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A Kilimanjaro Notebook

Midlife impressions from 19,000 feet

By Fred Contrada ’74

Fred Contrada '74My first glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro comes from the window of the twin-prop flying me from Nairobi to Tanzania. Down below is a cloud cover so perfect it looks like Antarctica. I expect to see a snow-spackled peak poking up through this. Instead, there is suddenly a long black ridge that breaks the plane of clouds and keeps rising, like a great surfacing whale. An estimable chunk of Africa is mounting into the sky, and its peak is not down there but at eye-level as we cruise at 20,000 feet.

Some mountains are like concepts rising out of the unconscious. Kilimanjaro is a complete ideology.

*

Sept. 10, 2004: I’m on my way to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of scientists. The leader, Doug Hardy, a University of Massachusetts climatologist, has built a weather station atop the summit ice field at 19,000 feet to study why the mountain’s once grand glaciers are rapidly vanishing. Hardy estimates that 80 percent of Kilimanjaro’s ice has disappeared in the last century. At this rate, the snows of Kilimanjaro, celebrated by Hemingway and a symbol of Africa, will be gone in a generation. I’m hoping to get there first.

*

I didn’t climb my first mountain until I was a senior at Holy Cross. A bunch of us drove to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. I was stunned by how incessantly the trail climbed and appalled by the burning in my calves and lungs. When we got to the top, though, you could see Worcester and Boston both, and I thought I could trace the path of my life from the place where I was born to the place where I came of age. I knew right away that I liked this.

*

In my knocking-around years, I climbed in the Rockies and then went on to those most splendid American mountains, the Cascades. I climbed Rainier a month after Mount St. Helens erupted, looking back down into the blown-out, smoking crater that seemed a stone’s-throw across space.

When I started a family, I thought that part of my life was over, but things happened. In my mid-40s I got a chance to climb Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico. On the eve of my 50 th birthday I made a failed attempt at a 19,000-footer in the Andes. I don’t know when I started thinking about Kilimanjaro, only that I remembered by then that anything is possible.

*

Doug Hardy didn’t know me except as a reporter who had interviewed him for some stories, but he agreed to let me come along on his next expedition. We don’t meet face-to-face until we board the plane at Logan. Thirty-eight hours later, we arrive in Tanzania, exhausted but eager to go.

Doug’s colleagues are already waiting at the hotel in Moshi. Mark Losleben, a climatologist with the University of Colorado, will set out sensors to gauge how weather systems move up and down the mountain. At 53, Mark is tough and wiry as a rooster and has a motor that never stops. During meals in our funky dining tent, he regales us with stories about his time in Antarctica and, over the course of two nights, recounts the complete history of cork.

Bill Duane, 49, is the Brit among us. Polite in a way I can only aspire to be, he never balks at whipping out his calculator and translating meters into feet so I have some idea of where I am. Bill served in the English army, sports some fading tattoos and has pretty much been everywhere on Earth. He has a laser device that will map the face of the Northern Icefield in exquisite detail.

Our Tanzanian collaborators are Tharsis Hyera and Emmanuel Mpeta, meteorologists from Dar es Salaam. Both hit the trail dressed as if they’re going to the mall. Emmanuel, 51, has never climbed before and lags far behind. It is only after the trip that we learn he had malaria.

Tharsis gives his age as “60 minus one.” He’s round and jolly and looks as if he has never seen a Stairmaster in his life. I’m astonished to learn he has done this climb with Doug before. It turns out he is game for anything and enjoys it immensely when I tell him he’s my hero.

*

Our first day on the mountain is a leisurely ascent through a rain forest alive with exotic birds and flowers. We make our camp in the mists at the forest’s edge, where a large group of Dutch explorers is happily encamped. I’ve been somewhat obsessively gauging my chances at making it to the top. The sight of Tharsis is encouraging, but I have to believe I can out-climb the Dutch. The Dutch live below sea level. The Dutch get nosebleeds when they stand on chairs. I find out later that the Dutch, at least these Dutch, go to the Alps on vacation.

*

The cloud cover butts up to the lip of our second camp at 12,500 feet like a vast foaming ocean. The only island is the peak of Mount Meru, a smaller volcano some 50 miles away. I go on an acclimatization hike with Doug, Mark, and Bill and find out what happens when you hike with scientists. They want to check out every ridge and valley for glacial moraines and ancient volcanic activity. Our day-hike turns into a six-hour trek, but every step is worth it because, on a remote plateau, we stumble upon the remains of an elephant. Erick, our ever-present guide, is among the few who have seen these bones before. He says they’re 1,000 years old.

*

We ascend to 15,000 feet and camp beneath a huge volcanic plug called the Lava Tower. Doug wants to climb it just for fun and enlists me, Bill, and Tharsis to join him. There are three Class 4 moves to the climb. I’m unfamiliar with technical climbing jargon but learn that Class 4 means you will fracture your spine if you forget for a moment where any one of your hands or feet is. Tharsis needs some guidance, but he knocks the Lava Tower off, and I remind him that he is my hero.

*

Our last camp before the summit climb is a cloud-torn aerie past which plunge some ragged glaciers. Looming above is the Western Breech, named for the place where an ancient eruption broke through the crater rim. This will be our route.

As always, I’m anxious on the eve of a climb. The true summit of Kilimanjaro is Uhuru Peak, a fragment of rim that tops out at 19,340 feet. At 52 years old, this is higher than I have ever climbed. Before I get there, I must spend two nights in the crater below. What if I get sick? What if I don’t make it?

The camp is incessantly noisy as I lie awake thinking. There’s another party getting ready. Like most climbers on Kilimanjaro, they’ll set out at midnight, tag the summit around dawn, and be down to a comfortable altitude by breakfast. It sounds as if some of them are Dutch.

The porters are also up, chatting in Swahili and playing their radios. They are young Tanzanian men who carry huge sacks of food and gear up and down the mountain on their heads for $8 a day. Because of all our equipment, we have 30 porters. Some lack decent bags and are staying up to keep warm. Their taste in music is eclectic. One of them is into Kenny G.

The main obstacle to sleep is Emmanuel, whose snoring is so terrifying it deserves another name. Think of someone trying to start a chain saw all night. We have learned to camp away from Emmanuel’s tent, but the mountain is only so big.

Finally, in the lost hours, there is a long rockslide somewhere on the Western Breech. For a while I actually wonder if there’s a truck grinding around camp.

*

Venus is coming up over the summit in advance of the sun as we start out. The route goes straight up a rock rib and requires we use our hands. At this altitude you can only go a step at a time. The first of us reaches the crater in about four hours.

Kilimanjaro is one of the biggest volcanoes in the world, and its summit is enormous. As I follow the porters across the crater, they vanish into the mists, and for a while I am wandering alone on the roof of Africa.

We set up camp at the edge of the Northern Icefield, Kilimanjaro’s largest remaining glacier. I feel OK for the first hour, then retreat to my tent with the chills. My head is pounding, and I can’t stop shivering. I take my contacts out for relief, but when I crawl out of the tent the sky has cleared, and the glacier is so dazzling that everything melts to tears.

*

My headache lasts all night, throbbing to my pulse. Inside my tent the temperature drops into the single digits so that I have to sleep with my water bottle to keep it from freezing. I’ve been gobbling aspirin to thin my blood, an acclimatizing trick, but it has the side effect of bloodying my snot. When I blow my nose, I find small carapaces of dried blood. Somewhere, the Dutch are laughing.

*

The next day we all feel better. Strapping on my crampons, I follow Doug up onto the Northern Icefield. The route is so steep that Mark has to cut steps with an ice ax lest we go plunging off the mountain.

Just before the weather station we come upon an astonishing sight. An antelope carcass has been exposed. It looks mummified, as if it has been entombed in the glacier for centuries. None of us can guess why an antelope is here in the arctic zone. Doug recalls that the Hemingway story cites the legend of a leopard frozen on the summit.

The weather station is an assemblage of steel and electronic components that stands naked to the sky. It’s a unique venture in gathering scientific data at altitude. Doug works here all day, but I return to camp for lunch, then go exploring with Tharsis. He wants to show me the actual crater pit. We have to hike over a couple of rises to get there. Sulfur fumes leak from vents at the crater’s edge, turning the rocks a greenish yellow. Tiptoeing as close as I dare, I look down into the smoking heart of Africa.

*

I start down the next morning, leaving the others behind. The crater is wondrous, but I’m in equatorial Africa, and all I’ve seen is ice. I want some giraffes. But first there is the peak.

After two days of acclimatizing, another 500 feet is no problem. Erick sends a guide with me who, confusingly, is named Eric. We cross the crater and trudge up through the scree. As soon as we gain the ridge, I see the sign that marks the summit. It’s small at first, then grows bigger as it drifts from dream to reality. Finally there is just the moment. I’m here at the top of Africa. Eric takes my picture. I take his. There’s nothing more to say.

*

When I make it to the trailhead the next day, there’s a book to sign. The park keeps close tabs on its climbers, and I have to write my name and age and how high I got. Glancing up the page, I notice at least three people in their 60s have made it to the summit. It seems there were also a few Dutch.

A park ranger hands me a certificate that says I’ve successfully climbed Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa. I take it home with me, but I don’t really need it.

A reporter for The Springfield Republican, Fred Contrada ’74 lives in Northampton, Mass., with his wife, Joan, and his children, Amanda and Rio. In his free time he writes fiction and communes with nature.

 

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