Food Feature: Glass ceiling

Trekkers battle frostbite, storms and exhaustion in their quest to reach the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro

We are at 18,000 feet on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.
It’s 4:30 a.m., and we’ve been walking — make that climbing — since shortly after midnight. In the brilliantly black sky above us the stars are large and luminous, looking as though we could reach out and grab them. The air smells fresh and brisk, and we hear nothing but our rhythmically labored breathing, the crunch of snow beneath our boots and the whistle of wind. We are surrounded by beauty.
We are also surrounded by cold. The air around us, at 15 degrees Fahrenheit, is bracing and frigid, and 8 inches of fresh snow is lapping at our boots. As the first group up the mountain this morning, we are blazing the trail through last night’s snowfall. Our toes are numb and we fear frostbite.
At 19,344 feet, Kilimanjaro — or Kili, as it’s known locally — is the tallest mountain in Africa and a prized summit for mountaineers and trekkers alike. Our Kili experience begins when we, together with our guide, Matei, drive the short distance from Moshi village — where we arranged our trek — to Kilimanjaro National Park. When we arrive, porters unload the vehicle, Matei sorts the loads for carrying and we’re off and walking.
We’ve just left an arid, dusty village, and now we’re making our way through tropical rainforest. Every conceivable hue of green paints the lush vegetation as we trudge along the muddy trail. Insects and birds, together with the occasional monkey, provide a pleasant canopy of sound to our day’s trek.
After five hours of walking, we arrive at our campsite, just as the rain begins. We spend the evening waiting out the weather in our tent and discover that our porters are not the most skilled at tent assembly, as water steadily seeps inside. “It’s all part of the experience,” we console ourselves.
The next day we’re walking by 8:30 a.m., leaving the rich forests and emerging into a heather and rock-strewn landscape swept by a chilling wind. It’s downright cold and the trail is long and steep — more difficult than the previous day. Luckily the rains hold off until we reach our camp, Shira Plateau, at 12,600 feet.
When the rains cease, we leave the confinement of our tent and explore. The tents of other hikers add patches of color to the foreground of our expansive views. We enjoy the evening trading stories with fellow trekkers before heading to bed. In the distance, the snows of Kilimanjaro glow in the moonlight.
We awaken in the middle of the night, realizing we’ve never been colder. Sure, we’ve been places where the temperature was lower (Everest Base Camp comes to mind). But there we were better prepared to deal with the elements. Here we’re outmatched. Our lightweight sleeping bags are fighting a losing battle. We put on every piece of clothing we have and practice our rallying cry: “It’s us against the cold.”
Days three and four pass pleasantly as we continue moving up the mountain, enjoying the varied landscapes. And though we may not be winning the nightly battle against the cold outright, we’re at least meriting a draw.
On day five, we climb to Barafu Hut at 15,100 feet, where we really feel the thin air. We try to rest because tonight, in true alpine ascent fashion, we’ll leave for the summit shortly after midnight. If all goes well, we should reach Uhuru Peak — Africa’s highest point — by 7 a.m.
We settle into our tent shortly after dusk, but before we fall asleep at this unusually early hour, the snows begin. Thunder bellows in the valleys and we hear the flakes of snow accumulating on our tent. The winds pick up and we fear a storm.
Struggle as we might to sleep, we cannot help but monitor the weather. Thirty, 60 and then 90 minutes pass, but the squall does not abate. We’re concerned that this much snow may make a summit bid too dangerous and our guide may call it off. Sleep fitfully comes. At midnight, Matei wakes us bearing a thermos of hot tea. In spite of a considerable snowfall, the skies are now clear; our summit bid’s a go.
The climb begins well as we move efficiently through the snow and up the mountain. But as the hours pass and we move deeper into an atmosphere that is thinner and colder, worry sets in. We are at 18,000 feet and the conditions are taking their toll.
From a fitness level we feel good. But our toes are completely numb. We’re each wearing three pairs of socks, but they aren’t enough. We recall two persons we passed yesterday who were denied the summit because of frostbite. And they were climbing without the snow! Could the same happen to us? Turning back because we might get frostbite is not an attractive option. But neither is losing a toe to frostbite for pushing on unwisely.
Fortunately, the dilemma resolves itself: As dawn approaches, the mountain warms and feeling is restored to our toes. Now exhaustion, not frostbite, is the enemy. Our lungs and legs burn as we summon the mental energy to keep moving, one laborious step at a time.
It’s 5:30 a.m. and the sun is slowly rising when we reach Stella Point at 18,700 feet. Uhuru Peak is within eyeshot and only an hour’s work away. We continue our ascent, inspired by the nearing summit and glorious views. Mountains of solid ice surround us.
An hour later, we’re standing at the summit of the tallest mountain in Africa, relieved at having made it through the strenuous trek. Far below us, in the drought-stricken savannah near the base of this mountain, tourists are happily clamoring about in Land Rovers, seeing lions and elephants. And here we are, literally on the roof of the continent, surrounded by miles of snow and ice, snapping photos to document our reward for an arduous journey.
Only in Africa, and only on Kilimanjaro.

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