The Roof of Africa

Scaling the Mighty Mount Kilimanjaro

"They starved, maybe froze," says Hubert Damion, the head guide accompanying our nine-person climbing team, surveying the strange carcasses at his feet.

Hubert and I are standing on a desolate, windswept plateau that will serve as tonight's campsite. In the distance, a figurative waterfall of rock spills down from the upper reaches of the mountain. Tomorrow we begin our scramble up a cut in that soaring facade called the Western Breach. If all goes well, we should gain more than 4,000 feet in elevation over the next two days and arrive at the doorstep of our ultimate destination: 19,340-foot Uhuru Peak. The summit of Kilimanjaro. The snow-covered rooftop of Africa.

If all goes well.

I notice that those poor, freeze-dried buffalo are gazing eternally right smack at the Western Breach. Bad omen. This is, after all, unforgiving terrain. Three years ago, Remmy Damion—Hubert's younger brother and fellow guide on our trip—escorted a dermatologist from Georgia up this same pitched trail. The doctor was precariously overweight but stubborn. He gamely huffed and puffed up the Western Breach, at one point offering Remmy an extra $300 to make sure that they got to the summit.

"He was breathing like a buffalo, like this," Remmy told me one morning, his chest heaving in an exaggerated wheeze.

Remmy advised the doctor to turn back. He refused. So Remmy guided him up the Breach as ordered—and the American showed his gratitude by dying of a heart attack that night. Remmy carries his business card in his wallet. A reminder that nobody can buy their way up Kilimanjaro.

We have already spent four days traversing this vast, variegated inclined plane; bold ants creeping up one side of the geological picnic basket that constitutes most of Kilimanjaro National Park. We've trudged through spongy rainforests enlivened by yammering monkeys. We've trekked over mountain meadows and moorlands dotted with wildflowers and hoary trees. Now—having entered the alpine desert of high altitudes and low temperatures—the river of biodiversity has slowed to a trickle. A few lonesome insects skitter in the dirt. Wisps of orange lichen, fine as a mandarin's mustache, cling to any available surface. But mostly the landscape yields acre upon acre of rocks, a bumper crop of stone singed charcoal black by some otherwordly furnace.

Kilimanjaro proper is 24 miles wide and 49 miles long; more ecosystem than mountain. It dwarfs other regional landmarks like Mt. Meru and Mt. Kenya. Kilimanjaro dominates the savanna of East Africa the way a luxury liner does a marina clogged with dinky sailboats. Out of the flatlands comes this unexpected explosion of mass; as Hemingway wrote in his famous short story, "as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun." The generating force was volcanic, the most recent eruption having occurred sometime in the 1700s. The mountain actually consists of three peaks: Shira, Mawenzi, and Kibo (the tallest and whose tippy-top point is Uhuru). Viewed from afar, however, Kilimanjaro appears oddly flat-topped, like the top scoop of an ice cream cone that a child has tamped down with an eager tongue.

The derivation of the name is uncertain. It could be an amalgam of similar-sounding words from the Swahili, Chaga, and Machame dialects. Kilimanjaro is said to mean, among other things, Mountain of Greatness, White Mountain, and Mountain of Caravans. For all we know the correct translation could be Mountain of the Many Vomiters. Chaga legend once held that powerful spirits protect a cache of silver and gems in Kilimanjaro, and anyone who dared scale its slopes would be felled by severe cold and illness. The legend has proved to be half right: There is no treasure, but the curse of altitude sickness has struck thousands of curious, camera-toting interlopers.

We hope to minimize that nasty complication by ascending from the west, threading our way some 25 miles, bottom to top, via the seldom-traveled Shira Plateau. Ninety percent of the 11,000 people who attempt to climb Kilimanjaro each year stick to the eastern Marangu Trail, also known as the Tourist Route or Coca Cola Trail. Their cumulative footsteps have worn the path nearly a foot deep in places and widened it to freeway proportions in others.

Three Nordic-hut encampments are staggered along the Marangu, offering such luxuries as flush toilets and bottled beer. The mere presence of those amenities seems to encourage foolishness. Climbers tend to push too hard, allowing themselves only three nights, at most four, to make the mountaintop. That doesn't give the body time to acclimatize. Altitude sickness winds up driving many overly-ambitious souls to their knees. Just ten percent of Marangu hikers manage to drag themselves up Uhuru. About one-third are content to call it quits at Gillman's Point, 600 vertical feet below the summit. The rest slink home with only unpleasant memories of a first-class, Third-World headache and a somersaulting stomach.

Scott Fischer*, the co-owner of Seattle-based Mountain Madness adventure travel company, believes that on Kilimanjaro things do not go better with the Coca Cola Trail. He prefers to take clients up more isolated routes and adheres to a saner, six-nights-to-the-summit pace. Fischer, 40, first caught the climbing bug as a teenager. Despite his Surfer Boy looks, he possesses the grit of a rodeo rider. His muscular fingers are as thick as sausage links. His shoulders and knees bear the telltale surgical scars of the professional mountaineer.

Fischer, who admits he used to climb for the sheer joy of  "getting scared," has led three Everest expeditions and summitted wicked K2 in Pakistan. Years ago, while bumming across Africa on a series of shoe-string climbs, he and a hungry buddy swapped a pair of blue jeans for a goat. Before butchering the animal, they each drank a cup of its blood in the tradition of Masai warriors. Yum.

Thankfully, Fischer is not in charge of meals this trip. He has assembled a support staff of 32 Tanzanians, including cooks, guides, and porters. Their job is to make uphill life easier for Americans unaccustomed to such oxygen-deficient air. In addition to Fischer and myself, our group consists of Seattle Tom, a Mountain Madness employee on a familiarization tour of Africa; North Dakota Tom, a computer programmer on a pre-wedding honeymoon with his computer-programmer fiancee, Pam; Ty and Chuck, two photographer buddies from California; David, the president of a Connecticut manufacturing company, and Lloyd, a genial, grey-bearded electrician from Portland, Oregon who has a homespun phrase for any occasion.

Our ages range from late twenties to late forties, with Pam and Lloyd occupying the two extremes. No gasping dermatologists in this bunch. Everyone did their pre-"Kili" (as climbing cognoscente refer to the mountain) homework. Some of us biked. Some pumped weights. Some took lung-stretching runs. Lloyd, who in 1993 knocked off Argentina's 22,834-foot Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, deserves the trophy for Best Prepared. After work, he chugged up and down the stairwell of the 15-story Portland Building with a 40-pound pack strapped to his back. He has brought along ski poles to use as walking sticks, a titanium Buck knife just in case he has to fend off a snow leopard while slicing his breakfast bacon. "That which is too easily obtained," he often says, "is lightly esteemed."

*Scott Fischer was among the many lives lost to Mount Everest during the tragic storm that swept the mountain in May 1996.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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