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The Climb at Kilimanjaro

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After a week of visiting game parks, Moses and I blitzed Mt. Kilimanjaro during the past two days. It's 19,340 feet high, the fifth highest mountain outside of the Himalayas, the highest mountain in the world you can climb without oxygen. Normally it's a five day effort, but I had to catch a plane so we lopped off the last 3,800 feet and did it in 52 hours, including rest, meals, and sleep. Moses is in the hospital.

We climbed 9,500 feet to 15,500 covering 27 miles in 16 1/2 hours of hiking or 30 hours of lapsed time. Down was easier, 10,200 feet, 31 miles, 8 1/2 hours of hiking or 18 hours of lapsed time.

Now here's the real story.

We left at 9:15 in the morning on September 30 from an elevation of approximately 6,000 feet at the entrance to the Kilimanjaro National Park. The first hut, Mandara, is at 9,000 feet through approximately eight miles of tropical rain forest. This is a magnificent walk through lush forest with the constant sound of running water from mountain streams along the way. Waterfalls, pools, and small rapids with moss covered rocks occasionally emerge alongside the trail. The area below the park is very thickly settled and densely cultivated. Each family has anywhere from half an acre to two acres. They keep their cattle in corrals, and no land is dedicated to grazing. As a result, someone from the family must hike up into the Kilimanjaro forest to fetch greens for feeding the cattle. On our walk up, we saw four or five men carying enormous bundles of green cuttings down to feed their cattle.

Hiking up hill is easy at low altitude. After about an hour, we had covered three miles and stopped to rest at a place of exquisite beauty. It was probably about 7,200 feet of elevation. We rested twenty minutes, and covered the next four miles in about an hour and twenty minutes, arriving at Mandara hut, with 9,000 feet of elevation, at noon. We had lunch, and left again at 1:15. Hiking was a little more difficult now. We tended to hike forty-five to fifty minutes and reset fifteen or twenty. The hiking periods got shorter as we approached Horomba Hut at 12,120 feet. This was an eleven mile hike, and we arrived at 6:30 p.m. After two hours of rest and dinner, we went to bed at 8:30 with all of our clothes on except boots, caught what sleep we could in the intense cold, and got up at 6:30 a.m. After an hour and a quarter for breakfast, we left at 7:45 a.m.

By 11:00 a.m. on October 1, we were about halfway across the saddle between the two peaks, Mawenzi and Kibo. This was probably four miles from Horombo Hut and at an elevation of about 14,000 feet. It was magnificently beautiful, with the sun so bright that it seemed to make the rocks and flowers at our feet vibrate. We stopped for a long period of rest and contemplation. I felt euphoric, and extremely confident of making Uhuru Peak. I felt so good I even resolved to make this trip again with Jonathan and Jeffrey.

Moses was not feeling so good. He had hiked on ahead during the morning and was beginning to get headaches, the first signs of altitude sickness.

I laid back against a rock and enjoyed my euphoria. I had a tremendous sense of joy for being in such an extraordinary and isolated and pure place. We were above the cloud line; it seemed we could see forever, and the peaks of Mawenzi and Kibo stood out brilliantly against the skyline. Mawenzi is about 16,900 feet with relatively little snow on it. Kibo is 19,340 feet and has a perpetual glacial cap.

The temperature was clearly below freezing at this point, since whereever we saw water, there was also ice. But because of the sun, it was quite warm.

Moses and I had a guide and five porters to carry food, water and gear. Two of the porters were never seen as they carried food up for the return trip and left it for us. The other three porters walked pretty much at their own pace, and didn't necessarily stay with us. The guide, obviously, did stay with us. As a matter of fact, he clearly felt a great sense of responsibility for our succeeding in reaching the peak, and later when other issues became paramount, for our survival.

We had pressed hard the first day since we had to save at least one day on the normally five day trip in order for me to catch a plane on the fourth day. We had fantasies of making the entire trip in three days, assuming we could climb to the peak by sunrise of the third day and then hike the entire 31 miles back to the hotel in the same day. When we arrived at the second hut on the first day, some people there were astounded that we had hiked the entire distance in one day. When they asked why, and I said I had to catch a plane, they thought that was hilarious. I guess it was a kind of a comment on civilization. There was another reason for making the trip in shorter time, however, and that was that it was so cold at night that it was very, very difficult to sleep.

Once we got beyond about 10,000 feet, we found that we couldn't do anything quickly because the oxygen was so thin. By the time we got to 14,000 feet, we found that if we coughed or yawned, we would get dizzy from the demands that the body makes for oxygen during even such a limited exertion as a cough or a yawn. Every step up hill was incredibly slow, with short, shuffling steps. Walking downhill is more like a controlled fall. I'm told that coming down the 2000 feet directly off the top is like skiiing in your boots as it's too steep to walk. If it's too steep to walk down, I don't know how on earth we'll get up. I'm told that the reason that the assault to the peak is made beginning at 1:00 in the morning for a six hour climb in the dark is because no one would climb it if they could see what they were doing. Other people say it is because one wishes to see the sun rise from the peak, or because it's easier to walk up the scree while it is still frozen.

In the meantime, I'm still in the middle of the saddle, feeling euphoric,and looking back over the one mile of virtually flat land that we covered during the past half hour. We stopped to rest every fifteen minutes. I felt I was approaching my limit, but I felt each hour that my limit was pushed back as I became acclimatized.

After the long rest in the middle of the saddle, we started out for Kibo Hut. Moses's headache became extremely intense, and I began to feel very tired and began to feel that I too was on the verge of getting a headache. Progress was extremely slow and we felt that it was a minor miracle when we arrived at Kibo Hut at 3:15 p.m. The last 400 yards was up a rather steep hill. We were completely exhausted and hardly able to make progress. A 52 year old man with white beard and years of mountain climbing experience saw us struggling up the hill and ran down to meet us. He was carrying a portable tape recorder and when he got to us, he turned it on to play a Campbell marching song on the bagpipes. I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other, but when that old man walked beside me playing those damned horns, I stode out, with tears rolling down my cheeks and convulsive sobs racking my body. When we got to the top, Moses was ghastly sick, vomiting severely and in extreme pain from his headaches.

We both declined to eat, and went immediately to bed in order to resist the cold, overcome altitude sickness, and possibly rest.

Moses' condition got increasingly worse, and after an hour of lying in bed, my head began to ache also. At 6:30 p.m., I got up and consulted with the guide. He and I judged that neither Moses nor I would get better soon at this altitude and that we should go down. I didn't realize it, but the guide had earlier urged Moses to go down to a lower level and Moses had refused because he felt that it would interfere with my assault on the peak. By the time I realized I couldn't go any further, Moses was feeling so bad that he didn't think he was capable of walking down. We managed to get him up, the guide put his boots on, and we started down at 7:00 p.m. It became dark almost immediately after we left. And we descended 3,400 feet covering 8 miles in pitch darkness. For some reason, there was no moon and the stars seemed strangely faint. We would often stumble on unseen boulders, and occasionally, I'd find myself unknowingly walking along a narrow precipice. We weren't particularly cold at any time when we were hiking, but I found that the altitude interferred with good judgement and destroyed will. Many of my photographs won't turn out, because I was careless in putting in film, exchanging lenses, and adjusting for light conditions. I'll be pleased if half the pictures taken above 10,000 feet turn out.

The most frightening thing about being up there is the ease with which exhaustion and cold lead one to welcome sleep that can only end in death from exposure. About four miles out from our walk in the darkness from Kibo Hut, we decided to stop and rest. At this point, our group included the guide and three porters as well as Moses and myself. As soon as I sat down and lay back, I realized that the longer I stayed there, the less I would want to get up. It was about 8:30 in the evening, probably well below zero, and Moses and I were well past the limits of human endurance. I told the guide that when we began we should walk lest we be lulled into greater fatigue. I knew the effort and jostling of hiking quickly downhill would help us keep alert. I guess the guide then realized what was happening, and immediately went over to Moses to rouse him. He couldn't awaken Moses, until he began slapping him on the shoulder and legs with his hands very hard. Moses told him to go away, and the guide spoke harshly telling Moses to get up, it was time to go. Moses just kept mumbling, "baas", a Swahili word meaning "that's all". He had clearly gotten to the point where he didn't want to try anymore.

After considerable slapping and pushing and harsh speaking, the guide got Moses on his feet and forced him to start walking. I was awfully glad to be moving again, knowing that I was very close to being in the same place that Moses was. I began to think about the Japanese hiker who had tried to climb Kilimanjaro by himself a couple of years before, who had gotten lost, and who had simply lay down to die. When he was found several months later, he was lying peacefully on his back with his hands clapsed across his chest. I thought about the book, "Alive", and wondered how on earth those soccer players had managed to climb down from the Andes fighting against the same cold and exhaustion that I was succumbing to. I could understand the part about eating their fallen comrades, as after only 24 hours on Kilimanjaro, I had ceased caring about hygiene, privacy, and many other things that seemed important during normal life. Even with respect to going on living, I had no particular desire to stay alive, but kept goint through some perverse reasoning to the effect that next week I would be glad that I was still alive.

We arrived back at Mandara Hut at 10:00 in the evening. Moses upset stomach had subsided, but we both had severe headaches. We went immediately to bed, slept a little, and got up at 5:30 the next morning. Neither of us wanted breakfast, we hadn't eaten in almost 24 hours, but had managed to drink tea.

We arrived at Mandara Hut at 9:45 a.m., on October 2, descending 3,100 feet, covering 11 miles, in 3 hours. We still had severe headaches, but we knew we would be safe, warm, and unchallenged soon. We rested fifteen minutes, and started for the park entrance at 10:15 a.m. We covered that 8 miles in an hour and 45 minutes, and then walked the next four miles to the hotel in less than an hour. At that point, we had walked 31 miles descending 10,200 feet in 18 hours. Overall, we walked 58 miles ascending and descending 10,200 feet in 52 hours.


Many people have said that our difficulties stemmed from lack of experience and having pressed so hard the first day. I have made two resolves. First, if I ever do this again, I'm going to see to it that I invest whatever money is necessary in first class mountain gear to aid in fighting cold and thus, getting some more sleep. Secondly, I'm going to make it a leisurely camping and hiking trip, taking as many days as are necessary. If Jonathan and Jeffrey want to try this in a few years, I'll do it with them under those conditions.

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