Mount Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro, which means "shining mountain," rises some 16,000 feet above the plains of northern Tanzania to reach 19,340 feet (5,895 meters). It is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest mountain in the world that is not part of a mountain range. I would like to say I reached the top of it, but despite my best efforts the altitude got the better of me (I only made it to 16,600 feet; 5,000 meters). Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile experience that I would recommend to anyone seeking a bit of a challenge. I would not, however, recommend making the climb in July (as I did) because the overcast and rainy weather obscures the views and turns the lower part of the mountain into a slippery trail of mud.

I climbed the Marengu route, which the most popular and the most gradual of the routes. It also offers wooden huts and dining areas for overnight stays. The route begins at Marengu Gate (6,000 feet; 1,800 meters), where climbers must sign in to the park, pay fees, meet up with their guide and porters and get their equipment ready. The initial part of the trail is a wide road through a thick rain forest. Along the way, I spotted several monkeys and various birds. I took only the occasional photograph, however, because it was raining most of the time. Eventually, we left the road and started up a narrow and steeper trail. Here is where I finally began to feel that I was actually climbing a mountain. Because of the rain, the trail was very muddy and many people were slipping and sliding (a walking stick is highly recommended). This leg of the climb ended at the Mandara Hut system at approximately 9,000 feet (2,700 meters). The sleeping huts held four people, but were quite small. It was a challenge to fit everyone and their gear in. The dining halls are not large enough to accommodate everyone at once, so meals are served on a rotating basis (your guide is responsible for preparing the meals, though there were a few people who brought their own food). It continued to rain off and on throughout that first night.

On day two, we set off after breakfast (around 8:00 am). After the first few hours, we finally climbed out of the clouds and rain (and mud). Although we could now see the views up the mountain, everything below remained shrouded in mist. For the most part, the climb is very gradual. Nevertheless, one begins to feel the effects of the altitude and the watchword among the guides is "pole-pole" (POH-lay POH-lay), which means "slowly" in Swahili. One benefit of Kilimanjaro is that once you gain some altitude, you rarely give it back. (I have trekked in the Himalayas where the day's goal might be a net ascent of 2,000 feet but you begin by descending 700 feet to cross a river – every foot of which has to be regained.)

The Horombo huts at 12,340 feet (3,700 meters) is the largest system of huts on the route. Many people (including myself) spend an extra day here to acclimatize to the altitude. We took a side trip up to Zebra Rock as part of the adjustment. People on the way down also spend a night at Horombo There are huts that hold either four or six people, plus a dorm-style room in the attic of the dining hall. There are bathrooms with running (cold) water, but given the number of people, the bathrooms get pretty gamy.

The next stop after Horombo is the Kibo hut at 15,520 feet (4,750 meters). Along the way, the scenery changes dramatically. The vegetation virtually disappears, reduced to small tundra plants. There is a long open stretch known as the "saddle" that is easy walking, but begins to seem endless. Finally, the Kibo hut comes into view. The facilities here are very basic – dorm-style rooms, long-drop toilets and no running water. The standard procedure is to have a meal, then go to bed and get all the rest possible (sleeping is very difficult at this altitude). At about 1:00 in the morning, climbers set out for the summit. It is dark and very cold. The goal is to reach the summit around dawn, spend some time there and then start down. (I started out of Kibo hut as planned, but at 5,000 meters I became so dizzy and disoriented that it made no sense to go on. It was, however, the highest I had ever been.) On the way down, climbers rest for a few hours at Kibo hut and then continue on to Horombo. After an overnight stay in Horombo, climbers spend the next day going all the way down to the Marengu Gate (stopping for a meal at Mandara, but that's all). That last day is a long, tiring walk (and, while I was there, an opportunity to try your skills going downhill in the mud).

That night, back in the hotel in Arusha, I took the first hot shower and slept in the first real bed in five days – it was great!