Kilimanjaro Diaries: An Excerpt

The view, when we arrive at Barafu around lunchtime, is breathtaking. If, indeed, you have much breath left to be taken from you at this altitude. We’re back at 4,600 meters, about the same as we briefly achieved on our third day at Lava Tower. From what I’ve gleaned when listening to previous debates between Dudley and Adrian, our science gurus, the oxygen content has now dropped from 21 percent at sea level to less than 12 percent. Although I’m not quite sure if that means there is still the same amount of oxygen in the air, and due to the lower air pressure you just end up with less in your lungs each time you breathe, or if there are indeed fewer oxygen atoms in relation to whatever else makes up our air. But it hardly matters. You’ll definitely know something is amiss, even if you can’t quite pinpoint it. By the time we reach the summit, the oxygen content will have shrunk even further to 10 percent. That’s a whole lot less air than what your body is typically used to.

We do get a good long look at the surrounding scenery, plopping down right where we are. For the first time this week we have to wait for our mess tent, not because our porters have been slacking off – they’ve been here hours before us, as always – but because the spot they have their eyes on is still occupied. Barafu is not the ideal campsite by any means. If you had the luxury to pick from a range of suitable places, this one wouldn’t make the cut. It is very steep and sits amid a wasteland of rocks and scree, and it’s a miracle there’s even enough level ground at all to pitch our tents. Or perhaps not a miracle, but the result of hours of hard work previous porters have put in to dig level platforms into the mountain. Because of this, there is only limited space for a group like ours, and we have to settle down to wait until the previous group’s tent is taken down. These guys have summited last night and come back this morning, or perhaps just now, judging from the look of utter exhaustion on their faces. One of the women looks to be in no shape to move on, but we refrain from talking to them. We don’t need any horror stories so shortly before our own ascent, and in any case there is nothing we can do to help.

The other group eventually departs, and once our own tents have been put up, we busy ourselves with the usual afternoon camp activities. We let the self-inflatable mats self-inflate, we roll out the sleeping bags on them, we deposit the empty water bottles outside of our tent so that the porters can fill them for us later, and we put everything in its place for the night. It pays to be organized, at least when it comes to three things: your headlamp, your roll of toilet paper, and your camp shoes or boots. There’s nothing worse than rearranging the entire tent in the middle of the night because you can’t remember where you put your headlamp. We’ve also learned that it’s best to put everything inside the tent, or the ravens make a mess of whatever you leave outside.

If there is one item I sort of regret not having brought along, it is a pair of Crocs. Mike uses them for his camp shoes, and every time I see him milling about, I let my eyes linger with a twinge of longing. On the Crocs that is – just to be clear. I have a perfectly fine pair sitting at home in my closet, pink and fur-lined, and it’s especially this second feature that makes me miss them that much more. My nightly trips to Tee-Tee would be so much more enjoyable if they were made on feet wrapped in such luxury. And being Crocs, which practically weigh nothing, they would not have added anything substantial to my duffel bag allowance. It’s not that my boots are terrible to wear in camp. They are comfortable and everything. It’s just that I didn’t exactly foresee that I would have to meticulously tie them every time and tuck away the laces, all in the dark, just to make absolutely sure a stray trailing lace does not – how shall I put it? – pick up any unwanted matter.

Every morning the same routine is repeated, in the reverse order. Rolling up the self-inflating mat, and stuffing the sleeping bag back into where it belongs, is a bit more cumbersome than simply letting everything billow out of its confinement. What’s more, I get to do all this twice in a row, as somehow Max has managed to pretend – it’s a trait the men in our family have mastered to perfection – that he absolutely, positively cannot accomplish such a difficult task. At least he’s not sitting there playing Angry Birds on his iPhone while I labor away. He is also not spending long stretches in the privacy of the toilet, considering there is no privacy to be had there whatsoever (“Anybody in there?” is usually the call that interrupts any reverie you might have inadvertently fallen into), nor is he taking interminable showers. We are spending more time with each other than we have since he still clung to my legs as a three-year-old, although it’s not like we’re having long meaningful conversations. Our talks are more to the tune of “Time to get up!” and “Do you have any more wet wipes?” and “You should’ve packed more Bar-Ones!” Still, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. Simply spending time like this together with your 16-year-old son is a rare treat.

Having finished our evening routine early, we sit with our backs against the slope in the late afternoon sun, taking in the view. It is the most spectacular yet, and we’ve already enjoyed great views. Far in the distance toward the southwest we can see Mount Meru (4,565 meters) poking through the thick bank of clouds below. For the first time this week, it seems as if we’re actually looking down on it, as indeed we are from our vantage point at 4,600 meters. The summit of Kilimanjaro is right behind us, to the north, obscured by the steep slope rising straight into the sky right at the edge of camp. We can see rugged Mawenzi on our left side, to the east, looking dark and foreboding. Its name means “broken top,” a fitting description. Its serrated ridges almost look like a scene from an animated movie, like the mountain hideaway of some evil witch and her cohort of flying apes.

Indeed, we can now make out an enormous creature emerging from the shadows of Mawenzi, circling on the updraft in wide turns. Rather than an ape, however, it is a large eagle, dark-winged, copper-breasted, and with a few feathers hanging down behind its beak. It must be a bearded eagle, also called bearded vulture, we are told. Their preferred habitat is precisely the terrain we have here: craggy ridges and precipices at high altitudes. They have been spotted as high up as 7,300 meters on the slopes of Mount Everest. In Persian mythology, bearded vultures are considered a symbol of luck. Will this one bring us any luck tonight? It doesn’t matter – we already feel extremely privileged to have an opportunity to see one as clearly and close-up as this.

It is utterly peaceful up here. You are so far removed from everything back in your normal life, both literally and figuratively. You are floating above all of it, the world at your feet, and all of its problems hidden under a layer of clouds. If I’m not to reach the summit, having reached this place should be enough.

I’m startled to have this epiphany. I’m quite sure that I genuinely feel this way, and that I’m not just repeating a well-worn cliché to myself. These last five days have enriched my life in a way I never thought was possible. The companionship. The sense of being there for each other, trusting each other. Having simple things to worry about, rather than big things, just like I envisioned before our climb. The daily dose of carefree laughter. And yes, the fresh air. All of these aspects of our journey will stay with me long beyond this week, regardless of the destination – of that I am certain.

We watch the vulture a while longer as it soars above us while Martin captures a few good shots of it with his camera, but when the sun starts disappearing behind the western ridge, turning the temperature instantly to freezing, we stumble toward the mess tent and its relative warmth. We really do stumble. The terrain up here is tilted at an impossible angle, and wherever we go we have to climb over unwieldy rocks, slipping and sliding on the loose soil. It’s not an easy feat when you are constantly out of breath.

One puzzle has nagged at me for a while: the question about the naming of all these peaks, and the origin of the word Kilimanjaro…


Click here to order Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life 

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