"Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going."
— Ernest Hemingway,
from "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"
I read these lines from Hemingway's short story in the white glow of my headlamp. Mount Kilimanjaro's top is nearly a vertical mile above me in the darkness. It's eight p.m. In three hours I will be getting up for our midnight summit attempt, and I can't sleep. The combination of altitude, excitement, nausea, and cold keeps me awake.
I arrived in Moshi, Tanzania at the foot of the mountain five days ago. The eight hour bus ride from Nairobi had been long and cramped. Sitting over the engine, I felt its heat through the floorboards and the soles of my shoes. The only white person aboard, I watched out the window as our driver navigated the dusty, rutted roads, gas pedal to the floor, careening toward oncoming buses only to swerve away at the last moment, and avoiding kids, cattle, and pull-cart-donkeys by inches. Whenever I travel there is always a moment, a sudden realization, that I am no longer home. This was it. I watched masses walking alongside the road; a blend of cultures where Maasai people in their traditional, colorful dress and sandals cut from old tires herded cattle on foot next to men in shirts and ties and children in Nike T-shirts.
As the other passengers slept, I gazed out the window, hoping in vain for a glimpse of the mountain. When we finally arrived in Moshi, the overcast sky blocked any view of the mountain, but I could somehow feel Kili's presence.
All the guidebooks recommended a rest day before beginning the trek, a day to decompress and sleep away the jet lag. As I spent my day wandering the streets of Moshi, though, I felt antsy, ready to get going, ready to be doing what I came to Africa to do. I sat on my hostel's rooftop bar trying to read Hemingway's Under Kilimanjaro, but I couldn't concentrate. I kept looking into the clouds. Somewhere up there was the summit, 19,341 feet above sea level, an altitude rarely achieved by the turboprops that fly out of the small airport where I live in Marquette, Michigan.
That night I met my Tanzanian guide, Ben, and the two other climbers in my group, a married couple a few years older than me from Colorado, Aaron and Susan. I'd been apprehensive when I was told this is who I'd be traveling with. I was afraid that they would be yuppie types and that I'd be intruding on their trip, some kind of a third wheel, but as we sat outside talking about skiing the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, they seemed cool.
I spent most of the evening packing and unpacking, trying to choose what gear was worth bringing, unable to decide if that third pair of underwear would be worth its weight. I finished reading Under Kilimanjaro just after midnight, knowing that the thick hardcover would be too bulky to bring along, a paperback Green Hills of Africa already stowed in my pack.
I woke early. The plan had been to leave at eight, but we sat around frustrated and eager to get moving until Ben and a few of our porters picked us up in a shuttle van at eleven. The trailhead of the Rongai Route was a three-hour drive from here on the northern slopes of the mountain near the Kenyan border. Another cramped, dusty ride, and another look into a different culture. The economy of the lower slopes of the mountain is based on coffee and bananas; the plants growing together alongside the road, the coffee in the shade of the banana trees. Again, hundreds of people walked up and down the road, many carrying bushels of bananas on their heads. It was clear that owning a wheelbarrow was a distinction of class, allowing a person to haul three bushels to market at a time instead of just one. The van slowed at a busy intersection. One of the porters handed money out the window in exchange for several bananas which he passed around.
When we arrived at the trailhead, Ben introduced us to our team of porters, most of whom had been in a different van, and I thought there must be a mistake. I couldn't imagine our small group of three climbers needing this team of twelve people, including Ben, an assistant guide, and a cook. As we watched the porters sort out the mountain of gear—tents, food, a propane tank, fold-up table and chairs, none of it the backpacker-friendly type of stuff they sell in the expensive sporting goods stores back home—I realized that the shear logistics of preparing a trip like this was what had held us up this morning.
As the porters divided the load, I looked out at the Kenyan plains below where Hemingway spent his second hunting safari in the early 1950s. His first safari, the one that had been the inspiration for "Snows" and "Green Hills" had been twenty years prior, and had also been in Kenya and what was then called Tanganyika. Not far from here was the town Loitokitok, where Ernest bought beer for the Maasai elders during his frequent shopping trips.
Hemingway, like me, came from a middle-class family, and we both spent our boyhood summers playing in the woods and lakes of Michigan. We both loved the Michigan that we grew up in, but felt the pull of places distant and foreign. Our similarities, for me, are part of his appeal. The biggest difference that I see between us is that when he was my age, twenty-six, he published In Our Time and had almost finished The Sun Also Rises. My first book, a 200-page stack of paper printed on the English Department printers at my school, sits at the bottom of a desk drawer.
With the porters lined up to weigh their loads (each is permitted to carry up to thirty-five pounds, not including his own personal gear), we began hiking with Ben. The first day's short and easy three-hour hike started on a Jeep trail through cornfields where we stepped over elephant shit. The trail narrowed to single track through jungle and forest. We walked at a slow pace, stopping to watch Aaron give chocolate to the children of farmers, to photograph monkeys, and to let the porters pass. They moved quickly, double our speed, each carrying a huge load on his head. We arrived at Simba Camp, at about 8,000 feet, in the declining light of early evening, and our tents had already been set up.
One of the porters brought us bowls of hot water to wash our hands, then lead us to a dining tent where a candle on the table illuminated a thermos of hot water and a box of tea bags. The extravagance was too much. Most of my trek had been paid by a grant for graduate students at my school. I'd charged my plane ticket to a credit card, and paid the other trip expenses with student loan money, for which my dad had to cosign. This was unnecessary luxury.
The porter brought us creamed cucumber soup, made from fresh vegetables, then yams with beef sauce, more hot water for tea, then sliced avocados and oranges for dessert. The strange feeling of being catered to and waited on is something that I talked a lot about with Aaron and Susan and is something that we didn't get used to. When I'm camping I'm perfectly content sitting on the ground eating bagels and beef jerky and just-add-water powdered whatever. Throughout the trip I had to keep telling myself that this was their livelihood. If we didn't have this table and chairs, one of the porters wouldn't have a job.
During dinner we made fart jokes, and the conversation revolved around the use of Tanzanian toilets, holes in the ground where aim didn't necessarily seem important. I knew I was in good company.
Outside the mess tent the sky had cleared. What had just been clouds was now a brilliant display of stars. For several minutes the three of us stood outside the tents looking up. The sky gave me hope for a clear day tomorrow, a day where I might be able to see the top.
The night air felt cold, far colder than I had expected on the first night, and I wondered if I had packed enough warmth. I opened my tent, the one that had been set up for me, my duffel bag placed inside. I crawled into my sleeping bag and listened to the porters clean up our dinner tent, and I felt bad about it.
My headlamp illuminated the pages of "Green Hills." I came to a passage where Hemingway talks about the African sky. "This was a better sky than Italy. The hell it was. The best sky was in Italy and Spain and Northern Michigan in the fall and in the fall in the Gulf off Cuba. You could beat this sky; but not this country." I've not yet been to Italy or Spain or Cuba, but I thought of a September midnight standing on a beach watching the stars smeared like a painted ceiling over Lake Superior; there seemed to be more light than dark. I agreed with Papa. The sky tonight was damn brilliant, but it didn't compare to Michigan.
I read about Kilimanjaro in a magazine as a kid and had wanted to climb it since, but I never had serious thoughts of a trip until a few years ago when an ex-girlfriend and I made some vague plans. The guidebook I used to plan this trip was a Christmas gift from her, and it no doubt came with a card saying that she couldn't wait to spend her life seeing the world with me. There was once the thought that Africa's highest point is where I would propose, but now I'm here, she's 8,000 miles away, and we haven't spoken in months. The idea seems stupid.
I opened my tent flap at 6:30 a.m. to clear skies and my first view of the peaks. I saw Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro's eastern peak. Even in the light of the rising sun it looked dark, jagged, and craggy jutting into the blue sky like the backdrop of some early vampire film. Mawenzi means "the dark," but Kilimanjaro's western peak, Kibo, "the bright," is where we're headed. It was Kibo that I saw next, its summit round and unbelievably high, and its snowcaps barely visible from that angle. These snowcaps are melting quickly due to global warming and deforestation at the base of the mountain. They may be gone completely within ten years.
The air felt cold, even in the morning sun, and I wore long pants and a sweatshirt while I ate porridge, eggs, sausage, and fresh fruit for breakfast outside the dining tent. As we hiked, though, it became hot, and I stripped down to shorts and a T-shirt, and could feel sweat spreading out across my back. Today's journey took us through the heath and moorland zone where trees and alpine scrub lined the trail until we reached the treeline just before lunch. During lunch break clouds rolled in, dropping the temperature, then rolled back out, raising it again. On our afternoon hike to camp at Cave Three, just under 13,000 feet above sea level, I noticed myself breathing a little heavier. I took some Tylenol, trying to keep the headache away.
Our tents stood in a rocky valley. I sat outside in my puffy coat, gloves, and knit hat watching the fog move quickly through our valley. The large gray clouds settled below us and I felt content, happy to be on an adventure; something different, something new.
Anyone who's read Hemingway's story knows its famous epigraph: "Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Ngàje Ngài,' the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." Hemingway's original manuscript of the story, though, had a second epigraph, a quote from Vivienne de Watteville's African memoir Speak to the Earth, a book that Hemingway no doubt read while on safari. The quote comes from a section of the book in which an unnamed advisor tells de Watteville about how to put together a Kilimanjaro expedition: "The difficulties, he said, were not in the actual climbing. It was a long grind, and success depended not on skill, but on one's ability to withstand the high altitude. His parting words were that I must make the attempt soon, before there was any risk of the rains setting in." For whatever reason, Hemingway opted to delete this second epigraph from his story before it was published in the August 1936 issue of Esquire.
As we departed camp our assistant guide David, with whom we had become friends smiled his wide, toothy grin and asked, "Mambo vipi?," slang meaning something like, "What's up?"
"Poa kichizi kama tango," I said, which Ben had taught us to mean, "cool as a cucumber."
David laughed and said, "hakuna matata," no worries; a phrase that would have been a whole lot more wonderful if Elton John hadn't written a Disney song about it.
We ascended the trail of loose rock, the scrub bushes of the alpine desert becoming smaller and more scarce until there was nothing but rock and an occasional plant that Ben called Everlasting Flower. I was now higher than I had ever been, even as a chairlift operator working at the top of Copper Mountain in Colorado, and I was definitely feeling the altitude, lightheadedness and headache. I felt short of breath and my heart bounded in my chest at even the slightest scramble up a small rock face.
"Poli poli," Ben kept saying; slowly slowly, urging us to keep our unhurried pace. This sluggish pace had been annoying on the first day of the trek, but now I was happy for it.
We spotted animal dung along the side of the trail that Ben identified as buffalo. Like Hemingway's leopard, we wondered what it was doing this high on the mountain, a question that could have also been asked of us.
The mind wanders while poli poli hiking, and we spent most of the day's trek in silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I began to write sentences, then whole passages, in my head with no way of converting them to paper. I pulled a pen from my pocket and scribbled some notes on my hand.
We reached the saddle between Kibo and Mawenzi peaks and got our first view of the glaciers on the south face of Kibo, but clouds quickly rolled in to cover the summit. It was still so high above us that the thought of standing on it seemed ridiculous.
There had been a few other groups on the Rongai route at the same time as us. They had spent their nights at the same camps, and we had gotten to know several of the people, talking on lunch breaks and in the evenings, but it was always quiet. Arriving at Kibo Hut, our last camp, was a shock. Most of the routes up Kilimanjaro converged here, including the most frequently travelled Marangu route, often called the Coca-Cola Route because of the sheer number of tourists that hike it. A bustling place, hundreds of people milled around Kibo Hut speaking many languages, everyone preparing for their summit attempts.
I found a rock to sit on in a quiet corner of camp and took out my notebook. I tried to make out the notes I had written on my hand a few hours prior, but they were incomprehensible. I struggled to remember the details of the day. As I wrote, the altitude caused my pen to explode, and ink flowed across my fingers. I gave up on writing and pulled my bagged lunch out of my pack, but I had no appetite.
The porters finished setting up our tents. They wouldn't be going any further up the mountain but would wait for us here during our summit attempt. As I walked toward my tent, altitude sickness hit me like a train. The nausea came on fast and strong. In the pit-latrine I sprayed vomit that looked like water. This helped a little. I felt alright lying still in my sleeping bag, but anytime I moved the nausea took over.
I didn't want to get out of the tent at dinnertime, earlier than usual, but I thought that I should try to eat. The overwhelming smell of the vegetable soup, though, forced me to leave the mess tent to vomit. I came back and ate a few spoonfuls of rice. Aaron and Susan seemed fine, but they both said they were queasy. After dinner we said goodnight. Though I felt awful, the clouds had parted, and the view from Kibo Hut was too beautiful to ignore. I sat on a rock and looked out at Mawenzi Peak rising from the clouds, glowing orange in the early evening sun. I tried not to think about the nausea or the headache or the possibility that I would be incapable of reaching the top.
We awake at eleven p.m. I've had probably an hour or so of sleep, but I feel surprisingly good, and I think that I must have vomited out whatever was in my system. I dress and crawl out of the tent. It is covered in frost, and the air is cold but pleasant. I choke down a glass of tea and a few biscuit cookies and am ready, my daypack loaded and on my back.
The waning gibbous moon is bright enough that we barely need our headlamps as we begin the ascent from camp. The trail begins gradually but is soon steep switchbacks in loose rock and scree. I imagine it would be like walking on the gravel of my elementary school playground if it were at a thirty-degree pitch.
Above us the headlamps of another group dance up and down in the darkness. I turn around to see many more below us. There is a thin cloud cover, and in the gaps between the clouds I see the lights of villages on the Tanzanian plains miles below us. The moon illuminates Mawenzi Peak towering through the clouds, its top still above our vantage point. We move in silence, Ben in the lead and David at the rear. Our pace is not fast, but is steady, and we pass the group in front of us. There are no more lamps above.
During a short break, another group meets us and we form a single file line. Their guides sing in Swahili. The tempo is slow and keeps us in rhythm. It allows me to shut off my brain. It is pleasant, and high on the mountain in the night, surreal.
The trail steepens again, and each step becomes more labored. I keep my head down and focus the beam of my lamp on Susan's pack in front of me. My own pack weighs about twenty-five pounds, but it feels more like eighty, and it begins to take every part of me, mentally and physically, just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Someone with an altimeter watch says we've traveled 1,100 feet above camp. Aaron tries to compute how much vertical we have left and comes up with some ridiculous figure that makes no sense, fifty-something, and I know the altitude is getting to him as well. I try to take a sip of water from my camelBak, but the tube is frozen. I feel more exhausted than I've ever felt.
There is a sudden urge to vomit and I puke just off the trail. Ben continues on with Aaron and Susan while David stays behind with me. By the time I am done, their headlamps are distant dots of light. David has taken the water bottle from my pack. He unscrews the lid and hands it to me. As I drink I look around and see the first traces of the snows of Kilimanjaro; small patches that glow in the moonlight. David and I continue on.
The trail disappears into a steep field of boulders. I climb on all fours, taking great care in placing hands and feet in the correct spots. Headlamp beams bob impossibly high above us as we climb like this for far too long. They never seem to get any closer until Ben calls down to us from fifty feet above. I realize by the three stationary beams that they must be taking a break at Gillman's Point on Kibo's crater rim. Ten minutes later, though, as I finally pull myself over the last boulder onto the rim, they are gone.
We take a short break here. I sip some water, David snaps a photo of me next to the Gillman's Point sign, and then I vomit. I look at my watch; four a.m. We've been hiking for four hours. David tells me that the trail is easy from here, not steep. I ask him how much longer to the summit. Maybe two hours, he says. I take another sip of water and realize I am shivering. I have sweat through four layers, including my 700-fill down coat, and the air that had felt exhilarating a few hours before now feels frigid. We keep moving.
David is right, the trail from Gillman's is not as steep. Back home this would be a nice Sunday hike, but it doesn't seem any easier. I feel like I'm hammered drunk, stumbling home after bar close; I'm staring at the ground in front of me, and my feet just won't seem to go where my brain tells them to. Several times I almost fall, and several more times I vomit. David keeps telling me, "Poli, poli. Slow like a chameleon." And I can't imagine how I could be moving any slower.
We stop for another break at Stella Point where the Machame route meets the crater rim. We are now above 19,000 feet, and the snowfields are expansive on either side of the trail. David sits on a rock and pulls a thermos of tea from his pack. I tell him I don't want any, but he insists. I take a sip and immediately feel it coming back up. I puke off the trail onto the snow; the same snow that made such an impression on Hemingway, until there is nothing left in me, and I am dry-heaving. I look up and realize that David is standing next to me, his hand on my back. "Let's go," I say.
We pass several groups of people who look as exhausted as me. One man is leaning on trekking poles vomiting onto the middle of the trail. He doesn't even bother to project the liquid out in front of him, so it spills down the front of his coat. His guide holds onto his arm, supporting some of his weight. David and I exit the trail to pass them; no words are exchanged.
The snow becomes thicker so that we are walking on top of it. It is icy and uneven; difficult to find footing. In the first traces of pre-dawn light we meet Ben, Aaron, and Susan. They have tagged the summit and are on their way back down. "It's not far, man," Aaron says, "just over this rise." Susan looks in rough shape and says nothing. Before we part ways Ben and David exchange a few words in Swahili. I can't understand them, but I have the feeling that Ben is asking how I'm doing.
"Just over this rise" turns into several rises until I can finally see it in the distance, the top of Africa. There are a dozen people there, and I can see the wooden sign indicating the summit that I have seen in so many photographs. I feel tears on my cheeks. At 19,000 feet there is roughly half the amount of oxygen as there is at sea-level, and my brain in the thin air can't come up with any reaction other than crying. The tears freeze.
The summit doesn't seem real. It is six a.m. and the sun is just beginning to rise above the clouds behind Mawenzi Peak. I snap several photos of my surroundings; fellow climbers standing here in silent awe, clouds pillowed miles below, horizon-bound, immense glaciers rising from nothing, lit by dawn. David hands my camera to another guide who takes the obligatory shots of us in front of the Uhuru Peak sign designating this Africa's highest point and the world's highest free-standing mountain.
"You have Facebook?" David asks.
"Yes," I say, "I'll put pictures on Facebook," and I realize that I live in a different time than Hemingway.
Then we are on our way down, having spent a mere five minutes on top. I think about the ridiculous ratio of time and effort spent getting here to the time actually on the summit.
The only cure for altitude sickness is descent, and David is in a hurry to get down. I realize now that this must be what Ben told him when we last met. I am full of adrenaline, and this first part of the descent is easy. There is a steady stream of weary climbers still on their way up. I tell them the summit is not far. As the morning sun intensifies so does the landscape. Down in the crater a thousand feet below, the shadows of massive boulders stretch out in the red dirt. I stop several times to take photos, but David is in a hurry, so I don't take as many as I'd like.
By the time we reach Gillman's Point, the adrenaline is gone, and the fatigue takes over. Now it feels like it is the one hour of sleep followed by six hours of intense hiking that is wearing on me rather than just the altitude. My throat is dry. I suck on my camelBak, but the tube is still mostly frozen, and I hope that the sun will thaw it soon. As I pick my way down the steep field of boulders I look down and see camp, miniscule, so far below. I am glad that we made the climb in the dark; being able to see the sheer immensity of this obstacle as we ascended it would have been too daunting.
We are through the boulder field, and are back on the loose scree. The sun is severe and the trail, no longer frozen as it was in the night, is a mess of red dust that I can taste each time I inhale. It is chalky and dry and mixes with the taste of vomit that still lingers in my mouth. We descend the fall line in long strides, letting gravity take over. I imagine that it would be fun in different circumstances, like running down the giant sand dunes back in Michigan. But my legs feel tired and wobbly and I know that I can't trust them enough to really get going with any speed. We pass a large group hiking up the switchback in a single file line, just beginning their day-time summit attempt. I don't envy them. All I want is to get back to camp, but it still looks tiny far below, and the descent seems endless.
I stumble into camp at around 9:15 a.m. The summit was three hours ago; nine hours since we left camp. It feels like another lifetime, though. David shakes my hand and so do a few of our porters who are hanging out by their tent. I unzip my own and fall in. I lay there on top of my sleeping bag, my feet out the door. One of the porters comes and pours me a glass of pineapple juice. I chug it, then continue to lie there for a long time before gathering the strength to take off my boots and gators.
Ben wakes me at eleven a.m. The short nap has done little to cure my exhaustion, and the thought of another three-hour hike to our next camp is too much. It is not yet noon, but this already feels like the longest day of my life. The only consolation is the idea that getting a few thousand feet closer to sea level may cure my nausea.
I try to shut off my mind for the next three hours, and in large part I succeed. Though I struggle to keep up with Ben, my legs feeling like spaghetti in the afternoon heat, I am able to block out the exhaustion and trudge forward. The view behind us is amazing—Mawenzi to the east and Kibo's iconic south face to the west, its square, snow-capped top just like so many pictures I have seen. I only look for a moment, though, then I stop bothering to lift my head. The small scrub vegetation begins to appear again, then bushes, and finally trees. And then camp. Horombo Hut; a metropolis of wooden A-frames built for the trekkers of the Marangu route. Our tents are in a quiet corner of the camp, up above the huts, so that as I zip my tent door I see them silhouetted against the sun, lowering over the blanket of clouds spread out below us.
The exuberant voices and laughter of the porters wake me. Everyone is in a good mood. It's the last day of our successful trek, and for the porters, it's pay day.
My body is sore and stiff, but this is a good thing. I feel much better, and am able to eat more for breakfast than I have in the last day-and-a-half combined.
Today there will be five more hours of quick hiking down through the clouds, through the jungle and past the monkeys. We will pass summit-bound trekkers and day-hikers walking in the opposite direction. They will ask, "Did you guys make it?" They'll congratulate us and ask, "Was it hard?"
Tonight at the hotel we will drink beers and share stories. Tomorrow is Independence Day, and for the first time in my life I will miss the silly parade of fire trucks and combine tractors in my hometown, the Lions Club chicken dinner in the park, and fireworks over the lake, but it does not matter.
Right now I am on the mountain. The snows of Kilimanjaro are thousands of feet above me, the clouds thousands of feet below. After breakfast the porters sing to us. It is the same song that we heard in the middle of the night hiking up the face of the mountain, but the tempo is much different. It is no longer a dirge meant to keep us in poli poli rhythm, but is a celebration. They clap the beat and dance in circles.
In all the time Hemingway spent in this mountain's shadow, he never climbed beyond its lowest slopes. His snows of Kilimanjaro topped a distant peak, viewed from down there on the plains. My snows, though, are not too far behind me, and I felt them this morning crunching beneath my feet as I walked, albeit weakly, directly upon them.
Images appear courtesy of Colin Clancy.