We started out dry, clean and happy. We knew that wasn’t how we would finish. But it didn’t matter. We were headed to the highest point in Africa.
We had come from Chicago, Los Angeles and various points in Colorado to spend five days climbing Kilimanjaro, finishing with a moonlight push to the 19,341-foot summit and into the thinnest air most of us had ever breathed.
Months of training and inevitable flashes of doubt had led us here, to an eastern Tanzania trailhead squeezed between tall cornfields and an even taller pine forest. We stood in our boots and leaned on our walking poles, perusing nine “Points to Remember” carved into wood planks before us.
Don’t attempt the climb while ill, it said. Stay hydrated. Be aware of altitude sickness. But the first point said it all: “Hikers attempting to reach the summit should be physically fit.” Were we? We would find out.
“Let’s go climb a mountain,” bellowed Josh Kling, the 31-year-old outfitter from Durango, Colo., who would guide our trek.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is one of the simplest and most difficult things you can do with five days.
Despite gaining 13,000 feet of deeply taxing elevation, it is a relatively straightforward process. No ropes or axes required. The you-might-die factor is relatively low. A team of local porters earning less than $10 per day would carry much of our stuff, plus tents, food and a mobile kitchen. All we needed were our daypacks (warm and waterproof layers, snacks, water) and our lungs, legs and determination.
About 2 p.m., we finally began climbing the Nalemuru route, also known as the Rongai: Josh Kling, me, the five others in our group and our little universe of guides and porters. The dirt trail snaked through a pine forest so green and gentle that we could have been hiking in Michigan in July. But that notion fled with the first white-tailed monkey scurrying through the trees.
We clicked voluminous photos, stopped every 45 minutes for snacks and water and learned about each other in a way that strangers only do when thrust together in mutual struggle: Bill, 67, of Durango, has experienced a later-life thirst for high-altitude climbs; Bill’s son, Jason, 34, of Denver, was about to be a first-time father; Micah, 30, from Los Angeles, engineers live recordings for well-known rock bands; his friend Stephanie, 29, also from L.A., owns an events marketing company; and Josh’s 31-year-old wife, Bonnie, a fun, no-nonsense, co-ed hockey player, works at the ski area near Durango.
As we chatted and climbed that gentle path, the sky turned increasingly gray and thunder rumbled somewhere beyond. Sheets of rain materialized over the low hills in the distance, and soon, they materialized on us. Our chattiness and cameras were replaced by wet feet and soggy resolve.
The rain stopped as we pulled into camp. It would be the last landscape with trees taller than us for days. Buried damply and deeply in clothes wet and dry, we trudged to the tall orange dining tent our porters had erected hastily.
“Wow, what a first day — the real deal,” Josh said.
With headlamps illuminating our food, we restored ourselves with a warm chicken meal. Everyone slept well. Wet but well.
We woke up dry. Or drier.
That day’s hike would take us from about 9,000 feet to 12,000 — high but not a spectacular elevation — with most of the gain coming early in the day. Mornings tended to be clear, which afforded a sparkling view of our first great sight, Mawenzi, a handsomely rugged, snow-topped peak inside the park. Kilimanjaro National Park has three peaks: Mawenzi, Shira and Kibo. Rough and ragged Mawenzi is the most dramatic of the three. But the tallest is the long and sloping Kibo, where we were headed.
By 9:30 a.m. we reached 9,700 feet. At 10:30 a.m., it was 10,300 feet. By 11:30 a.m., 11,480 feet. We seemed increasingly above things, as Kenya and Tanzania spread out in a green-beige haze and our landscape turned sparser, scrubbier and rockier. By early afternoon the rain returned, and it drummed on our hoods as we fell into silence across the exposed face of a rocky hill.
“Damn, this is fun!” Jason hollered.
“Is it?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he said.
“I’m not so sure,” I said.
That moment, Kilimanjaro was no longer a conceptual journey; we were doing it. Hearts pumping and lungs wanting more oxygen than they could have, the climb had turned more difficult. Add rain, and the concept of “fun” seemed inadequate. Drive-in movies are fun. Eating pizza is fun. This wasn’t fun: It was challenging and it was vitalizing. Our bodies worked, our minds were clear, and there was only one thing to do: Go up. This was better than fun.
Chirping birds greeted us at 5:45 the next morning in our 12,000-foot camp. Over instant coffee, most everyone complained of not sleeping as well as they had 3,000 feet lower: an early sign of elevation fatigue. One of the surest methods of counteracting elevation is hydration, which led to tales of how many times everyone woke in the night.
By 9:45 a.m., we had gained another 1,000 feet, and life was turning fantastical: the air was thinner, and our hearts and lungs chugged harder. The world below seemed ever-more remote. It was the world where everyone else lived. We’d return to them eventually.
That day, our third, was our lightest: three hours of walking, three miles of distance and 2,000 feet of elevation. We pulled into camp at 11:45 a.m., just below Mawenzi’s towering snow-covered peak. Camp looked like some combination of Dr. Seuss’ mind and, say, Mars — wind-swept and hard, with various shades of green life clinging to the rocks.
It was a short day because we were crossing into dangerous territory. We were at 15,000 feet, an elevation where hikers can develop serious trouble. Though our group seemed strong — tired but strong — by midafternoon, word spread that a Brit in another group needed oxygen. An hour later, while we drank tea and played cards in our communal tent (like most afternoons), we heard that the man would be evacuated. I poked my head out to see him wrapped in bright red on a stretcher, carried by a dozen porters.
“That just made things more real,” Micah said.
I wandered off to stare at the world below, watching cloud patterns move against each other — one fast and one slow, one higher and one lower. I was above both of them. Down the ridge, a porter had found a quiet spot to pray toward Mecca. I didn’t know the day of the week, and I didn’t want to know.
An impossibly wet and heavy snow fell as we slept. It caused the walls of our tents to bend and, in a couple of cases, buckle. But like every other day, the only thing to do was start walking. We crossed a high, rocky ridge and dropped into a stark, snow-free valley that would take us to Kibo.
The valley looked like nothing we had encountered yet: long, broad and stretched to eternity. Walk long enough with a group and everything becomes discussion fodder: family, religion, politics, sports, childhood and, in that long valley, the Academy Awards. Stephanie and I hatched a bet about what would win best picture, even though I had barely a clue about the field. In our single-file line through nothing, I just relished the discussion.
Soon the clouds cleared, and it came into sight: Kibo. Long and broad, it lay like a snowy, beached whale. It looked gentle and strangely manageable. Stephanie announced, “The mind is a tricky thing.” We all understood. We had gone far and had far to go. The goal was in sight.
On through the sparse, brown terrain, we passed the remnants of a plane that slammed into Mawenzi in 2008, killing four Italian tourists. The nose cone, a wing and other pieces were easily identifiable. That high and remote, a guide said, there is nothing to do but leave the wreckage. I found that more humbling than watching a man evacuated the day before.
A bit on, Josh said, “Want to see something cool?”
He extended his wrist to display an elevation of 14,537 feet. We were higher than anyone or anything in the Lower 48. We celebrated by continuing to climb, crossing into another snowstorm and trudging in our single-file line: foot, pole, foot, pole, unable to see anything in the blowing white but the path at our feet.
When we were nearly to camp, we passed two people striding the opposite direction.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Great, now!” the woman said.
I realized her cause for joy: They had summited that morning.
Our final camp, at 15,520 feet, looked like some lunar dystopia. Climbers from across the globe milled about the rocks and dirt in bright synthetic gear, walking almost in circles with nothing to do before their summits. Ours would begin at the unmerciful hour of 11 p.m., which meant our accommodation — a urine-tinged stone cabin without heat or electricity — seemed luxurious after three nights on the ground.
After an early dinner of spaghetti with chicken-vegetable gravy with extra black pepper (the cook said it would give us strength), we crawled into our sleeping bags in the bright 7 p.m. daylight in the clothes we would wear to summit — at least three layers up top and three below — because it would be easier to get going when 11 p.m. came too soon.
I covered my eyes, breathed deeply and tried to relax. Too charged for what would come next, deep sleep became impossible. Instead I crossed in and out of light consciousness so many times during those four hours, I’ll never be sure how much I actually slept.
Josh woke us in a low voice: “It’s go time, guys.” Bill, already awake, announced that it was snowing. Why should the weather cooperate on the most daunting day of all? That same wet, heavy snow covered us as we ambled toward breakfast.
And what does someone eat in the hour before ascending Kilimanjaro? Not much. Most stomachs are flipping from the altitude, nerves or both, so cooks keep things light: small cakes and breads, plus coffee and tea.
We surveyed how everyone was feeling. No one was quite right — stomach and head issues, mostly — but we all felt strong enough. Jason said his headache wasn’t as bad as it had been yesterday.
“It still is yesterday,” Micah said.
Our final day of climbing started like every day before: We grabbed our poles and started walking. We formed a tight single-file line and eased into a series of seemingly endless switchbacks, headlamps twinkling beneath a three-quarter moon. A ghostly procession of those who had started even earlier than us zigzagged up the mountain ahead.
It didn’t take long for nervous joy to be replaced by real issues. We began passing fellow climbers bawling, vomiting or struggling to stay upright on the side of the trail. A woman from India I had met a couple days earlier cried softly as her guide led her back down the trail.
“She’s just scared,” he said.
And for good reason: We were impossibly high, and the elevation was abusing us all. Our stomachs were riotous, dizziness came and went, and Jason’s nose began to bleed. Lungs and eyeballs felt heavy, and it seemed as if cement might have been poured into my bones. I wanted nothing more than to curl up on the side of the trail and nap. Instead, I sang quietly to myself to remember I was lucid.
As we climbed, the mountain became a snow-covered 45-degree angle. In case of a fall, it was clear there was little recourse; it would be a straight slide down the side of Kibo. We chose not to think of it, and instead walked arm’s length apart so that if anyone slipped — and there were slips — we could catch each other and whisper assurances that everything was OK. We marched slowly on, one heavy foot in front of the other. When I finally had the sense to look around, I saw the Big Dipper resting on its side. It had never looked so large or so close.
Dawn arrived orangey-blue. We had grown so accustomed to the dark that daylight — and being able to perceive the mountain’s height and steepness — was briefly dizzying. But the sensation didn’t last long, because the first sign of our goal soon peeked out from above: a green sign planted in the rocks blaring the greatest word in the English language: “CONGRATULATIONS!”
When the last switchback ended and that sign stood before us, we had arrived. We were on top of Kilimanjaro, staring at a golden-orange orb simmering in thick, still clouds. The snowy valley we had crossed a day earlier sat below, and Mawenzi’s tall glory faced us.
But alas, we were only at Gilman’s Point. The mountain’s true summit is Uhuru Peak, 700 icy, snowy feet higher. Plenty of people apparently decide at Gilman’s that they have had enough, and I don’t blame them. But we wouldn’t be among them.
Those 700 feet were the longest of my life, requiring a second or two between each step. But amid the glaciers and bright white, there was no reason to hurry. After five days of work, the end would come.
It came simply enough, at the edge of a sloping ridge of rock and ice, when there was nowhere left to go. We were at Uhuru Peak. We exchanged hugs and took photos — alone, with each other and with our Tanzanian guides. The snow was blinding in all directions. We sucked the thin, freezing air into our lungs and blinked in disbelief at the world below.