Climbing Kilimanjaro

I walk through the uphill dust of an ancient explosion.

My boots crunch into the slope in rhythm, worn rubber upon stones and sand, and in my head, I imagine the mighty boom that formed this mountain before me. I have walked five days to get to this point—through leafy forests jumping with monkeys, then a bushy flowerland alive with iridescent blue birds, to higher mountain slopes, across empty red moonscapes to this desolate wall of stone.

Last night I slept in the room with the Germans—although none of us actually slept. In the whitewashed stone hut, we laid in bunk beds like boarding school children, not moving, barely breathing, too anxious for midnight to come. Ours was the childlike anticipation of Christmas morning mingled with the dread of a prisoner who will hang at dawn.

Before midnight, the door creaked open and a faceless man spoke into the darkness, “It is time now.” Like firemen on call we dressed—I slid on two pairs of long underwear, three pairs of wool socks, five layers of shirts and fleeces; pulled bootlaces tight, strapped gaiters around my shins and donning a face mask and wool hat. I sipped a mug of scalding cocoa and waited for Zachary.

In the other room, the old Frenchman was coughing, his lungs crackling with fluid. His face was burnt red-brown and he was propped up in bed. He would not climb, he told me—at dawn he would begin the long walk back down.

“It’s fine. I tried—and I saw some wonderful things. But for me to continue is stupidity.”

I think of him now as I inhale the dead air around me, breathing great gulps with my mouth, my chest still heaving for more. Zachary was late—all the other hikers had already left—and now, we trudge far behind their chain of headlamps, like fireflies marching in a row so high above me.

“There is no competition on Kilimanjaro,” Zachary kept saying. Nobody wins or loses—you either make it or don’t. For the past four days I have listened to his lifetime of wisdom and experience, but now—at the final moment of attempting the summit—he says nothing.

Silence. Only his measured footsteps that hit the mountain like drum beats—tap, tap—tap, tap. I follow in sync, watching the ground with my own headlamp—a pale patch of dirt like an instruction sheet that declares, “Step here.”

We have walked maybe fifteen minutes—more than five hours of climbing remain. I block out the thought and look upwards where the midnight sky is only tremendous—a glorious theater of silver constellations and the hazy stripe of the Milky Way painted across the heavens.

A shooting star streaks from flaming white into black and I make a wish: “I wish that I can reach the summit.” Other than placing one foot in front of the other, there is nothing more than I can do but wish upon my falling star.

But then comes another and another—dozens of meteors disappearing before they ever reach Earth. I wish upon every falling star that I see until I have nothing left to wish for. My heart is spent—I have wished for everything and for everyone, but the stars keep raining down upon me.

Adding to the celestial show is the white and yellow lightning flashing below us—thousands of feet below us. There are storms in the Serengeti tonight, but up here, in the cold dark of dry space, I am strangely comforted by the clear starlight above and the constant lightning below.

The mountain gets steeper—my calves ache, my thighs burn, yet I keep marching silently behind Zachary. His concentration is solid, his gaze fixed forward and together we walk uphill. We pass one group of hikers, and then another. There is no competition on Kilimanjaro, but Zachary has set a pace that puts us ahead of the others within an hour.

I do not ask him to stop—I only follow his feet in the dust. I will not question the man who has climbed this mountain more than two hundred times and he does not question me. We walk in silence for two hours until he motions for me to rest upon a rock.

“Two minute break. How are you feeling?”

Nzuri sana—I’m very fine,” I say. And I am fine. There is no headache, no nausea—no signs of altitude sickness. My heart is beating in the back of my throat like a clock, but that is normal—I have just climbed fifteen hundred feet higher. I sip water, replace my face mask and again, we are walking, walking up the hill.

We reach Gilman’s Point before four in the morning. The final stretch to get there is pure hell, zigzagging up a natural staircase of jumbled stones and loose dirt. At this point, it is only my mind pushing me upwards—my body only follows reluctantly. I have reached over 18,000 feet—a new record for me. I am breathing heavily and my heart is thumping with effort but I have made it. The ascent to Gilman’s Point is considered the most difficult stretch of the Marangu Route. It is also the breaking point for most visitors—less than half the hikers attempting to reach the summit actually make it and this is when most give up and turn back.

Zachary knows this and does not allow me to hang around too long. He only gives me a high five, a quick hug and a Swahili cheer, “Hai-ya!” And then we are walking, moving onwards—a thousand feet still to climb.

It is still dark and we are the only ones on the trail. Far ahead I can see the dark peak looming—it looks impossibly far away and I am beginning to stumble. Something has happened to my head and I am dizzy. My feet won’t step where I want them to and I keep catching myself on my walking stick.

Obediently, I follow Zacharay’s rhythm—he is moving faster now. Far ahead, there are two or three headlamps. It seems that other climbers have reached the summit.

There is snow on the ground—fuzzy patches of old white snow smashed down with the bootprints of previous climbers. I want to remember these things—the ice, the sparkling black minerals of this volcanic plateau—but my mind is no longer working. I feel like a machine, only walking behind Zachary, finding secure grips with my hands, stepping through cracks in the stone, carefully placing each foot before putting my weight down. Now the summit has disappeared entirely from view.

I feel like I am staggering—the trail goes up and down. I see the shadowed shapes of hilltops but when we reach them, the trail goes further. Now I feel like I have the flu, my body is so heavy and tired, and my gait irregular.

Only now does Zachary whisper to me, hushed and without any theatrics, “Up here is where the gods live—so if you have anything to tell them, this is the place to do it.”

I am woozy and touched—perhaps it is a shallow tourist line, or perhaps he actually believes it, but I hold onto his belief and keep walking. I have ascended to the highest point of Africa—the great continent that bore all of humanity. Thus Kilimanjaro is a temple for all humans and we are drawn up into its heights because it brings us that much closer to all we long for.

We are walking and walking–now, for whatever reason, my beating heart is too full. I have reached beyond what my poor body can handle, my mind has crashed like a bad computer and my throat is closing up. The tears drop from my eyes, whipped away by the mountain winds.

Zachary told me this would happen. He said, “Many people cry when they reach the top.”

“I’m not a crier,” I lied, not expecting the overwhelming emotion I feel now.

“We will see,” is all that Zachary said, and he was right, because now I am crying.

There it is—in the darkness, I see the sign marking the spot. This is the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and I have walked here and I am the very first person to arrive here on this virgin morning.

“Kaka!” Zachary shouts—my brother—and he hugs me firmly—this man who wears no gloves and hiked without any water. He is overjoyed with my success while I am merely stunned. He hears my whimper and lets me go—then politely turns away.

Now I am standing atop Kilimanjaro, alone, in the freezing darkness, hunched against the painted wooden sign, sobbing just a little.

I made it after all—the kid always picked last in gym class—I walked up the highest mountain in Africa. I made it to the top of the Hill That No Man Can Climb.

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NOTES

Not wanting to contribute to the trash heap of information/misinformation that already exists online regarding climbing Kilimanjaro, I will respond only to my readers’ questions:

  • I walked the Marangu Route, which is the most popular, most gradual in ascent and some say, the easiest, though having just walked it, I would not use the word “easy”
  • Yes, I took Diamox (Acetazolamide): 250 mg twice a day, starting 24 hours before my first day hiking until 24 hours after I returned. Anyone who says that it is not natural to put medicine in your body might also consider that it is not natural to put your body at an altitude of 19,341 feet (where oxygen content is approximately 58% less than that of sea level).
  • As a precaution against dehydration, I drank no less than six liters of water per day. I purified natural stream water with iodine tablets.
  • I took one full acclimatization day at 12,000 ft and completed another small acclimatization hike on Day 4, about 8 hours prior to my final ascent. In my opinion, anyone who tried to rush the hike without acclimatizing is taking a huge health risk.
  • My guide Zachary, was hired through the local national park, KINAPA and was extremely knowledgeable and capable. It is worth doing your research in deciding who you will climb with.
  • I followed no specific training program to prepare for my climb. I lead a sporadically active lifestyle with regular running and gym training. In my opinion, improving one’s cardiovascular health will improve one’s chance of reaching the summit.