Climbing Kilimanjaro, Kmart Style

Scaling Africa's Highest Peak

Arusha, Tanzania

At this very moment, I am lying on my back with my legs propped up in the air, allowing the pus to drain from seven infected blisters on my feet. Along with a receipt for $585, these festering vesicles are the only physical evidence of my trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, tallest peak on the African continent.

The major difference between me and the thousands of other tourists who attempt to climb this 19,340-foot mountain each year (aside from knowing how to spell the word"vesicle"), is that I was foolish enough to attempt it in rented hiking boots.

Most people pay between $450 and $1,000 to climb Kilimanjaro, the price depending on the route, number of days on the mountain, and comfort level of the trip. The cheapest and most popular choice is the five-day Coca-Cola Route, thus named because the beverage can be purchased at conveniently placed rest-huts throughout the ascent. But trips lasting seven days and costing $1,500 are not unheard of. These involve something like eight porters per tourist, and include such luxuries as a separate dining tent, reclining chairs, and a portable western toilet.

I opted for the Machame, or "scenic route," the second most popular ascent. This expedition takes six days, approaches the summit from the west, and follows the south face down

I made my arrangements through a tout named Swali, who works for the Arusha-based tour agency B.M. Travel. He promised to show up the day of departure with a complete line of climbing gear: North Face Gore-Tex jacket and sleeping bag, Patagonia fleece and hat, Lowe long underwear, and every other outdoor brand-name product Swali could think of. There would also be glacier sunglasses and four pairs of hiking boots to choose from.

What he actually arrived with (several hours late) was—to the untrained eye—about $10 worth of hand-me-downs from the Salvation Army. Swali had managed to put together the least mountain-worthy selection of clothing currently available in Tanzania: mostly cotton sweatshirts and T-shirts, plus a few ripped nylon pants and hats most winos would refuse on a freezing night. He brought only one pair of boots. And the sleeping bag, meant for summer use only, had no zipper.

Swali acknowledged the sleeping-bag zipper problem and located another insulation-free replacement, but the boots, he asserted, were fine. And they would have been . . . for someone with slightly smaller feet. The rest of the stuff I would have to live with if I wanted to start up the mountain that day. If I backed out, which was extremely tempting under the circumstances, the extra day required to make arrangements with another outfitter would mean I'd miss my flight. Jason, a 26-year-old Englishman who at least had his own boots, was in a similar position.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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