Climbing Kilimanjaro at Midnight
Or, What Does it Mean to be Crazy Cool as a Banana?
Back in the ’70s, when I was in my early teens, I was an admirer of Ernest Hemingway. His writing kindled my yearning to see the places he wrote about. I visited his house on Bimini, attended a bullfight in Spain (which I very much regret) and saw his home on Key West. But it was his story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” that stirred an ambition that never faded.
Fast forward to January 2018.
After a season of training hikes in the White Mountains, a visit to the travel clinic, and correspondences with an outfitter in Tanzania, I was preparing to embark on an eight-day trek to Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Joining me were two friends, one from college and the other a former colleague. Neither likely knew what they were getting into when they agreed to join me, but they both share with me a spirit of adventure.
It’s a long trip to Tanzania, and our schedule was tight, so the climb began the day after we arrived.
Following a chaotic morning of orientation, renting equipment (including a private toilet!) and packing gear, we were bussed from the hotel to Londorossi Gate, the starting point of our chosen route. Lemosho begins in the western foothills and turns south at the summit. It affords the best opportunities to experience the mountain’s geological and ecological diversity.
It was midafternoon by the time we embarked on the first leg, a little more than 4 miles to Mti Mkubwa camp. Along the way, we marveled at our “we’re not in New England anymore” surroundings, including a visit by a silver-colored, white bread-loving monkey and a host of exotic birds.
The first day provided a gentle introduction, with the ascent going from about 7,400 feet to about 8,700 feet. From that point, a routine quickly developed, with food a key feature. After splashing our faces with hot water, we ate hot porridge breakfast to shake off the morning cold, filled our water bladders with 3 to 4 liters of water, and hit the trail.
We would not eat again until we arrived at the next campsite for a late lunch, which consisted of some combination of hot soup, chicken-filled crepes, stew, fried potatoes or cassava, and fruit.
Every night we checked our oxygen levels and heart rates. This was nerve-racking — you weren’t allowed to summit if your body’s oxygen level dipped significantly.
Darkness set in by 7 p.m. With no streetlight or internet access, and weary from the climb, we were often in our sleeping bags by 8:30.
By midnight, the diminishing snowcap of Kilimanjaro glowed, seeming to reflect light from millions of stars above. The view was the upside of crawling out of your tent to go to the bathroom.
As the days passed and our ascent continued, the landscape changed from tropical to semiarid to arctic. The transformation could be startling. We would emerge from a dense forest taken right out of a scene from the movie “Jurassic Park” into rocky terrain where the foliage menaced us with jutting, skeletal branches. The only natural color came from hanging moss and lichen. The bleakness was offset by splashes of unexpected discoveries. An entryway to a field of cairns was decorated with painted stones offering colorful inscriptions that wished hikers well on the journey ahead.
Our world shrank and grew at the same time. Much of the day was spent focusing on the simplest things — food and footsteps. At the same time, strangers became acquaintances as we shared stories with fellow hikers who had come from all over the world for this singular experience.
On the night before the final ascent, we were expected to rest from lunch until dinner, and then rest again until 11 p.m. It didn’t quite work out that way. We found ourselves feeling unprepared as we wearily put on four layers of clothing to prepare for what lay ahead.
We aimed to summit Kilimanjaro during the full moon. At that point, the path that normally would be shrouded in darkness would be broken by clear moonlight.
Minutes into the climb, my oxygen-depleted brain pushed me to curl up into a ball on a nearby boulder. Despite my Hemingway dreams, I found myself willing to be among those who don’t make it to the top. Fortunately, our guide sensed my lagging resolve. Mndeme took my pack to lighten the load and stuck close by me, urging us onward. He broke into a soft, melodic song. The difficulty of the climb softened, and Mndeme sang on. Step by step, or “pole pole” (Kiswahili for slowly), I trudged up the incline.
A sliver of red broke upon the horizon as the sun appeared, illuminating the surrounding cathedral of massive glaciers. Despite the stunning views, I couldn’t ignore how my lungs stung with every breath. I thought it was over when I reached what turned out to be a false summit. There was still another 15 minutes to Uhuru Peak. Nausea set in.
I heard words of encouragement from those who had reached the summit and were on their way back. And then, there it was. The sign marking the summit was 50 feet away … so far … and then I stood before it, filled with a tremendous sense of relief, reaching for my camera to commemorate the event. There was no leap of joy and little time to bask in the sense of accomplishment. I was there, and then I turned around and headed back.
I started to wobble, and Mndeme grabbed my elbow, recognizing symptoms of high-altitude cerebral edema. I couldn’t think clearly, but knew enough to keep going.
There’s a Kiswahili saying we heard often on the trip: “Poa kichizi kama ndizi kwenye friji.” This translates roughly to crazy cool like a banana in the fridge. I’ve since looked up the phrase and I’m still not sure what it means. But it seems to hint at one of the great lessons of the mountain. You have to be a little crazy to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.