Climbing Kilimanjaro

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“I’m not so sure,” I said.

That moment, Kilimanjaro was no longer a conceptual journey; we were doing it. Hearts pumping and lungs wanting more oxygen than they could have, the climb had turned more difficult. Add rain, and the concept of “fun” seemed inadequate. Drive-in movies are fun. Eating pizza is fun. This wasn’t fun: It was challenging and it was vitalizing. Our bodies worked, our minds were clear, and there was only one thing to do: Go up. This was better than fun.

Chirping birds greeted us at 5:45 the next morning in our 12,000-foot camp. Over instant coffee, most everyone complained of not sleeping as well as they had 3,000 feet lower: an early sign of elevation fatigue. One of the surest methods of counteracting elevation is hydration, which led to tales of how many times everyone woke in the night.

By 9:45 a.m., we had gained another 1,000 feet, and life was turning fantastical: the air was thinner, and our hearts and lungs chugged harder. The world below seemed ever-more remote. It was the world where everyone else lived. We’d return to them eventually.

That day, our third, was our lightest: three hours of walking, three miles of distance and 2,000 feet of elevation. We pulled into camp at 11:45 a.m., just below Mawenzi’s towering snow-covered peak. Camp looked like some combination of Dr. Seuss’ mind and, say, Mars — wind-swept and hard, with various shades of green life clinging to the rocks.

It was a short day because we were crossing into dangerous territory. We were at 15,000 feet, an elevation where hikers can develop serious trouble. Though our group seemed strong — tired but strong — by midafternoon, word spread that a Brit in another group needed oxygen. An hour later, while we drank tea and played cards in our communal tent (like most afternoons), we heard that the man would be evacuated. I poked my head out to see him wrapped in bright red on a stretcher, carried by a dozen porters.

“That just made things more real,” Micah said.

I wandered off to stare at the world below, watching cloud patterns move against each other — one fast and one slow, one higher and one lower. I was above both of them. Down the ridge, a porter had found a quiet spot to pray toward Mecca. I didn’t know the day of the week, and I didn’t want to know.

An impossibly wet and heavy snow fell as we slept. It caused the walls of our tents to bend and, in a couple of cases, buckle. But like every other day, the only thing to do was start walking. We crossed a high, rocky ridge and dropped into a stark, snow-free valley that would take us to Kibo.

The valley looked like nothing we had encountered yet: long, broad and stretched to eternity. Walk long enough with a group and everything becomes discussion fodder: family, religion, politics, sports, childhood and, in that long valley, the Academy Awards. Stephanie and I hatched a bet about what would win best picture, even though I had barely a clue about the field. In our single-file line through nothing, I just relished the discussion.

Soon the clouds cleared, and it came into sight: Kibo. Long and broad, it lay like a snowy, beached whale. It looked gentle and strangely manageable. Stephanie announced, “The mind is a tricky thing.” We all understood. We had gone far and had far to go. The goal was in sight.

On through the sparse, brown terrain, we passed the remnants of a plane that slammed into Mawenzi in 2008, killing four Italian tourists. The nose cone, a wing and other pieces were easily identifiable. That high and remote, a guide said, there is nothing to do but leave the wreckage. I found that more humbling than watching a man evacuated the day before.

A bit on, Josh said, “Want to see something cool?”

He extended his wrist to display an elevation of 14,537 feet. We were higher than anyone or anything in the Lower 48. We celebrated by continuing to climb, crossing into another snowstorm and trudging in our single-file line: foot, pole, foot, pole, unable to see anything in the blowing white but the path at our feet.

When we were nearly to camp, we passed two people striding the opposite direction.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Great, now!” the woman said.

I realized her cause for joy: They had summited that morning.

Our final camp, at 15,520 feet, looked like some lunar dystopia. Climbers from across the globe milled about the rocks and dirt in bright synthetic gear, walking almost in circles with nothing to do before their summits. Ours would begin at the unmerciful hour of 11 p.m., which meant our accommodation — a urine-tinged stone cabin without heat or electricity — seemed luxurious after three nights on the ground.

After an early dinner of spaghetti with chicken-vegetable gravy with extra black pepper (the cook said it would give us strength), we crawled into our sleeping bags in the bright 7 p.m. daylight in the clothes we would wear to summit — at least three layers up top and three below — because it would be easier to get going when 11 p.m. came too soon.

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