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
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
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
THE MACHAME ROUTE
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
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
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
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
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
"I am completely f****d," he uttered.
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
One out of seven ain't bad.