illustration by Amy Curkendall

illustration by Amy Curkendall

February 2014

Publisher's View: Kilimanjaro

Steven J. Moss

The first time my older sister, Marissa, asked me if she and two of her boys should climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, I discouraged her.

“Why would you do that? It sounds like a real slog,” I said.

“Well, Simon wants to do it,” Marissa said.

Simon is Marissa’s oldest. After starting a post-college job at REI he’d dived into outdoor adventures, particularly mountain climbing. Marissa and I talked for a few more minutes about Africa, a continent I’d visited a dozen times, and alternatives to climbing Kilimanjaro, before saying our goodbyes. I thought she’d decided not to tackle the mountain.


“Do you want to climb Kilimanjaro with us,” Marissa asked over the telephone, a few weeks later.

“Huh? I thought you decided not to do that,” I said.

“Well, Simon convinced me that, other than the safari, it’s the best thing to do while we’re in Tanzania. Plus Asa said he’d do it.”

Asa was the youngest, a freshman at Johns Hopkins University. Since her husband, Harvey, died more than 10 years ago, every winter Marissa traveled with her three sons to a different international locale. But Elias, the middle son, had joined the Israeli army —he’d recently been shifted from elite special forces to the attack dog unit —and wasn’t available for this year’s trip. If not exactly his replacement, I’d take the slot he’d left open.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” I said, without much thought.

It’d be great to spend time with my sister and nephews; I was pleased to have been asked. And a good friend of mine had climbed the mountain a number of years ago. While it did seem like a slog, the main hardship he’d mentioned was the need to drink a lot of water, and having to pee all of the time as result. That seemed like a burden I could carry.


I’m not much of a mountaineer. I climbed Mount Shasta, 14,180 feet tall, almost 30 years ago; the highest I’ve gone outside an airplane. I am, however, a dedicated walker, regularly hiking San Francisco’s hills and valleys, and rambling from my Mission District home to Dogpatch office. I was confident —perhaps to a fault —that I, even at age 53, could scale Kilimanjaro, a massif that required determination and solid legs, but no technical skills.

Still, the altitude worried me. I’d read Into Thin Air, which chronicled how a group of expert mountaineers had lost their lives at the top of Mount Everest. But that peaks at 29,029 feet, compared to Kilimanjaro’s 19,340. And while temperatures at the top of Kilimanjaro can dip to 20 degrees below zero in January, when we’d be climbing, Everest can reach -33 degrees. The mountains, and the dangers they posed, didn’t seem comparable.


“That’s completely irresponsible!” blurted Jeff, at a dinner party my wife, Debbie, and I were hosting, when I told him about my Kilimanjaro plans.

“What do you mean,” I asked, “It’s not like I’m climbing Everest.”

“You have a family,” he countered. “It’s just irresponsible.”

He shook his head and turned his attention back to his plate, signaling that this part of the conversation was over. I looked at his bowed cranium. It wasn’t the reaction I’d expected; most people I’d told responded with “cool!” or “I’m so jealous!” though one colleague looked me over and spat out, “You? You’re climbing Mount Kilimanjaro!?” as if I told him I was going to compete in the Ms. World competition.

I didn’t take Jeff’s admonishment too seriously; he was a luxury hotel kind of guy, and generally despised camping. But he was smart and successful. I found myself coming back to his remarks regularly throughout the climb, mentally fingering them like a smooth stone. Was I being irresponsible?


A van picked us up at our hotel near Arusha, and took us to a staging area at the base of the mountain. We joined small groups of adventurers huddled with their gear inside a large gazebo, speaking French, Portuguese, and Australian-accented English.

“We’re the oldest people here,” I said to Marissa, glancing around at the other climbers.

“I guess we are,” she said, grimacing. “But not the oldest who has ever climbed.” She’d previously read in a guide book that an 80 year old had made it to the top.

Simon and Asa joked about which of the international groups would die on the mountain.

“It’ll be the French,” Simon claimed, “It’s always the French.”

Our guide, Adronis, joined us, and introduced our support team, a ragtag crew of a dozen porters, a cook, and an assistant guide. They were dressed in clothes that had been discarded by previous climbers—North Face jackets; Columbia windbreakers. Several of the porters wore boots that looked too large for them, or too worn.

“Do you all have climbing sticks,” Adronis asked.

“Everyone but me,” I responded. “I’ve never used walking sticks in my life, and I’m not going to start now.”

Adronis eyed me skeptically. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”


We were on the seven day Machame route, which Marissa had chosen as having the greatest diversity of landscapes, as well as most likely to give us the time we needed to adjust to high altitude. The vast majority of those who attempted this route summited. On the first day we climbed to Machame Camp, a mildly threatening 9,350 feet. We hiked for roughly five hours through a forest of low trees and brush, spotted with colorful flowers, reaching our campsite in the late afternoon. Our tents had already been pitched, with dinner of soup and fried fish soon on its way. After playing a round of cards in the small dining tent that our porters had erected for us, we all retired early, tired, but looking forward to the next day. We were on our way.


In the morning we headed to Shira, 12,500 feet high. As I grunted up the steep trail, I noticed that breathing had become more difficult. Three hours into the day we stopped for a picnic lunch of hardboiled eggs, crackers, and a mostly inedible cucumber sandwich with a wedge of lard pushed into the bread — we’d be issued this same ration for the next three days; for all we knew it was the same rejected portion — sitting on rocks with spectacular views of lava tubes and glacial valleys. Four hours later we were at our campsite, with soup and rice for dinner.

That night in my tent I woke up with a start, as if surfacing from a deep dive. I couldn’t catch my breath; my heart was racing. I laid in my sleeping bag, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. I fought against the panic rising in my chest.


Three decades previously, a few months after I’d been certified to scuba dive 30 feet below the surface of murky, algae-choked Monterey Bay, I found myself following the fast disappearing fins of one of my new companions on a 165 foot dive off the Cayman Islands. My heart pounded like a jackhammer; panic started to seize me. What was I doing diving to such depths, just after being certified?

I thought about surfacing, but knew that if I did I’d never hear the end of it from the group of gung-ho strangers I’d randomly joined on this packaged dive tour: a nuclear engineer who, even back then, confidently insisted that his day would come again; the dive master, who had seamlessly sliced into the water on his way to fetch the dive boat that was anchored offshore. I could die physically, crushed by thousands of pounds of pressure when I ran out of air; or I could die of embarrassment. I quickened my kick, speeding towards the fins below me before I lost them entirely.


Lying in my tent, on the second night on the mountain, I promised myself I wouldn’t keep climbing if I thought it would endanger my health. After a while, my heart beat slowed. But it was still hard to breath.


“This is what the start of an asthma attack feels like,” said Marissa, at breakfast the next day.

I’d asked my sister about the wisdom of climbing the mountain given that she had asthma. She countered that she talked to her doctor about it, who said it was fine. And, she didn’t have that kind of asthma, she insisted, referring to the exercise-induced disease.

“I know it’s magical thinking,” Marissa said, “But I’m climbing this mountain in the hopes it’ll keep Elias safe. And, anyway, this is nothing compared to what he’s had to do in the Israeli army; hiking for days carrying 50 pounds of gear.”

“I dunno,” I said. “I think it’d be easier to schlep 50 pounds than climb at this altitude. Anyway, let’s both agree: if we don’t think we can make it, it’s okay to stop.”

“Agreed,” said Marissa.


We spent a long day meandering up and down boulder-strewn passes on our way to Barranco Camp. When the cartoon-fluffy white clouds cleared we could see the top of Kilimanjaro. We hiked to a lava tower 15,190 feet high, and then climbed back down to end the day just 500 feet above where we started. We were mostly biding our time as our bodies acclimated to the altitude. Although my legs felt strong, a shadow of road weariness flickered over me. I hadn’t camped this many days in four or five years

The next day we hiked to Karanga Camp —13,500 feet—on our way to Barafu Camp—15,260 feet—which would serve as base for our final climb to the summit. It took less than four hours to get from Barranca to Karanga, a stroll on the beach given the previous days. Still, a bout of the runs had Asa dashing behind rocks a couple of times. Already slender, he looked like he was shedding pounds before our eyes. It didn’t help that he’d had the flu just before he’d left for Africa.


“I wonder whether there’s a trade-off between wearing down your body on the longer route, and getting to the summit sooner,” I said. “Maybe we should just go directly to Barafu, and cut a night off this trip.”

“Yeah,” said Marissa. “This is getting tiring, sleeping in tents. The outhouses are awful! And the food is terrible, with such small portions!” she joshed, riffing off an ancient joke from the Catskills. “But we need to get used to the altitude.”

“I guess,” I said.  “But it almost feels like we’re getting weaker.  And while they’re doing their best, the food reminds me of what it’s like to eat in Africa if you’re not staying at five star hotel; at some point it just doesn’t seem worth the effort to chew.”

Marissa grinned. We kept hiking, sucking in as much oxygen as possible from the thin air. The landscape continued to be dominated by boulders, with extraordinary views of Mount Meru and glacial valleys. As we traversed the ridges cold winds buffeted us. I was kept warm by my Patagonia fleece, and the occasional bursts of sunshine between the intermittent clouds.


That evening at Karanga Camp, Simon appeared in the dining tent looking blotchy and pale.

“You don’t look so good,” I said to him.

“I just have a headache,” Simon snapped, tight lipped. He looked at his plate. “And I’m not hungry.”

“Oh no,” Marissa exclaimed, “Altitude sickness!”

“No, it feels like sunstroke,” Simon countered.

“But you’ve been wearing a hat,” I said. “How could it be sunstroke?”

Simon grimaced at me. “I’m going to lie down,” he said. He stumbled to the tent he shared with Asa.

“That’s kind of ironic,” I said. “He’s the mountaineer in our group. What if he can’t make it?”

“Don’t say that,” barked Asa. “He’ll be fine. We’re all going to make it.”

We turned our attention to our dinner: the usual soup and rice with a meat sauce. Marissa’s sauce was meatless, since she was a vegetarian. She shifted the grains around on her plate.

“I can’t eat this,” she said. “I’m not hungry.” She put her fork down.

“Mom, you gotta eat,” said Asa. “You need the energy.”

She took a few more small bites before we all retired to our tents.

 

The next day Simon arrived at breakfast in the pink; whatever had slowed him down had passed. It was a good thing, because over the next 24 hours we’d either summit, or not. The goal was to hike to Barafu Camp, rest, and then depart at midnight for the final bid, straight up 4,000 feet to the top.

We made it to Barafu in roughly three hours, hiking through bouts of bitter winds. All of us were tired. Headaches floated like bubbles in our brains, and then popped. Patches of sunburn were visible on our faces and necks. Marissa was feeling bursts of nausea.

At lunch in the dining tent I swallowed several aspirins, hoping to tamp down any pre-summit pains.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Simon.

“Why,” I said. “It seems like it’d help with my circulation.”

A few minutes later I felt faint, my blood draining to my feet. “I don’t feel so good,” I said.

“You don’t look so good,” said Marissa. “You look white!”

“Yeah,” said Asa. “Your sunburn marks are gone. You actually look kind of healthy.”

“I think it’s the aspirin,” I said. The fainting feeling was beginning to subside.

“I told you it wasn’t a good idea,” Simon declared.


That afternoon we slept fitfully in our tents. Mine was positioned with a glorious view of Mount Kibo. I stared at the mountain, picking animal shapes out of the huge clouds that floated by it, a sky feature that we’re deprived of in San Francisco.

One of the porters, who also served as our waiter, woke us up at 11 p.m. for a late-night snack before we ascended. It was freezing. I put on everything I had: long-underwear, two pairs of workout pants, cotton t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, fleece, ski parka, alpine hat and gloves. Though it was less high-tech than the others, who had been better outfitted by Simon, I was warm enough as I scrambled out of my tent.

The cook seemed to have prepared all of the remaining food supplies: millet porridge—which, after a half-dozen days, none of us could choke down—French toast, and scrambled eggs. Though we suffered from Africa-induced loss of appetite, we ate as much as we could. Marissa even seemed to enjoy the eggs.

 

At midnight Adronis led us past dozens of other encampments, on our way to the summit, our headlamps illuminating the rocky ground. The night sky was stunning, pinpricked by millions of stars, with patterns of familiar constellations—Orion; Scorpio —brilliantly outlined. As we passed the ranger’s cabin, I looked at the top of the mountain. Short lines of lights weaved their way up the slope; other climbers, their headlamps switched on, were making their attempts. It felt like we’d entered into another dimension, the air heavy yet thin, gravity pressing down like a leaden blanket. Or perhaps we’d become characters in a darkly animated feature by Hayao Miyazaki.

We shuffled like zombies, breathing heavily. Adronis in the front, our assistant guide, Michael, in the rear. Sometimes we passed other groups leaning against rocks; occasionally they elbowed past us. Everyone was moving slowly, heads down. As we shuffled forward I’d feel overheated — my heart pounding in a familiar way when I got too hot — which I tried to regulate by taking off my hat and gloves, and unzipping my parka, only to bundle up again went it got too cold.

“Keep going,” Adronis sang out. “Don’t fall asleep.”

“I feel nauseous,” Marissa said, sitting on a rock. “I have to stop.” She doubled over, breathing heavily. “I think I’m going to throw up!”

“If she has to quit, support her,” I said to Asa and Simon, who stood next to me in the darkness. They nodded.

Marissa got up; we continued our zombie shuffle. Adronis regularly exhorted us to keep going. Simon, checking his GPS, announced that we didn’t have much further to go. Marissa complained about her stomach, sat down, climbed for a while, and then sat down again.

Dawn started to break, with a dim burst of sun illuminating the corners of a mass of clouds that towered towards us. As I stopped to admire the view, I noted that my heart was beating even faster than before. I turned to keep climbing; the pressure on my heart increased.

“We’re almost there,” shouted Adronis. “Keep going!”

I struggled behind the other three. It now felt like God had reached into my chest, grabbed my heart, and was squeezing. I sat on a boulder.

“Keep going,” I waved at the group. “I gotta rest. I’ll try to catch-up.” I sat and watched as the sun continued its slow ascent. It was as beautiful a sunrise as I’d ever seen. The sky looked like it had expanded; sunrays softly filtered through herds of clouds. The pressure on my heart continued. Michael came back to check on me.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s my heart,” I said.

“Do you have heart problems?

“No, but I don’t want to start now.”

He looked up the mountain. “It’s only ten feet to the summit. You should try to get there.”

“Okay,” I said, getting to my feet. It wasn’t far to the top, but God hadn’t released my heart from his grip. I handed my camera to Michael. “Please give this to Simon.” He hurried up the slope, seemingly unmolested by the altitude.

I trudged to the top, and sat down on a boulder. An elderly guide, accompanying a thirty-something Asian woman, ambled over to me.

“You made it to Stella Point, 18,800 feet! It’s just a little further to Uhuru Peak. Just 500 feet more, and you’re on the top of Africa!” The guide gently buttoned the top of my coat, to make sure I was warm, and patted my chest and shoulders.

“Is it much of a climb,” I asked him.

“No, just a small incline. You’ll be there before you know it.”

I didn’t move. My heart still felt like it was in God’s grip. I looked at the path leading to Uhuru Peak, down which my relatives had disappeared. I wondered whether I should try to make it, while simultaneously questioning why I’d want to do that. Debbie would kill me if I died on the mountain. Before I made up my mind, Adronis and Michael appeared.

“You’re going down with Michael,” shouted Adronis. “Now!”

“Okay,” I said.


As soon as I got below 18,000 feet the pressure on my heart released. I was tired, but no longer in any pain. Michael skidded down the loose stones like he was a dirt skiing; I followed as fast as I could, enjoying the view, and the sensation that I was free from the need to summit. I’d gone as far as I could, and that was good enough.

I looked over at the string of groups, still ascending in the early morning light.

“Do you think they’ll make it,” I asked Michael.

“Probably not,” he said. “At this point they’ve suffered too much: dizziness, nausea, and who knows what else. Once the sun comes up they can see the top of the mountain, and how far away from it they are.” He looked up the slope, and shook he’s head. “They’ve suffered too much,” he repeated.


Marissa, Simon, and Asa reached Uhuru Peak, with its spectacular view of the glacier landscape. They stayed less than 10 minutes before following me on the long hike down the mountain.

“I had to sit down twice on the final trail,” said Marissa. “I was so nauseous. You did the right thing, going back. And you climbed the mountain without sticks! Pretty impressive.”


What we carry up a mountain, we can bring back down, or leave at the top. Asa and Simon brought their youth, which they kept with them afterwards, perhaps to take them to another peak. Marissa lugged her worries about Elias, a steep walking prayer to keep him safe. As for me, I traveled up the mountain on legs made strong by a lifetime of journeys, and left at the summit any further need to test my heart against such challenges. I need that muscle for other things.

 

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