out the slope steepened, eventually smoothing out and becoming more exposed. Now riding with a 25-pound pack, the hardest part was still ahead of me. While I had thoughts of downclimbing, I knew I would have always wondered if I could have done it. I had to try.

"As my frontpoints reluctantly bit into the blue ice at 17,500 feet, I thought, 'this is impossible to snowboard'..."
The first few turns were treacherous, but then I found my rhythm and was having a blast turning in front of the Breach Icicle. The crux, though, at 17,500 feet was too steep even to sideslip with the ice axes. I took my back foot out and put on a crampon and using that, my board as an anchor, and the axes, I blurred the line between climbing and boarding. When the angle mellowed I was able to strap my snowboard back on and ride again until the bottom of the glacier, which was too icy, forcing us to downclimb to our camp at 15,500 feet.

The New Route
The next day Scott and I again looked to the elegant ice lines we had seen snaking the Heim Glacier and decided we would try a new route on the climber's right. Scott woke with a sick stomach I decided to go it alone. The ice was soft and wet with crumbly rock offering insecure footholds. The most difficult was a 30-foot pillar running with water; my picks pulled through the slushy ice with ease. Around the back of the pillar, I found more solid ice and soon the angle mellowed.

Two hundred feet later I came to where the routes split and decided on the one Scott and I had chosen. Climbing the next 50 feet quickly I arrived at the crux, a 60-foot pillar at 17,000 feet which was wet and chandeliery. After some very sticky situations, including having to downclimb the vertical ice when my rope looped on an icicle, I made it. As I rappelled what I had just led I felt very alive and it was then that I decided to name the route "Sick Day." Scott and I had talked about naming it "Rest Day" before he was stricken and, after the perilous climb, the new name seemed appropriate for two reasons.

Stephen Koch, Mountain Zone Contributor

About Stephen Koch
A pioneer in snowboard mountaineering, Stephen Koch's successful descent of Mount Kilimanjaro is part of his Seven Summits Snowboarding Quest. With successful descents of Mounts Aconcagua, McKinley and Elbrus, as well as Kilimanjaro, he is more than half way to his goal in this quest to snowboard the highest summit on each of the seven continents. Koch has also been the first to snowboard Nez Perce's Spooky Face and Grand Teton's Black Ice Couloir, among many others. Koch, 29, lives in Jackson, Wyoming.

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