Somewhere above 18,000 feet I stopped looking for cape buffalo at twilight. These beefy half-tonners were known to pant and stagger Kili’s stony slopes that far, just to lap fat tonguefuls of salt from the volcanic rocks.
Friend George Fox, husband of U.S. 1 senior correspondent Barbara Figge Fox, lured us to the slope of Africa’s highest peak with tales of his own climb up this newer, longer, more technical, and far more interesting Breech Route. Just two seasons off Everest in Tibet, and Annapurna in Nepal, my wife, Lorraine, and I were particularly susceptible. We gathered climbing buddy Richard Craig and headed for Tanzania.
The jeep had stopped in the machete-dense jungle. Shouldering my pack, I asked guide, Daniel, “Where is the mountain?” “It is this way, Bwana,” he replied, employing the Swahili term of respect meaning “Sir.” Lorraine, not so lucky in translation, rankled under the appellation of “Mama” meaning roughly “a maid who is no longer nubile.”
There is a danger which reaches beyond those making the decision to climb. As my wife (then 49) and I were planning our own first ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro, we made the acquaintance of world class mountaineer Scott Fischer. He had recently opened “The Breech Route,” which went up the back of the mountain. It involved more technical scrambling, no huts, and one spent the pre-summit night in the glacier-filled crater.
Be warned, though. Everybody underestimates Kili because they don’t take altitude into account. Two people died on the mountain, from altitude sickness when Fox was there. The only way to avoid this, he says, is to climb only 2,000 to 3,000 vertical feet a day, when above 10,000 feet. The minimum fitness level you need to suummit Kilimanjaro, Fox says, is the ability to run a 10-minute mile,
We enjoyed chatting with and briefly getting to know Fischer. Both of us had been to Everest via Tibet. (We, of course, had merely climbed on it – he had thrice summitted). In 1996 Fischer died while taking mountaineering tourists up and down Everest. His death brought home to us that for those less than perfectly trained, the risk of mountain climbing involves a jeopardy to more than the individual. Those who guide, and those who must face the danger of rescue may equally suffer the same fate of noveau climbers not experienced and wholly prepared.
Kilimanjaro takes in the whole sweep of all we envision as Africa. Almost 20,000 feet high, its remaining two volcanic cones grandly bestride the continent’s eastern rift — a geologic north-south scar running most of its length below Egypt. Once out of the jungle we spent two days watching these cones grow as we crossed the open plain of the collapsed caldera, formed from the third eruptive cone when Kilimanjaro first rose. Our ascent from the surrounding 6,000 feet to the summit was to be deliberately slow for the sake of acclimatizing to the beauty and the altitude.
Once on the main mountainside, things got relentlessly steep. Some scree-laden spots entailed climbing 13 inches forward to slide back a foot. Others, like the now-dwindling tongue of the Arrow Glacier, made footing treacherously slick. But each evening, as we pitched tents, we were rewarded with “Golden Time” — the term when the sun, heading for the great swells of opaque clouds below us, would briefly, brilliantly set aglow the rocks and glacier faces around us.
The night before the summit our tents huddled beneath the glacier in the creaking glacier in the central volcanic cone. Richard said it was minus-16 here — at the equator. Grudgingly answering nature’s call we were greeted by an explosion of showering meteors raking the black night sky from horizon to horizon. We watched in slack-jawed awe.
The next day the wind shrilled as we held the battered wooden sign announcing “You Have Reached the Highest Point in Africa.” Lorraine, as she always does, flung wide her arms and embraced the summit’s open sky.
We have every faith Eileen Colon will do the same. No doubt she and the Regulars will all succeed in their mission to conquer Kilimanjaro and raise the world’s interest in beating Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases (see main story, page 11). They carry with them this writer’s hopes and prayers, along with those of thousands of others. But as a caveat, may they keep in their own prayers those who will lead them and those awaiting the call to rescue. They are, after all, trekking for life.