Josh woke us in a low voice: “It’s go time, guys.” Bill, already awake, announced that it was snowing. Why should the weather cooperate on the most daunting day of all? That same wet, heavy snow covered us as we ambled toward breakfast.
We surveyed how everyone was feeling. No one was quite right — stomach and head issues, mostly — but we all felt strong enough. Jason said his headache wasn’t as bad as it had been yesterday.
“It still is yesterday,” Micah said.
Our final day of climbing started like every day before: We grabbed our poles and started walking. We formed a tight single-file line and eased into a series of seemingly endless switchbacks, headlamps twinkling beneath a three-quarter moon. A ghostly procession of those who had started even earlier than us zigzagged up the mountain ahead.
It didn’t take long for nervous joy to be replaced by real issues. We began passing fellow climbers bawling, vomiting or struggling to stay upright on the side of the trail. A woman from India I had met a couple days earlier cried softly as her guide led her back down the trail.
“She’s just scared,” he said.
And for good reason: We were impossibly high, and the elevation was abusing us all. Our stomachs were riotous, dizziness came and went, and Jason’s nose began to bleed. Lungs and eyeballs felt heavy, and it seemed as if cement might have been poured into my bones. I wanted nothing more than to curl up on the side of the trail and nap. Instead, I sang quietly to myself to remember I was lucid.
As we climbed, the mountain became a snow-covered 45-degree angle. In case of a fall, it was clear there was little recourse; it would be a straight slide down the side of Kibo. We chose not to think of it, and instead walked arm’s length apart so that if anyone slipped — and there were slips — we could catch each other and whisper assurances that everything was OK. We marched slowly on, one heavy foot in front of the other. When I finally had the sense to look around, I saw the Big Dipper resting on its side. It had never looked so large or so close.
Dawn arrived orangey-blue. We had grown so accustomed to the dark that daylight — and being able to perceive the mountain’s height and steepness — was briefly dizzying. But the sensation didn’t last long, because the first sign of our goal soon peeked out from above: a green sign planted in the rocks blaring the greatest word in the English language: “CONGRATULATIONS!”
When the last switchback ended and that sign stood before us, we had arrived. We were on top of Kilimanjaro, staring at a golden-orange orb simmering in thick, still clouds. The snowy valley we had crossed a day earlier sat below, and Mawenzi’s tall glory faced us.
But alas, we were only at Gilman’s Point. The mountain’s true summit is Uhuru Peak, 700 icy, snowy feet higher. Plenty of people apparently decide at Gilman’s that they have had enough, and I don’t blame them. But we wouldn’t be among them.
Those 700 feet were the longest of my life, requiring a second or two between each step. But amid the glaciers and bright white, there was no reason to hurry. After five days of work, the end would come.
It came simply enough, at the edge of a sloping ridge of rock and ice, when there was nowhere left to go. We were at Uhuru Peak. We exchanged hugs and took photos — alone, with each other and with our Tanzanian guides. The snow was blinding in all directions. We sucked the thin, freezing air into our lungs and blinked in disbelief at the world below.
If you go
Pick your guide wisely: Though hiring a Tanzanian guide can save about half the cost of a climb, a Western-based guide (who in turn hires a Tanzanian guide) can be an indispensable resource, from advising how to pack to knowing how to quickly dry your wet boots. I opted for Kling Mountain Guides of Durango, Colo. (klingmountainguides.com), and had no regrets. Costs can vary from about $1,250 for a guided seven-day hike with a Tanzanian company (zaratours.com) to many thousands of dollars with higher-end operators (abercrombiekent.com). Regardless, do your research. Ask a lot of questions, read reviews and talk to friends-of-friends who have done the climb.
Train: You cannot fake your way through a high-elevation climb. If you live near mountains, hike them with a weighted backpack. If you’re a flatlander, use stairs. Climbing 120 flights in half an hour with 25 pounds on my back taxed muscles I didn’t know I had. I also mixed in cardio and weights.
Drink water and pop pills: Dehydration can lead to muscle aches, headaches and altitude sickness, all of which will end your climb. Also, keep the holy trio of pills: ibuprofen (for muscle aches), Imodium (for intestinal issues) and Diamox, or the generic equivalent, for altitude sickness.
Don’t skimp on gear: There shouldn’t be of stitch of cotton in your backpack, which means buying more suitable materials, such as wool and synthetics. Both breathe better than cotton and dry faster. Be sure your boots are sturdy, comfortable and broken in. Walking poles lend your knees a significant break. Vary your snacks.
Nuts and bolts: Most people who climb Kilimanjaro fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) which, at best, will cost about $1,500 from the U.S. Excursions usually leave from the towns of Arusha or Moshi, though we stayed in the quainter town of Marangu. The prime hiking seasons are the driest times of the year: January to mid-March (it will likely be colder, but clearer) and June to October. Also consider easily-accessible side trips, like a north Tanzanian safari and Zanzibar.