“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.”
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.
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.
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).