MOUNT KILIMANJARO, Tanzania — We started out dry, clean and happy. We knew that wasn’t how we would finish. But it didn’t matter. We were headed to the highest point in Africa.
We had come from Chicago, Los Angeles and various points in Colorado to spend five days climbing Kilimanjaro, finishing with a moonlight push to the 19,341-foot summit and into the thinnest air most of us had ever breathed.
Months of training and inevitable flashes of doubt had led us here, to an eastern Tanzania trailhead squeezed between tall cornfields and an even taller pine forest. We stood in our boots and leaned on our walking poles, perusing nine “Points to Remember” carved into wood planks before us.
Don’t attempt the climb while ill, it said. Stay hydrated. Be aware of altitude sickness. But the first point said it all: “Hikers attempting to reach the summit should be physically fit.” Were we? We would find out.
“Let’s go climb a mountain,” bellowed Josh Kling, the 31-year-old outfitter from Durango, Colo., who would guide our trek.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is one of the simplest and most difficult things you can do with five days.
Despite gaining 13,000 feet of deeply taxing elevation, it is a relatively straightforward process. No ropes or axes required. The you-might-die factor is relatively low. A team of local porters earning less than $10 per day would carry much of our stuff, plus tents, food and a mobile kitchen. All we needed were our daypacks (warm and waterproof layers, snacks, water) and our lungs, legs and determination.
About 2 p.m., we finally began climbing the Nalemuru route, also known as the Rongai: Josh Kling, me, the five others in our group and our little universe of guides and porters. The dirt trail snaked through a pine forest so green and gentle that we could have been hiking in Michigan in July. But that notion fled with the first white-tailed monkey scurrying through the trees.
We clicked voluminous photos, stopped every 45 minutes for snacks and water and learned about each other in a way that strangers only do when thrust together in mutual struggle: Bill, 67, of Durango, has experienced a later-life thirst for high-altitude climbs; Bill’s son, Jason, 34, of Denver, was about to be a first-time father; Micah, 30, from Los Angeles, engineers live recordings for well-known rock bands; his friend Stephanie, 29, also from L.A., owns an events marketing company; and Josh’s 31-year-old wife, Bonnie, a fun, no-nonsense, co-ed hockey player, works at the ski area near Durango.
As we chatted and climbed that gentle path, the sky turned increasingly gray and thunder rumbled somewhere beyond. Sheets of rain materialized over the low hills in the distance, and soon, they materialized on us. Our chattiness and cameras were replaced by wet feet and soggy resolve.
The rain stopped as we pulled into camp. It would be the last landscape with trees taller than us for days. Buried damply and deeply in clothes wet and dry, we trudged to the tall orange dining tent our porters had erected hastily.
“Wow, what a first day — the real deal,” Josh said.
With headlamps illuminating our food, we restored ourselves with a warm chicken meal. Everyone slept well. Wet but well.
We woke up dry. Or drier.
That day’s hike would take us from about 9,000 feet to 12,000 — high but not a spectacular elevation — with most of the gain coming early in the day. Mornings tended to be clear, which afforded a sparkling view of our first great sight, Mawenzi, a handsomely rugged, snow-topped peak inside the park. Kilimanjaro National Park has three peaks: Mawenzi, Shira and Kibo. Rough and ragged Mawenzi is the most dramatic of the three. But the tallest is the long and sloping Kibo, where we were headed.
By 9:30 a.m. we reached 9,700 feet. At 10:30 a.m., it was 10,300 feet. By 11:30 a.m., 11,480 feet. We seemed increasingly above things, as Kenya and Tanzania spread out in a green-beige haze and our landscape turned sparser, scrubbier and rockier. By early afternoon the rain returned, and it drummed on our hoods as we fell into silence across the exposed face of a rocky hill.
“Damn, this is fun!” Jason hollered.
“Is it?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he said.