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"Kilimanjaro: The Roof of Africa"

Travel & Leisure
January 1996

“They starved, maybe froze," says Hubert Damion, a guide accompanying our nine-person climbing team, as he surveys the carcasses at his feet.

Hubert and I are standing on a desolate, windswept plateau that will be tonight's campsite. In the distance, a waterfall of rock spills from the upper reaches of the mountain. The soaring faced is called the Western Breach, and tomorrow we begin our scramble up it. If all goes well, we should gain more than 4,000 feet in elevation over the next two days and arrive at the doorstep of our ultimate destination, 19,340-foot Uhuru Peak: the summit of Kilimanjaro, the snow-covered roof of Africa.

If all goes well.

I notice that those poor, freeze-dried buffalo are gazing eternally right smack at the Western Breach. Bad omen. This is unforgiving terrain. A few years ago, Remmy Damion—Hubert's younger brother and fellow guide on our trip—escorted a dermatologist from Georgia along this same pitched trail. The doctor was overweight but stubborn. He gamely huffed and puffed up the Western Breach, at one point offering Remmy an extra $300 to make sure they got to the summit.

"He was breathing like a buffalo," Remmy told me, his chest heaving in an exaggerated wheeze.

Though Remmy advised the doctor to turn back, he refused. So Remmy guided him up the Breach as ordered—and the American showed his gratitude by dying of a heart attack that night. Remmy carries the doctor’s business card in his wallet as a reminder that no one can buy their way up Kilimanjaro.

We have already spent four days traversing this vast, variegated inclined incline - bold ants creeping up the staircase of ecosystems that constitute most of Kilimanjaro National Park. We have trudged through spongy rainforests enlivened by yammering monkeys, and trekked over moorlands and mountain meadows dotted with wildflowers and hoary trees. Now that we have entered an alpine desert of high altitude and low temperatures, the river of biodiversity has slowed to a trickle. A few lonesome insects skitter in the dirt. Wisps of orange lichen, fine as a mandarin's mustache, cling to every available surface. But mostly the landscape yields acre upon acre of rocks, a bumper crop of stone singed charcoal-black by some otherwordly furnace.

Kilimanjaro proper is 24 miles wide and 49 miles long. In scale and grandeur it dwarfs the region’s other peaks, such as Mount Meru and Mount Kenya, and dominates the savanna of East Africa the way a luxury liner does a marina clogged with dinky sail boats. Out of the flatlands rises this unexpected explosion of mass; "wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun," as Hemingway wrote in his famous short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The generating force was volcanic, the most recent eruption having occurred in the 1700's. The mountain actually consists of three peaks: Shira, Mawenzi, and - the tallest - Kibo, whose highest point is Uhuru. Viewed from afar, however, Kilimanjaro appears oddly flat-topped, like the top scoop of an ice cream cone that a child has tamped down with a playful tongue.

The derivation of the name is uncertain. It could be an amalgam of similar-sounding words from the Swahili, Chaga, and Machame dialects, all of which are spoken by local tribes. Kilimanjaro is said to mean, among other things, Mountain of Greatness, White Mountain, and Mountain of Caravans. For all we know, the correct translation could be Mountain of the Many Vomiters. Chaga legend once held that powerful spirits protect a cache of silver and gems on Kilimanjaro, and anyone who dared scale its slopes would be felled by severe cold and illness. The legend has proved to be half right: There is no treasure, but the curse of altitude sickness has struck thousands of curious, camera-toting climbers.

We hope to minimize that nasty complication by ascending from the west, threading our way some 25 miles, bottom to top, via the seldom-traveled Shira Plateau. Ninety percent of the 11,000 people who attempt to climb Kilimanjaro each year stick to the eastern Marangu Trail, also known as the Tourist Route or Coca Cola Trail. Their footsteps have worn the path nearly a foot deep in some places and widened it to freeway proportions in others.

Three Nordic-hut encampments are staggered along the Marangu, offering such luxuries as flush toilets and bottled beer. The mere presence of those amenities encourages foolishness. Hikeers tend to push too hard, allowing themselves only three or four nights to reach the top. Since that doesn't give the body time to acclimatize, many overly ambitious souls are driven to their knees by altitude sickness. About one-third of Marangu trekkers call it quits at Gillman's Point, 600 vertical feet below the summit; just 10 percent manage to drag themselves up Uhuru. The rest slink home with memories of a first-class, Third-World headache and a somersaulting stomach.

Scott Fischer, the 40-year-old co-owner of Seattle-based Mountain Madness, our outfitter, prefers to take clients up more isolated routes and adhere to a saner, six-nights-to-the-summit pace. He has led three Everest expeditions and conquered K2 in Pakistan. Once while bumming across Africa, he and a hungry buddy swapped a pair of blue jeans for a goat. After killing the animal, they each drank a cup of its blood in the tradition of Masai warriors.

Thankfully, Fischer is not in charge of meals this trip. He has assembled a support staff of 32 Tanzanians - cooks, guides, and porters - whose job is to make uphill life easier for Americans unaccustomed to oxygen-deficient air. In addition me, our group consists of Seattle Tom, a Mountain Madness employee on a familiarization tour of Africa; North Dakota Tom, a computer programmer on a pre-wedding honeymoon with his computer-programmer fiancee, Pam; Ty, the California-based photographer for this story, and his assistant Chuck; David, the president of a Connecticut manufacturing company, and Lloyd, a genial, gray-bearded electrician from Portland, Oregon who has a homespun phrase for any occasion.

Our ages range from late twenties to late forties, with Pam the youngest and Lloyd the oldest. We have all done out pre-Kili homework: some of us biked; some pumped weights; others went on lung-stretching runs. Lloyd, who in 1993 knocked off Argentina's 22,834-foot Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, deserves the trophy for Best Prepared. After work, he chugged up and down the stairwell of the 15-story Portland Building with a 40-pound pack strapped to his back. He has brought along ski poles to use as walking sticks, and a titanium Buck knife just in case he has to fend off a leopard while slicing his breakfast bacon. "That which is too easily obtained," he often says, "is lightly esteemed."

* * * *

Not to worry; nothing about Kilimanjaro comes easy. Just getting to the trailhead can be a chore. On a warm January morning we piled into two safari vehicles outside our hotel in the town of Arusha, northern Tanzania's main starting point for bush excursions. The paved road soon turned into a dusty dirt track and then degenerated into a bone-rattling succession of pot-holes.

After several axle-busting hours we began to head uphill. No more mud huts and stick-figure trees. We entered a sparsely-populated African-Alpine forest speckled with small, sturdy wooden farmhouses. The vehicles eventually abandoned the track and bushwhacked off into thick undergrowth, plowing another mile or so before lurching to a halt in a crude clearing. The African-Alpine forest has transformed itself into a jungle.

Our Tanzanian crew was ready and waiting, decked out in mismatched clothing—hand-me-down gifts from previous climbers, I later learned. We exchanged introductions using the Swahili greeting jambo, devoured a lunch of sandwiches and fresh fruit, then slipped on our day packs while Scott issued instructions. We hadn't taken a meaningful step, he reminded us, yet we were already 6,500 feet above sea level. Drink plenty of fluids. Purify all water. And, most important, don't rush. Pole pole, the Swahili word for "slowly," was to be our precautionary mantra.

"Expend as little energy as possible, whenever possible," Scott added. "Let your breathing control your pace, as opposed to letting your pace control your breathing."

He demonstrated the "rest step", a staccato walk designed to keep our metabolic kettles from boiling over in high-altitude conditions. The rest step is in action: step, pause one beat before pushing off the back foot, take another step, pause another beat.

Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. That is how we marched into the rain forest to do battle with mighty Kilimanjaro. A canopy of trees formed an umbrella overhead that obliterated the view. The mountain lay somewhere up ahead. Waiting. Scott usually let guide Alan Phillemon, a young Tanzanian with an excellent command of English and of flora and fauna, take the lead. Alan also turned out to be an authority on international climbers.

"The Norwegians are the best," he told us. "They are tough."

Germans and Americans bear up well, while the Japanese, who believe they can will themselves ever higher, drive the guides crazy Alan knew a Japanese student who tried to knock off the entire climb in one day. A rescue team scooped him up after he collapsed in a heap.

* * * *

Although the kamikaze approach may work for some, we stuck firmly to our slow-but-steady schedule. Scott roused us from our sleeping bags every day at 6:30. Breakfast - like lunch and dinner - was basic: eggs, oatmeal, pasta, fruit, and an endless river of hot tea. Afterward, we generally hiked three hours, broke for a trail lunch, then logged three more hours

Long-distance backpacking springcleans the mind. It's a welcome opportunity to commune with nature and say howdy to your inner self. Still, we were spending more than a week on Kilimanjaro. How many of us found either nature or our inner selves that interesting? Thus intra-group banter was the lime we sucked on to stave off scurvy of the brain.

Unfortunately, Tom and Pam, our North Dakota lovebirds, were not natural comminglers. David had a knack for jump-starting conversation, but was wildly unpredictable in his choice of subject matter.

Thank heaven, Scott was always good for an anecdote about drinking goat's blood. Chatting with Lloyd could be a grab bag of surprises. Out of the blue, he would ponder how Romulans, those macho archenemies of Star Trek's Captain Kirk, might climb Mount Kilimanjaro. "Probably one rest break a day," Lloyd mused, "and they'd put rocks in their packs."

The Romulans might frown upon our mode of climbing. One of the joys of traveling with a battalion of porters is that they bolt camp lickety-split each morning with the supplies stacked on their heads, and have all the tents pitched and tea brewing by the time everyone else straggles into the next campsite. Only David deemed this unsatisfactory.

“I'm putting all my pictures on computer disk and editing this stuff out," he declared one day as we entered our ready-made camp. "You think I'm gonna show my friends this?"

The climbing gods don't fancy big talkers. A few days later, as David bent over to puke at the side of the trail, I found it hard to resist asking whether he was still in the mood to pitch his tent. But nobody had the energy or the inclination to be so mean. David was the first to feed the flowers, but not the only one exhibiting the adverse effects of high altitude.

I considered myself lucky. So far my main symptom had been insomnia. I tried every lubricant I could think of to slide into unconsciousness: reading, chamomile tea, prescription sleeping pills. Yet my eyelids remained window shades stuck in the up position.

In many ways, mountain trekking is like taking a long walk toward senility. Body and mind slowly crumble. With the notable exception of Scott, we were turning into geezers. Ratty beards sprouted. Fingers swelled. Faces grew puffy and wrinkled. Our rest steps slowed to a funereal pace and conversation became focused on one topic: health.

Why do people put themselves through this? In addition to the obvious attraction of a stunning super-mountain, personal sirens have beckoned each of us to Kili. David yearned to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents. North Dakota Tom and Pam are backwoods buffs who wanted a rigorous honeymoon. And Lloyd likes to saunter up mountains.

I live in Washington, D.C., which has all the topographical diversity of a manhole cover. Up until now, my high-altitude experience consisted of jogging up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Although I knew that Kilimanjaro is not beyond the capability of a reasonably fit novice, I did not yet know about the Western Breach.

* * * *

Hubert and Remmy elect to have us attack it in two bites. When we break camp on the frozen-buffalo plateau, our numbers are diminished by three: Scott and the two Toms, ice axes and crampons in hand, split off to do a full-scale, frost-in-your-beard climb up nearby Heim Glacier. They will rendezvous with us in two days at the base of Uhuru Peak.

The first section of the Breach is short and moderately strenuous. Steep trail, soupy fog, slow progress. At last we have hit the snows of Kilimanjaro, moving to the muffled drumbeat of boots jabbing the slippery mountainside for traction. After five hours we reach our next camp: a cozy outcrop with a front-porch view of the Baranco Valley. Boulders poke through the snowscape, as abundant as the bumpers on a pinball machine. We are in the topsy-turvy position of looking down on clouds. They foam and froth around nearby Mount Meru as the setting sun paints them pastel pink. Meru is more than 15,000 feet high, it looks like a kid brother tugging on Kilimanjaro's sleeve.

The mountain has landed a few body blows. Ty, dehydrated and badly sunburned, wobbles off to bed. The rest of us gather in the mess tent to sip tea and watch darkness fall.

The next morning we wake up grizzled and half-spent, hair as unruly as Stan Laurel's in a gale-force wind. I personify one of Lloyd's cracker barrel expressions: "You look like you were rode hard and put away wet."

The Western Breach Part II is our gut check. For eight hours we follow Remmy single file up, over, and around a massive pipe organ of rock, the angle of ascent hovering at a breath-robbing 40 degrees. Every turn in the trail reveals more trail. I feel as if we are opening the proverbial gag gift: a box within a box within a box within a box.

We crab cautiously over loose rock. Pole, pole. Our eyes rarely drift from our boot tops. David says we are breathing about half the amount of oxygen we normally do; a person instantly transported here from sea level would black out on the spot. I believe him. The left side of my head is a door that someone keeps pounding on. It's Mr. Common Sense. He is yelling at me to get back down to sea level.

Nobody is knocking on Remmy's cranial door. He puffs contentedly on a cigarette during rest breaks. In fact, all the local porters and guides are all nicotine fiends. Someday researchers are going to discover that the clouds perpetually shrouding Kilimanjaro are nothing but secondhand smoke.

Shortly after 3 P.M. we crest the ridgeline of the Western Breach. The world looks blessedly flat again, though conspicuously drained of color. To our left, a vast snow field leads to the lip of a dormant crater, the center of the volcanic activity that aeons ago formed Kilimanjaro. About a half-mile ahead of us is a meandering wall of pale-blue glacial ice. It looks like someone has been strip mining menthol eucalyptus cough drops. Beyond lies the last relatively-benign lump of mountain, culminating in Uhuru Peak. Remmy grins and gives us each a soul handshake.

"Congratulations," he says, knowing how glad we are to be done with the Western Breach. "You made it."

"Nothin' to it," says Lloyd with a shrug. "Piece o' granite."

Our wayward trio of triumphant ice climbers materializes in time for dinner, but only Scott has an appetite. At 18,500 feet, food has all the mouth-watering appeal of broken glass. It's about ten degrees. Our heads thump like kettledrums. We swill tea, ingest our preferred pills and potions, and crawl into our tents just after dark. David rouses Scott in the middle of the night. His body temperature is in free fall, plunging toward hypothermia. Scott has no choice but to slip into David's sleeping bag and hug him until he warms up.

Come morning, David has rebounded to the point where he is only as bad off as the rest of us. "There's nobody I'm concerned about," says Scott, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and busy wolfing down the eggs, toast, and porridge the rest of us can't face. "You're all just feelin' a little acute mountain sickness."

We sling our packs on by 8 A.M. Onward and upward we go, tracing Remmy's footprints for two hours in calf-deep snow. It is a technically easy but exhausting last push.

No sense of epiphany washes over me when I hear Scott yell, "So how does the top of Africa feel?"

Kilimanjaro feels lonely and beautiful and disorientingly high. This is what Africa would look like if you go wing walking on a 747. As I pirouette in place, my eyes never leave the crenelated tops of more modest mountains. A shag rug of cloud levitates in the air yards off Uhuru Peak. It looks thick and soft enough to bellyflop on. This panorama is one that can be bought only with the hard currency of sweat and perseverance. The view and the effort commingle, entwining like the wisps of cloud snake-dancing around Uhuru Peak.

A crude metal sign officially marks the highest point in Africa. Alongside it sits a wooden box with a battered ledger inside containing the impressions of hundreds of climbers. "C'est superbe." "Next year, Everest." "Rough, but worth it."

I forget to write, "Piece o' granite."

We each celebrate in our own peculiar fashion. Scott, Seattle Tom, and I fling a football. David has his picture taken holding his company’s flag. Pam refuses to give North Dakota Tom a we-made-it-to-the-summit smooch. Lloyd strikes a classic mountaineering pose for a photo, his red parka bright against the blue sky.

We split a small bottle of champagne; then we're gone. Seven days of escalating discomfort for one hour of glory. Our descent is rapid and anticlimactic. We take the Marangu express trail, stopping to camp overnight at one of the bustling hut-cities. The trail has about it the air of people on pilgrimage. We come upon a cairn commemorating the spot where a French climber was struck dead by lightning, and pass two Canadian women who have turned back because one has cerebral edema. Simply put, her brain is swelling like a baking biscuit.

Dozens of climbers stream by on their way uphill. The haggard and the hopeful. I cannot resist handicapping their prospects for success: a stout German fellow in bikini briefs washing up outside his hut (probable); the young boy stride for stride on the heels of his father (slim chance, kid); a middle-age Japanese woman leaning on a walking stick (get the stretcher ready).

The snow cover disappears. Trees and wildflowers return. We shed layers of clothing and are back in shorts before we reach the visitor's center at Marangu Gate. A small souvenir shop is selling I MADE IT TO GILLMAN'S POINT T-shirts. Lloyd and I get a chuckle out of that. I can think of a few appropriate mottos to stick on the back of those shirts: AIN'T TOO PROUD TO PUKE, or LINE FORMS HERE FOR THE KILI TRAM.

We hobble over to a picnic table where the Mountain Madness ground crew is waiting with drinks and a cake decorated with a chocolate-icing silhouette of Kilimanjaro. Lloyd finally has a reason to unsheathe his beloved titanium Buck knife. He cuts the cake into squares and we gather round, eating with our fingers.

That which is too easily obtained is lightly esteemed. I take a swig of beer and chew my cake, pole pole, savoring the moment, savoring the mountain.