Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was the most terrible and terrific thing I've ever done.

In prospect, this is simply a walk in the park.  But what a walk and what a park!!  The walk is over 100 kilometers, round-trip.  It is never particularly technically difficult [on the usual tourist route].  But the last day-and-a-half, when you are climbing from 12,000 feet to over 18,000 feet, is an absolute killer.  The typical climb takes three days to reach the base of the the main peak.  Late that afternoon you try to sleep and rest for a midnight departure to complete the final climb before the morning clouds come roaring up the mountain and hide not only the view but everything within but a few dozen feet of you.  Although I had developed a very bad headache that kept me from catching any sleep, I nonetheless decided that I had come too far not to at least make the final attempt.  Miraculously, the headache soon disappeared, apparently frozen by the bitter cold that now became a far greater enemy.

A bit past one-third of the way up I had no choice but to confront failure.  My feet had long since gone completely numb; frostbite seemed a very real possibility and I knew I would be in danger to continue.  With huge disappointment, I finally accepted that I had to quit.  My guide forced me a bit further up to Hans Meyer Cave where we stopped to wait for the others to return and to try to bring my tortured feet back to life.  A long rest and the heat of a kerosene lantern under a space-age emergency blanket finally thawed out my feet.  It was getting close to day-break when my guide finally said, "Let's go."  "Where?" I replied.  "Up" he said, pointing at the peak.

I looked at him for some time, first shocked, but then realizing that with the long rest I did feel much better.  Still, I was very afraid that the distance, cold, and lack of fuel (oxygen) would again prove too much for my feet.  But we packed up and tried it one more time.  Fortunately, the sun eventually rose and brought with it enough respite from the numbing cold of the night to allow my feet to function.

Now the enemy was myself -- a body that just could not function without the oxygen it needed to fuel the muscles.  I would take three, four steps -- sometimes only two -- and lean gasping against my climbing stick, trying to will my muscles into functioning again.  The last mile was extremely slow.  I was overwhelmed by the irony of knowing that I was momentarily to collapse in final, total failure, within shouting distance of the top, had I the energy still to shout.  In my utter exhaustion (and, in retrospect, obvious touch of altitude sickness), death seemed the next, and practically welcome, step.  Finally my much smaller, older-appearing guide started to lean against me from behind, pushing me slowly forward up the seemingly endless switchbacks.  The hardest part was the last few hundred meters.  The switchbacks had ended but had been replaced by rocks that had to be climbed.  Although only two to three feet in height, they would have been insurmountable for me without the steady encouragement of that helping hand on my behind.  Finally, Gilman's Point, 18,760 feet high, and an absolute exhiliaration made only more so by the contrast from the despair of defeat that I had felt first a few hours before, and then again a few hundred feet below.

Could I have made it around the crater on to Uhuru peak, at 19,130 feet, the highest point of the mountain?  Certainly not without a long rest, despite my sudden sense of euphoria.

My guide was very eager to have us leave now, fearing the clouds that were soon to approach.  Reluctantly, but now with practically a spring in my steps which increased with each long skidding slide down the skree of the mountain, we rushed straight down the mountainside, quickly gaining strength as the oxygen increased.

Information to help you make your own climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Other climbers' viewpoints on climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro:

Jon Bolton.

Chris Wee.

Mario Bozzi.

Frank Hilliard [see Chapter 13].


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Last modified: March 25, 2000