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  February 24 , 2003 -> Peak Experience: Kilimanjaro


Mt. Kilimanjaro does not get the respect it deserves. 'Kili' is generally regarded as the easiest of the Seven Summits - the tallest mountains on each of the continents - but at 5,896 meters (around 19,000 feet) it is no foothill. Only Mt. Everest (Asia's highest), Mt. Aconcagua (South America) and Denali (North America) are taller. No one would dare attempt these "taller" mountains without rigorous training, thousands of dollars, top-notch equipment, and a serious insurance policy. Yet here we all were, dozens of 'regular' men and women - some looking fit and tanned, others pasty and with middle-aged paunches - preparing to climb Africa's highest peak.

It is Kilimanjaro's solitude and latitude that makes its altitude more bearable. Kilimanjaro's permanent snow pack extends downward only a kilometer or so; only on the final day of the climb will trekkers encounter cold white stuff. Most of the other Seven Summits are perpetually cloaked in snow and ice. Kili is also "free-standing." Unlike the other Seven, getting to the base of Kili is easy: we rode in a 24-seat bus.

Kilimanjaro was first 'discovered' by Europeans in 1848, when the missionary John Rebmann espied the frosted peak. At the time, his reports were ridiculed by most back home, including members of the prestigious Royal Geographical Society. Snow on the equator - impossible! It took several more sightings of Kilimanjaro, as well as the discovery of another snowy peak - Mt. Kenya - before the 'experts' finally admitted the mountains' existence. The 'ignorant' natives, of course, had never been in doubt, though they had no idea what the white stuff was on top of their sacred mountains.

A cute, but apocryphal story (still cited as fact in many accounts) tells of Queen Victoria giving her cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Mt. Kilimanjaro as a birthday present, because her East African possessions included two snowy peak (Mt. Kenya and Kili), while German East Africa (modern Tanzania) had none.


My fellow climbers were two South Africans: Rob Hart, my friend from Hong Kong; and Rob's 62-year old father, Pat. In 2001, the three of us plus my father (the "Lads and Dads") had trekked half of Nepal's Annapurna circuit. A few months ago, Pat had sent an e-mail to the rest of us: "I want to climb one serious mountain before I die." While in Nairobi, Rob e-mailed me asking if I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro. The timing was perfect.

Rob wanted to climb the Seven Summits; Kilimanjaro would be the first. With typical foresight, he had purchased most of his equipment a few days earlier. His "top of the line" backpack fell apart on the first day: the metal poles of the external frame came loose from their stays and jutted out above his ahead, causing the whole pack to list uncomfortably. One of the layers of his much-bragged-about 3-layer gloves didn't fit inside the other two. The new battery for his headlamp conked out two hours into the final assault. I can only hope he prepares better for Everest and Aconcagua. To be fair, the rest of us weren't much better prepared. I was wearing a pair of US$30 Chinese work boots that I had bought two weeks ago, and Pat had only thin trousers to go over his thermals.


We climbed the Machame Route, a 6-day trek reputed to be more difficult, but also more scenic and less crowded than the more popular 5-day Marangu Route. Reputation aside, there were still hordes of clients, guides, and porters on the Machame Route. At the end of each day, a miniature settlement of 30-40 tents sprang up.

The three of us were accompanied by the chief guide, David; an assistant guide, Charles; a chef; and six porters. A separate mess tent was erected for us to relax and eat in. Food was tasty and plentiful. Each day Rob and I looked forward to the freshly popped popcorn nearly as much as we did watching Pat fall over in his chair.

We had all seen pictures of Kilimanjaro before: a snow-capped, dark blue trapezoid rising smoothly from the plains. It looks easy enough to climb; appears bare, uniform, like you could drive a car up it. But distance hides both the dense forest on the lower slopes and the deep folds that divide the upper reaches. Most photos also excluded Mt. Mwanzi, the stunning, shattered peak that rises across the saddle from Kilimanjaro - which makes the whole massif look a cradle in profile.

Each day of the climb, the landscape and vegetation changed dramatically. The first day took us through a beautiful forest of moss-draped podocarps and tree ferns. The second day we crossed a rocky ridge covered with the bizarre Senecia Kilimanjari plant (see the photos). On the third day we climbed up ancient lava flow and back down again through a misty valley of towering, branched senecias. On the fourth day, all vegetation was gone. We climbed up a trail cut through scree. One thing that surprised us all was the lack of animals: other than a few ravens and rodents, we saw no fauna to speak of.


The negative effects of altitude can be moderated by moving slowly and drink plenty of water, but no one can predict how their body will respond to the rarefied air. Fitness can even be counterproductive. Marathon runners who charge up the slope are far more likely to experience mountain sickness. Slow and steady, or 'pole pole' as they say in Swahili, truly does win the race. Probably the guide's most important job is to keep his charges moving very slowly. On the first few days, we struggled to go as slowly as he wanted us to.

Dehydration is a primary cause of altitude sickness. Climbers are advised to drink 3-4 liters of water per day. That is a lot of water. "Urine should be clear and copious" said our guidebook. We were taking pee breaks every half-hour. Pat was convinced that he was urinating more than he was drinking. As we climbed, we lost all modesty - there were no trees to hide behind anyway - and peed beside the trail.


At midnight, we were called to the mess tent for coffee and biscuits. I had slept no more than an hour - altitude, nerves, and chatty Norwegians conspiring against slumber. I was already tired from the eight hours of hard walking we had done earlier in the day. It was freezing outside, but at least the clouds had cleared. The stars were bright and seemed very near. After a short briefing from David, we trudged out into the darkness, our headlights illuminating a small patch of snowy ground in front of us.

For the next five hours, we followed David up a path only he could discern. Our assistant guide, Charles, followed close behind. Our slow march had taken us past the only group that had left camp before us; we were literally breaking trail through a crust of snow. A somber parade of lights snaked below us, there was nothing but darkness ahead. We took short breaks in the lee of boulders. We stomped our feet to keep them warm. We urged each other on. Rob marked our progress with his watch, which gave fairly accurate altitude readings.

Half-way to Stella Point, Pat's balance began to desert him. His steps were uncertain, but he trudged gamely on, holding on to the back of David's backpack for stability. Rob and I alternated behind him, staying very close and 'steering' him with our outstretched arms when he swayed off the path. We may have prevented some horizontal motion, but the vertical distance was covered completely under his own power. Once, he tried to get Rob and I to go on ahead, afraid that he was slowing us down.

"No way, Dad," Rob replied. I seconded the refusal. Rob and I had agreed that we would all make it to the crater rim together, and we knew that Pat could use the moral support. The last pitch before Stella Point and the crater rim was incredibly steep; any steeper and we would need ropes and crampons. I admired Pat's pluck. He was well beyond exhaustion, but his ponderous steps rarely faltered. Then we saw the lights of trekkers making their way up the Marangu Route and knew we were near the rim.

"Unless we fall off a cliff," I shouted, "we're all going to make it!" I had a huge smile on my face.

Twenty minutes later, we reached the crater rim. Rob and I slapped a high-five. Pat was draped over David's shoulder; he was too tired to celebrate. The tears took me by surprise. I was choking down sobs, a bit embarrassed that my climbing companions would see me breaking down.

From Stella Point, the trail climbs slowly for about a kilometer to Kibo, the highest point on Kilimanjaro, at slightly less than six kilometers above sea level. We were tired and cold - my toes had been radio silent for hours - but we struggled on, weaving like drunkards. The fatigue and altitude had produced a weird euphoria. After ten minutes, Rob pulled up and said, "Hey! Who left their backpacks here?"

Charles and I exchanged puzzled looks. Rob was pointing at a jumble of rucksack-sized stones.

"What? The rocks?" I asked mockingly.

"Oh crap," he replied. He kept silent for the rest of the walk to Kibo, but on our return to Barafu camp admitted that he had seen many more 'backpacks' before and after that.

I had dismissed climbers' warnings about the cold. But cold it was. On the first evening, I pulled the fleece jacket out of my backpack; it was chilly. On the second evening, I slept with it on. On the third and fourth nights I had thermal tops and bottoms on too. At Kibo, it was so cold that my fingers flash-froze when I took off my gloves to take a photographs of the Harts in front of the Uhuru Peak sign. That was the second time I cried.

We could not stay at Kibo for very long; it was simply too cold. After taking photographs, we began to walk slowly back to Stella Point. The sun was beginning to rise, casting wan light on the struggling trekkers still trying to reach Kibo. They had been transformed by the climb. Gone were the cheerful demeanors, the uncreased boots and the spotless jackets we had seen four days ago at park headquarters. Some were bent over, hands on knees. Others slouched against any available rock. Few managed to return our greetings and they trudged along, looking very similar to the shuffling, groaning zombies of "Night of the Living Dead."

The sun rose as we walked back to Stella Point. The landscape was incredible. We were walking on the lip of an enormous crater. Just beneath Kibo was a wall of fluted ice that seemed to rise nearly as high as the summit. Across the crater was another glacier, which looked exactly like the walls of an ice castle. Mt. Mwanzi's pinnacles were scattering the soft light of sunrise. Lovers of nature will understand the sublime emotions that stir the heart when one beholds a masterpiece of Nature's power and beauty. It is like facing God, for few can take in such a view without knowing - or at least acknowledging the possibility - that this is the work of a higher being. Rob and I sped down the mountain, half-running, half-skiing down the scree slopes below Stella Point. Our knees were screaming at the abuse, but the extra oxygen and warmth had our lungs and spirits rejoicing. Several hours later, Pat rejoined us at Barafu Camp. He had become a favorite of the local porters and guides, who had dubbed him "Babu" - grandfather in Swahili. We heard a chorus of "Babu! Babu!" as he came into camp. The descent had been difficult for him; he had fallen several times; his knees were shot. He collapsed into one of the chairs inside the mess tent.

"I am completely f****d," he uttered. Pat never curses.

Later, he called his wife on his mobile phone. Rob and I were eavesdropping from our tent. "It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," he told her. He meant it. His words were strangled with emotion. He had climbed a 'serious' mountain, and had no desire to do it again. Kilimanjaro had been enough for me too.

One out of seven ain't bad.