Kilimanjaro: Up the World's Biggest Birthday Present
Jan 29, 2005
David Rich 1600 Words
"...as wide as all the world, great, high and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro." Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
KILIMANJARO: U p t h e W o r l d ' s B i g g e s t B i r t h d a y P r e s e n t
Kilimanjaro, the world's biggest birthday present, sprawls like a bundt birthday cake drizzled with the continent's coldest icing. When Kili was discovered by Europeans in 1848 the Royal Geographical Society of Britain ridiculed Kilimanjaro as impossible. The world's highest freestanding mountain (80 x 40 Km; 50 x 25 miles), out by its lonesome and practically on the equator, simply couldn't exist, at least not with a perpetual cover of snow. But the Brits finally relented to reality and during the halcyon days of the Empire in 1886 Queen Victoria legendarily gave Kilimanjaro as a royal birthday present to her mountain-fancying grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm. Thus the formerly straight line between British East Africa (Kenya) and German Tanganyika (Tanzania) was gerrymandered to kerplunk Kili as Germany's newest mountain. Now Germans, Brits and seemingly everyone wants to climb this birthday present that looks like a birthday cake, up to the roof of Africa, anxious to risk their extremities in a deep freeze of dangerous delight, a challenge I couldn't resist.
Moments after I'd fallen asleep in preparation for the midnight assault on Kili's summit my tent went kerplunk, collapsing under several hours of fresh snow . I was smothered by a parachute of silken tent rapidly transferring snowmelt to my climbing clothes, not a good beginning for an imminent lunge upward from 4600M (15,000 ft) to Kili's top at 5895M (19,640 ft). Up I jumped, clawing for zippers to burrow into a foot of new snow for help in resurrecting one sorry tent. Thus at midnight, after a couple hours of restless repose, I stood bedecked in slightly damp clothes shivering from more than anticipation and delight because when snowfall ends, freeze begins. I was entering a twilight world destined to be frozen in memory forever.
The moon was a single night past full, dazzling the snow-covered landscape with sparkling moonbeams, eclipsed by the blazing jewels of the Big Dipper, Southern Cross and Orion the Hunter. I stalked up the mountain without the need of headlamp, torch or flashlight to light the way as my guide whispered, pole-pole (Swahili for 'slowly'). What a slow way it was, practically straight up through icy snowfields; numb fingers, toes and nose requiring constant flexing lest I suffer the frostbite fate of friends who'd climbed this brute of a mountain a few months before. Flex toes, step, curl and uncurl benumbed fingers on hiking poles, wiggle nose, pole-pole, for five hours until we arrived at Stella Point (5750M, 19,000 ft) where the real agony began.
They should have posted a sign on Stella Point: "Beware No Air" or "Abandon Hope Here". Though forcing unending noisy gulps of nonexistent oxygen I simply couldn't breathe. The only consolation was not being alone in this savage combat with altitude. Almost everyone was gasping, gulping, gobbling and devouring the thin gruel of air, pausing to reconsider their destiny, if any they still might have, like toys requiring winding at ever shortening intervals. Many would have taken diomox to avoid the good part of high altitude sickness: migraine-like headache, nausea, vomiting and severe fatigue. Was the breathlessness a precursor to the bad part of high altitude sickness that could deteriorate at any second into pulmonary or cerebral edema bringing near instant death? I'd climbed Tanzania's only active volcano with two Swedes a fortnight before; they'd accompanied a British couple up Kili and she'd died on top, suddenly, from cerebral edema.
The bad part of high altitude sickness is evidenced by pulmonary breathlessness before the face turns badly blue in a wheeze of bloody froth, or the almost immediately terminal cerebral edema (fluid on the brain) with an excruciating headache that feels like knitting needles viciously stabbed through the brain, hallucinations, confusion, disorientation and staggering before sudden death. Survivors make it to a substantially lower altitude pronto.
The last four days flashed before my blurry eyes, the long journey from equator to, which was it, the north or south pole, from tropics to ice fields. I'd begun with a day's trudge through unending rainforest dripping with lacy moss; then three more days up and down sheer granite rock faces and across rocky scrub toward the world's biggest birthday cake, following my faithful porter with his long skinny legs toting my big faded backpack, his own pack precariously balanced on his head as he negotiated rocky ridges for a plunge into precipitous precipices. Perhaps my last memory ever would be the brilliant sunsets over Mt. Meru with fellow photographers outlined against the Venus-like caldron of fiery pinks and purples in variegated hues, or the foggy foggy camps with cloud trickling along rocky ridges below, wisping around the big white cake above my head, tents of every color, size and quality, trees like umbrellas, orange lichen trailing off rocks, my ugly green tent turned denim-white from overnight frost while I fetaled in my wimpy 'sleeping bag' fit only for the beach.
But after an hour of fretful trepidation I reached Kibo/Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kili, a lengthy wheeze up from Stella Point, none the worse for wear once I no longer had the slightest altitude to stagger up. Climbers breathlessly congratulated each other as they posed under the summit signposts with abandon, taking turns in a queue, grinning in relief at their survival and marveling at the spectacular views as the sun bathed us in it's first eerie light.
Mt. Meru, which I'd climbed for acclimatization a week previous, materialized in the west, pinky purple and jagged above the crystalline glacier on Kili's top. To the north, gently below us, sprawled Kili's vast white caldera 2.5 Km (1 ½ miles) across, pocked with smaller rings of ice spreading in concentric circles further than the frosty eye could see. Black silhouettes struggled from the east out of the sun with unbelievable slowness over the crunchy snow, wheezing like locomotives as they moved with the viscosity of frozen molasses above the jagged caldera of blown-out Mawenzi volcano. We were perched on the roof of Africa, far above the fluffy pink clouds that blanketed the landscape far below, surrounded by Kili's snowy glacial walls striped with fiery ice. I'd received the world's biggest birthday present early: the sheer beauty of raw survival.
When You Go: Observe the Kili Rules posted at the trailhead by arriving physically fit. This means having hiked more than to the corner grocery for a six-pack of brew. Have no breathing problems until, of course, just before the top, and no heart or lung maladies though you should obviously have your head examined. Mostly be careful to acclimatize, which can only be easily accomplished on one of the six trails to Kili top, on the Machame route. Don't push yourself if exhausted or sick though if you don't push yourself you won't make the top. Drink 4-5 liters of fluid daily (a six-pack is only 2 liters) and carry out all trash with the hope you're not part of it.
By all means take porters, not only for their livelihood (a big $5/day, so tip generously as they carry up to 35 kilos/77 lbs) but for your sanity because you'll likely not make it otherwise and if you do make it you'll be miserable. The trailhead begins at 1800M (6000 ft), winding up and precipitously down for days until the 4600M mark the night before you summit. An unforgettable memory will be strings of porters and trekkers, straight down below, winding their way up sheer rock cliffs.
Avoid the rainy seasons which used to be late March to mid-June and October to December when the trail is slippery, cold and snowy. Of course the seasons are now so confused that any time is a crap shoot. Theoretically the best time to climb Kili is January to February (I summited January 29 in snow and freezing cold) and September to October when there is less cloud and rain/snow.
Fly to Kilimanjaro Int'l Airport (a few kilometers from Moshi and Arusha, Tanzania), Nairobi, Kenya (four hours from the north by bus) or Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (six hours south by bus) from anywhere. For further information on Kilimanjaro see www.tanzania-web.com, www.kilimanjaro.com, www.africaparkeast.com, www.terraferma.com or any of dozens of URLs you'll find by entering Kilimanjaro on any search engine. Of the six primary routes all but one (Marangu) require tents.
This is one of the most expensive non-technical climbs in the world because $400 goes to park fees for a six day trek. Thus you will spend a minimum of $600 for a bare-bones trek and over $1000 for a more luxurious experience. Arusha offers over 140 trekking companies eager to snag your business while Moshi offers another hundred or so. Use a trekking company because it's far easier and no more expensive than organizing your own trek. For hotels in Arusha or Moshi enter either on your favorite search engine and you'll be overwhelmed with choices in all price ranges, though less expensive guesthouses are seldom found on the Internet.
Queen Victoria's alleged birthday gift of Kilimanjaro to Kaiser Wilhelm is an urban or colonial myth that is still perpetuated in many descriptions of Africa's highest mountain. This myth runs in tandem with Queen Victoria allegedly trading Kilimanjaro for Zanzibar, a bargain I'd have accepted umpteen times on the breathless crawl up to Kili's summit.