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Humbly Goes the Mountain Man
A decidedly unheroic trip up Kilimanjaro
By Chip Brown
He was not feeling right with the mountain. He had been the first
to throw up, yesterday, at 14,800 feet, and the woman beside him,
his wife and tentmate — a self-described "asphalt neurotic"
whose fashion consciousness had never permitted her to wear a backpack,
not even that ubiquitous little black number from Prada —
had regarded him less with pity than delight. "The Great Outdoorsman,"
she said as he wiped his mouth with a red bandanna. Her idea of
a vacation was two weeks on the C–te d'Azur, not a trek to
the roof of the continent where mankind's evolutionary adventure
began. But hadn't she been a sport so far! Gliding up the trail
as if it were an escalator at Bergdorf's. "Mountain Man,"
she said. "Not!"
And now it was night again, another camp, another round of aspirin
and Tylenol PM and Advil washed down with Tanzanian tea and iodized
water in a vain effort to quell the headaches. They were all under
orders from the trip leader to keep their urine "clear and
copious." All night he'd hear the Diamoxers jumping up to drain
their bladders, first the buzz of zippers from the neighboring tents
and then some huffing and hopping and then small Niagaras hitting
talus. It was as if they were camped in a barn full of racehorses.
As the moon rose and spread its cold bone-dust on the glaciers and
the ramparts of the Western Breach, he could feel the insomnia settling
in, the endless run-on sentence of unwanted wakefulness, his mind
stuck on something he'd read in Joan Didion's book The White Album:
"Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written
about them. Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway."
Well, if it did it was obviously on the strength of the short story
"The Snows of Kilimanjaro." To credit a piece of fiction
with the power of eminent domain had seemed ridiculous at sea level,
a misbegotten idea born of one of Didion's famous Santa Ana migraines,
but at 16,000 feet, he wondered if she didn't have a point. It was
a given that aspiring Kili climbers read or re-read the 1936 tale
of the famous dying writer who, from a camp in the shadow of the
great volcano, catalogs the stories he meant to write and contemplates
the portents of death hovering near (buzzards, hyenas) and casts
his eyes on the glaciated summit in the distance, "great, high,
and unbelievably white." Kilimanjaro, the Masai's NgÇje
NgÇi, "the House of God." Where the dying writer's
soul was bound, assuming it wasn't being sent straight to feminist
hell for phallocentric sins. And where the famous Kilimanjaro leopard,
whose ear was clipped and whose picture was taken before the carcass
disappeared, had been found at what is now called Leopard Point,
provoking much wonder about the animal's motives.
The story had been made into a voluptuously bad movie in 1952 with
Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, a movie that managed to load so much
philosophical gravitas onto the enigma of the leopard that the whole
business cried out for a Monty Python parody. Now as he lay on "Hemingway's"
mountain, unsuccessfully drugged and longing for sleep beside his
soundly sleeping wife — who hated backpacking but who somehow
in the space of five days had transmogrified into Mrs. John Muir
— he wondered if the mystery of the leopard that climbed Kilimanjaro
was any more unfathomable than the mystery of those common house
cats that are always summiting refrigerators. Grander, for sure.
Loftier, no doubt. But any more of a riddle?
Five nights ago, their first in Africa, when they were en route
to their camp on the savanna west of Kilimanjaro, jouncing in the
darkness over what seemed quintessentially wild and roadless country,
a member of the cat family had flashed in front of the Land Cruiser.
"A cat!" shouted Godwin, the driver.
It was the first game they'd seen, wild Africa incarnate. But which
of the ten cat species was it? A big-eared serval, out prowling
for rats and grasshoppers? An African lynx, maybe?
"What kind of cat?" he asked the driver.
Oh. A house cat. Such deflations had shaped the ironic, where's-the-joke
style of his generation, and he wondered if 50 years hence his contemporaries
— all of them who were connoisseurs of absurdity, at least
— would seem as dated and fatuous as Hemingway's characters:
men and women who appeared now as a bunch of trigger-happy jackass
racists moaning about the "fat on their souls" while step'n'fetchits
named Molo fixed them whiskey sodas and said, "Yes Bwana, no
Bwana, right away Bwana."
Still, if you compared the way Westerners traveled in East Africa
today and the way they did in Hemingway's time, similarities outnumbered
differences. Maybe, in the distemper of a Didionesque headache,
he wasn't being fair. Hemingway's colonial fools couldn't be any
more blind and self-righteous than Didion herself, who'd seen fit
to give the novelist title to the very signature of Africa, a mountain
first described by Ptolemy back when the sun circled the earth.
And what about the current crop of cultural chauvinists, this fussy,
trip-of-a-lifetime group of tourists who were tossing and pissing
at the foot of the Western Breach? Weren't they as caught up in
their own fictions about Africa as any generation of bwanas before
them? Weren't they trying to read a country with eyes clouded by
European biases and fantasies, and European fears, too? Every generation
struggling to decipher its own story has some version of a frozen
leopard, some haunted totem that expresses its unconscious terror,
its perplexity in the face of death.
What genius "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" possessed —
what induced Africa-bound travelers to read it as a matter of course
— lay in its making Kilimanjaro the focus of a deathbed vision.
For all of Africa's Edenic connotations, the wild country was still
presented first as the land of savage blood-sports — of snapped
spines, severed jugulars, shredded hamstrings, and flyblown eyes.
And it was just this slaughter on the savanna that made Kilimanjaro
so alluring to Westerners on safari, and perhaps even to Masai souls
needing some uncontested spot for a peaceful afterlife. Those first
two nights at 4,000 feet before the climb began, he had had to squire
his wife to the latrine at 3 a.m. because she was so verklemmt about
hyenas, even though on a warm-up hike they'd seen only a solitary
ostrich and a lot of red ticks. It didn't matter. She had overdosed
on PBS nature documentaries. She was convinced that all the carnivores
of the continent were outside the tent, honing their teeth on the
zipper. But the higher she got on the mountain, the bolder she became.
The redoubts of Kilimanjaro offered sanctuary from the killing fields
and the curdling night cries.
A buzzard zipped — no, it was just a zipper buzzing, thank
God. He'd been asleep, and realized now he was awake, and that Alydar
and Affirmed had trotted outside with Secretariat to hose down the
rocks with processed Tanzanian tea. And these photons searing his
retina: It was Mrs. Muir, wearing an argon laser headlamp over her
"You were shouting in your sleep, Mountain Man."
"What was I saying?"
"'Aspirin, Molo! Aspirin!'"
Kilimanjaro is hardly terra incognita. As one of the most famous
mountains in the world, renowned for the marvel of its equatorial
ice and the legend of its leopard and the unforbidding angle of
its slopes, it seems to summon the mountaineer in people who would
otherwise never venture onto mountains. Where dense stone meets
thin air, Kilimanjaro is also famous for its hardships. Acute mountain
sickness in the last decade has killed an average of ten Kili climbers
annually. There's hardly a penitent who staggers out of the House
of God without vowing never to go back, but then complaining about
the mountain is one of the perverse pleasures of climbing it.
What's hard to grasp is Kilimanjaro's immensity. It is one of the
largest freestanding mountains in the world, so massive that its
weight measurably depresses the crust of the earth. It rises to
19,340 feet from a base that stretches 50 miles along the Tanzania-Kenya
border and in places is more than 25 miles across. It was built
by prodigious extrusions of black rhomb porphyry lava erupting from
faults and fractures in the Great Rift Valley. It is a geological
infant, a scant 750,000 years old, with two sharply contrasted summits
(the now-dormant volcanoes Kibo and Mawenzi) and the remnants of
a third (the collapsed caldera known as the Shira Plateau).
And yet for all its monumental proportions, its geographic and psychological
conspicuousness, Kilimanjaro is oddly elusive. This is not simply
a matter of the weather, which often obscures it by midmorning.
Even on the clearest days, Kilimanjaro seems hidden in its own celebrity,
shrouded in the paradoxical fashion of classic places by a veil
of clichës and preconceptions, a million unrevealing images
iterated on beer labels and postcards and "I Climbed Kili"
T-shirts. Something not to be discovered so much as checked off,
bagged, dispensed with; less a mountain than an abstraction that
recedes into the background as one's own experiences on it rush
breathlessly to the fore.
For centuries, to the outside world, Kilimanjaro existed as a myth.
Ptolemy left the first written record of "a great snow mountain"
at a latitude of liquefying heat. What had been a landmark for Zanzibar
traders and slave caravan masters was still a rumor in Europe until
1849, when Christian missionary Johann Rebmann's report of a snow-covered
mountain near the equator was published. Even then, some prominent
know-it-alls back at the Royal Geographical Society in London scoffed
at the idea and patronized the eyewitness as a fool.
Kilimanjaro rebuffed ascents until 1889, when German climber Hans
Meyer battled through deep snow and found a route on the southeastern
flank of Kibo. He called the high point Kaiser Wilhelm's Peak. (When
Tanzania gained its independence in 1961 the actual summit was renamed
Uhuru Peak, Swahili for "freedom.") Meyer's climb was
his second try. He had been turned back two years before by an insurmountable
rampart of blue ice at around 18,000 feet. Eleven years after that
first attempt, he returned to Kilimanjaro to study its glaciers
and was shocked to discover how much the ice had shrunk back over
the crater rim, a dramatic retreat that has since slowed but not
halted. (Some glaciers described in a 30-year-old climbing guide
no longer exist.)
As the ice melted it released a deluge of tourists. Today boot traffic
on Kilimanjaro has pestled the trails to a fine powder. Bylines
and other moronic personal affirmations have been scratched into
rocks along popular routes. Many campsites are stripped bare of
firewood and poxed with outbreaks of pink Tanzanian toilet paper.
About 12,000 climbers attempted the mountain in 1996, but the number
doesn't tell half the story. You cannot climb without a local guide,
and porters are so cheap to hire, from $4 to $7 a day, that almost
every climber goes up with a retinue. Which is to say that if you
add the staff, there were upward of 30,000 people walking on the
Ninety percent follow what's called the tourist or Coca-Cola route,
which starts at the Marangu Gate, on the mountain's southeastern
flank, and links three bunk-and-kitchen huts in a five-day, four-night
round-trip. Roughly parallel to Meyer's pioneering ascent, the Coca-Cola
route has been the main way up the mountain almost from the moment
it was established in 1909, but what makes it expeditious is also
what makes it demoralizing: Climbers don't have time to acclimatize.
More than half don't reach the summit, and for many even getting
to the crater rim at 18,650 feet is the most exacting labor of their
Other, less traveled routes follow ridges along the southern side
of the mountain and make use of unequipped huts. If you go all the
way around to the west there is a seldom-used trail that crosses
the desolate Shira Plateau and then angles up to a high camp at
the foot of a dramatic break in the crater rim, known as the Western
Breach. Short of a technical ascent of one of Kili's glaciers, it
is the most interesting way up the mountain, and it was the way
a group organized by Wilderness Travel — my wife, Kate, and
me included — was planning to go. We would have the luxury
of eight days instead of five to follow in the footsteps of the
There were ten of us in all, six men, four women, under the close
supervision of a 29-year-old Tanzanian named Alex Lemunge. Alex
had been to the top of Kilimanjaro 52 times, but this would be his
inaugural ascent as a trip leader, a tricky job that had previously
been handled by white expatriates. Alex was about six feet tall,
with movie-star cheek bones and eyes the color of old pennies. He
had grown up in the forest, hunting antelope with his father using
bows and arrows and sometimes spears. In the pitch dark when you
could barely see your hand in front of your face, Alex could read
the braille of a game trail with his feet. For a while he had wanted
to become a Catholic priest, but his seminary studies were interrupted
by mandatory army service and then curtailed for good when he had
to still earn a living after his father died in 1993. But there
was still something of the priest in the mountain guide. Kilimanjaro
was Alex's church, and shepherding nauseous flocks of bwanas to
the shrine of its summit was his ministry. On a neck chain he wore
his wedding ring and medals of St. Francis, patron saint of animals,
and St. Bernard, patron saint of alpine travelers.
The only wilderness Alex did not seem completely at home in was
the culture of his Western clients, whose conversations revolved
around business deals, modem speeds, mutual funds, and frequent-flier
mileage. But he had been with our herd since we arrived at Kilimanjaro
International Airport, outside Arusha, and as a student of animals
he had been taking our measure in his low-key way, trying to anticipate
who might have problems on the mountain, who might cause them. With
a clipboard checklist, he reviewed our equipment, the layers of
long underwear, the gaiters, hats, and gloves that seemed incongruous
in the heat of the savanna. He went over the itinerary. He said
we would all be hiking together, at the pole pole, "slowly,
slowly," pace that is the secret of success on Kilimanjaro
and the mantra of all the mountain guides. Bwana was always in a
rush. "If you can't talk while you're hiking, you're walking
too fast," Alex said. He promised that we would all have headaches
and feel nauseous and wouldn't want to eat, but it was our job to
eat, and to drink water. "We'll see people puking the entire
trip," he said with a strange enthusiasm, as if the prospect
held a special glamour.
Alex's English (his fourth language, after Swahili, Chagga, and
Masai) was fluent, full of soft, rolling cadences; when he pronounced
the word "absolutely" he sounded a little like Arnold
Schwarzenegger. Ab-so-loot-ly. At times it took some doing to decode
his accent. During the preclimb briefing, Alex advised that if we
wanted to "party" we shouldn't just go off into the woods
alone; we should tell someone. "So please, if you have to party,
let someone know," he said. I looked around at my fellow climbers.
Norman, a New York photographer, was 28; Christine, an accountant
from Bermuda, was 37. OK, maybe they had come to Africa to party.
They were young, like Mrs. Muir; they had brain cells to kill. But
what about Paul, a lawyer from Portland, and his wife, Sharon, a
real estate agent, and Bob, who had just sold his document storage
company in Chicago, and Stephen, a management consultant from Palo
Alto? They were in their fifties. And Lina and Cesare, two Italian
scientists from Oakland, were in their sixties! It had probably
been 20 or 30 years since they'd all worn togas and danced with
lamp shades on their heads.
Frankly, everyone was mystified by Alex's preoccupation with our
supposed desire to party and wondered if it bespoke some grave cultural
misunderstanding. Finally it dawned that when Alex was saying "party"
he was meaning "potty," and that this was his charmingly
euphemistic — albeit bizarrely infantilizing — way of
explaining how we should handle the call of nature.
After the prelude on the savanna, we piled into three trucks and
drove for two hours on a red dirt road that climbed out of the tick-ridden
grasslands and into the foothills of Kilimanjaro. At last, at 7,000
feet, the road quit, and where you might expect to find only the
silence and solitude of the deep forest that encircles the mountain,
a small army of Tanzanians had been mobilized in a clearing —
cooks, guides, porters, milling around, smoking, drinking tea. Cesare
shook his head. "Three cooks, five guides, and 33 porters for
ten stupid tourists," he said with brio. I knew what he meant,
and tried to explain to the Asphalt Neurotic that any self-respecting
Mountain Man used to carrying his own stuff would have compunctions
about a horde of servants retained on his behalf; she would have
none of it.
The trucks were unloaded, and our gear was quickly stuffed into
waterproof green bags that were the size of small dumpsters and
were equipped with primitive, vicious-looking shoulder straps. Alex
introduced us to Remy Damian, the head guide, a compact, rheumy-eyed
grandfather of eight who was all of 45 years old. Remy had hired
the porters and appointed the assistant guides, one of whom was
his 24-year-old son-in-law Poncian, who wore a rakish black beret.
Remy served on the rescue team in Kilimanjaro National Park, and
he apparently had no trouble at altitude despite a pack-a-day addiction
to Sportsman cigarettes. Cigarettes, he joked, were his Diamox.
I asked him how many times he'd climbed Kilimanjaro. He shuddered,
as if it were an especially difficult math problem. "Too many
times to count," he said. "Maybe three or five hundred
"How many times have you used that joke about cigarettes being
"Many times," he said, smiling slyly.
On command from Alex, we shouldered our pathetically light daypacks
and filed into the forest. The protocol had been explained. Alex
would set the pace at the front (carrying his own tent and sleeping
bag), and Remy and his assistants would bring up the rear, waiting
on any stragglers, ready to attend should some poor sap pull off
the trail and hurl breakfast. I took a last look at the trucks that
would not be seen again until our exit at Mweka Gate, on the south
side of the mountain. Eight days, 37 miles: a modest distance, and
no true measure of the work ahead.
We were bound for the Shira Plateau on an old poachers' trail that
Wilderness Travel now used regularly for its Kilimanjaro expeditions.
Alex set a pace that was only slightly faster than a funeral cortege.
We weren't 20 minutes underway when the cry went up from the rear,
"Porters!" and we stepped aside to let the battalion through.
"Jambo! Jambo!" the porters said as they passed. They
were moving twice as fast and had worked up a sweat. Each porter
had his own style. Some actually used the cruel shoulder straps
and hauled the weight on their backs. Others leaned forward with
the straps around their foreheads and the bags slung over their
necks. Some dispensed with the straps altogether and hiked along
with hands in pockets, their burdens expertly balanced on their
Around midday we came to a spot on the trail where a camp table
was laden with a spread of breads, cheese, salami, sliced passion
fruit, oranges, and avocados.
"Lunch, guys. Let's eat," said Alex, inviting us to sit
down. Sit? Eat? EAT? While sitting? Could anyone sit and eat when
the trailside supermarket seemed so obscenely lavish? Mountain Man
was overcome with guilt to think that the Tanzanian porters, who
were lugging lanterns, kerosene, black-bottom kettles, a radio,
a mess tent, six dome tents, firewood, crates of fresh carrots,
onions, tomatoes, oranges, hard-boiled eggs, bricks of cheese, ten
sleeping bags, and ten full-length sleeping pads, were also carrying
a dining room table and ten canvas stools so that he, Bwana Boy,
could have something to plant his fat ass on after the hard work
of daypacking a pair of binoculars, some M&M's, and a light
jacket. (Oh, don't forget the two water bottles.) Chairs! So he
could take a load off his feet, which were snugly encased in $200
boots, while Molo & Company padded around in flip-flops. The
table lacked for nothing but whiskey and soda.
Unable to bring myself to sit on the camp stools, I airily announced
that I would squat on the ground like the cooks who had set out
the lunch and the guides who were waiting to finish what the clients
couldn't eat. Squat I did. Meanwhile my fellow climbers attacked
the groaning board with consciences evidently clear. They piled
bread and fruit and cheese onto plates, they carried their heaping
portions over to the camp chairs, and they eased their keisters
into the seats, sighing and clucking as if their rest were hard-won
and richly deserved. Gosh, the seats did look awfully comfortable...
I began to wonder what I was trying to prove by a show of phony
solidarity with the chairless class. The social equation in place
was tried and true, and despite its obnoxious colonial overtones,
the easiest thing — the polite thing, probably — was
to go along with it. Make a sandwich, sit down, and shut up. Besides,
this infernal squat was killing my knees.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is the climatic equivalent of a trip from
the equator to the Arctic. We spent the night in the forest under
a giant podocarpus tree, listening to colobus monkeys and the haunting,
liquid notes of the tropical boubou. We hit the trail the next morning
at around eight — or two o'clock, as the Chagga would say,
because they only begin to count the day's hours after the sun rises,
and the night's after it sets. Norman was already in full form.
He had gotten his hands on a phrase book and from the back of the
line insisted on shouting sentences of traveler's Swahili to Alex
at the front, taking special delight in the section reserved for
"Alex, drop your pants."
"Alex, give me a urine sample."
If anything could have induced Alex to increase the pace, this was
it, but he forbore patiently, and continued pole pole.
Abruptly the gloom of the forest gave way to the heath with its
cypress shrubs and feathery stands of white-flowered heather. The
night before, in the moisture-laden air of the forest, we had been
shivering. Now we were exposed to the persecution of the sun. To
the south, the foothills of Kilimanjaro tapered into dusty wheat-colored
plains. Alex spotted a quartet of eland with his naked eye. The
dun-colored animals were picking their way across a draw more than
a mile off, and even with binoculars they were hard to see. We dropped
over the side of a ravine and broke for lunch in a shadeless creek
bottom. I was too bushed to stand up for the chairless class and
took a seat and drank off three bowls of mushroom soup.
Leaving the dishes for the staff, we followed Alex up a steep hill
and then breasted a long, low-angled ridge, one of the great lava
rivers that tumble down from the Shira Plateau. Near the top, we
began to contour around the long shoulder of the caldera's rim.
At around three that afternoon, after six hours on the trail, we
crossed a divide and saw the top of Kilimanjaro in the distance,
an eerily isolated, forbiddingly foreshortened dome of glaciers
and rust-red rock looming over the windy moors.
We camped that night on the dusty plain at 11,300 feet. It was bitterly
cold, and a biting wind harried the tents. The sight of the mountain
from afar seemed to have awakened some lurking insecurities among
the group. Mrs. Muir whispered that one of the drawbacks of hiking
all bunched up was having to listen to other peoples' conversations.
We were traveling with some major chatterboxes. Alex had said if
you couldn't talk while hiking, you were walking too fast, but was
that to say chit-chat was mandatory? It was hard to hear your own
thoughts for all the talk, much less the silence of the wild. I
asked Remy how to say "no noise" in Swahili.
"Si taki kelele," he said.
But of course people were chattering because they were nervous.
They were psyched-out. The air was getting thin. They couldn't bathe.
Their digestion was disturbed. Their spirits were flagging. To the
Chagga tribe, who thought Kilimanjaro was crowned with a baffling
kind of silver that melted in your hand, the mountain was guarded
by spirits who would inflict terrible pain and chills on anyone
foolish enough to venture too high.
That first night on the Shira Plateau, Bob began to show the wear
of nonstop partying. Norman had overdosed on sun and at dinner poked
listlessly at a pancake before crawling into his tent. Cesare and
Lina, who earlier had been cheerfully bickering about what you could
properly conclude from per capita changes in world energy consumption,
had no zest left for debate. Sharon's heart was racing and she couldn't
catch her breath; she'd begun to panic that she should be taking
Diamox. I crept immediately into my sleeping bag because my head
felt like a bad piece of taxidermy. When Mrs. Muir came back from
the mess tent a while later, she said, "It's doom and gloom
in there. Sharon was saying, 'Maybe it's time for plan B.'"
Alex, who at supper had taken it upon himself to serve us the lentil
soup and the rice and vegetables, could see morale hemorrhaging.
He pointedly sounded each of us out, offering advice and encouragement,
reassuring us that nausea and fatigue were normal. Drink more water,
he said. I wasn't taking Diamox, but I was in the barn, matching
the other horses quart for quart. At ten. At 12. At two. At four.
Clear and copious, like the stars I saw while shivering half-naked
in the wind, on that desolate plain, under Kili's starlit silhouette,
which suddenly seemed like no sanctuary at all, but an austere,
unlikely land fit for souls, perhaps, but certainly not for bodies.
By the next morning when we set out for our camp on the far side
of the Shira Plateau, the hemorrhage in morale had been stanched.
"Si taki kelele," Remy said as I picked up my hiking stick.
The camp was perched on a bluff just under 13,000 feet. It had been
known as Shira II but had been renamed Fischer's Camp after Scott
Fischer, the American guide who died on Everest in May 1996. He
had been partners with Wesley Krause, the American climber who owned
the local branch of Wilderness Travel. They had made the second
ascent of Kili's famous Breach Icicle together, and Fischer had
led a number of trips up the mountain, including a fund-raiser for
CARE four months before he died. On a rock at the back of the camp,
Krause had placed a plaque bearing Fischer's name and some sentimental
words about reincarnating as a mountain. In and of itself the memorial
was touching and not at all conspicuous. And yet it seemed out of
place, part of the colonial tradition that for so many centuries
and in so many more egregious ways had imposed itself on Africa.
If Alex Lemunge were to die taking a group up the Grand Teton, what
would be the chance of a plaque in his memory adorning a rock somewhere
on that mountain?
The next day we had 1,800 or so feet to climb, close under Little
and Great Penck Glaciers, hulking arms of the Northern Icefield
that occupied the summit a mile above us. But we weren't climbing,
really; we were just endlessly plodding over some giant's earth,
like ants marching up the roof of the King Dome. There was nothing
in the monotony to unsnag my thoughts from the stuck-record snippets
of song or the ineradicable imagery of weird dreams psychotically
enhanced by antimalarial drugs. But suddenly I was veering off the
trail, was doubled over, and everything was running in reverse,
and I was reconsidering — oh, never mind what. Remy and one
of the assistant guides darted up, and Mrs. Muir too, concerned
at first, and then amused, and then oddly solidified in her new
status as Not the First to Hurl.
"Mountain Man!" she said, and so forth.
She wasn't exactly perishing with happiness the next day, when we
toiled up the switchbacked slope en route to the Arrow Glacier Camp,
named for a vestigial ice floe at the junction of trails coming
from the east and the south. We were using the one breath-one step
technique that Alex had demonstrated, and it took four hours to
make the climb up to 16,000 feet, where the tents were pitched near
a snout of dirty ice. And neither was Mrs. Muir clamoring for the
optional afternoon hike "to study the unique flora and fauna,"
which had been advertised in the trip brochure. In fact, all the
bwanas passed on all the optional afternoon hikes. Something seemed
cruelly gratuitous in the very concept of optional afternoon hikes.
Better to advertise the optional afternoon see-if-you-can-stand-in-front-of-your-tent,
or the optional see-if-you-can-limp-over-to-the-party-hole-after-dinner.
Above our tents, framed by ice-plastered cliffs, lay the pitched
rubble of the Western Breach. We were camped in what would be an
avalanche run-out on a mountain with a snow load, and Alex informed
us that there was some danger of rockfall. One stretch of the slope
above was known as the Bowling Alley for all the stones that came
rolling down. If we heard the cry of jiwe! ("rock") or
mawe! ("rocks") we were supposed to dash from our domes
to the lee of an abutment. Given how farfetched were the prospects
of hearing some unfamiliar Swahili over the wind in the middle of
the night, and then of jumping up when sitting was a challenge,
and then of wriggling out of the tent ... well, I just lumped the
whole Keystone drill in with the optional afternoon hikes.
The group turned in early, as we had most nights when there was
nothing else to do. Sharon was not looking well. Bob's face was
pale and drained. My head hurt like hell, and shouting for aspirin
in some hypnagogic fantasy only made it worse. A night at Arrow
Glacier Camp put a new twist on Hemingway and Kilimanjaro. If the
mountain belonged to Super Bwana, maybe it was by default. No one
else wanted it.
One step, one breath: up the debris of the shattered cliffs, up
a faint zigzag path stitched in the talus. Don't look up. Don't
Not until that morning on the Western Breach had he felt right with
the mountain. It was almost like climbing, toiling up the talus
past mahogany cliffs and orca-like patches of snow. And then there
was the marvelously metaphorical name of the Western Breach itself,
which seemed to bespeak not just a break in the crater of Kilimanjaro,
but the rupture with nature itself, the European mind's break from
the nature of its own body. Or perhaps the break from because-I-said-so
authority, which released the Enlightenment genies of experimental
science and rationalism and toppled the priests that had held sway
for centuries in the Houses of God. His fellow climbers had come
from societies created by the Western breach, societies with the
hubris to seek mountaintops and the technological ingenuity to make
Gore-Tex and internal-frame packs and binoculars that could highlight
elands at 1,500 yards.
But in some ways what made Africa and Kilimanjaro so beguiling was
the glimpse of life such as it might have been before the Western
breach. Bwana could weigh what had been lost when the West marked
out its course. "The deepest passion of the Western mind,"
Richard Tarnas has written in his history of Western thought, "has
been to reunite with the ground of its own being." If, as it
seemed, there was a wound in the image of a breach, wasn't it also
possible that here in Africa, the actual primeval ground of being,
lay the possibility of mending it? Oh, Christ, he was starting to
sound like Gregory Peck in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Aptly he found
himself swerving off the trail and throwing up again, sorry for
the people behind him. Pole pole hiking in a tight group was no
fun when a great outdoorsman was hurling. Lina's Avocet watch said
they were at around 17,000 feet. They had cleared the Bowling Alley
without mishap and had begun to thread their way up an intricate
buttress, at times having to use their hands to clamber up small
cliffs. There were airy drops, and the landscape was so interesting
he forgot how much his head was hurting. The sweet miserable work
of one breath, one step was a kind of meditation in which the mind
didn't brood about the past or fret about the future, but was here,
now, completely immersed in the only eternity it could know.
After eight hours and 2,700 feet of climbing, they reached the crater
rim. The soil was soft and devoid of life, and the midafternoon
light gleamed in the white-blue ramparts of the Furtwangler Glacier.
The glacier was sprawled on the ground like an iceberg on a gray-brown
sea. They crunched across a snowfield. It was a 45-minute walk to
the Crater Camp, at 18,500 feet in the lee of Uhuru Peak. Oh! He
found himself hurling again but was pleased to have company; Christine
had pulled over and shifted into reverse as well. All of them crawled
into their tents and went down like scythed grass.
In the morning the crater floor was white with rime and the water
bottles were blocks of ice. They started up switchbacks for the
final 800 feet to the summit. One breath, one step.
He had been prepared to find nothing special at the top, to get
up there and report back with the customary boilerplate about the
anticlimax of high points. He had been prepared to scuff the dirt
and gulp the air in the House of God and to find things that only
science could compass or explain. Or mundanely human things. The
aluminum summit strongbox with the log of beggared remarks: "Awesome."
"Crying." "Once in a lifetime." "Seventy
years old!" He had been prepared to unveil the myths that were
manufactured when conceptions of a place were formed in a vacuum.
He had not expected to find souls, but rather just more of the same.
As below, so above, albeit "above" was colder and had
less oxygen. And having stood for photographs in the ostensible
House of God, having traversed its windswept naves and transepts,
he thought he would be qualified to dismiss the quaint superstitions
of the Masai and to mock the sentimental eschatology of Super Bwana
and his fictional stand-in.
And yet up there, as high as you could go on the continent where
the hominid's story began, it suddenly seemed to him that he was
repeating the mistake of those scientific materialists who carefully
weighed the body at the moment of death to see if they could assay
the mass of the departing soul and then, finding nothing, concluded
that souls did not exist. It seemed to him that his premises had
been as stupidly literal as theirs. Did the disk that would hold
his story about climbing Kilimanjaro weigh any more than a blank
disk fresh out of the box? What if the soul was a pattern of information?
(And all you had to do was press F10 to save it?) The silence of
the mountain was stealing over him now like a sacrament summoning
presences unseen. Perhaps the summit of Kilimanjaro was indeed a
holy place, an exalted promised land that one might hope for, or
venerate, or look up to from thousands of feet below. A place a
leopard might like to die. It seemed to him that he should not try
to describe it and that it could not be truly described except from
afar, except as a possibility, a place one never reaches. It had
been desecrated with enough description and inscription already,
and nothing said about it, or written on it, or extracted from it
could ever convey the strange and enduring power of its covenant.
Oh, molo, it was terrible to see how the spirit leaves, not in some
fancy-pants transit of the soul, but in the trial of the body, in
a marinade of lactic acid and microruptures in the quadriceps. When
we had finished on the summit, when we had taken all the class pictures
and shaken hands and shivered in the mists that boiled out of the
inner crater, we started down, shuffling east along a gentle ridge,
and then a hard right at Stella's Point, where the descent began
in earnest. Down and down and down, plunging in giant steps on loose
gray rock and sandlike soil, down one thousand feet, then two, then
three, four, five. We were strung out along the mountain, not hiking
pole pole as a group. I was with Norman and Kate and Remy's son-in-law
Poncian in his black beret. We made good time, arriving almost an
hour before the others at Barafu Hut, about a mile below the summit.
Barafu was perched on a dry, desolate ridge. Last year a woman searching
for the latrine at night walked off the cliff and fell to her death.
The three of us were off first after lunch, accompanied by Poncian.
We tumbled out of the bleak rock realm into the moorlands. Clouds
engulfed the ridge. A train of porters cantered past, not fighting
gravity but letting the relentless declivity pitch them forward.
Six thousand feet. Seven thousand feet — more than the distance
from the North Rim to the floor of the Grand Canyon. It was terrible,
Molo. I had never come down so far; I could feel myself weakening,
my legs getting rubbery. I should not have scoffed at my wife's
twice-a-week sessions lifting weights and doing lunges with a trainer.
Eight thousand feet. I staggered and had to stop. Rest. Walk. Rest.
I was resting more than walking, and we had more than a thousand
feet to go. Suddenly my legs folded up like a couple of Swiss Army
knife attachments. Poncian caught me as I sank. He put his arm around
my waist; I laid mine on his shoulder, and we went down the last
800 feet in tandem. It was strangely intimate to have him support
half my weight, and unexpectedly hard work, too, made harder by
the shame I felt in needing help, and by my anxiety, which was heightened
by the land itself — wild Africa — where the oldest
law decreed the weak and lame were first to die. I saw the worry
on the face of my wife, who trailed behind beset no longer by hyena
frights but by visions of one day having to push her husband around
in a wheelchair.
The rest of the group caught up. Christine and Steve and Paul and
even Sharon, still wasted by altitude. The light was starting to
fade. Would we make Mweka Camp by nightfall? Bob passed by, offering
us his flashlight. Only Lina and Cesare were still behind us. It
was painful to think I might not get off Kili ahead of a pair of
scientists qualified for AARP discount vitamins. Speed it up, Poncian!
At last we came to a stretch of flats, and I was able to walk unaided
and then blissfully to climb the final yards up to our camp for
the night and to collapse on a patch of ground at 9,850 feet in
the giant heather, more than 9,000 feet below the summit. I wanted
nothing so much as a whiskey and soda. Cesare and Lina arrived 20
minutes later — last, but self-powered.
Neither a bottle of Advil nor a night of the deepest sleep could
save me from the rigors of the morning. It was 3,500 more feet down
to the park gate, where the deliverance of motor vehicles awaited.
There was no contest about who would finish last today. My left
knee was badly swollen, and the trail through the forest was a track
of treacherous, tumbling mud and roots. I leaned heavily on my walking
stick, poling along with my torso bent at a right angle. Mrs. Muir
said I looked like a gondolier on a river of mud. Maybe she had
been right: Gimping toward rehab, I was in no position to quarrel
with any plan that featured two weeks on the C–te d'Azur.
Hike high and far enough, Molo, and the soul that supposedly seeks
everlasting rest on mountaintops will say, "To hell with death
and transfiguration!" It wants nothing but another chance to
make a go of it down low — to see what it can know of heaven
where life abides, in the body's tender house, its only certain