The following article by Jeannette Johnston, originally appeared on MSNBC.com and is reprinted with permission.
May 13 — Like the novice trekkers featured in the new IMAX film “Kilimanjaro:
To the Roof of Africa,” I should have been ecstatic when I summitted Africas
highest peak. Instead, I felt numb. Ten minutes earlier, the peak in sight, I
had been on my knees in the snow, trying to breathe life into a dead woman. I
never thought my trek up a 19,341-foot mountain would be a cakewalk. But I didnt
expect it to unfurl like a Jon Krakauer book either.
KILIMANJARO IS NOT supposed to be a dangerous mountain. At least, thats what the travel brochures and tour operators tell you. And now that same message, writ large, is beginning to flash across IMAX screens around the country. “Kilimanjaro,” which was shot by “Everest” director David Breashears and opens in a host of cities this spring and summer, follows five tourists, ages 12 to 64, on their scramble to the summit. Their seemingly smooth and easy success — coupled with the swooping, breath-catching IMAX visuals — will no doubt inspire adventurous viewers to try the climb themselves.
But the experience portrayed in the film is far from typical. As I learned the hard way, climbing Kilimanjaro is much more treacherous than the brochures and an IMAX film will allow you to imagine. Indeed, just 40 percent of climbers who attempt Kilimanjaro ever reach the summit, and each year about 10 people die trying.
MECCA FOR NOVICES
It was the picture of Kilimanjaro that first hooked me in — a benign and inviting dome, like the soft top of an ice cream cone. The mountain has none of the crevasses and ice walls that signal a dangerous mountain, and the climb to the top is completely non-technical — no crampons or ice axes required. “A stroll at high altitude,” one guidebook called it. I was sold. And I was hardly alone. In recent years, Kilimanjaro has become a mecca for novices. About 15,000 people trudge up the mountain annually, most of them tourists. Martha Stewart made the summit; so did a guy wearing inline skates, and a 62-year-old South African man walking backward. If these folks could make it, surely I had nothing to worry about. I met up with the other 12 people on my climbing team one Christmas day in a small hotel in Moshi, Tanzania. We were a motley bunch, among us an overweight orthopedic surgeon, a patchouli-chewing naturalist, a chain-smoking triathlete and an investment banker who had been hospitalized just two weeks earlier for severe flu-related dehydration. The only thing we had in common was that wed all read “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauers nail-biting chronicle of an Everest trip gone disastrously wrong — not exactly an auspicious sign.
Joining us on our climb were a guide and about 40 porters (hiking up Kilimanjaro is more than a tinge colonial, and having locals shoulder your stuff is standard practice). Curiously, it was not the guide wed expected. Most of the trips organized by our moderately priced outfitter, California-based Tusker Trail & Safari, were led by its seasoned South African owner, and wed all assumed that he would be the guy steering us up the mountain.
Instead, we were greeted on the day after Christmas by John, a tall, lean Tanzanian banana farmer who spoke cobbled English and wore glasses with coke-bottle lenses. Kilimanjaro National Park requires that a Tanzanian guide accompany each team up the mountain, but, if the trip is organized by a U.S. company, he usually rides shotgun to another leader. Most local guides consider themselves more porter-coordinators than team leaders, and are known to be hesitant about turning back climbers; to them, these trips are about commerce, not climbing, and a lost client means lost tips and bad PR.
When John hustled us into Range Rovers without inquiring about our equipment, I started to wonder if he was one of those guides. “Am excited but nervous, more about disorganization than altitude,” I scribbled in my journal. “Am staving myself for chaos.”
ADJUSTING TO ALTITUDE
As the new IMAX movie vividly illustrates, Kilimanjaro has an odd ecology — the volcanic mountain is striated by five distinct climate zones, and moving from base to summit feels like walking from the equator to the North Pole. My teams route, which wound slowly up Kilimanjaros southwestern face, would take us through those zones most scenic patches. The route was longer than the ones most tourists take, which meant we would have more time than most to adjust to the altitude.
But on the way up through the rainforest to our first camp, at 9,000 feet, acclimatization looked to be a sizable challenge for some on my team. The recently hospitalized investment banker was throwing up frequently; the orthopedic surgeon gasped for breath; a few others winced with headaches. Meanwhile, the altitude-adjusted porters whizzed past us despite their heavy loads. One raced by with a 50-pound bag of potatoes balanced on his head. “Pole, pole,” they said in Swahili — slowly, slowly. Most of us had been at sea level just two days earlier; now we were nearly two vertical miles up, and climbing higher.
Altitude sickness is notoriously fickle — it can strike experts and skip
over novices, affecting nobody or everybody. But it is rampant on Kilimanjaro.
Acute mountain sickness is the mildest form, but its still pretty bad —
labored breathing, blazing headaches, confusion, nausea. Sixty percent of people
who climb above 10,000 feet experience it. The worst kind of altitude sickness
is pulmonary edema. The pressure on a persons pulmonary arteries becomes too
great, and capillary walls shear, leaking fluid into the lungs. Its onset is
swift; a person can go from cough to suffocation to death in mere hours. About 2
percent of people who climb above 9,000 feet show signs of pulmonary edema, and
half that number could die if they dont descend.
All of this was bad news for us, and for the hundreds of other people crowding Kilimanjaro on their New Years climbs. The more rapid the ascent, the higher the risk, and nearly every climb up Kilimanjaro shuttles tourists up the mountain too fast. At altitudes of more than 5,000 feet, the conventional climbing rule is to ascend no more than 1,000 feet per day. We were scheduled to climb three times that almost every day, and our itinerary was sluggish by Kilimanjaro standards. Most people climb the 13,000 vertical feet from trailhead to summit in just four days; we were taking seven.
By the end of the day two, we had reached 12,800 feet, and more than half my team had symptoms of acute mountain sickness. In order to keep up with the rest of us, they had learned to vomit without stopping. The sickest three settled on a team motto: puke and rally.
AN OMINOUS SIGN
We camped on an eerie plateau peppered with giant rocks blown centuries ago from the volcano, and hovered there for an extra day to adjust to the new altitude. The respite was marred by bad weather; a cold rain cloud had settled right over us, and our guides glasses fogged over continually. During our second night on the plateau, the cloud lifted. When I peered out of my tent well after midnight, stars filled the sky, and the mountains snow-capped dome was backlit by the moon. It was a perfect night, and perfectly quiet, except for the sounds of deep coughing. They were coming from the tent of a team member named Craig — a super-fit cross-country skier from upstate New York and the strongest guy on our team.
Craig hacked all night, and by morning he was coughing up blood. He shrugged off our concern, insisting it was exercise-induced asthma. If he suspected something else, he didnt say so. Neither did our guide John, who let him keep climbing.
By now we were converging with the masses headed up the mountain — at least eight other teams, all on their way to a 15,000 cliff called the Lava Tower, and then down the crease of a valley into the next camp at 13,000 feet. All but three members of our team continued to be hit hard by the altitude, but they were hardly alone. What I witnessed that day was alarming: an assembly line of trekkers forging on despite dizziness, vomiting, disorientation — all symptoms of acute mountain sickness, all flashing warnings not to climb higher, all hardships they were willing to bear for a chance at bagging the summit.
By late afternoon, Craig was breathlessly coughing up blood, coherent only in patches, and had blue lips. He insisted, through slurred words, that he would be okay by morning. It was a textbook demonstration of high-altitude judgment; left on their own, even deathly sick climbers dont always know when to stop.
Our guide John recommended that Craig sleep it off, but with blood coming out of Craigs mouth, that seemed like a deadly idea. A few of us sprinted ahead to our tents, now wedged between those of other climbing teams, and started yelling around for oxygen.
A broad-chested, tan giant of a man emerged from a tent and offered his help. It was Todd Burleson, a top-notch American mountaineer known for his level-headed caution and a hero of the 1996 Everest disaster wed all read about — an irony wed mull later. Burleson whistled for a cardiologist who was climbing with another team, and together they examined Craig. The verdict was grim: Craig had pulmonary edema, and he needed to descend immediately or he would die.
HE DIDNT HAVE hours, he had minutes, Burleson said, adding that if
Craig werent so fit hed be dead already. “When we got to camp there was
a case of pulmonary edema from another group, with no Western guide,” Burleson
wrote in his daily dispatch to mountainzone.com. “He had a 125 pulse, throwing
up blood, and it was a bad situation.”
Burleson choreographed a swift rescue plan. He found the quickest route down, and through his satellite phone (a luxury we didnt have) arranged for transport once Craig reached the base of the mountain. John hovered nearby, usurped. A few of our climbers and a handful of porters dragged Craig down a steep trail, through settling darkness. After a few thousand feet he started to breathe more easily, they reported, and alertness returned to his eyes. The climbers returned to camp, shaken but also flushed with the pride of chance heroes.
The next morning, I approached Burleson during breakfast. Our teams trip
plan called for us to spend a night in the crater at the summit, at 19,000 feet.
It is dangerous to spend so long at such high altitude, and a quick scan of the
groups revealed that we were the only ones attempting it. “A grand plan!”
our trip itinerary had called it. More like a cold way to kill myself, I was
beginning to think. Burleson only confirmed my worry. When I told him about the
crater, his eyebrows shot up. My stomach dropped 10,000 feet. “Its a great
experience, sleeping at the summit,” Burleson said, glancing over at John. “But
only if you have a leader.”
Watching Burleson strap on his gaiters and move out his high-paying clients, who were relaxed and laughing as they hiked onward, I felt lonely and more than a bit uneasy. Seeing Burlesons competence made Johns lack of it more glaring. John was nice, and probably a great banana farmer, but his loose leadership had nearly cost Craig his life. “The thicker the wallet, the safer the trip,” my tent mate grumbled. I didnt know if there was worse to come, so I steadied myself with a promise: At the first signs of new trouble, I would grab a few porters and hustle down the mountain.
BLAZE OF PINK AND ORANGE
For a few days the mountain seemed more friendly, and on New Years Eve my pared-down group (now eight, not 13) reached our last camp before the summit — a long spine of rock that was already crowded with clusters of colorful dome tents (from above, they would have looked like a smattering of M&Ms). This high up, at nearly 15,000 feet, the air holds half the normal amount of oxygen, and even the smallest exertion left us huffing. The wind whipped up and down the ridge, making the sub-zero temperature feel even colder.
At midnight, the wind-whips were accompanied by a new sound: the screams of noisemakers and pops of champagne bottles. The new year had arrived. As I hunkered down in my sleeping bag, all the groups save ours began their bid for the summit, hoping to reach it by sunrise. (Because of our plan to spend the first night of the new year in the summit crater, our team wouldnt leave until morning.) The night was pitch black except for a long line of headlamps glowing up the mountain. Hours later, I watched the sky lighten through the thin wall of my tent, and zipped out in time to catch the first sunrise of the year — a blaze of pink and orange. While my team nervously swallowed breakfast, the first summitters were scrambling down, relating tales of ice-blocked water bottles and useless frozen cameras. They were hypothermic, but happy. As the last were descending, we lifted our gear and started climbing.
ALONG THE CRATERS RIM
The final push up the mountain seemed endless. We stopped often so that people could rest or drink or throw up. The hiking was hard; for every step up we slid half a step back, releasing small rockfalls of scree. Around 4 p.m., after nearly eight hours of climbing, we reached the lip of the crater. We stood there for long moments, stirred by the view. Beneath us spread the arid plains of Africa. This was what wed come for — this view, and the feeling it elicited. We were an hour away from the summit, and happy for the first time since Craigs evacuation.
We began walking along the curve of the crater rim, a half-circle to go before the summit. Our progress was slow, not out of caution so much as necessity. We were 19,000 feet up, and the air so thin that sucking it in I felt as if my lungs were porous, the air traveling right through me, inflating nothing. I walked especially slow, worried by a pounding head and the disembodied sense that I was walking above the ground, not on it. I ran simple math in my mind to test myself, and plodded forward.
I paused to take a picture. Looking ahead, I could see the summit in the distance. I could also see that my team had stopped and was huddled in a circle. Standing among them was a stranger in a yellow jacket. Curious, I approached; we werent expecting anyone else to be up here. The face of the man in the yellow jacket was locked in a horrible expression. Lying on the ground was another stranger, completely still, mouth slightly open — his wife. Her lips were blue, and her chest was not rising. The couple plus a porter had been on their way down from the summit and just passing my team when the wife had collapsed.
Her pulse was weak and frightening; it would beat once, stop, then beat a crazy rhythm. Her eyes were fluttering continually. John screamed at the porter in Swahili: “Why is she up here? Where is the guide? This woman is going to die!” A few of us dropped down to help. We lost her pulse, pumped her chest a few times, and tried CPR, cycling again and again through compressions and breathing. The motions sickened me; the bump of her teeth against mine made me cry. The only sounds were the creaking of boots and the rustle of nylon, and the husband in the yellow jacket saying, “Jennifer?”
I looked at John, and his expression told me what I already knew: She was dead. The porter who had been hiking with the couple coaxed her husband away and down the mountain. I closed the womans eyes, took out an angel-shaped pin that a friend had given me to bury at the summit, and attached it to her backpack. I helped John cover her body with one of those foil blankets that marathoners wrap up in at the finish line, and secured it with rocks. Shed spend the night here, and rescuers would come for her in the morning.
Her name, I later learned, was Jennifer Mencken. She was a 53-year-old librarian from Long Beach, California, a rugged sportswoman and veteran of higher mountains. She and her husband were on a belated honeymoon. Despite Menckens distress — the night before, shed come into camp 10 hours after the rest of her group — she must have convinced her Tanzanian guide that she was fine. He had gone along with it, and left her with the porter. Her cause of death was pulmonary edema — the same illness that had nearly killed Craig.
My team reached the summit 10 minutes later. It seemed like such an absurd achievement, given what wed just witnessed, and given how far wed all gone and been willing to go to stand on the top of this mountain. Looking at my photos from that moment — the team standing in front of the summit marker, my face creased in a fake smile — I cant help but think of what lay just beyond the frame; it still haunts me. We spent a miserable night in the crater, and the next morning broke camp quickly and headed down the mountain.
Craig met us at the bottom, looking healthy but horribly disappointed. Two of the four others in our group, who had turned back, were with him along with news that a second climber, a German tourist, had died on the mountain. One griped that shed stood there and watched “fat women with cellulite” amble down the mountain, and couldnt believe they had reached the top and she hadnt. She still had summit hunger in her eyes — the same hunger that many who see the IMAX film “Kilimanjaro” will carry out of the theater with them. Id had that summit hunger too — we all had — but I lost it for good when we covered up Jennifer Mencken.
Jeannette Johnston is a Boston-based editor and writer.