Letter from Kilimanjaro

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Mount Kilimanjaro

Ernest Hemingway, in his celebrated short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," describes the last few hours of a man's life as he lies, stricken by a gangrenous leg, at the foot of Africa's highest mountain. "There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the top of Kilimanjaro."

That sight, and that summit, draw more than 15,000 climbers a year to Tanzania. Kilimanjaro is one of the world?s highest readily climbable mountains — all that is required to climb ?Kili,? as it is affectionately known, is a decent level of fitness and an iron will to succeed. Unlike most other tall mountains, Kilimanjaro is not part of a chain. The dormant volcano's massive bulk rises in solitary grace out of the East African savanna, just 200 miles south of the equator. It stands 19,340 feet above sea level, shorter than the towering peaks of the Himalayas or the Andes but high enough to make breathing difficult and each step a chore.

A few weeks ago I set off with a group of friends to climb Kili. Our first challenge was to choose a route from among the half dozen options. Most climbers take the Marangu route, a benign five-day round-trip popularly termed the "Coca-Cola route. " Other routes are longer and more challenging, but also more scenic and less crowded. We opted to combine the Umbwe and Mweka routes. It's tougher, warned our guide, but the scenery is stunning.

Costly climb

Climbing Kili is not cheap. Tanzania?s park fees are among the highest in Africa and then there are the guides (it's illegal to climb without one) and porters. Our group of 13 required a lead guide, two assistant guides, two cooks and 26 porters. Total cost, including tips at the end, was $800 a person.

We set out on an overcast but humid morning. After registering at the Tanzania National Parks Office at the start of the Umbwe route, we waited as the porters divided our packs — food for six days, tents, chairs and other paraphernalia — between them. Each porter carried around 65 pounds, often balanced on their heads, while we each carried between 10 and 25 pounds in small backpacks. And then we were off. The first few hours took us on a gentle path through dense forest. The going was easy, though Michael, our guide, constantly reminded us to take it slowly and allow our bodies to acclimatize. The Swahili word for slow is ?pole? (poh-lay), and that became the buzzword for the rest of the climb. Slow and steady really does win the race. The track became steeper the higher we climbed and by mid afternoon, a light drizzle began to fall. We set up camp at 9700 feet, in a rocky bush clearing just above a couple of caves.

Day 2: Moonlit diamond

The second day's walk was the most beautiful. Soon after leaving camp, the vegetation changed: The tall forest trees gave way to stunted shrubs covered with lichens and moss. Old Man's Beard, as the most common lichen is known, waved in the breeze and as we picked our way along a ridge with mist gathering on either side below us. It felt as if we had walked onto a Lord of the Rings set. Around lunchtime the rain set in and the last few hours of walking were uncomfortable and cold. You don't need technical equipment for Kilimanjaro, but the more waterproof and warm your clothes, the better.

Camp that night was on an open slope beside the Barrancco Wall, a rocky ridge that runs down the southwest face of the mountain. Late afternoon sun warmed and dried us and then the moon, almost full, rose over the towering peak above us, lighting the glacier like a sparkling diamond. No clouds meant a cold night, and there was frost on the tents and ground by morning.

Day Three involved only four hours of walking. First, a zigzag up over the Barranco Wall to around 13,000 feet, and then down again to a well-protected valley a few hundred feet lower. We were climbing around the mountain now, from west to east. Some members of our party had felt the affects of altitude on the first night. A few more the next day. But usually after a night's rest the headaches and nausea were gone.

High altitude, low appetite

The fourth day we pushed out of camp early and headed up a steep slope towards our final camp at just over 14,750 feet. There was little vegetation here, just piles of volcanic rock cracked by ice into interesting shapes. The air was noticeably thinner and moving took more of an effort. After arriving at midday we ate and then rested until dinner.

Despite all the exercise, altitude lessens most appetites. Meals on the mountain consisted of canned soup and then a serving of pasta or stew plus lots of fruit. It was good and hearty, but sometimes you had to force yourself to eat knowing that your body needed the energy even if you weren?t hungry. Chocolate bars and high energy snacks are a must.

After a few hours sleep we were woken at 11pm for the final push on the summit. A brief snack and then we set off. The first hour was easy going but slowly the incline grew steeper. One of our party started vomiting, and after soldiering on for three or four hours, decided to head back to camp. Others began vomiting higher up.

The final push

The word is enervating. Your body feels completely drained, every step is an effort and you have to will yourself on. In the second and third hours I felt strong and sang to myself and dreamed of attempting other continent's highest mountains. By the fourth hour I was cursing myself for being so stupid. Time seemed to slow down and awareness became distorted. I passed someone sitting down on the track. Thinking it was one of our group, I leaned forward and rubbed her arm in encouragement. It turned out she was a stranger. Still, the gesture felt right, and I muttered a word of support before moving on.

We hit the crater rim as the sun was rising, at around 7a.m. Michael, our guide, embraced us and pointed to the summit about an hour's walk around the rim. A few slakes of water and we set off again. Even walking a few steps was difficult. I would prop myself on my walking pole, find a rock 20 feet ahead, and aim for that point. And so I teetered on. At the summit, a signpost details Africa's highest peak. Some 20 people were already there. Reaching the top is an emotional moment. Some people cried. Friends hugged. Everything's a blur. A few photos, and you're ready to head back down.

The descent isn?t easy. Different muscles are suddenly called into action. My spindly knees started aching after less than an hour. Is it worth it? Undoubtedly. The climb is beautiful, especially if you avoid the Marangu route, and the feeling of achievement once you've reached the top is immense — even if it takes a few days to sink in. Would I do it again? Not any time soon. I can still feel the pain of the last hour. But I think most people think of Kilimanjaro as a once in a lifetime adventure. For that, it's hard to beat.