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Summit night on Kilimanjaro

“I think you will make it,” said John, our head Tanzanian guide, on day seven of our ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro. “I’ve been watching you this week and you all look strong.” This pep talk came as our 8-hiker group huddled in the mess tent for dinner at Barafu Camp—a cold, boulder-strewn, wind-swept ridge at 15,260 feet. We would be awoken in a few hours to begin our midnight assault of Uhuru peak, Africa’s roof at 19,340 feet. John was never one to linger at these nightly briefings, so true to form he left us so we could ingest our final—and critical—caloric bounty, declaring in Swahili as he exited the tent: “Hakunamatata,” “No problem.”

This was John’s two hundredth ascent of the mountain and the lithe, affable guide was artfully rallying his troops. This was my first—and surely last—summit bid. I was tired, had a slight headache and felt the onset of mild nausea—vintage signals of early Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). The previous six days of methodical hiking via the Lemosho route in the increasingly thin air of Kilimanjaro’s five climatic zones had exacted a profound physical toll. By this stage in the journey I wanted his prediction in writing.

It is now midnight. The approximately 30-degree starry night reveals a long trail of headlamps snaking their way out of sight up the rocky ridge above Barafu camp. The most distant lamps resemble faint, barely twinkling stars—hardly a sight to embolden a fatigued, oxygen deprived hiking party 4000-plus vertical feet shy of their ultimate prize. I survey my seven companions at the base of this seemingly eternal slope. They are barely recognizable behind their insulated jackets, hats, facemasks and other assorted winter gear.

Our group falls into place. John takes up the back position, another assistant guide nestles in the middle and one takes the lead. The rest of us fill the gaps between them. “Pole, pole” says Frank, the assistant guide in front. This Swahili admonition is the most common mountain refrain—and the most urgent one to heed: “slowly, slowly.” This is not a place where speed of any kind is rewarded.

The garrulousness that marked our previous six days on the lower slopes is gone. The only sound from our bedraggled clan is the occasional “pole, pole” spilling from a guide or fellow hiker. Our steady companion is a rhythmic crunching as our collective boots and hiking poles pound the scree and larger rocks on the trail.

Our altitude is steadily monitored by Sean—a 43-year old Irish graphic designer who earned distinction for having the sole sports watch with an altimeter function. “Just passed 17,000-feet,” he reports wearily sometime in the wee hours of Saturday morning as the temperature dips to its coldest level. Each exhale reveals a plume of breath within the white light emitted by my headlamp. It’s stark visual evidence of Kilimanjaro’s bone-chilling potential. Despite being anchored a scant 3 degrees south of the equator, arctic conditions prevail on the highest slopes and summit. As we continue our ascent, a bagel with cream cheese begins to flirt with my mind’s eye.

My sister Karin once asked me what I thought about during the ample solitary time I encountered running the NY marathon several years ago. Water stations, my fellow runners, the next mile marker, soothing images, I told her. The window of time for reflection on Kilimanjaro dwarfs the four hours of my marathon push. The most persistent images above 15,000 feet here are those that help to curb my nausea. I invoke my favorite American staples: pizza, steak, pasta, ice cream, peanut butter and bagels.

My nausea has not abated, but I repeatedly praise my prescription Diamox, my ark-worthy four-liter daily water intake and my fertile imagination for warding off severe AMS, which would include vomiting and disorientation and require an immediate descent. The bagel with cream cheese is ceding to a bowl of mint chip ice cream when a female hiker appears out of the blackness above, flanked by two guides. She passes us silently on her way down, head slumped, and feet stumbling forward like a drunken sailor. Her summit bid is over.

The author is on the left.. but that was a couple of days earlier

A Kilimanjaro climb is physically challenging, but the mental joust is equally intense. How much time until the next break? Will I soon resemble that delirious girl stumbling down the mountain? What will 2,000 more vertical feet mean for my weary legs and nauseous stomach? Where is the nearest hospital? Are the seeds of malaria or yellow fever firmly planted in my body? Am I truly prepared to sell my soul for two minutes of sea-level oxygen?

A break at 17,500 feet in the inky blackness of pre-dawn finds the amiable Roel, a 23-year-old college student from Amsterdam, sitting on a boulder, head bowed. Boudewijn, his father, stands before him, speaking softly in Dutch. Roel’s face is a pasty white. His nausea is more advanced than mine. “Hang in there, man,” I tell him, before readying my pack for our continued ascent. He musters a weak nod by way of reply.

Six days ago, I would have put my money on Roel as the strongest member of our group. Tall and slender, a youthful vigor evident in his easy smile, he struck the pose of a most worthy summit candidate. I was quick to learn, however, that the effects of altitude are indiscriminate. Bob, a 59-year old high school teacher and eldest member of our group from upstate New York, somehow largely avoided the effects of AMS. Nearly 40 years Roel’s senior, he complained solely of fatigue, never succumbing to the more debilitating symptoms of high altitude.

The anticipation of cresting the crater rim rose with Frank declaring in the 5 am hour: “That’s Stella Point ahead.” A collection of headlamps are now visible in the distance. The final uphill stretch on loose scree is brutal. My heart protests fiercely with each slow-motion step. My mouth grasps for any morsel of coveted oxygen.

Stella Point is not the true summit, but cresting Kilimanjaro’s initial volcanic rim 600 vertical feet or so shy of Africa’s roof revived my weary legs with a dose of adrenaline. The path to Uhuru Peak from here is a 45-minute, relatively gentle uphill hike around the crater rim.

I take off my day pack and stand motionless, weighing the significance of the moment. The glow from the rising African sun spreads its orange brilliance over the vast crater, which falls off beside me into a massive, bleak, bolder-riddled bowl. Patches of glacial ice coat the crater’s interior, providing some relief from an otherwise grey, apocalyptic moonscape. A layer of puffy white clouds completely cover the African plains below, spreading a most dazzling carpet of virginal white to welcome the inaugural rays of morning. It is a sherbert-orange, blue and white palette whose beauty has no close rival.

Hemingway’s volumes on Africa never included a description of the rooftop vista that I am now savoring. His protagonist in The Snows of Kilimanjaro perhaps came closest, recording its grandeur with an air of reverence: “wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun.” I can only imagine what Hemingway’s far abler pen would conceive with the glorious view that I presently behold.

The remaining four members of our group arrive at Stella Point about 20 minutes later and—after a brief additional rest—we soon depart for Uhuru Peak. By now, the sun has settled higher in the morning sky, taking the sharp edge off of the sub-freezing nighttime temperatures. The hike around the crater rim gently rises and falls. The progress is slow, one foot meticulously plodding in front of another. The slightest increase in speed is met instantly by a racing heart, requiring an immediate halt to recuperate. After about 45 minutes, with Kilimanjaro’s massive glaciers glistening in the early morning sun, we move to within a hundred yards `of our goal.

As I navigate the final steps to the roof of Africa, I juggle a dizzying array of images and emotions. The most predominant presence is my father, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer three years prior. I praise the dozens of family and friends who contributed to my trips central purpose—to raise funds to help combat that dreaded disease. Smiles and hugs abound as 30 or so hikers mill around and pose for pictures at the wooden post marking 19,340 feet.

I approach the wooden sign, tap it to make the feat official, and pose for the obligatory photo. I have the same feeling of incalculable confidence that came when I crossed the finish line in the NY marathon. I step aside to allow other hikers to mark their moment. A few feet away, I gaze at the cloud deck spread out below the massive glaciers, wondering what will come next.

The obstacles were many, but John was right. Despite acute nausea, headaches, body fatigue, sunburn, freezing temperature, biting winds, aggressive fire ants and malarial mosquitos, our entire 8-person group made it.

Now all that is left to do is descend.

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