By Alexandra Starr "They said it was hell," my boyfriend Erez announced as he stomped into our room. "They said hiking Kilimanjaro was the most excruciating thing they've ever done."
I peered at him through the mosquito netting that cloaked the double bed. An hour and a half earlier, my boyfriend and I had arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, after an exhausting 20-hour plane flight from Washington, D.C. I had attempted to catch up on sleep while Erez had stopped by the hotel bar to chat with four British travelers who had just returned from climbing what they referred to as "Kili."
It was an enterprise we were scheduled to embark upon two days later -- at my urging. Erez had agreed to do the trek only after some initial reluctance. It appeared, however, that the Brits' description of their climb had him reconsidering that choice.
With good reason. The group had had the misfortune of reaching the Kilimanjaro's summit on the coldest weekend of the year. None of them could feel their hands by the time they made it to the top. It had also poured rain during their two-day descent, forcing them to trudge through knee-deep mud. One of them had succumbed to altitude sickness. Plagued by headaches and nausea, he ultimately lost his sense of balance and was escorted down before he reached the 19,340-foot peak.
ABOVE THE CLOUDS. The experience of our hotel-mates wasn't the only nightmare scenario we had heard about Kilimanjaro. Back in the States, veterans of the climb had described how they suffered through severe cases of frostbite, incessant vomiting, and migraines. One trekker said he had seen a woman -- a mountain-climbing instructor, no less -- die on the summit when she was struck by a cerebral edema (essentially, her brain filled with fluid).
Such stories left me petrified. But I was still determined to scale Kilimanjaro, with a resolve that bordered on fixation. I figured it was my best chance to realize a hope I had harbored since I was a kid: I wanted to climb above the clouds. On airplane flights, I had always been thrilled to gaze down on what looked like rows of cotton suspended in the air. It was something I wanted to witness without being forced to press my nose up against a window. I wanted to have the world at my feet by the virtue of my own work.
Though I'm an avid runner, I didn't have much experience climbing. And that was part of what made Kilimanjaro appealing. The mountain ranks fourth among the Seven Summits that are the highest on each continent. At 29,000 feet, Asia's Mount Everest is the highest. Anarctica's 16,000-foot Mount Vinson is the lowest. (America's highest peak is Mt. McKinley, now known as Denali, at 20,320 feet.) Kilimanjaro is the only one that's a hike, rather than a technical climb. Theoretically, any determined person in fit shape can make it to the top.
Of course, that didn't mean it wouldn't be physically excruciating. As Erez finished describing the Brits' ordeal -- seven hours of wading through the mud -- I was momentarily struck dumb. What, exactly, had I coerced him -- and me -- into doing?
Two days later, Erez and I were at the foot of the Kilimanjaro trailhead, a little edgy after a night of sporadic sleep. Our unease must have been obvious to our guide, Simon, because immediately after shaking our hands he addressed our skittishness head-on. "I want you to forget all you hear about the mountain," he said gravely. "Forget the cold. Forget it is hard. And follow me."
After all of the dire predictions of what the hike might visit upon us, I found this oracle-like pronouncement reassuring. As we were introduced to the other members of the crew, I was even more encouraged. Nine men would be shepherding us up the mountain. In addition to Simon, there was an assistant guide, two cooks, and five porters. I was a little abashed that so many people were accompanying us to the top -- it played into every stereotype of cosseted amateur hikers. But I figured having a support team outnumbering us by more than four-to-one improved our odds.
As the porters relieved us of our heavy backpacks, Simon lay down the law. We would be carrying only small daypacks, stocked with the three liters of water he wanted us to drink every day. He would set the pace, and we would be going slowly, or "pole, pole," as he said in Swahili. This was essential to allow our bodies to get accustomed to the thin air, he explained.
PATH LESS TRAVELED. To improve our chances of acclimating, Erez and I had already made the decision to scale the mountain in seven days rather than the traditional six. We had also opted to forgo the usual trail -- dubbed the Coca-Cola route, after the vendors who peddle soda along the way up -- for a tougher, less trafficked path.
Simon commended us for both choices. The more strenuous assent would force us to tackle the mountain slowly, and he promised it would be less trammeled and more scenic than the alternative.
The first day of our hike lived up to Simon's billing. We began walking in the rainforest, where the dark, almost purple-hewed mud made for a striking contrast with the brilliant green leaves that hung from the trees. Moss-lined roots ran like veins along the path. It made for a sometimes perilous trek -- rain had left the ground slick, and I found myself slipping so many times I was soon caked with dirt. But given the Brits' description of the muck they had struggled through, I considered myself lucky.
SEA OF WHITE. After six hours, we arrived at camp. Our porters had started out after us, yet they had already arrived long before, despite wearing little more than battered tennis shoes. Our tent was pitched, and a three-course meal of leek soup, chicken with rice and vegetables, and chocolate bars soon followed. I never ceased to marvel at how our cook whipped up meals at 15,000 feet that I couldn't throw together in my own kitchen.
The next day, the landscape turned arid. In contrast to the lushness of the rainforest, the only vegetation now was cacti and the desert flower protea. The views became ever more spectacular. At one point Simon commanded us to turn around, and I was delighted to see we had climbed above a layer of clouds. On the third day, a few thousand feet higher, we could see Tanzania's second-highest peak, Mt. Meru, piercing through the clouds, giving the impression of an island floating in a sea of white.
Of course, the higher we scaled, the colder and thinner the air became. Erez and I began taking Diamox, a drug that helps regulate breathing at higher altitudes. At night, Simon regaled us with descriptions of his 400-odd trips up the mountain. His most storied charge was former President Jimmy Carter, whom he had ushered up Kili's slopes in 1994. "He say I try to kill him," Simon recounted with a smile. "I say I only try to show him the roof of Africa."
COLD CLIMB. Simon claimed only one of his clients had failed to reach the top, and he didn't want us to be a pathetic exception to this track record. "I need you to win," Simon declared on our fifth day, when we would attempt to summit that evening. He was Tanzania's answer to America's soccer moms.
Simon dispatched us to our tent at 7:30 p.m., ostensibly to sleep before we embarked on our trek four hours later. But at 15,000 feet, I found myself struggling to breathe. The wind had reached a gale-like force, and our tent rattled so much it felt as though we were shrouded in tinfoil. By the time we started our ascent, I had slept a few minutes at most.
Erez and I had donned five layers of clothing, but our elaborate getups were no match for the -10 degree weather. After walking up into the frigid headwinds for half an hour, I felt like a human icicle. When I reached for my water bottle, I was puzzled by the fact that there seemed to be a groove in its center. Had I unintentionally nicked it? Then I realized that my middle finger had gone completely numb -- the "groove" was due to my lack of sensation. And it wasn't just my body that had frozen over -- the water, I saw, had turned to ice.
BLIND TRUDGE. Our visibility was basically limited to the two-foot sphere of light given off by our headlamps. But I could tell the path was breathtakingly steep, the toughest terrain of the trek by a long shot. The consistency of the ground had changed, too -- it felt as if we were moving through sand, which meant that for every few steps up, we would sink backwards. To top it all off, there's about half as much oxygen at 20,000 ft. as at sea level. Even a simple stroll in air this thin was enough to wear me out. I was in the midst of the greatest physical challenge I had ever encountered.
I pestered Simon to let us rest. O.K., he would reply, but you cannot sit down. Despite my frequent queries, he refused to tell us how much farther it was to the top, and in the darkness we couldn't know if this Sisyphean endeavor would end in minutes or hours (it was the latter). Erez, meanwhile, had remained eerily silent. Then he abruptly piped up. "I'm breathing," he said, "but there is no oxygen entering my lungs." Simon's response was immediate: "No! We must continue."
We did, somehow. Our heads were pounding, and our knees were buckling, but Simon's directive seemed to make turning around a nonoption. Finally, he let us sit. I dropped to the ground in a heap. Mindful that this had been all my idea, I turned to my boyfriend. "I promise," I said, "that I will never, ever make you do anything like this again." He didn't offer any protest.
THIN RED LINE. Finally, as the sky began to brighten, my mood lifted. The ground had leveled out, and I could hear people who had reached the top cheering. It was encouraging that they were within earshot. The sun came up, a thin red line along the horizon -- just like what I had seen from airplane windows when I craned my head, I thought. Except now I had a panoramic view.
Simon had to restrain me from running toward the wooden sign that marked off the highest point on the African continent. ("Always pole, pole," he admonished, as he grabbed my down jacket.) When a fellow American tourist agreed to snap a victory photograph for us, I looked around and marveled. The clouds were far, far below my feet. I knew a grueling 10-hour descent awaited us. But I was ecstatic.
We had done it.
Simon insisted that we quickly begin the descent. But the path we had scaled in the darkness now stopped us in our tracks. It looked like a vertical plunge, reminiscent of a ski slope. "That's impossible," Erez muttered as we surveyed what had taken six and a half hours to climb.
"The impossible was possible," Simon replied, "when you do it."
It was a clichelivered in broken English, but at the moment it seemed ripe with meaning. If I had been able to see that ridiculously steep ascent, I doubt I would have made it to the top. It would have seemed wildly implausible that my body could walk straight up into the air through what felt like quicksand. Our blindness, a source of irritation when we were in the thick of that climb, had turned out to be a boon. It had forced us to focus on the simple act of putting one foot in front of another, rather than constantly calibrating what lay ahead.
Our journey back to base camp was really more like a ski run than a hike. With our hiking poles propping us up, we slid down 5,000 feet in less than an hour and a half. As I saw the twists and turns we had navigated in the dead of night, I occasionally shook my head in amazement. Simon seemed attuned to how stunned I was. "I push because I know you can do it," he told me. And by pushing, I realized, he had shown me what I was capable of.
LESSONS OF THE CLIMB. The point of Simon's prodding wasn't to see us best our fellow climbers. His aim was simply to summit the mountain. His admonishments to go pole, pole had meant that lots of hikers had passed us as we trammeled through the rain forest and up to base camp. We hadn't tried to catch up to our peers, some of whom, incidentally, didn't finish the climb. And yet we were successful. We had stood at the highest point in Africa.
When I look back on my trip, it's not the view from the top that I most treasure (although witnessing the sunrise at 20,000 feet was a moment to remember). Rather, it's that the climb taught me something about challenges and how to tackle them. Trite phrases I'd heard since I was a kid -- "The only race you're in is with yourself," "Never give up" -- took on new meaning in the context of Kilimanjaro. When you define your goal, adhere to your own consistent pace, and give yourself over to the task at hand, you'll be able to accomplish more than you thought possible.
If my boyfriend has his way, I may be testing myself again, in the not-too-distant future. As we finished our long descent down Kilimanjaro, Erez already seemed to have forgotten the prolonged agony we had been through the previous day. He flashed me an impish smile and asked: "So, shall we go up McKinley next?" Perhaps we shall. Starr is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau