Following a lifelong dream to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro
By Andrew McCarthy
It’s 4 A.M., and the thin air is hard and cold. Layers of downy clouds carpet the sky below me. Four thousand feet above, the glaciated peak is reflecting the glow of the full moon. A faint stream of lights on the trail ahead marks the progress of hikers in front of me, slowly inching toward the summit of the highest mountain in Africa. I’ve been trekking Mount Kilimanjaro for nearly a week, and this is the day I’ve thought about for most of my life—this is summit day.
Rising 19,341 feet above the north-central plains of Tanzania, Kilimanjaro is imposing enough to create its own weather system. The “White Mountain” is sacred ground for the local Chagga tribe, providing fertile soil on its sprawling slopes for wheat, corn, and beans. And since Hans Meyer became the first European to reach the peak in 1889, the fourth highest of the Seven Summits has captured the imagination of the wider world.
My own fascination with Kilimanjaro began when I was a young boy and saw a drawing of the nearly symmetrical, snowcapped conical mountain on the cover of my older brother’s copy of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway’s famous collection of stories.
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“It’s in Africa, far away,” I was told.
In that moment I became aware of a world beyond my insular New Jersey neighborhood in a way I hadn’t conceived.
“I’m gonna go there,” I said.
I don’t recall my brother’s response, but the idea went deep—and fostered a knowing that one day, I would go.
All these years later, on a Monday in June,my first view of the great massif is from far off.The midmorning African light is bright but hazy. As I round a bend in the road, the hulking mountain comes into view, its famous peak lost in the clouds. The view is impressive but not the awe-inspiring sight I’ve always imagined.
Then something catches my eye, glistening high above the clouds. My focus shifts, and the perspective alters.The hazy outline of the upper reaches of Kilimanjaro, towering far above the cloud line, becomes apparent. That glistening spot high in the sky is revealed to be the sun kicking off the receding glaciers that cap the great mountain—it’s twice as tall as I first perceived.
I’m going to get to the top of that? I hear myself ask. In a group with five other hikers—including a father and his grown son, a transplant cardiologist, a college student, and a triathlete—I set out on the Lemosho Route, one of the lesser traveled of Kilimanjaro’s six official climbing trails. It’s longer than most routes, traversing the mountain west to east, gradually gaining ground, until the improbably steep 4,000-foot push during the assault on the summit. Our plan is to take six days to reach the top—Uhuru Peak—allowing adequate time to negotiate Kilimanjaro’s greatest obstacle.
The 26-mile hike and the more than 12,000- foot elevation gain are an ever-visible challenge, but what prevents three in 10 people from reaching the top is the altitude—and its potentially devastating consequences.Above 8,000 feet, highaltitude pulmonary edema can come on quickly and be fatal if not recognized and addressed properly and swiftly.
“You need to keep me informed, tell me everything that’s going on that’s not normal for you,” says Dismass Mariki, the man responsible for getting us to the top and back safely. Dismass, a Chagga tribe member, grew up “in the shadow of Kili” and has been to the summit more than 250 times.
“We’re going to take it polepole—slowly-slowly,” Dismass assures us at the trailhead, perched at 7,600 feet, and he’s true to his word.We set out amid a lush forest of holly and African tulip trees, gaining ground inch by slow inch. The pace Dismass sets is less than a quarter of the speed I would walk, left to my own devices, and I find both the physical and mental downshifting an unnatural, awkward process. Eventually my breathing slows,my mind settles, and a new rhythm begins to assert itself. After several hours, we reach our first camp in a grove of African yellowwood trees.
I knew I wasn’t going to have a solitary experience, but I wasn’t prepared for the size of the support team that would accompany us.With 36 porters servicing just the six hikers, carrying tents and provisions on their heads and backs (while we carry only day packs), plus four guides, two cooks, and two camp crew members, we’re a good-size village mobilizing toward 19,000 feet.
Early in the afternoon of the second day, at 11,000 feet, we emerge from the forest into heath and moorland, and the distant glimpse of Kilimanjaro’s peak comes into view. It’s difficult to conceive that we’ll be able to traverse such a distance in a few days of walking, but by the third afternoon, we’re in high alpine desert and the summit is considerably closer. As we gain ground, the African heat begins to abate. And as we walk, I feel a low nagging, a kind of faint anxiety I often experience in the wilderness, especially when there’s such a clear-cut goal as on Kilimanjaro: Will I be able to achieve it? The feeling gives way to moments of basking in the simple chore of walking under a bright sun in one of the world’s more exotic locales. At random times, a wide grin spreads across my face, and I drop into deep feelings of gratitude and contentment.
Then there are the blisters—on my toes and one on my heel. They remind me how fraught with uncertainty this attempt is. On the fourth day, the triathlete blows his nose, and it begins to bleed. At this altitude, the nosebleed proves difficult to stop, making the climber anxious that his quest might become derailed. Eventually, the bleeding stops, and we trudge on.
We ascend a ridge to an outcrop called Lava Tower, at 15,000 feet, and I experience my first bout with the altitude. My head feels as if a tight band were around it from ear-to-ear, squeezing in, throbbing, crushing. My resting pulse races. I’m irritable. I can feel panic wanting to push its way in. I breathe slowly, deeply, for several minutes. I concentrate on a lone bird circling high above in the thin air. After a time,we drop off the ridge, and the pressure in my head recedes.
Later, I mention my stress to Noah Sankale, the assistant guide on the trip. “The trick to Kili,” he says, “rest much, take time, go slow, eat much, humble yourself, enjoy the view, enjoy the camp.”
The evenings in camp are a welcome respite after the day’s march.The Southern Cross anchors the night sky and reminds me I’m far from any home I’ve known.
The cooks ply us with a carb-heavy diet, but my appetite dwindles in the higher elevation.We all chat of the day’s walk and sip tea. Dismass regales us with tales—some humorous, some cautionary—of hikers who’ve come before.These moments before retiring to our individual tents are filled with a peace that comes at the end of a day spent out of doors. But always, always, there is the nearly sheer-walled cap of the mountain, hovering over us,waiting.
Far above tree line, the earth is barren and rocky. A few scavenger birds circle, but otherwise the land is too harsh to support much life. The hiking from here on is over dusty earth and exposed rock. The air has a constant bite. The nights are frigid and clear.
On the Sixth Day
On the morning of our summit attempt,we wake at 3 A.M.The moon, high and full, casts shadows. A silver blanket of clouds hovers below. The summit reflects hard and bright against the night sky.We set out in silence. The grade just out of camp is steep and requires scrambling. Hands search for purchase on jagged rock. Our weakest walker has been placed in the front of the group, and our pace lacks rhythm.We move forward a few steps, stop, then start again.
I find it difficult to settle in with this herky-jerk progress.We come upon a man bent over from the waist, gasping for breath in the dark, being led back down after aborting his summit attempt. Then we pass several more, in similar postures. Suddenly, I’m nauseous. For the second time on Kilimanjaro, my panic rises. I drop back a few steps and go slower, keeping a constant flow to my movement. I begin to count my steps: one, two, three, four. And then again, over and over: one, two, three, four. My breathing settles, and I find my stride.
We climb in silence for a few hours, with only the sounds of breathing and boots on the earth. Eventually the sky begins to soften toward purple and suddenly—the way it does near the equator— the day comes quickly.The sun is over the horizon, I peel a layer of clothing, and there’s laughter and chatter.We snap photos, drink water, and there are boasts of “no problem.” A bravado born of the new day fills the group, and we can feel we’re close.We reach Stella Point, on the edge of the caldera.The dwindling glaciers—victims of global warming—flank us, and the final march to the summit is a gradual amble to the highest point on the continent.
A wooden,weather-beaten sign marks Uhuru Peak.More pictures are taken. Hugs are exchanged and backs patted. Feelings of relief and pride and awe are evident. Eventually our chatter subsides, and we’re silent. The wind is still and the sun pours down, fighting the thin air’s chill.
I walk off on my own a short distance. Again, gratitude floods over me, and I look out. The clouds below have dispersed, and the view feels limitless, as if I could almost see that small boy back in New Jersey who dreamed of one day climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.