A decidedly unheroic trip up Kilimanjaro

By Chip Brown

Outside Magazine
December 1997

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 balaclava.

“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 mountain’s trails.

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 lives.

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 leopard.

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 times.”

“How many times have you used that joke about cigarettes being Diamox?”

“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 heads.

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 medical problems.

“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 look ahead.

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 home.