In October of 2013 I went to Tanzania for 23 days to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, go on Safari, and wander away the itch that is Africa. What follows is the first part from the trek up the mountain. Half of this is transcribed from the journal I kept on the trip, the other half edits and additions made after. Thanks for reading and enjoy!
Kilimanjaro International Airport, in Tanzania, is spelled out KIA on my ticket. I’m looking at those letters when Kilimanjaro the mountain appears through the window of my plane. It doesn’t so much look like a mountain as it does a hulking overweight boxer, with broad shoulders, a silver flat top, and distended abrasions from face to torso, all signs of a long and brutal existence. I look back to my ticket and do my best to forget where else I’ve heard those letters spelled out. KIA. I’m an American. I watch war movies. It’s a challenge.
I took off from LAX on my 30th birthday. Landing in Tanzania, I’m now 30 years and two days old. I spent my 20’s talking about adventure and writing about adventure and every so often I’d venture off into the hills beyond Los Angeles and sketch out big ideas for adventure. The big three trails of the United States, kayak the Mississippi, learn how to sail. We’ve all got a bucket list. I’d forgotten to actually get to crossing anything off. And every excursion, every road trip or hike or camping trip felt like that: a sketch, some shitty rough draft of something grander I wanted to do.
My boots are too big to pack and so I’m wearing them during the flight. Clunky green waterproof Hi-Tec’s I’ve spent the last six months breaking in. I stretch my legs. My laces reach so far they rest up against my neighbors’ feet across the aisle. These two brats are skipping from one end of the airplane to the other. It’s a small plane and a short flight and the attendants have given up trying to reign them in. It’s up to us now, the passengers. The kids come running and the first one trips over my foot but because he’s a kid he doesn’t fall down and barely notices that he lost his balance.
That’s my neighbor across the aisle. He’s this big white Englishman, one of about 24 who have a trip booked to climb the mountain. He’s got a round face like an over-sized pumpkin and a belly that’s an enlarged duplicate of his head. He’s got on a brand new pair of hiking boots with clean pants, an unstained shirt, and a pack that certainly wasn’t discounted at REI the last time I was in.
And there’s no way he’s going to make it up the mountain.
“I was thinking,” I tell him, “You could hold up my laces and when that kid runs by again we could trip him and he’ll fall on his face.”
“Child abuse. He’ll start crying.”
“Yeah, but he won’t be running around. Flight attendants will probably give us free drinks.”
“I’m not ordering a Coke.”
“You from the United States?”
“You from the UK?”
We don’t shake hands, don’t even share each other’s names. But the connection is made and we talk a bit more for the rest of the flight. He’s the first of four Brits who will make me laugh over the next three weeks. He’s going up the mountain tomorrow morning with the rest of his group–also from the UK. I’ll start two days afterwards. He’s never hiked before. Never camped. Never been anywhere over six thousand feet (about 1800 meters) or drunken water that didn’t come from a plastic bottle or treated pipes. I like the guy. I do. But no matter how much I like him I can’t shake my judgement.
He’s not making it up the mountain.
The fourth day is when you feel like a mountaineer. The first you hike slowly through rainforest and though the hiking is long it never gets too strenuous. The start is six thousand feet, the end 10, high enough to feel the altitude, but not quite high enough to get very sick. The second day we hike up to around 12 thousand. We don’t sleep that night. The complaints are minimal–headaches, nausea, general restlessness–but across the board nobody sleeps well.
The third day is the rough one. The hiking is slow and steep and steady. Our first goal, the Lava Tower, is 15’000 feet above sea level. Halfway up my head starts to hurt. A combination of congestion and some big strong man pressings his hands against my temple. That’s the feeling. Nothing I can’t tolerate. I ask Haji–our guide–what the elevation is and when he tells me I smile and squeal and tell the rest of our group that this is officially the highest I’ve ever been. My face defines obnoxious. Behind us, Elin has dropped back with her husband. Modi, another guide, stands with them. Elin is keeled over the side of the trail, coughing and spitting and throwing up. It doesn’t sound good. It doesn’t look good.
There’s no way she’s going to make it up the mountain.
The Lava Tower is a brick of black volcanic rock that juts from the high desert slopes of the mountain. The steep trail of the Western Breach Route shoots up the side of the mountain towards the summit. Ice and rock and the first teases of glacier are your only company. One of the girls–another Brit–is complaining about her head when she glimpses the trail.
“What is that?” she asks.
“Ugh. I can’t believe we have to go up that tomorrow.”
“What? Are you serious? ”
“No, no, just kidding. We head back down to 12 thousand feet soon.”
You’re told by the guides that it isn’t a competition. Pole Pole they tell you. Slowly slowly. Yet as you’re passed each day by other groups you can’t help but feel like you can do better. Not pole pole but haraka haraka. Faster faster. I compare myself to those around me. I can do better. I can do better. The others are sick. But not me. I’m fine. I’ve trained for this. My body is ready. My mind is ready. I could keep up with the guides if I wanted. Most in our group look sick, are sick, or are complaining about the onset of a pain they don’t quite yet comprehend. But not me. My head hurts more by the minute but it’s not bad. Just some minor tension. I’m strong. This is nothing.
I need to use the bathroom and so I skip over to a rock ridge a few dozen yards away and settle into a nice smelly wooden outhouse.
I should say that word again for emphasis.
The way kids skip in a schoolyard. The way you might skip the first time a girl says yes or when you graduated High School. I skip. I haven’t moved faster than a leisurely stroll for 72 hours and now I’m skipping over rocks at 15 thousand feet like I’m 12 years old again in the Mojave desert. I fall to the toilet. The wooden slats of the outhouse press in. Outside the mountain looms above. Everything closer and closer.
I don’t skip back to our tent where lunch is waiting for us. I wouldn’t even say walk. Stumble is a better word. Lurch. I’m an extra trying out for the Walking Dead. I collapse in a chair. When someone pours me a bowl of cucumber soup I want to throw up and toss it outside. Elin doesn’t look so bad. Her husband, though he’s sitting up straight and eating his soup, has all the visible symptoms of the flu.
I can’t bother to sit up. The pain is sudden. It’s hot in here. Hot in the tent. The temperature outside is somewhere south of 40 degrees but inside it’s north of 70. I’m sweating and I can feel the heat from my hands and head. I think back to when I was 17 and guzzled some vodka to impress a girl. To when I was 21 and drank two bottles of wine in an hour before the big concert on our campus at Washington University. To middle school when I was bed-ridden for a week with the flu and was sure that monsters had invaded the corners of my room. That’s what this is. All those moments compressed into one relentless full body pressure.
“No food?” Dan asks me smiling. I had been upholding the States’ reputation for gluttony, ravishing sausages and cucumber soup and treating the Brits to the wonder that is the peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. Now I’m considering the benefits of retching.
But that’s the third day. It’s the fourth that you feel like a mountaineer.
to be continued…
© 2014 Christopher Dart