[excerpt from Kissing Kilimanjaro: Leaving it All on Top of Africa]
One hundred eighty million years ago, the continents as we know them didn’t exist. They were jammed together in one big land mass we’ve since named Gondwanaland. Slowly the continental plates separated and the various land masses ground across the earth’s crust, expelling tremendous heat and pressure as they shimmied along. Africa, however, held its ground and has been percolating in one spot for more than two hundred million years, unable to vent the molten furnace beneath. The relentless buildup of heat has pushed the land mass an average of a thousand feet higher than the other continents.
The pressure became too much 750,000 years ago, and three massive volcanic vents ripped open in East Africa. They shot hot magma into the sky and slowly stacked layer upon layer of molten rock, eventually forming three mountains: Shira, Mawenzi, and Kibo. The Shira cone was the first to burst out of the fertile plain but soon collapsed on itself and became extinct. Mawenzi formed several miles away before Kibo rose up between them both and fused them into one massive mountain.
Today the Kibo cone is the summit portion of the combined mass known as Mount Kilimanjaro. After Kibo usurped its neighbors, it spewed forth lava and ash until 360,000 years ago. For thousands of years lava rolled over the rim and filled in the gap between the separate volcanoes, creating the current saddle between the Kibo and Mawenzi formations. The whole mountain eventually leveled off at 19,340 feet above sea level. It last erupted 100,000 years ago and has sat quietly ever since.
Kilimanjaro is different from many of the world’s giant summits. It’s not a spire in a rolling chain of mountains. It stands alone, a sentinel on the East African plain—the largest freestanding mountain in the world, covering more than nine hundred square miles. It is a long, massive mound of rock that almost anyone with enough time and energy can ascend. The three original volcanoes aren’t distinguishable any more as separate entities. The Kibo cone forms the flattop summit made famous in pictures, books, and movies. Shira, an extended lava plateau along the southwestern side, can be easily reached in two days of hiking. Mawenzi, a craggy rock formation jutting out from the mountain’s eastern side, is today a crumbling monument when compared with the more glorious days of old when it stood alone.
Learn more about Kilimanjaro and what it took for an ordinary guy to reach the top of the African continent in Kissing Kilimanjaro: Leaving it All on Top of Africa