Six months previously, I had signed myself up for the climb on a whim; I’d read an article about a group of overweight men in their fifties who successfully reached the peak. Kilimanjaro is unique – it’s the tallest mountain whose summit can be reached without using any technical gear. A man in a wheelchair has made it to the top; men in their eighties make the climb; even a seven-year-old boy had been at the peak. I could do it.
After little research, it became clear to me that the only choice in terms of comfort and safety was to go with Abercrombie & Kent, frequently ranked as the world’s most luxurious travel outfitter. As they’re known for offering private jet tours to exotic locales, I figured that A&K would probably offer escalator service right to the top. But they warned me that despite a success rate of over 90%, this wouldn’t be a leisurely stroll.
I enlisted a personal trainer from the Sports Club/LA, a man whose business card (in the interest of full disclosure) should have read “making your life miserable for six months.” I ran, swam and lifted weights almost every day. My new motto became “there’s no stop button on the mountain.”
My climbing partner and a best friend, Ken, wasn’t as maniacal about training (but, to his credit, he runs marathons). While there was no secret training formula, most of the guidebooks instructed us to walk at a strenuous pace for at least three hours a day before going, which seemed easy enough.
In July, we left for Arusha via London and Nairobi. Upon our arrival, we went on a pre-hike – which Ken dubbed “hiking in vain” – around Arusha National Park. We met the ten other eager climbers who would form our party and our guide, Abel, who had almost 500 journeys to the top under his belt. Before we arrived, A&K had sent detailed instructions in a leather binder with packing lists, immunization requirements and Visa instructions. It was therefore surprising to learn that some of the hikers didn’t pack parkas, waterproof pants or even hiking poles. One girl planned to get to the top in only jeans!
The following day we drove to 6,000 feet above sea level, or the starting gate of the Machame route (also known as the Whiskey Route). While there are less strenuous paths to the top, this one is the most scenic and most popular. At the gates, we signed a book documenting every traveler that would step foot on the mountain.
The sherpas kept on coming and packing up more boxes of food, potatoes and bottled water. One carried fresh eggs on his head while juggling watermelons in his hands. On average, each person warranted six sherpas: one to carry the luggage, one with bottled water, one to transport the tent and the remaining three to tote the week’s food supply. In print, it seems excessive; on that mountain slope, it was anything but.
The first day, we climbed from 6,000 to 10,000 feet through dense rainforest on a muddy path. Much of the trek was through red mud and up many, many stairs. Quickly, the dynamics of the group began to fall into place. Peter, a doctor from Texas, was a life-long bird watcher. He spent the months leading up to our trip studying Excel spreadsheets of birds in Tanzania. His goal was to see 50 “lifers,” meaning 50 birds that he would see for the first time in his life. Accompanying Peter were his teenage daughter and sister from Hong Kong. Simonetta, an accessories designer for Ferragamo, was the trip’s Annie Liebowitz and carried several cameras. Chris and Mitch, a fit couple from New York City, were the group’s pacesetters and kept us moving along at a good clip. Gillian and Alan were a couple from Chicago who held hands the entire time. Tim, a doctor from Kentucky, and his daughter rounded out the group. Like me, each person was strongly motivated to reach the top. Mitch was doing it for his 50th birthday, Gillian wanted to prove that women over 40 could do this, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could successfully complete one of the most physically demanding challenges. I didn’t think it was possible.
At 10,000 feet, we signed the books at the first overnight camp. I put on my Ugg boots and made hot chocolate with marshmallows. We were encouraged to bring such “tastes of home” with us, and I can’t emphasize how crucial these were. Before dinner, the sherpas brought us each a bowl of hot water for washing our hands and feet. After, I had my first experience in a “toilet tent” (one of the greatest luxuries: a port-a-potty in a tent. Other, less luxurious outfitters encourage you to bring along a pee funnel). I enjoyed my first sunset above the clouds and one of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen.
The twelve of us crammed into the food tent for a meal of bread and soup. There was always a carb-loaded choice, such as corn or potatoes. Even more potatoes or pasta followed, sometimes even potatoes and pasta in the same dish. The main dish always had meat: chicken, beef, even fish, along with vegetables. Dinner was usually over by 9. After, we would discuss the following day and go to bed.
An achievement in itself: every day, the guides were able to provide three hot meals – several courses each – for the group. At 12,ooo feet, I had fresh guacamole with chips. Every morning we ate sausage, eggs and bacon. The cook’s specialty was fried bananas with a papaya sauce, and though I had lost my hunger to altitude, I couldn’t stop eating them.
I had a medicine chest with me; for days, I had been taking altitude sickness pills. The important thing is to go “polli polli” – Swahili for “slowly, slowly” – while drinking plenty of water. Our guides were militant about drinking water. By the second day, I was suffering from mild headaches, similar to a faint ice cream headache. These twinges came and went throughout the day, even after being on a steady diet of Advil every couple of hours. I never threw up or had bad stomach cramps or nosebleeds, but the altitude was intense enough that several people had to turn around. After our second night, Tim and his daughter went back down the mountain.
As it got colder, as we climbed higher and as the terrain became increasingly foreign, our exhaustion levels mounted. We started in a rainforest and then hiked through a desert that turned into a barren landscape with big boulders. All in all, we moved through five distinct climate zones. Above the tree line and the clouds, it was like walking on Mars or a comparably alien landscape. Some days we walked over large plateaus, while other days found us on our hands and knees climbing up large walls.
My body never felt right. One has to pass gas about twelve times an hour when moving through these altitudes, an unglamorous secret about the hike. Our enthusiasm as a group waned, and I found myself relying more and more on Ken for strength.
On our fifth night, we stopped early at Camp Barafu. I didn’t even pretend to sleep. At 11:30 p.m., I readied myself for the final climb. I struggled into six layers on my top half, including a down parka, and four layers on the bottom (I was still cold the whole time). I was winded walking from the sleeping tent to the food tent. At these heights, three breaths are equal to one taken at sea level.
An hour into the hike, my legs began to give away. As we were scrambling over gravel (known as scree) at a nearly vertical incline, it was hard not to slip backwards. Even with headlights on, we had no idea of the path that just seemed to endlessly zigzag. We were tired; however, if we stopped, we would freeze as quickly as our “camel packs” of water had. The only times I found myself picking up my pace was to get past the numerous hikers vomiting or suffering from heart palpitations by the side of the road. I strongly questioned whether or not I was going to have a heart attack, as my heart was beating at what seemed (to me) an excessive rate. At that point, half of our group turned back. I decided that no matter what, I would finish this.
When our guide announced that only 2,000 feet remained till we summated, I was suddenly re-energized. I was going in and out of consciousness. Sometimes, I thought my dead grandmother was cheering me on. I imagined that the large mittens dangling off my poles were dogs attacking me. We all became machines with no rational thought other than the common goal of reaching the top.
At 7 a.m., we reached Stella Point, which sits 300 feet from the tallest part of Kilimanjaro. We watched the sun rise and then began our final push (another hour) to Uhuru Point, the ceiling of Africa. Despite reports to the contrary, there is still plenty of snow and glaciers to walk through. When I finally reached Uhuru, I was so tired that I couldn’t even open my mouth. If it wasn’t for my porter, I wouldn’t even have pictures from the top. Ken and I hugged and then spent a few minutes looking down. It was so high that we could see the curve of the earth; we began to understand the true scope and scale of our planet. Insert any superlative you like: I felt like that. It was the best, the greatest, the most inspirational, the most exhilarating, rewarding feeling. I heard someone say that it was like finishing three marathons back-to-back. Simply put, it was awesome.
I underestimated the climb down. It was almost equally as difficult as the climb up had been. Dirt got in my lungs, and I couldn’t breath. When I returned to base camp, we had one hour to sleep. I drank three juice boxes and then descended to 10,000 feet. All in all, 20 of these 24 hours were spent hiking.
We spent one last night on the mountain and then walked straight downhill for three hours. It was with mixed emotions because I was so damn excited I made it and yet, Ken felt it was best to be cautious about our joy since half of our group didn’t make it. At the bottom we were presented with certificates, which documented our success.
We headed back to the lodge, popped champagne and said our goodbyes. Most guests were continuing on to safaris and it all seemed to end in a blur, perhaps it was just too much to digest for one week. Ken graciously gave me the first shower, and I stood under it for over an hour. It was almost a profound religious experience and I’d never felt so alive.
After I returned home, I found this quote by Aleister Crowley from his first attempt to climb K2, “I had done it myself and found not only that the pearl of great price was worth far more than I possessed, but also that the very peril and privations of the quest were themselves my dearest memories.” I couldn’t agree more.
Abercrombie & Kent, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, $4,450 per person (excluding airfare), 800-554-7016 or visit www.abercrombieandkent.com.
Kilimanjaro by the numbers
- 7 is the average number of days it takes for one to hike to the top and come back down.
- On most treks, you’ll walk a total of 50 miles.
- Kilimanjaro, at 19,340 feet, is not only Africa’s tallest mountain but also the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.
- Each year, 25,000 people attempt the “Kili Climb” and only 40 percent make it.
Tips for a successful climb
1. Plan at least six months in advance and choose your climbing partner wisely.
2. Take your medication. While some debate if you need the altitude pills, everyone who made it in our group was on some prescribed drug for altitude.
3. Bring the “taste of home.” On the hike you can burn up to 4,500 calories a day and chocolate will never taste as good as it does up there.
4. Mentally prepare for the hike. While physically demanding, Kilimanjaro is mental challenge. As you work out, envision yourself successfully getting to Uhuru Point.