Chunder on the Equator
(A messy ascent of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania)

1 Mar 1995 - by John Flinn

People vomit with an accent.

Trust me on this one. I've become something of an expert. Camped outside the 15,200-foot-high Kibo Hut on Kilimanjaro, I spent an evening listening to an international troupe of mountain sickness sufferers stagger out to recycle their suppers into the darkness.

First was a miserable-sounding woman who retched and groaned with a thick cockney inflection. Clearly an Aussie. The second victim sounded American, but her soft vowels gave her away as a Canadian. Uuuuugggg-hhhhhhhh, eh? Next up was a guy sputtering and moaning with whatever the opposite of joie de vivre is. Definitely French. Batting cleanup was someone with the unmistakeably clipped intonation of an upper-crust Englishman.

This went on until midnight, when a beeping watch announced it was time to crawl reluctantly out of my toasty sleeping bag, gulp down a cup of heavily sugared tea and head out into the frigid blackness. Fahtaeli, a member of the Chagga tribe of Tanzania and our chief guide, lined us up and counted heads. We had 19 summit aspirants and one non-starter - Kay, the Australian woman I'd heard earlier. Clammy-faced and glassy-eyed, she was sensibly heading down immediately.

An ascent of 19,300-foot Kilimanjaro, it turns out, entails three pleasant days of hiking through varied and interesting terrain - and one shivering, nightmarish slog up an interminable scree slope in the middle of the night. Overall, the rapid climb to altitude is brutal. In 72 hours you ascend nearly 15,000 feet. It was no wonder most of our group suffered greatly from acute mountain sickness. At least they were better off than the Brit we saw being carried off the mountain with what I assumed to be cerebral edema.

Me, I was gulping down Diamox tablets like they were M&M's. I felt fine. "Ready?" said Fahtaeli. "O.K., let's go. Pole-pole." That's Swahili for "slowly." Fahtaeli has been climbing Kilimanjaro for 20 years, and he estimates he's reached the summit some 3,000 times. (Although I suspect an extra zero might have sneaked in there.) His father and grandfather were Kilimanjaro guides, and he is grooming his eldest son to be one, too. Fahtaeli has never set foot on another mountain.

Guiding on Kilimanjaro, it turns out, consists of bunching your charges into as tight a line as possible and then herding them along at a ludicrously slow pace. I've stood in lines at Disneyland that moved faster.

Fahtaeli went first with a lantern, and a cadre of assistant guides fanned out behind him, taking up positions like border collies behind a flock of sheep. Our sniffling noses were almost literally rubbing up against the backpacks of the people in front of us. When I tried to leave a little space in front of me I was physically shoved forward to close the gap.

For five hours my world consisted of my headlamp beam illuminating the feet of the person ahead of me. For diversion there were periodic splotches of frozen vomit along the trail. Around 3 a.m., Sandra, an IBM saleswoman and mountain bike racer from Oakland, stepped out of line and made a fresh contribution, her third of the morning. If I had felt as bad as her and some of the others I would have turned back long before.

My headlamp beam dimmed rapidly and went out, a casualty of the cold. I pulled my water bottle out of my parka. Its neck was choked with ice. We were moving so slowly it was impossible to get warm.

"This is what hell must be like," said a voice in the darkness. "No," replied another. "This is what it's like when hell freezes over."

We were just below the crater rim when a band of dark blue appeared on the horizon. Over the next half hour it turned grey, then silver, then pink, then orange. Finally the yellow ball peeked out over the sub-peak of Mawenzi and I imagined we were catching the very first rays of the new day to strike the African continent.

I had no way of knowing whether this was actually true, but it was a pleasant thought at this point and I needed a new one. Crunching up the loose scree trail at 18,000 feet, I found that a single thought would suffice to occupy my altitude-addled mind. But after chewing on one for half an hour it would lose its flavor like a wad of worn-out Doublemint. So every so often I'd have to come up with a fresh thought to take its place.

The spot where the trail hits the crater rim is called Gilman's Point. It's 18,600 feet high and looks and feels like the top. There are all sorts of signs to make it look official, and most people are happy to stop there. (One member of our group arrived at Gilman's, accepted a hearty "well done!'' and spent the next 10 minutes vomiting into the crater.) For reaching Gilman's Point, they even give you a certificate when you get back down the mountain.

But the inconvenient fact is that the actual summit, Uhuru Point, is nearly two miles around the crater rim and 700 feet higher. After perhaps half an hour, Fahtaeli said in a barely audible voice: "Anyone for Uhuru?'' He was nipping at a pint of cheap Tanzanian whiskey and clearly would have preferred to head down.

Much to his disappointment, eight of us were eager to go on. The others descended with an assistant guide. For non-mountaineers, they had put in a pretty impressive performance to reach Gilman's.

As it turned out, it was during the walk along the crater rim to Uhuru Point that Kilimanjaro's stark beauty emerged in full. As fleecy clouds boiled up from the plains of Kenya below, we picked our way along a narrow ridge with views of awesome ice cliffs and near-equatorial glaciers.

Diamox coursing through my veins, I felt surprisingly chipper-at least physically. But the oxygen-thin air at 19,000 feet reduced my already-limited mental capacity to almost nothing. I plodded along in a dull, dream-like state, pausing occasionally to point my camera at something but forgetting to focus.

The summit of Africa is not much to look at. It's just a rounded, rocky point along the rim with a collection of signs and plaques. There is an impressive ice cliff nearby-or at least my summit photos show one. I don't really remember it.

I vaguely recall sitting down, chewing on a frozen Snicker's bar and staring straight ahead. After a while someone mumbled, "Maybe we should go down.'' I looked at my watch: We'd been sitting there for nearly an hour, and nobody could account for the time.

Before descending, we all autographed the summit register. It didn't occur to me to look at the recent entries. If I had, I would have found that Martha Stewart (yes, she of the immaculately set holiday table) had reached the top of Kilimanjaro a couple weeks before me. So much for macho points.

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