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.