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The Adventurer

Pole, pole,” the porters chant. In Swahili, that means slow­ly, slow­ly.” No one in the group is rac­ing. At best, it’s two breaths per step. We’ve been climb­ing the West­ern Breach of Mount Kil­i­man­jaro for three hours; our guide, Scott Fis­ch­er, says we’re above 17,000 feet. That’s high­er than some small planes fly. Those of us who are up to the chal­lenge, like the Star­bucks crew, sing pole, pole” to the tune of the 1960s song Wooly Bully.”

Looking towards Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa

In my alti­tude stu­por, all I can muster is a look around. Things are a bit out of focus. A light snow is falling, mak­ing the steep rock even more slip­pery. Clouds drift by; we’re in them one minute, out the next. I hear some­one vom­it­ing behind me, anoth­er vic­tim of acute moun­tain sick­ness. Fis­ch­er takes her pack. I ask if I can help, too, but it’s real­ly just an auto­mat­ic response. I’m just try­ing to sur­vive myself. It seems as if we’ll nev­er get to the next camp.

This adven­ture trek has a lofti­er goal than my pre­vi­ous trips. My most­ly Amer­i­can group is rais­ing mon­ey for CARE (Coop­er­a­tive for Amer­i­can Relief Every­where), the inter­na­tion­al char­i­ty orga­ni­za­tion. Arm­chair adven­tur­ers – most through cor­po­rate phil­an­thropy – have spon­sored our excur­sion to Africa’s high­est moun­tain. After expens­es, CARE expects to net more than $500,000.

Most of the expe­di­tion par­tic­i­pants, while accom­plished in busi­ness, are not climbers. It’s a group of invest­ment bankers, cor­po­rate lawyers and senior exec­u­tives who are obvi­ous­ly long on heart but short­er on the kind of climb­ing expe­ri­ence that might have made them think twice about the rig­ors of this ascent. There’s one major excep­tion: our guide, Scott Fis­ch­er of Seat­tle-based Moun­tain Mad­ness, an adven­ture trav­el com­pa­ny. A world-class moun­taineer with ascents of Ever­est and K‑2, the world’s two high­est moun­tains, sans oxy­gen bot­tles – he was con­tract­ed by CARE to lead the climb­ing neo­phytes to the top. (Fis­ch­er lat­er was to per­ish on Mount Ever­est.) Includ­ing CARE rep­re­sen­ta­tives, guides and the media, there are 20 of us on the summit-a-thon.

Climb­ing with this kind of group is inter­est­ing, if not a lit­tle pre­car­i­ous. You don’t have to be expe­ri­enced to climb Kil­i­man­jaro because the moun­tain does not require tech­ni­cal prowess or the use of ropes and cram­pons. Nev­er­the­less, the 19,340-foot ele­va­tion is chal­leng­ing­ly high for most peo­ple. At the peak, there’s only half the oxy­gen that there is at sea lev­el. Weath­er, alti­tude sick­ness and exhaus­tion col­lec­tive­ly con­verge on climbers near the top. Which is where we are strug­gling now, some six days into the Shi­ra route.

Shi­ra is Kil­i­man­jaro’s longest approach, but that’s pre­cise­ly why Fis­ch­er likes it. The Shi­ra will give us eight days on the moun­tain ver­sus the usu­al five for the heav­i­ly trav­eled Marangu (or tourist”) route. The slow­er ascent gives the group more time to adjust to alti­tude, which increas­es our chances of reach­ing the sum­mit. The Shi­ra also offers a much more aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence, as the Marangu is lit­tered and polluted.

Three more hours of this lum­ber­ing agony and we’re sud­den­ly at the crater rim, close to high camp. As we rest, I sur­vey the group. It includes Paul Hig­gins, an insti­tu­tion­al bond sales­man at Mer­rill Lynch, and Cather­ine Walk­er, the for­mer gen­er­al coun­sel of West­in Hotels & Resorts. Peter Ack­er­man, the for­mer Forbes 400 mem­ber, looks like a scruffy moun­tain goat with his six-day stub­ble. Back in the States, he is man­ag­ing direc­tor of Rock­port Cap­i­tal, an invest­ment firm in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. In the 1980s, Ack­er­man was a top exec­u­tive at the now-defunct Drex­el, Burn­ham Lam­bert, and the num­ber two man under infa­mous junk-bond king Michael Milken.

But right now, high-yield is tak­ing on new mean­ing for Ack­er­man, who has nev­er before camped out­doors, much less climbed a moun­tain, He’s sound asleep, snor­ing loud­ly, and exhaust­ed. We shake him: Peter, wake up.” The snor­ing con­tin­ues. Sud­den­ly, with a start, he blinks, then stares at us as if we’re from anoth­er plan­et. It’s 20 more min­utes to camp, we tell him. Dis­ap­point­ed and dis­ori­ent­ed, he strug­gles to his feet and blind­ly trudges on.

Look­ing back at high camp from near the sum­mit of Kilimanjaro.

Climbers crossing the Kilimanjaro crater.

High camp, perched at 18,500 feet next to the 80-foot-high Furt­wan­gler Glac­i­er, is the alti­tude of Gill­man’s Point, where some peo­ple on the Marangu route stop, think­ing they have sum­mit­ed. How­ev­er, the true top is Uhu­ru Peak, anoth­er 840 ver­ti­cal feet up and, because of the alti­tude, the most dif­fi­cult part of the ascent. That’s what we have to look for­ward to in the morn­ing. First, though, we must strug­gle through the night.

Windswept, bar­ren and cold, the lava rocks and glacial ice of Camp 6 are a stark con­trast to the lush veg­e­ta­tion and ani­mal sounds of the jun­gle so far below. Above 18,000 feet, the body slow­ly dete­ri­o­rates from the reduced oxy­gen sup­ply and, if there long enough, even­tu­al­ly shuts down. We’re not going to be there long enough for that to hap­pen, but the night will exact its toll. By 6 P.M. we’re in our tents. As the sun sets, the tem­per­a­ture drops into sin­gle dig­its. Sleep is almost impos­si­ble, inter­rupt­ed by the potent com­bi­na­tion of alti­tude, a 40 mph wind and good old-fash­ioned excite­ment. Every so often, I glance at my watch, swear­ing at least an hour has elapsed. Usu­al­ly it’s only ten minutes.

We’re a far cry now from what seemed like the baro­nial splen­dors of our first few camps. On those low­er respites, we’d rise at 7 A.M., when the ami­able porters brought tea, cof­fee and hot wash­ing water to our tents. Break­fast was served around 8 A.M., after which we’d pack our gear and hand it to the porters. Then we’d begin the day’s hike – any­where from four to six hours – while the porters dis­man­tled camp. Along the trail they’d pass us. The agile, vig­or­ous Tan­za­ni­ans, some with 100-pound loads and torn sneak­ers, seemed super­hu­man. By the time we arrived at the next camp, they’d have the tents pitched and din­ner cooking.

Camps con­sist­ed of two-per­son tents, a large mess com­plex for meals, three fresh­ly dug toi­lets (com­plete with wood­en seats) and a big camp­fire. At night, at the low­er ele­va­tions, we con­gre­gat­ed around the fire, told jokes and swapped sto­ries. At Camp 3, 12,500 feet up, par­tic­i­pants explained why they had come along. Cathy Lin­den­berg reliv­ed her attempt on the moun­tain 18 years ear­li­er, after turn­ing back at Camp 3. Preg­nant at the time, she had suf­fered com­pli­ca­tions and was forced to aban­don her expedition.

Men­no van Wyk, chief exec­u­tive of One Sport, a Seat­tle hik­ing-boot mak­er, was the first exec­u­tive to sign up for the climb. Van Wyk talked about his par­ents, poor immi­grants from Hol­land, and how CARE had helped many of their friends just after the war. For him, the climb was a way of giv­ing some­thing back. Dave Olsen, a senior exec­u­tive at Star­bucks and a major CARE sup­port­er since the 1980s, felt a spe­cial affin­i­ty with the orga­ni­za­tion: Both he and CARE were turn­ing 50.

The late Scott Fis­ch­er on the sum­mit of Kil­i­man­jaro.

Now I lie awake, won­der­ing about tomor­row. How will the group han­dle the last 840 feet to the sum­mit? Piece of cake,” Fis­ch­er had said ear­li­er, with his usu­al brio. Piece of cake? In my phys­i­cal state, a piece of cake does­n’t sound appe­tiz­ing. Plus, hav­ing been on oth­er expe­di­tion climbs like this, I don’t believe him. But what’s impor­tant is that the rest of the group isn’t daunt­ed by the prospects of the final ascent. Half the bat­tle in high-alti­tude climb­ing is men­tal, and Fis­ch­er knows it.

Scott Fischer, standing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The 6 A.M. wake-up call does­n’t bring warmth. It’s still cold, so we lay­er on all of our clothes and depart around 7:30 A.M. With­in 15 min­utes, the sun ris­es, warm­ing us and the moun­tain by ten or 15 degrees. The air is thin, and we make slow, steady progress. Fis­ch­er was right; the extra three days of acclima­ti­za­tion have done their job. Most of us feel bet­ter than the day before. With­in an hour, we’re approach­ing the top. I glance ahead at Lin­den­berg and her hus­band Marc, arm in arm. She’s made a tri­umphant return. Walk­er, Ack­er­man and the rest of the CARE cham­pi­ons are close behind. It’s a big moment for all of them and their sponsors.

We arrive. Stretched out before us is a wide foot­ball field of bro­ken vol­canic rock near­ly four miles above sea lev­el. In his famous 1936 short sto­ry The Snows of Kil­i­man­jaro,” Ernest Hem­ing­way describes the moun­tain as wide as all the world, great, high and unbe­liev­ably white in the sun.” Almost sev­en decades lat­er, not a word of that descrip­tion needs revis­ing. It’s all back­slaps and hand­shakes for the group, with an air­plane-like view for hun­dreds of miles around. I remove an altime­ter from my pack to check the height. The read­ing: 18,800 feet. Not bad – it’s only short by 540 feet. What’s more amaz­ing: I can still do math at that altitude.

From Fis­cher’s pack, a foot­ball mate­ri­al­izes. We throw it around for a few min­utes (the alti­tude helps my dis­tance), take some pho­tos, and then it’s time to begin the long trek down. The plan is to descend eight hours via the steep M’we­ka route, mak­ing camp at 10,000 feet. We know that 9,340 ver­ti­cal feet is a lot to drop in one day, but with small packs it’s doable. Mov­ing with the easy momen­tum of a descent, we reach Camp 7 at 5:00 P.M. We’re tired, but hap­py. Fis­ch­er is wait­ing at camp for us. He’s not smil­ing, and we know instant­ly that some­thing is wrong. We’ve got to keep going,” he says. There’s no water here to make a camp.” At first, we think he’s jok­ing. But his tone is deadpan.

We quick­ly real­ize the unthink­able: We’ll have to descend all the way to the road­head – anoth­er four hours – that night. That’s a total ver­ti­cal drop of 13,000 feet – or the height of 13 Empire State Build­ings – in one day. Com­plaints are ram­pant. It’s dark, knees are sore, feet are blis­tered, mud and mos­qui­toes taunt us. At one point, I even vow nev­er to climb again. Final­ly, at 10:00 P.M., we’re back at the trail­head where we first put in and 

have access to water. Imme­di­ate­ly we col­lapse into our tents. Sleep, for the first time in a week, is not a problem.

Two days lat­er, we emerge from the bush and into Nairo­bi, Kenya, with the scaly grub­bi­ness of eight unwashed days well rinsed off. We’re civil­ians again, din­ing at a touristy but inter­est­ing restau­rant called Car­ni­vore, where the staff stuffs you with almost every exot­ic meat imag­in­able – ostrich, alli­ga­tor, wilde­beest, gazelle – until you sur­ren­der by sport­ing a lit­tle white flag. It’s per­fect, as we’re rav­en­ous for meat after eight days of starchy pas­tas, pota­toes and cereals.

Dur­ing the evening, Lin­den­berg asks what my next climb will be. With­out hes­i­ta­tion, I con­fess to pos­si­bly Antarc­ti­ca’s Mount Vin­son or Mount Elbrus in the Sovi­et Union. She laughs, remind­ing me of my recent pledge nev­er to climb again. Oh, I do that on every climb,” I say, then explain about climber’s amne­sia, how you remem­ber just the good parts of an expe­di­tion – nev­er the pain. She says she under­stands. She’s already begin­ning to remem­ber only the good parts, too.

Excerpt­ed from To The Lim­its by James M. Clash (John Wiley & Sons, 2003, $27.95).