Some people might need a few moments to name the single most beautiful image they’ve ever witnessed. Not me. Without hesitation, I can recall a scene of stars, moonlight, and a glowing ice cap atop one of the world’s most famous mountains. That spectacle of transcendent beauty revealed itself during my climb of Mount Kilimanjaro.
In 2004, a “big birthday” had inspired me to scale Kilimanjaro as an attempt to prove to myself I wasn’t getting old. Located in northern Tanzania, the dormant volcano is both the highest peak in Africa—its summit sits at 19,341 feet—and the highest single freestanding mountain in the world. It rises up out of the blue, towering over the surrounding plains of the Serengeti, and it’s particularly recognizable for the magnificent ice caps at the top, which, alas, are rapidly diminishing due to global warming.
Kilimanjaro also holds the title of the highest mountain in the world that’s possible to summit without technical mountain-climbing equipment. For that reason, thousands of people from every corner of the globe make the trek each year. Not that the hike is easy; in fact, far from it. Before my trip, I had watched the IMAX documentary “Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa,” which informed me that one out of every two climbers is done in by altitude sickness, a common but potentially dangerous condition that is identifiable by severe headaches, nausea, and shortness of breath. I figured my aerobic conditioning as a longtime runner would be to my advantage, but since some of the trails in the documentary looked rather steep, I spent about two months working out on stair climbing machines in preparation.
To make the ascent, you must be part of a registered group, and several outfitters are available to make the arrangements and serve as guides. My friend Jon and I had chosen a company called Good Earth Tours, mostly because they also offered a safari in the Serengeti after our climb of Kilimanjaro was completed. We settled on July for the trip, just after my birthday in late June, since the region’s summertime dry season is the best time to scale Kilimanjaro. From the time of booking, that also gave us about six months to prepare.
When it came time for the trip that July, Jon and I arrived in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, the starting point of our climb, where we met our guides and three fellow hikers: Ruth, a plucky 60-year-old from Savannah; Tim, a hilarious motivational speaker from Copenhagen; and Tim’s ever-smiling girlfriend, Prenille. Besides the five of us making the climb, we were in the company of our head guide, Godlisten, and 12 other assistants to transport our gear, pitch our tents, and cook our meals. Each morning, while we ate our breakfast, they would set off, carting huge canvas-covered loads on their backs, and we usually wouldn’t see them again until day’s end at the next campsite, our tents already set up and our evening meals well under way.
A half-dozen different routes wind their way up the mountain, each requiring five to seven days depending on your route and pace, and care should be taken in selecting one. Many people opt for the Marangu route, known for its gradual inclines and hut accommodations. It’s sometimes disdainfully referred to as the “Coca Cola Route,” because there supposedly are vendors selling soft drinks along the way. Jon and I chose the Machame route, about 38 miles in length. We traversed this distance in six days, but a seventh can be added for slower acclimatizing to the altitude. About half of Kilimanjaro climbers take this route because of its reputation for unspoiled natural beauty.
And on that score, we weren’t disappointed. We passed through several distinct climatic zones on the mountain, starting with an eerily quiet rainforest at the bottom and later emerging onto a treeless plateau filled with low brush and heather. Vibrant, colorful birds and bizarre, spiky vegetation we spotted along the way seemed like they belonged on the set of a science fiction movie. Our gradual ascent followed a corkscrew path up about half the mountain, so our vistas were constantly changing, but consistently breathtaking. From our high perch, we could see the great plains stretching endlessly below us and another high mountain, Mount Meru, about 40 miles away. At times, clouds would move in and obscure the view below, but that in itself was amazing—it meant we were hiking above the clouds. (I remember seeing Godlisten talking on a cell phone and being stunned he was able to get a signal.) The views were further enhanced by the amazingly sunny weather we had throughout our entire journey; we had prepared for rain, but fortunately, we never encountered any.
We were also fortunate for the amiable camaraderie of our group. Tim was constantly joking. (I could see how his audiences in Denmark would appreciate his humor during his motivational speeches.) Jon kept extolling the virtues of Pittsburgh (his hometown), which in itself became another joke. Prenille was always laughing, not only at Tim and Jon, but at everything. Ruth was much quieter but nevertheless an inspiration to us all because she was tireless and invariably led the way. Still, among my favorite memories of our climb were the moments we all walked single-file in total silence, our hearts beating strong in our chests as we absorbed the magnificence around us in the solitude of our own thoughts.
In the evenings, the dozen or so groups of climbers who’d been hiking separately throughout the day all converged on a single campsite, where little villages of tents sprang up each night. We were usually too tired to interact with others outside our group, but our evening dinners together were especially festive. We ate like kings during the whole climb. Aside from lunch, which consisted of sandwiches stowed in our backpacks, we had hot meals for both breakfast and dinner: vegetable-rich soups and stews, chicken and rice entrees, and even fresh eggs. How the assistants had managed to transport those eggs without breaking them was truly a wonder. We even ate these meals seated at portable tables and chairs. All this food and gear might explain why 12 assistants were necessary to look after five hikers—they even transported most of our clothing so that our day packs only consisted of food and water and other lightweight necessities.
While none of the campsites were particularly scenic, the final one was the least desirable of them all—it was a steep hillside covered with a sea of large, flat rocks that wobbled precariously when you walked on them. Going anywhere (including to the outhouse) was time-consuming and irritating. However, it was this campsite where I unwittingly and spontaneously stumbled upon that moment of transcendent beauty that all by itself made my entire trip to Africa worthwhile.
We were about to make our final push to the summit, leaving at midnight to reach the top at dawn. So I awoke at that freezing midnight hour to prepare for the last stretch. A tad nervous about making the ascent in the dark, I stepped from my tent, and turned to look at the mountain’s peak, now so enticingly close. But the image beyond the peak is what nearly knocked the wind out of me, and it’s the image that has stuck with me. The sky was full of stars with little wisps of clouds here and there, and the nearly full moon, just above and to the left of the summit, was casting its light on that famous ice cap, making it both glow and shimmer with an almost supernatural light that seemed to be coming from inside the mountain. Dozens of hikers had already set off before us, each one wearing a headlamp on their foreheads to illuminate the path. From my vantage point, though, it looked like a moving string of pearls, each one heading upwards towards that glowing icecap. Without doubt, it was the most sublimely dazzling image I’ve ever witnessed.
It didn’t last long; Godlisten called, and it was time to depart. This final climb, on day five of our journey, only totaled about three miles in length, but it’s the 1,200 meters in vertical height from the campsite to the summit that makes all the difference, and the air gets thinner and thinner the higher you ascend. As a result, those three miles can take six hours or longer to navigate. We saw teams of climbers in single-file lines taking two baby steps, then stopping for a count of five before taking two more. Our group moved a bit faster, and with the summit looming over us, I remember feeling impatient to reach it.
About two to three hours into the stretch, however, I began to feel lightheaded and confused, symptoms I recognized from a hike I had done in the Himalayas 10 years before as the onset of altitude sickness. I felt as if my befuddled brain was watching my body independently operating without its control. I had eventually adjusted to the altitude in the Himalayas, which made me think the same thing would happen on Kilimanjaro.
With that in mind, I denied to myself that anything was wrong, but others were taking notice. One tipoff was that I mistook the gravel we were walking through as snow, and said so out loud, to the consternation of everyone. I began to realize I was going to be one of the 50 percent of Kilimanjaro climbers who don’t reach the top. The real deciding moment—the moment I knew I had to turn back—was when I looked up at the stars and saw them all blink off in unison, like someone turning a light off and back on. “Visual hallucinations,” the still-rational part of my mind said to the rest of me. “Time to turn around.”
Godlisten knew, as I did, that altitude sickness can fast become life-threatening, and the only cure is to move quickly to a lower altitude. The assistant chosen to lead me back to the campsite advised that we run, but in the darkness, on a path strewn with large rocks, that seemed equally dangerous to me. I walked back, enjoying the gathering light of the approaching dawn as we went. In contrast to the two or more hours I had spent ascending, the descent took less than an hour.
When I reached the encampment, I was settling into my tent when auditory hallucinations took the place of my visual ones. I heard a voice say “Rich?” I knew I was hearing voices, but I was way beyond startled that this one knew my name. For one giddy moment, I actually wondered if it was the voice of God speaking to me. “Yes?” I said, hoping no one would reply. But then the voice said “I am with you now,” which alarmed me even further since this seemed exactly like something God would say, especially given the circumstances. It was actually the voice of Tim, who had also succumbed to altitude sickness and had to return. We spent the next couple hours in our tents, both napping fitfully and feeling dispirited, but him more so than me—I learned that Tim had a diamond ring in his pocket and had planned to propose to Prenille at the summit to start their lifetime of adventures together.
When the others returned, Ruth, Prenille, and Jon were all awarded certificates for reaching the top. I was naturally disappointed I hadn’t been with them, but not profoundly so, knowing that it was my body, not my will, that had done me in. I’ve never tortured myself with thoughts of “what if?” It wasn’t in the cards for me, and it made no sense then or now to give it further thought.
Prior to this trip, I’d always been one to scoff at the semi-cliche saying of “It’s not the destination that matters, but the journey.” The whole point of any journey was to reach its end point, or so I thought. Kilimanjaro, and in fact, my entire trip to Africa, changed my mind. Beginning to end, I had so many profound and once-in-a-lifetime experiences there: before coming to Tanzania, we’d stopped in Egypt, where I descended into the bowels of the Great Pyramid of Giza; and on the safari after our climb, I witnessed a young male lion attempt (and fail) to scare an older one away from his harem of females.
But the pinnacle of that entire trip lies in those fleeting few moments watching the moon cast that otherworldly light on the ice cap of Kilimanjaro. To this day, more than 15 years later, I take care to savor those memorable, if transient, experiences in every trip I take. The fact that I hadn’t reached the mountain’s peak seemed inconsequential—I had already had my peak experience.