THE FIRST SIGHT of Mount Kilimanjaro is everything Hemingway promised. A broad base rises gently from open East African plains and disappears into its own ring of clocks. Higher up, a blue crest surges into the sky, its top outlined with snow.

Kili is 19,340 feet high -- the highest mountain in Africa and one of the highest in the world. It is just a day's drive from the famous game parks of Tanzania, so when I and two fellow Washington lawyers went there to see the wild animals, we decided to try the climb as well.

We were not technical climbers, but we were backpackers--I had even spent a month trekking in the Himalayas. We did enough research on Kilimanjaro to know that it has the gentle slope of a volcano and the warmth of a location near the equator, making it one of the few really high peaks that can be climbed without ropes or oxygen. We were told the climb would be tough--only half those who start make it to the top--but not dangerous.

We were told we could reserve the climb in Tanzania, so we made no advance arrangements, except to bring backpacks, hiking boots and warm clothing.

Once we got to Tanzania, we found a travel agent who directed us to the Marangu Hotel at the foot of the mountain. The Marangu is a cluster of old farm houses surrounded by coffee fields. It began as a Lutheran missionary station, then became a coffee plantation. In 1932 the coffee business soured, the owners decided to try mountaineering, and they have been organizing climbs ever since.

The Marangu, another hotel--the Kibo--and the YMCA together send up 10 to 50 climbers each day during the dry seasons (July to September and December to February.) We had done enough checking to know that when a climb is arranged in the United States it costs $650. So we were thrilled to learn that the price at the hotel was just 2300 Tanzanian shillings--$225 at the official rate and as little as $45 for those who take the risk of buying their shillings from the pervasive Black Market. Rates at the YMCA were even lower.

The night before the climb we stayed at the hotel. Over dinner we met our hiking companions, a young German couple and a Swiss family of five. As we struggled through a bilingual conversation we learned that they were all experienced Alpine climbers. All of us surreptitiously eyed each others' muscles, wondering who would make it to the top.

After coffee, an elderly lady with an upper-class British accent summoned us for "the briefing." This was Erica von Lany, who owns the Marangu and has lived there all her life. Von Lany told us she has climbed Kili five times, most recently at age 60. Everyone relaxed. Then she told us to be sure we had warm clothing, lest we freeze, to take the climb very slowly, lest we get altitude sickness, and to watch for signs of pulmonary edema, which could be fatal. Everyone got nervous again.

As it turned out, von Lany's organization had a solution for the first problem. The next morning we were offered parkas, long underwear, sweaters and boots. We looked ruefully at the mountain gear we had been lugging around Africa.

The ascent was supposed to start at 10 a.m., but that was "African time," a distant cousin of western scheduling concepts. We actually got to the National Park gate at 1 p.m. and then spent another hour on a favorite Tanzanian activity--filling out forms.

While we waited, we read a sign on the bulletin board proclaiming that a 75-year-old German had climbed the mountain, and we admired the engraved certificates we would be given if we made it. Our team felt a new surge of optimism.

Finally, we set off up a well-marked trail, climbing gradually through a lush rain forest. I and the other mountaineers in the group were accustomed to toting backpacks, but here the porters carried everything. Von Lany told us we would be happy about that later, but we felt a little ridiculous leading the way in our fancy hiking boots, followed by 20 porters swinging up the path in rubber sandles, balancing huge sacks of supplies on their heads. The cavalcade looked like a scene from a Tarzan movie.

Our image of facing the challenge of the wild diminished even more when we got to the first camp--sturdy new A-frames, with beds inside. At dinner, the porters spread a tablecloth, handed out cutlery and served a four-course meal. The backpackers in our group were quite embarrassed, but we ate heartily nonetheless.

The second day, the jungle gave way to forests of ferns, then to evergreens and finally to heather. We spent most of the time walking through mist--the clouds we had seen from below.

The third morning finally brought a little hardship--pouring rain. After a couple of hours, though, we broke through the tops of the clouds, and the rain gave way to a clear sky and a bright, hot sun. Ahead, the peak was surprisingly close, marked with sharp promontories and blinding patches of snow. Behind us, the view down was like that from an airplane skimming just above the clouds. The trail skirted around the last stunted bushes and entered a lunar landscape of dirt and boulders.

Early in the afternoon we reached the final hut, just under the last, steep slope of the peak. We sprawled on the ground, sipped tea and chatted with Emanuel, our chief guide. He announced he had climbed Kili 1,000 times and promised we would all reach the top. He also told us proudly that he was 36 and had eight children and five grandchildren. "Many more coming," he said.

We were beginning to feel light-headed from the thin air, but the Swiss family had brought Johnny Walker and homemade candy for this final night. We toasted our final ascent before turning in for an early sleep.

That night, Kili finally struck. Her weapon was altitude.

Our three days of climbing had taken us from 7,000 feet above sea level to over 15,000--1,000 feet higher than the highest Rockies. There is not much oxygen at that altitude, and the effect builds up over time. Everyone got a headache, and some felt nauseated. Sleep gave way to restless tossing. We remembered that we still had almost 4,000 feet to climb into much thinner air. In several languages, people began to ask, "Why am I doing this to myself?"

The final ascent usually begins in the pre-dawn darkness, so climbers can watch the sunrise from the summit. Emanuel therefore roused us at 1:30 a.m., and we had our first casualty: The German fellow's head hurt so badly that he refused to move.

The rest of the climbers sipped tea, gulped aspirin and set off, following Emanuel's lantern. A magnificant, starry sky let us pick our way around rocks as we headed toward the last climb.

Kili's peak is a circular crater wall, a mile across and half a mile high. The slope is steep and covered with slippery gravel and ash, reminders of Kili's days as an active volcano. The going suddenly got rough.

Two other parties started out the same time we did. Within an hour, the slope looked like a battlefield, dotted with elegantly equipped westerners, some crawling up the path, some sprawled on rocks, all gasping for air. The guides, of course, were not even breathing hard, but they did have the decency to look sympathetic.

Four of our team gave up and slunk back to the hut. I developed a particularly slow means of locomotion. I would take 10 steps and then sit down and pant for two minutes. My heart was beating so fast my chest ached. I began to play mental games: "If it's 3,000 feet up and I climb four inches with each step, then I just have to count to . . ." I cursed the 75-year-old German. I wondered if the guys at the gate would take a bribe for a certificate. I remembered the friends at home who had told me this was a weird way to spend a vacation.

Finally the sun rose, spilling gold over the clouds below. I looked up, and there, 10 yards away, was the flagpole marking the top. I had taken six hours to hike two miles. At the summit, I looked down into the crater. Half of it is covered by a glistening glacier, shaped like a staircase with each step the size of a house. Looking back, I gazed down the mountain. On clear days one can see Mount Kenya, 100 miles away, but this morning the clouds stretched out to the horizon.

The peak I had reached at 18,635 feet is called Gillman's Point. The actual summit is Uhuru Point (originally Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze--the first recorded climb was by Germans, when Tanzania was a German colony). Uhuru is another mile and a half around the crater rim and 705 feet higher. A guide asked if I wanted to go there, but I knew Gillman's was good enough for the certificate. I shook my head and gratefully collapsed on a rock.

The hike down took two days. Back at the Marangu, we lined up to swig Tanzania's startling version of cognac and have our blisters lanced. We tipped our porters--their regular pay is only 190 shillings ($4 to $22 depending on the exchange rate) for five days' work. Then the certificates were presented, signed with a flourish by Emanuel.

The best moment of all came later, though, when we chatted with von Lany about the people she had met on the mountain. "I was not impressed with Hemingway," she said. "He never got close to the top."