Adventure Travel Issue

Kilimanjaro, Gasp by Gasp

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2001

The sun just came up. And that's what killed me.

Before I could see, I was merely miserable. My pulse has been pounding in my ears for hours. My lungs bellow franticallyfutile gulps in a merciless vacuum. My legs are noodly and unreliable. My boots barely leave the ground as I drag them a few inches up the slope. It's no more than a zombie lurch, but without resting between each step my heart redlines and my chest heaves until my ribs ache. This is more than fatigue; it's fear.

Am I having a heart attack (I'm 36)? Is this the altitude sickness that has killed climbers on this same trail? After six hours of this, I'm as close as I've ever been to utter physical bankruptcy.

But at least in darkness, all I could see were my feet shuffling through the feeble two-foot disk of light from my headlamp. Some dutiful clot of neurons has kept me moving forward as the rest of my brain took cover beneath a circular, muttering rhythm that muffled the pain: step-gasp-step.

Now the sun is up. I can see where I am and, worse, what I am, a presumptuous speck a thousand feet above the cloud line on Mount Kilimanjaro's towering slope. Idiotically, I let the pink warmth on my cheek distract me from my plodding trance and I make the first really serious mistake of the day. I look up.

Oh no. Oh no. I have to be closer than this. There's no breath for a sob but I feel despair strike me like a slap. I'm supposed to be near the top by now, but the mountain is endless above me; the slope is growing even steeper. Hours to the top, and after that I face another marathon strugglea 10-hour scramble down rocky, slippery trails. Going up is bad, but long descents are agony: knees shrieking, thighs on fire. Standing in a fog of my own panting, I feel my body failing. I can't do it. I hate this.

I quit.

The first days weren't so hurtful. In fact, the run-up to the summit of Kilimanjaro was one of the most pleasurable treks of my hiking career. Six days of well-guided, well-fed tramping around one of the world's most recognizable landforms, followed by one day in the life of Sisyphusan 18-hour ordeal that brought me face to face with one of adventure travel's most frightening inherent risks: failure.

We had gathered in Kenya a week earlier, six American males ranging in age from 32 to 63, ranging in fitness from lifelong runner to occasional walk taker. Some were friends already, others met for the first time on the Nairobi sidewalk outside the Stanley Hotel as we boarded a bus to Tanzania. But we quickly coalesced as a group around a shared nugget of uncertainty: Just how hard was this going to be?

On the five-hour ride we titillated ourselves, as adventurers do, with overheard tales of Kilimanjaro failure and fear, blackouts and whiteouts, heart attacks, rock slides, frostbite, dodgy guides and dysenteryand lots and lots of folks who just couldn't do it.

"I get a lot of people who have absolutely no idea what they are in for," says Mia Favro, a sprightly Swiss expatriate who runs Shades of Africa, a Tanzanian tour and safari company. "You can never tell who's going to make it. I've had marathoners who said it was the hardest thing they've ever done and could only make it halfway. You either take the altitude or you don't."

At just shy of 20,000 feet, Kilimanjaro ranks fourth among the Seven Summits, the roster of each continent's highest peak that serves as the basic to-do list for serious mountaineers. (Asia's Everest tops them all at 29,000 feet; Antarctica's 16,000-foot Mount Vinson is lowest.) But because of its cliff-free approaches and unforgettable snowcapped profile on the vast African plain, Kilimanjaro is the most popular with amateur adventurers. Unlike the other Seven Summits, any reasonably fit hiker has a chance to reach Kili's desolate rim without crampons, carabiners or technical expertise.

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