February 29, 2012 in Essays

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” – Sir Edmund Hillary


I never wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. In fact, I never wanted to climb anything.

Still, I couldn’t say no again. Dr. Al Sears is a good friend and an important client. And I’d been demurring on all sorts of hiking and climbing invitations from him for about two years. Besides, since the event was eight months in the future, it was hardly more than a note on my calendar. It wasn’t real. It was subject to cancellation. What did I know about Kilimanjaro?

But even then, I never had any illusions that I would actually like it.

There is a lot to talk about here – including the fact that within 48 hours of accepting Al’s invitation, I had invited two other people to come with us. One was a colleague. Another was a high-school chum.

Why did I bring two more people to the party?

For one thing, it allowed us to have a climbing group of our own. We could plan our own itinerary. We could have our own cabins. But mostly, I felt that by bringing together three people whom I liked and admired we could all have an experience that was more than just a climb. And I was right. Our group of four becomes fast friends – and I think that friendship will endure, because the deepest friendships are always forged in misery.

More about that misery a little later…

The Making of a Working Team

Al was the one with experience. He had hiked several of the most challenging mountains in the world. It was his idea to hike this one.

Daryl was our technology expert. Inside his solar-paneled backpack was every electronic device a mountaineer could ever expect to need in any sort of situation. As it turned out, we needed all of them.

And Kevin, my high school buddy, brought the good humor and stiff upper lip of a retiree who had dealt with and defeated just about every physical infirmity that middle age thrusts upon us.

As for me, I’m not sure what I brought to the table. I was the guy who had promised Kevin and Daryl that they would have a really great time. So if Al was the idea man behind this thing, I guess I was the promoter – which made me feel somewhat responsible for its outcome.

We worked well together. And that made a big difference. Because we were about to endure six days of living hell. I know for sure that I would have failed, and might have even perished on that mountain, without my team.

Fear of Flying

I managed to ignore the trip almost entirely until about two weeks before our departure date. Only then did I look at our travel itinerary and agenda.

We were to begin with a 17-hour series of flights from Palm Beach International Airport through Newark and Amsterdam to Tanzania. We would get to our hotel near the mountain by around 10:00 p.m., check in, get to bed by about midnight, and get started at 7:00 a.m.

I’ve spent thousands of hours in planes. But I’ve never enjoyed them. It has to do with altitude. The higher you go, the less air pressure there is. That’s why they pressurize the cabins in jet planes – but only to about one-fourth the air pressure we’re used to on the ground. (It has to do with fuel consumption.) So you wind up with about the same amount of air pressure – and oxygen – as you’d find on a ski run in Denver, which is about a mile above sea level.

When I’m in Denver I get mild headaches, nosebleeds, and have difficulty breathing. Walking up a short flight of steps gets me huffing and puffing.

So that’s one reason I don’t like flying. It beats up my body. But there is another reason too: I’m sensitive to airborne viruses. If I spend hours confined in a locked cabin with 150 other people, there is a good chance I will wake up with a cold or the flu the next morning (which, indeed, happened on this trip).

Getting Ready

I had agreed to fly to Tanzania and climb the mountain, but I was not ready to do so. Not at all.

Aside from needing a visa, there was the question of gear. According to the literature from the organization in charge of our trip, everything had to fit in a single duffle bag and weigh no more than 40 pounds.

My solution was to throw in a pair of hiking boots and a Swiss Army knife, along with some clothes that I take when I go skiing. But when K saw what I’d done, she had me unpack everything and start from scratch. We spent several hours identifying the items I had, buying those I didn’t have, and double-checking everything against three separate lists she had culled from hundreds on the Internet.

It seemed like a terrible waste of time but, as it turned out, I needed every single item K had me pack.

And I Was Off

Finally, the day arrived.

The trip to from West Palm Beach, Florida to Moshi, Tanzania was about as good as a 17-hour series of flights could be. Apart from some bumpy air and one of the worst landings I’ve ever experienced, the majority of the trip was routine.

A nice young African man who spoke no English but carried a sign with our names on it met us at the airport. He cheerfully helped us with our luggage, got us into an SUV, and drove us to the Keys Hotel. The ride took about 90 minutes. It was dark and dusty. We were tired. I remember almost nothing about it.

I do remember my first impression of the hotel. It looked like a military compound – a walled structure made up of half a dozen two-story cinderblock bunkers. My room was as bad as I thought it would be – with painted concrete walls, a stone floor, a coldwater shower that dripped rather than poured, and huge holes in the screening to let the bugs in. But I was too tired to care. I got under the sheets and fell asleep.

The Death March Begins

The next morning, I woke up with what felt like the beginning symptoms of bronchitis.

I dragged myself out of bed and joined my friends in the hotel lobby at 7:00 a.m. to meet our guide. He introduced himself as Raymond. “Do you have any questions?” he asked.

I had about a million, starting with “How can you call this a hotel?” – but I bit my tongue.

Raymond had his assistants weigh our duffle bags – and that is when we found out that the limit was not 40 pounds, as we’d been told, but 33 pounds. Something apparently had been lost in translation.

So we had to sort quickly through everything we’d brought and leave about 20 percent of it behind.

The vehicle that transported us to the mountain can only be described as a jalopy. Halfway to our destination, it overheated, and then broke down completely.

It took about an hour for a replacement vehicle to arrive, one that was only slightly less ancient. Several porters loaded our bags on top of it and we got on board. In 45 minutes, we were at the Marangu Gate, our adventure’s official starting point.

How to Sell Anything to Anyone

But before taking us through the gate, our driver pulled into a funky strip of “shops.”

The first group of merchants all seemed to be selling things we might need. Ponchos. Ropes. Walking poles. If we didn’t have them, they assured us, it would be catastrophic.

Next came the purveyors of T-shirts and wristbands and necklaces. They didn’t pretend their products would save our lives. But they were quite certain that if we didn’t buy them, we would miss out on the “experience” of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Raymond looked on from a modest distance. He was clearly amused.

One fellow in particular impressed me. I bought a T-shirt from him and then he sold me a bracelet. The moment he got my money in his hands, he tried to sell me a necklace too. I told him that I don’t wear necklaces. He kept at it for a few more minutes and then went back to selling me T-shirts. So long as my heart was beating, this guy was going to pester me for a sale.

I’ll tell you one thing about third-world salespeople. In terms of guts and persistence, they are equal to the best in the world. Perhaps it is because they are so desperate. For them, constantly hustling to make sales is not about owning a nicer car. It’s about putting food on the table.

The Odds Were in Our Favor, but Just Barely

We got back on the bus, went through the gate, and rode up to the registration office. While we were waiting for Raymond to sign us in, we talked about the challenge that was before us.

K had told me that the particular route we were taking, Marangu Route – or the “Coca Cola route,” as the locals called it – was one of the tougher ascents. According to what she’d read, only 6 out of 10 people who attempted it made it.

“That’s nothing,” Daryl said when I mentioned this fact to my friends. “Did you know that 60 people a year die trying to hike to the top?”

I hadn’t known. And I wished he hadn’t told me.

Then he pointed out the signs posted nearby – big brown placards on which all sorts of warnings were printed in yellow. We read, for example, that:

* Hiking above 15,000 feet could cause sudden death. (We were hiking to 19,650 feet.)

* If we got seriously injured above 12,000 feet, we could not be rescued by helicopter because helicopters can’t fly that high.

* Anyone with a cold should not ascend more than 9,000 feet. (I had developed a definite case of bronchitis by that time.)

Words Cannot Convey the Bliss…

Raymond came back with the required documents in hand, and stuffed them in his chest pocket. “Ready?” he asked.

“Ready!” we said, putting on our sunglasses and adjusting our walking poles. And with that, we were off.

I was mildly surprised that there was no little prep speech from Raymond or words of advice or something more to transition us from wannabe hikers to the real thing. It was simply that one word – “Ready” – and we began what became our predominant activity of the next four days: walking uphill.

How can I describe the walking?

If you’ve never hiked a mountain like Kilimanjaro, I can say this: It is nothing like what you may have imagined. It is not exhilarating. It is not majestic. It is not rapturous or transcendental or any other adjective that outdoorsy people use when they attempt to entice you into their lifestyle.

A much better set of adjectives would be:

* Hellish
* Painful
* Unbearable
* Insane

The drill is this: You begin your climb at 5,000 feet (about the altitude of Denver) and walk about 52,000 linear feet (10 miles) every day. That would be nothing if you weren’t going uphill. I can cover 10 miles in less than two hours without breaking a sweat. But when, in addition to covering those miles, you are ascending 4,000 feet, everything changes.

For one thing, the demand on your heart and lungs surges. For another thing, as you ascend there is less oxygen in the air to feed your heart and lungs.

Each step becomes a physical challenge. Each inhalation is labored. After an hour, you are ready to quit but you cannot. If your guide is kind, he may allow you stop for five minutes to have some water and adjust your equipment. But then it’s up and at it again. For a second hour. And then a third hour. And then a short lunch. And then three hours more.

Cold As a Witch’s…

And while this is happening, it is getting colder. Mount Kilimanjaro stands at the equator. In February, the average daytime temperature at the base of the mountain could be 80 or 90 degrees. But at the summit, the temperature ranges from 0 to minus 15 degrees.

As you ascend, it’s about 15 degrees cooler each day. And there is another 10-degree drop – at least – at night.

By the time you are at the top, it is well below freezing. And with wind. And rain. Or sleet. For us, it was sleet.

That kind of cold isn’t extreme if you have a way to get warm. But when you’re climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, there is no way to do it. Your inner garments are soaked with sweat from six hours of exertion. You can strip them off at night, but don’t expect to be able to wear them again. They will stay cold and wet until the day you leave.

Is this beginning to sound like a litany of complaints?

I’m Saying This for Your Own Good

I don’t mean it to be. I just want to convey to you what the experience is like – in case you might one day want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

So let me share a few more details.

The ascent takes four days. The descent takes two. The ascent is unbelievably hard on your heart and lungs. But the descent can be crippling to your hips, knees, and feet.

You will be in some form of pain the entire time you are hiking. And even when you are resting, you will be cold and wet.

Actual toilets with toilet seats exist only at the first campsite. Thereafter, you will be using open bowls and holes in the ground. The floors and often the latrines themselves will be covered in shit. You will not care, however. You will be happy to use these “facilities,” because the food you will have eaten will have given you diarrhea.

Oh, by the way. Don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper. None will be provided.

As for the living quarters along the way, most of them are small A-frames that contain four “beds.” They are not really beds at all. Just wooden rails that hold mattresses so thin that you could feel a pea through them even if you weren’t a princess. The space is so small that only one person at a time can stand up and get dressed. And the structure is entirely without insulation. Even with four bodies in a tight space, the air temperature is just a few degrees warmer than the outside.

Our Itinerary – How Does This Sound?

Day One: The trail itself was well maintained and not especially steep. Yet it felt steep. “Surely this will flatten out in a while,” I thought. But that never happened.

After about five hours of hiking, I was exhausted. “What the hell am I doing here?” I asked myself. But I wasn’t going to quit. I vowed to push on. That is when it suddenly became cold and dark and started to rain. I had been sweating. Now I was freezing. Then, just as suddenly, the rain stopped and the sun came out. We made it to the campsite, known as Mandara Hut.

Altitude: 8,000 feet.

Day Two: I woke up tired. We had a good breakfast and set off again. The trail was steeper this time and, as we ascended, rockier. The rocks made walking even more difficult. We had to pay attention to our footfalls. It would be easy to turn an ankle.

Under the lightweight jacket K had packed I wore a cotton shirt. It became soaked with sweat and, as the temperature dropped, I could see that cotton was a mistake. I eventually took it off and wore the outer jacket only.

We didn’t talk as we walked. We couldn’t because the hiking was too difficult. We were breathing hard and wondering when we would have our next break.

Although Day One felt very hard, Day Two was much harder. Not unbearably hard, but as hard as something can be and still be bearable. We bore it. But just barely.

I wondered later whether the people who designed the trail didn’t purposely create the first leg the way they did. It is challenging but nothing like the rest of the climb. Every day was harder than the one before. Had it been otherwise, we might have given up.

Altitude: 12,000 feet.

Day Three: At 12,000 feet, Horombo Hut is about as high as a ski lift will take you in Colorado. People don’t normally live at 12,000 feet. The air is too thin. And so, to make sure we could acclimatize to Mount Kilimanjaro’s 19,650-foot summit, we spent the day at Horombo and took a three-hour hike to about 14,000 feet.

I learned something that day about hiking in high altitudes. It is much, much easier to hike three hours than it is to hike six hours. And not by a degree of 100 percent. It is more like 1,000 percent.

As I mentioned earlier, there are other approaches to the peak that are considerably easier and, thus, have a much higher success rate. Why we took this one, I don’t know. But I’ll say this: If anyone says they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and it wasn’t that hard, they are either lying or they didn’t take the damned Coca Cola trail.

Spending the third day at 12,000 feet and taking that hike to 14,000 feet was a good move. It gave us a little rest, and we went to bed confident that we could make our next goal: Kibo Hut, which stands at 15,500 feet.

Day Four: And the next day, that is exactly what we did. But it was colder and harder than we expected. The terrain became very rocky with lots of switchbacks and hundreds of opportunities to twist an ankle or fall off a crater rim.

Yes, you can fall down the side of the mountain at any number of places on the climb. But by the time you get to those places, you no longer care whether you fall or not. You are putting one foot in front of the other. You are staring at the ground. You are thinking about nothing. You are trying not to think. Because the only thing possible to think about is your pain.

From Hades to Hell and Back

Day Five: We had heard that Kibo Hut was terrible – crude, rude, etc. But we actually liked it better than the other campsites. Because instead of those stupid A-frames, it has one big barracks with bunk beds. We had a room that could accommodate eight people. Desperate for a little space after being cramped for so long, we resorted to bribery in order to be allowed to occupy the room by ourselves. There was even a table and chairs so we could have our dinner without leaving the building.

You wouldn’t want to leave the building. It was freezing and windy and before long it was hailing. The hailstones weren’t big but they hit hard. We huddled inside, eating our tasteless soup and abominable stew and drinking canned coffee. At 7:00 p.m., we were in our sleeping bags trying to get some sleep.

At midnight, we were awakened to start the ascent to the peak. We had some biscuits and tea and were outside climbing again by 1:00 a.m. The hail had been replaced by a steady snowfall. It was very cold and very dark. We wore our warmest jackets and used headlamps to guide us.

It didn’t seem possible, but the ascent to Gillman’s Point – which is technically the summit – was even worse than the ascent to Kibo Hut. My bronchitis had only worsened on the climb. I had a runny nose and a fever. Every step felt impossible to take. Yet I took them.

We climbed in the cold, over the snow-covered trail and upward along narrow switchbacks of stone and gravel. My breathing was loud. Everyone in our group could hear it. Daryl had charged up my iPhone and I was listening to music, which helped a great deal. If I had any thoughts in my head, I can’t remember them now. I remember only putting one foot in front of the other and telling myself that eventually it would be over.

Finally, after six hours, we reached Gillman’s Point. But some two hours away stands a higher summit: Uhuru Peak – the one that is Mecca for hikers.

When Yours Truly Fell Apart

At this point, everyone knew that I was on my last legs. Raymond had a device that measures oxygen in the tissues. Al used it to examine me. A good count is 97 or 98. If it falls below 90, your doctor will usually put you on oxygen. When you are at extremely high altitudes, a lower count is expected. Raymond said that as long as the count was about 80 he had been told not to worry.

My count was 73. “If it drops below 70, you could be in serious danger,” Al said.

To make sure the little device was working, he tested it on Raymond. It read 93. He then tested it on himself: 86.

“See that,” I thought. “We’re all hiking under duress. And I have bronchitis besides. No wonder I am dragging.”

“If you want,” Al said, “We can all go back now. We’ve reached the summit.”

“But it’s not the highest point,” I said bravely.

I looked at Daryl. He seemed beat. Then I looked at Kevin. He looked kind of okay. “But he doesn’t have bronchitis,” I thought. I asked Al to test Kevin’s oxygen.

Big mistake. He tested at 70.

Al couldn’t believe it. He retested him, and it was 70 again.

“You should be gasping for breath,” he told Kevin.

“I feel pretty good,” he said.

“There is no medical explanation for this,” Al said.

“Let’s get going,” I said, pulling myself to my feet. “I don’t need no bloody oxygen.”

“Are you sure?” Kevin asked. “What do you think your chances of finishing are? Better than 60 percent?”

“Ninety-nine percent,” I told him. But I was bluffing.

The next two hours were not as difficult as the previous six had been, but I was getting weaker. Every once in a while I began to cough, and my coughing was deep and exhausting. We pushed on, poli poli (slowly slowly) as the locals say. And finally, Raymond put his hand on my shoulder and motioned for me to look ahead. There it was. The sign on top of Uhuru Peak. We had conquered Mount Kilimanjaro.

I was very happy but I was too tired to enjoy the moment. I sat down and settled into a blur. Some time later, I got together with the guys for a group photo. Then, looking at me as if he were concerned, Raymond urged us to start our descent.

The ascent was not the relief I had hoped it would be. I had completely exhausted myself going from Gillman’s Point to Uhuru Peak. I had nothing left in me but I did my best to keep up with the others. I couldn’t. They moved ahead. I slowed down. Raymond stayed with me.

It took three hours for us to get down to Kibo Hut. The last hour, I was walking like a zombie. Like I was dead.

Raymond said, “After a good meal you’ll feel better.”

I didn’t say anything but I knew what he meant. We couldn’t stay at Kibo Hut for more than an hour. We had to hike another three hours down to Horombo. But I didn’t have the energy to take another step.

I did my zombie shuffle into our room and, with my teammates looking on slack-jawed, walked passed the table of food and crawled into my cot.

When the guys started getting ready for the hike to Horombo, I told them I wasn’t going with them.

Al called for Raymond to get him a stethoscope. He examined my lungs and took my temperature and used that oxygen-measuring device. In every department, I was in bad shape.

“This guy can’t go on,” he told Raymond.

Blessed Relief

“Can we get a stretcher?” Al asked.

“It won’t be easy,” Raymond said, “but I’ll try.”

A half-hour later, I was strapped to a stretcher – really a metal rack suspended on a bike tire. And with four men carrying me, I was transported from Kibo Hut to Horombo, 4,000 feet below.

It was a very bumpy journey. I was half-delirious but happy to be headed toward a lower altitude.

Back in our first A-frame, I curled up in bed and stayed there until the next morning. When I woke up, Al examined me. I was considerably better in almost every regard. “One thing, though,” he told me. “You have to get a complete exam when you get home. I think you have walking pneumonia.”

I hadn’t wanted to go on that climb. But I went. And even though I had made jokes about how I had no intention of finishing it, I did feel, deep inside, that I would make it or die trying.

Mandatory Philosophic Speculation

What does this say about me? I don’t know. Al and Kevin and Daryl all had their own reasons for pushing themselves to the top of that mountain – and they had their own difficulties along the way. I hardly saw the landscape, beautiful as it was, because I was looking at the ground. I don’t have funny stories to tell, because there were none.

But I will say this about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. If there is a better way to test the limits of your endurance, I don’t know it.

Al Sears, who has climbed half a dozen tough mountains, told me that, as time passes, I’ll forget about the pain and remember only the fun. “What fun?” I asked. He just smiled.

By the time I’ve told this story a dozen times, it will sound much more dramatic than it does now. If I live long enough to tell the tale to my grandchildren, my feat will seem mightier than Jon Krakauer’s in his book Into Thin Air. (If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do.)

There is a saying among Tanzanians: “If you have never climbed Kilimanjaro, then you will never know what it is like. If you have climbed it once, then you do. If you have climbed it more than once, there is something wrong with you.”

I won’t climb Kilimanjaro again. But I will be proud that I did it for the rest of my life. And nothing I’ve done so far in business (or ever expect to do) will take that kind of willpower.

Which is a good thing, when you think about it.

Twitter Facebook

Previous post:

Next post: