We were on the east flank of Mt. Kilimanjaro--at 19,342 feet the highest mountain in Africa. In the pre-dawn hours I locked my eyes onto the heels of our guide, clamping my wool cap low on my head, placing a bandanna around my face and tightening my jacket hood to ward off the chill.
The silence of the moonless, sub-freezing night was broken only by the scrunch of our boots on the scree switchback; but for the meager flashlight beam of our guide, Minja, my husband Jim and I might have been lost on this trail that leads, via a tortuous series of switchbacks, into the African heavens. Ahead of us, the headlamps of another group appeared like a string of fireflies. Rock parapets spilling out from the crater rim loomed above our heads. If we were to make the rim, let alone the summit, we had to climb far above those parapets--an interminable feat at our creeping pace.
Always there was the concern of returning home without having reached the summit. We had come to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro, the dormant volcano located some 200 miles south of the Equator on the border between Kenya and Tanzania.
Although professional climbers sometimes scoff at the mountain as being “technically unchallenging,” the altitude and cold--as many of our companions discovered--proved otherwise.
For Jim and me, dilettante backpackers and runners, the five-day, 52-mile Kilimanjaro ascent was a test of will and endurance. It is not, we learned, an adventure for timid souls. Our assault had begun from Moshi, a small town wreathed by coffee and banana plantations at the base of the massif.
Most climbers stay the first night in the mountainside village of Marangu at either the Marangu Hotel, a converted farm run by two Englishwomen, or the Kibo Hotel, the bar of which is plastered with insignias of mountaineering groups from all over the world. Unfortunately, both hotels were booked, so we signed in at the Moshi Hotel in town.
Built by the British in the late 1940s, the Moshi Hotel bears its pre-independence name--the Livingstone Hotel--in large stucco letters on the cornice. The British tradition of hospitality lingers: Waiters snapped to attention with the same alacrity as the electric fly-zapper in the corner of the dining room.
Kilimanjaro is a Tanzanian national park, and each climbing party is required to have a guide who in turn provisions and cooks for the expedition. We met Minja the morning of our departure. Our staples consisted of a slab of beef, loaves of bread, heads of cabbage, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, butter, eggs and tea. Like most Kilimanjaro climbers, we elected to do the ascent Himalayan style, with porters carrying all but day packs. Our food and gear were loaded into an ancient Land Rover for the one-hour drive through lush plantations and steep river valleys to the park entrance. Throngs of women and children wrapped in brilliant hand-dyed cloth streamed along the roadside.
Since the 1840s, when missionaries and geologists began trying to climb Kilimanjaro, mountaineering has become a major source of income and employment for the region. Boys begin as porters, working their way up through a finely graduated hierarchy to become park-certified guides. These are relatively lucrative positions, the for the hard currency that foreigners spend represents more than twice the buying power of the highly inflated Tanzanian shilling due to the black market exchange.
The entrance to the park was crowded with Americans, Japanese, Australians and Europeans, some seeking climbing permits, others returning from successful (or abortive) attempts to reach Kilimanjaro’s summit. Permits are available on a walk-in basis at the park entrance. There is a danger of not getting one--especially in August when the mountain is so crowded. Even having a permit doesn’t always guarantee you’ll get on the mountain.
Although Jim and I were climbing alone with Minja and our four porters, we would be eating and sleeping with about 60 other climbers who gathered at the camps at day’s end. Located a day’s walk apart--at 9,000, 12,500, and 15,500 feet--each camp had primitive sleeping huts, outhouses and a central dining hall.
The first leg of the expedition was a 5-mile climb through a rain forest that girdles Kilimanjaro at 6,000 to 9,500 feet. (The Kilimanjaro massif rises out of a plain that is about 3,500 feet above sea level. The park entrance is at 6,000 feet.) This portion of the mountain is almost perpetually covered with dense, low-lying clouds below which lichen- and creeper-shrouded trees and grasses have adapted to life with little sunlight. Soon we were alone with only the occasional caterwaul of a monkey breaking the misty silence.
Midway, the broad path turned into a dark, narrow stairway of roots and mud. Porters clad in rubber thongs, tattered clothes and hand-me-down hats scrambled past us, balancing enormous loads on their heads.
At nightfall, our first campsite--Mandara Hut, named after the Chagga king who aided the first mountaineers--emerged from the mists. Packed cheek by jowl in the A-frame dining hall, we quickly made friends with the other climbers: a German professor who teaches wildlife management in the Sudan; two Norwegians; a Frenchman who had trekked in Nepal; an American who worked in Ethiopia, and three Spaniards who intended to hang-glide from the summit.
On our climb the next morning we broke through the upper reaches of the rain forest onto a grassy, rolling savanna, passed another hillock and caught our first glimpse of the 16,000-foot Mawensi, the younger, though far more weathered companion peak to Kibo, the main crater of Kilimanjaro. Grasses gave way to exotic alpine desert flowers and shrubs that have adapted to the extreme temperature and humidity changes of the mountain.
So far the day was a pleasant stroll and not too challenging. Fifteen minutes after our arrival at Horombo (at 12,500 feet), our warm glow had turned to cold sweat, with our warm clothes and food an hour behind with the porters. That evening, the clouds that had swathed the upper reaches of Kibo from mid-morning to late afternoon lifted and we saw the snow-covered summit rising about 7,000 feet in the distance. After nightfall, we had a panoramic view of the unfamiliar stars of the Southern Hemisphere and the lights of Moshi 9,000 feet below.
Because the camp was full, Jim and I had to sleep in separate four-person huts. Jim bunked with the Norwegians, while I joined the hang-gliding Spaniards, who regaled me with tales of their adventures.
On the third day the landscape changed again, radically. Midway through our six-mile climb to Kibo Hut, the alpine desert vegetation gave way to gray, red and brown lichen. At the wide saddle between the Mawensi and Kibo craters even the lichen disappeared, leaving an eerie, barren wasteland of brown rock.
Other than the monkeys in the rain forest and an assortment of birds and butterflies, we had seen little wildlife on the mountain, although years earlier elephants, Cape buffalo and antelope had been sighted on the saddle. Indeed, in 1951, one misguided elephant was found at 16,000 feet, and in 1926 mountaineers spotted a frozen leopard just inside Kibo crater.
Arriving at Kibo Hut, we staked out bunks and promptly crawled into our sleeping bags. We were at 15,500 feet. Because of the altitude, my head was aching, and I was popping Tylenol like candy. Meanwhile, there was concern about our water supply. The higher we climbed, the more likely dehydration was to occur. Dehydration might lead to altitude sickness. Up to the last water stop, we had forced ourselves to each drink six quarts of water a day.
Now our water supply was limited.
Minja woke us for an early dinner, after which we fell asleep again, woozy due to the thin air. Minja insisted that we start our final climb by 1:30 a.m. in order to avoid the midday cloud cover. Afterward, we would have to descend to Horombo Hut, which meant an 18-mile hike, up and back again to the hut.
The porters appeared with hot tea at 12:30 a.m. By now several of our group had become nauseated and had decided to go no farther; they would descend at dawn. Shortly after 1 a.m., Jim and I set off for the summit.
After a couple of hours we reached a cave named after Hans Meyer, an indefatigable German geologist who was the first known climber to reach the summit in 1889. (In World War I a troop of German soldiers, trapped behind relentlessly advancing British troops, surrendered at the cave after having hidden out on the mountain for eight months).
But now, trudging in the darkness behind Minja’s heels, our energy was ebbing. Minja’s cautions to walk pole, pole (Swahili for slowly) were hardly necessary. I was weak and dizzy.
The higher we climbed, the more frequently I had to stop to gather my strength. Jim gently prodded me on. Finally, the two scenes I was longing for--sunrise and the crater rim--converged. With intense excitement, we scrambled up the last 400 feet of boulders to the 18,640-foot mark and the crater rim, known as Gilman’s Point.
It was 6:30 a.m.
With great relief, we crawled onto a large rock rosy with dawn and took in the view. Mawensi was spread out some 2,000 feet below us. Beyond that, we focused on a cloud cover with breaks that offered glimpses of the African savanna far beneath. Inside the mile-wide crater, glaciers blanketed obsidian rock and formed a mammoth staircase of ice and snow on the eastern perimeter.
The true summit--formerly Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze and rechristened Uhuru--was still a 1 1/2-hour hike. The equatorial sun was out in full force when we finally reached the rock on the western rim that marks the highest point on the African continent.
Jim and I hugged each other and Minja shook our hands. I’d always heard of the exhilaration of surveying the panorama after conquering this mountain . . . but to me the real thrill was my victory--of spirit over flesh.
Mt. Kilimanjaro climbers can go for the summit on a five- or six-day trip or spend a day or so wandering trails on the lower reaches. The best time is during the July-to-October and January-to-February dry seasons. August is the most crowded month on the mountain.
A number of American adventure travel companies, including Mountain Travel Inc., 1398-M Solano Ave. Albany, Calif. 94706, telephone (415) 527-8100; Overseas Adventure Travel, 349 Broadway, Cambridge, Mass. 02139, telephone (800) 221-0814, and Adventure Center, 5540-A College Ave., Oakland 94618, telephone (800) 227-8747 or (415) 654-1879, offer Kilimanjaro as a seven-day adjunct to their African safaris. Costs range from $700 to $800 per person, including transportation from Nairobi and accommodations in Marangu. Those traveling on their own can make arrangements to climb the mountain through the Marangu Hotel, P.O. Box 40, Marangu, Tanzania, or the Kibo Hotel, P.O. Box 102, Marangu, Tanzania. Both hotels arrange for climbing permits, guides, porters and food for $350 to $400 per person, which also includes a two-night stay at the hotel. (A number of Nairobi tour operators offer Kilimanjaro safaris through their Tanzanian affiliates).
Climbers can contract with guides and porters directly at the park entrance. However, theft, overpricing and insufficient food are dangers, so it would be best to work through one of the hotels or a reputable tour operator.
Getting to Kilimanjaro can be expensive and time-consuming. Nairobi tour operators charge as much as $250 per person, one way, for the 200-mile drive across Masai country from Nairobi. Travelers with a sense of adventure and somewhat flexible schedules can take a taxi from Nairobi to the Tanzanian border for about $8 per person. (Kenyan vehicles are prohibited in Tanzania and vice versa.)
From the border, one travels (also by taxi and also $8 per person) to Arusha in northern Tanzania. Buses packed with local riders run regularly between Arusha and Moshi for about 50 cents per person. (Beware of pickpockets.)
British Air, KLM, Ethiopian and Pakistan Airlines fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport. Still, there is only one flight a week between Kilimanjaro and Nairobi.
Nighttime temperatures on the mountain can fall to zero degrees Fahrenheit, and rain is common even in the dry season. Plan to bring along a sleeping bag and parka, hiking boots, long underwear, wool cap, mittens, walking shorts, rain gear and wind pants. A wide-brimmed hat is essential, as is plenty of sunscreen. A one-quart water bottle is another must, and so are water-purification tablets.
Stuff your belongings into a sturdy, waterproof duffel bag. Bring along a day pack for carrying your camera, water, Windbreaker, passport, money, etc. Keep the last two items with you at all times.