Midlife impressions from 19,000 feet
By Fred Contrada ’74
My 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
We set up camp at the edge of the Northern Icefield,
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
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.
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
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
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.