MT KILIMANJARO - CLIMB 1988
17 APRIL 2002 by Anita Ruthling Klaussen
Seeing my friends, schoolgirl Nicole Wineland-Thomson and adventurer David Breashears, scaling Mt. Kilimajaro in David’s Imax film at the Museum of Science in Boston, stirred memories of my own ascent almost 15 years ago. READ MORE
Though Africa’s loftiest peak, the roof of Tanzania, wasn’t virginal, in 1988, it wasn’t your everyday trek either. But it has become more popular, and I hope that the success of David’s “Kilimanjaro:To the Roof of Africa” doesn’t turn it into a theme park. Not that the 19,340 foot peak is any less demanding.
But I wanted demands away from Boston. I was 48, selling real estate, my children, Danielle and Karl, grown, but my personal life a tangle. I needed a change, a challenge, and got some good advice from my friends Judi Wineland and Rick Thomson (parents of 14-year-old Nicole). It was, in essence: “Go climb a mountain!”
Any mountain? Oh, no. The fabled Kilimanjaro, decorated by its snows and made as famous by Ernest Hemingway as whales were by Herman Melville. Was it because Judy and Rick, proprietors of Thomson Safaris, could arrange such an outing?
Never mind. The Kilimanjaro cure for midlife malaise sounded just right. A new continent, a magical mountain, and I knew my pals wouldn’t steer me wrong. But that doesn’t mean you step off the plane in Arusha and step right up that monstrous hill. I was in pretty good shape, and it’s not rock-climbing a la Breshears’s hangout called Everest. But I was also aware that people have died along the route.
“Be prepared,” I told myself. But how? Consult experts. Two mountaineering greats came to mind: Breashers, of course, and Brad Washburn, who had mapped Everest.
They were willing mentors. Brad emphasized, “Go slowly, at your own pace. It’s not a race. Most importantly — stay hydrated. Drink as much water until you think you’ll burst. Then drink twice as much more.” That strategy kept me going when I might have quit, at Gilman’s point, nearing the summit.
David said the same, adding, “Most climbers feel satisfied to turn around after reaching Gilman’s Point [18,640 feet]. You’re pretty exhausted by then. But don’t settle for less than the summit, even though the last 600 feet are pretty tough. I know you, and you would never forgive yourself if you came so close and did not attempt it.”
His words goaded me not to surrender then, even though altitude sickness and exhaustion are dangers at Gilman’s Point.
Both Brad and David urged me to go into training, so I jogged six miles and swam a mile daily for three months. I walked everywhere except to buy groceries, to my office, to Symphony. I felt ready. Nevertheless, on the 4,105 mile flight from Amsterdam to Tanzania, I got cold feet. (They would be much colder on the trail.) What if I failed? What would that do to my brittle morale? Was this a mistake.
A Tanzanian woman seated next to me was comforting. “You can’t imagine how marvelous Africa is and what a beautiful experience this will be for you. Once you come to Africa you’re fated to return.”
She was right. However, then I wasn’t sure I even wanted to land. Kili scared me, poking ominously through a grim cloud cover. (At first, intimidated, I referred to her respectfully, as Kilimanjaro. Not until later, when I became used to her, adored her, did I feel justified to shorten it to a playful “Kili.” But she wasn’t to be playful with me.
A van from Arusha took me through farmland onto the lower slopes to National Park Headquarters at 6000 feet where I paid the climbing fee, and met two male trekmates, also soloing, a 28-year-old German and a 35-year-old American. In charge were two guides. They were accompanied by five dauntless porters who carried up everything needed: food, water, firewood and camping gear, their heads padded with fern garlands to cushion the loads. They probably would have toted us if called for.
Despite its mile-high location, Headquarters offers no sense of Kili. She hides herself well, and the first of 3 1/2 upward days is spent within the twisted confines of a dripping rain forest. While you can’t see much but jungle from the trail, amid mosses and lichens, you are definitely rising — and feel it. At 9000 feet, signalling the end of the first day, we arrived at Mandara, a collection of A-frame sleeping huts and a mess hall. The series of huts along the trail was built by the Norwegians in the mid seventys in co-operation with the Tanzanians.
Other groups arrived, too, for the evening meal prepared by their porters. I envied some Italians, who, of course, brought from home their essentials such as cheeses, bread and salami to supplement the standard fare of soup, cabbage, carrots,meat, potatoes, spaghetti. Bedtime was early on the equator, sunset around 7. As I looked at the gorgeous starfilled sky, I thought about what I was doing and was absolutely thrilled.
Aroused at dawn and out of the sleeping bags, we returned to tramping the dirt path through the moist forest, a steep grade called Podocarpus Hill. There it was very slow going, sometimes on hands and knees, dealing with gnarled roots and fallen trees. Laboring along through haze and murk, I wondered what had become of the mountain I’d seen in so many photos.
Then — abruptly! — Kili exposed herself. Emerging from the forest, into the vast moorland, as though entering a new, well-lighted room, I was startled to see her majestic form — the largest free-standing mountain on the planet — and struck by her crown, the cone of volcanic ash called scree towering above and beyond us against the horizon. She was intermittently dominant in a sky blending deep blue with gray clouds.
The second night’s stop at 12,340 feet was Horombo’s cluster of huts. It had taken 4 1/2 hours to cover six miles and another 3,340.feet in altitude. The trudging had been more arduous, slogs through bogs, tussocks of grass, breathing more difficult as we approached the second hut at 12,000 feet. It was getting a little colder, and sporadic drizzles made it an eerie scene populated by groundsels, trees that seemed to be impersonating giant cactuses. The trekking was lovely, through valleys, up hills and across rivers. We got to the huts at midafternoon, and I slipped away to take a bath in a stream. Nice to get clean, but I felt like a frozen daiquiri.
Day three and by this time Kili is under your skin and inside your brain, the cone ever visible now, seeming to say, mockingly, “Get here if you can find a second wind. Or any wind.”
There was wind all right. Plenty of it in heavy, fierce gusts, trying to blow us off the mountain. The goal was the Kibo hut at 15,520 feet, higher than any European mountain. You had to lean into the ferocious wind to stay upright. We were crossing an Alpine desert, a barren world with very litle plant life, the clouds below us. The wind and the altitude and the steepness of the trail made a journey of about 3000 feet seem endless — a mile an hour for six hours. Taking four or five steps at a time without stopping to rest was a triumph.
Stew and tea for dinner; welcome sleeping bag at 6, But no genuine, fatigue-banishing sleep. Too much apprehension and worry about the assault on the pinnacle that would begin six hours later, at midnight. I was lady in the dark personified. Not only had the moon set, our kerosene lamp and the flashlights failed and I had no idea where to go in an all-time blackout.
But Jim, the 26 year old Tanzanian lead guide, was the voice of calm. “Just follow me. I know the way. Every step,” he said, reassuringly. Jim took me under his wing while the second guide shepherded my two companions in the unknown.
It became a dumb, numb plod: step, slip…step, slip. Over and over. Hour after hour, blocked by boulders, tipsy on scree. It was a Boston Marathon measured in inches instead of miles, but taking three times as long: seven hours.
But darkness was also an ally. You couldn’t see how precarious the climb was and the coolness of night (15 below) hardened the scree, made it more walkable. Stupidly I had forgotten to bring Gortex shells to put over my liners and wool mittens. Not enough. My fingers were icicles.
At last…Gilman’s Point. A 3,000 foot gain, in a snail’s pace for two miles. We had reached the rim of the crater (three and a half miles in circumference and a mile across). The unfolding sunrise didn’t warm me, but its brilliance made everything worthwhile. My admiration of the view was suddenly terminated by…“Urp!” I threw up, smitten by dreaded altitude sickness.
“Probably enough for you. You’ve done great,” Jim said. “We can turn back.” And the German and the other American did just that. No disgrace — but not for me. I remembered David Breashears counseling me, that I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t make it all the way.” Gilman’s was fine at 18,640 feet. But I demanded all 19,340 for myself, a walk of another mile-and-a-half and of rough passage, a zig-zagging route, up-and-down to make the last 600 into the sky.
Urping all the way, like some college kid binge drinker, I did it in 90 minutes. I couldn’t hold anything down, but my earlier, constant bingeing on water kept me intact and on both frigid feet at the roomy summit.
This was ecstacy. UHURU PEAK! Jim and I were the only two to make it to the roomy top of Africa on that day. I did sit down for 15 minutes to drink in the spectacular sights that I’d earned, to think of my children, all the blessings in my life. I did not want the moment to be rushed. Peering into the crater I was swept away by the crater within the crater, the multi-colored glaciers within it and around me. Turquoise, brown, pink, blue. It seems hard to believe they could disappear within ten years. After signing the register in a metal box, it was time to descend.
Where was the helicopter to liberate me?
“Sorry,” Jim said. “We have to go back the same way we came.”
“Oh, NO!” Retracing our steps was hard, up and down the zig-zag trail back to Gilman’s Point. Still retching to that point, I’d almost used up my reserves. But once the rapid descent began, below the rim, I floated six feet off the trail, back to the Kibo Huts, to pack up my gear and onto the second set of huts, Horombo, to celebrate. There was a blazing sunset that evening, a gift for the day’s success, I felt.
As we set off the next morning for the Park Headquarters, we learned that a climber from a group a day behind us had died shortly after he had begun his ascent in the middle of the night. Pulmonary edema. Sobering. Kilimanjaro is a tough mountain. These years later, I believe that Breashears and schoolgirl Nicole showed better judgement by taking 10 days in order to acclimate more easily. Twice as long as my trek with more time to smell the flowers.
But all my self doubt was gone at the summit, the place called Uhuru (freedom in Swahili). Whatever problems I had back in Boston seemed nothing. I had Uhuru. And that would last forever.
You cannot stay on the summit forever, you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer. But one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions when one can no longer see, One can at least know.