Climbing to the 'Roof of Africa'

Even 'ordinary people' can trek up legendary Mt. Kilimanjaro, whose snowy peaks tower 19,340 feet above East Africa.

It's 1 in the morning, I'm 15,000 feet above sea level, and the moon and cluster of stars hanging over this East African mountaintop seem so near to earth that I stumble.

I crane my neck to see a colossal patch of snow-covered rock jutting from the mountain's summit 4,000 feet above.

I had left the clapboard hikers' cabin intending to take a quick look at our trail. It is about 20 degrees F., and I am dizzy from the altitude.

My sister, Liz, and I had spent four frigid hours not sleeping, making nervous chitchat in an unheated, unlit cabin. It was filled with dozens of people: Austrians, British, Germans, Spaniards.

I imagine that for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, hikers have rested at roughly this spot, deciding, like us, whether to continue up the snowy mountainside.

So I go outside to take one final look at what lies ahead.

It is called the "Roof of Africa." The summit of this mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro, is the highest point on the continent.

The Nile, the Sahara, the rain forest of Congo, South Africa's jagged escarpments - Kilimanjaro towers over them. I imagine these natural wonders converging together, swelling to a final icy point 19,340 feet above the sea.

To get there, we must hike for six hours up a path of scree

and stone. At its foot the trail is inviting - broad and gradual. According to all firsthand accounts, however, the final portion is a slog. The pitch is severe, the switchbacks are few and narrow, and the air is very light.

We must leave soon in order to reach the summit, Uhuru (freedom) Peak, by sunrise. This is important in order to bypass melting snow and to be the first people on the continent to see the sun rise. I walk back to the hut, and Liz and I weigh our options.

Moving forward would reward us with the awe of the moment as well as the much-desired admiration of friends and workmates, who would consider us "extreme" athletes. Turning around would lead us to friendlier air and conditions that will be more vacationlike.

Liz and I had spent a day in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, and planned to safari for four days in Kenya's Masai Mara National Park after the hike. But scaling Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, was our priority.

We both feel as though we're suburban adventurers who have bitten off more authenticity than we can chew.

But I am happy to at least have put myself in a position to chicken out. Consider the facts: I am an Illinois flatlander. I love the outdoors, but exercise sporadically. For most of my life, the closest I have come to "roughing it" has been foregoing sunscreen on the beaches of Lake Michigan.

Yet I am a mere six hours from Africa's rooftop. Not bad.

Such is the attraction of Kilimanjaro to thousands of other "normal people." Climbers do not require crampons, harnesses, picks, or ropes to get to the top. But the payoff is big. Kilimanjaro is one of those names that echoes from the golden age of exploration, before the world's wonders were rendered mundane by the Travel Channel.

The mountain itself is steeped in lore. References range from the Egyptian astronomer Pythagoras, who first mentioned the "Great Snow Mountain" 1,800 years ago, to Ernest Hemingway, whose 1938 story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" described the mountain as "wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun."

The costs can add up

Organizing a trip up the mountain is easy. Trekkers are required to book passage through a tour company. There's no need to use a US-based agency, which will simply add extra fees to the bill. A handful of reliable outfits can be found in the tiny towns at the mountain's base. We each paid $600 for park entrance, two porters and a guide, food, water, lodging, and two nights in a hotel before and after the hike.

Several routes go up the mountain; we opt for the easiest and least costly - Marangu, which traverses the southeast side. Three sets of bunkhouses are spaced along the route.

Most trekkers book passage for five days and four nights. We do the same, keeping in mind our guidebook's recommendation to spend an extra day "hanging out" - acclimating to the altitude.

Beginning at an elevation of 9,000 feet, the trail wends through lush forest, crude trees, and monstrous green plants.

Our serenity is challenged a bit by a half-dozen children waiting along the trail. Their clothing is tattered. They ask us for candy or pens.

Our porter walks a few paces behind us carrying a backpack, a rucksack of clothing on his head, and two jugs of water over his shoulders. A cardboard container tied in white rope dangles from his left hand like a holiday hatbox.

Felix is among four porters entrusted with transporting our clothing, water, and food up the mountainside. In contrast, Liz and I are burdened only by fanny packs filled with carrot-cake-flavor power bars.

Felix is Chagga, the ethnic group that for centuries has harvested bananas and coffee from the rich soil at Kilimanjaro's base. They are relatively prosperous people, benefiting from schools and roads built by German missionaries more than a century ago. They also serve as guides and porters on Kilimanjaro, carrying the belongings of hikers who are nearly all Westerners.

The juxtaposition is unsettling. But we try to ward off feelings of affluent, white-person guilt. It seems disingenuous to be appalled, briefly, by the poverty here and then move on to the next tourist site. Most of the hikers, however, are generous with their money in Africa. (Tips for a guide and four porters generally exceeds $100.) We are uncertain what else we can do. Our intentions for being here are clearly recreational.

We pierce another layer of clouds the second day, passing through valleys of heather, a crater to our right, monkeys to our left, and onto the moorland, which is dotted with tough shrubs and prickly plants.The temperature drops, and we pull on our fleece sweaters. As we carefully tread the mountain's narrow spine, the sea of clouds ahead breaks for a brief moment, revealing the peak's snowy dome.

We should rest for an extra day to get used to this altitude, but we move on the next morning, unwilling to sit through more card games. We are joined by two Spanish men. They walk as though they have glass in their boots, measuring each successive baby step with a short, efficient jab of their walking sticks.

Still, they pass us on our way to the mountain base. In their wake, we slowly walk through the saddle, a barren desert valley darkened only by shadows, at a speed that my 15-month-old nephew would easily surpass.

Do we stay or do we go?

Short on breath, we find two bunks inside the final hut and wish we could sleep.

Ninety percent of all hikers on Marangu route do not reach the summit. From our perspective, there is no shame in deciding to turn tail. Tired, cold, and looking forward to our planned safari, that's exactly what we do.

Halfway down the following morning, nearing the comfort of a hot shower and feeling fit, we are told by a British hiker that the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the White House had been leveled the day before.

Liz and I get off the mountain in a few hours, find an Internet cafe in Moshi, and read news stories online. Our hotel lounge is filled with tourists watching BBC broadcasts.

But from the perspective of most people here, the attacks might as well have occurred on another planet. The markets are full. People stand alongside busy roads trading stories with smiles. A call to prayer from the Muslim mosque down the street wakes us the following morning.

Liz and I board a bus headed for the high green grass of the Serengeti, deciding it may be the safest place in the world for us to be. As we drive away, I look out the back window, and Kilimanjaro is wrapped in clouds.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.