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  • Writer's pictureAlana Conner

Kilimanjaro, 2009

Updated: Apr 10

After our bike tour ended in Moshi, Tanzania, David and I teamed up with guides Rumisha and Nicas for a five-day climb up Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest peak, via the Marangu Route. We summited on February 14, Valentine's Day, beneath a spectacular meteor shower. For more photos, see this Flickr gallery.

Moshi, Tanzania—As has sometimes been the case on Valentine's Day, today's exertions left me breathless. The air at 19,340 feet is quite thin, after all. But I was uncharacteristically frigid, despite my oh-so-sexy rig of silk long underwear, running tights, hiking pants, rain pants, three nylon shirts, fleece anorak, down jacket, Gore Tex shell, and decidedly unflattering rented balaclava.

To watch the sun rise from the roof of Africa, about 50 climbers and our guides set out for the summit around midnight, having climbed for three days to reach the Kibo Hut. The moon was so bright that we didn’t need our headlamps. The Big Dipper hung close to the horizon. Frequent shooting stars whipped their sparkling red tail across the ink of the night. 

The barren plain between Mawenzi and Kibo peaks.
The barren plain between Mawenzi and Kibo peaks.

Despite the breathtaking beauty, I wasn’t in it to win it. My hands had lost all feeling. My runny nose had cut a frozen stream across my face. My legs had grown cranky from the previous three days of ascent. I kept thinking about a friend-of-a-friend who died of high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) on Kili.

“Why am I here?” I thought. I recalled the mutterings of the schoolgirls who had followed me up a mountain on my bike just ten days earlier: “These wazungu aren’t going to give me any money. In fact, they’re probably going to cut off my ears!”

I paused with Rumisha. “Sawa, sawa?” (“You okay?”) he asked. I explained that my hands were frozen. He ripped my gloves off and wrapped my useless paws around a hot water bottle in his coat. He then gave me his mittens and took my flimsy gloves for himself. I was still thinking about phoning in my resignation when Rumisha grabbed my hand, and with a “Twende!” (“Let’s go!”) pulled me back on the trail. 

When we reached the summit some two hours later, David and Nicas were already waiting. “Don’t cry,” Nicas said when I spied the peak marker. But he was too late—a sob had already forced itself out of my chest. 

“How did you know that I was going to cry?” I later asked.

Nicas replied, “Tourists always cry when the reach the summit.”

I still don’t know what kinds of tears they were, though—of relief? joy? pain? Probably some combination.

Furtwangler Glacier, slowly waking up.
Furtwangler Glacier, slowly waking up.

The Furtwangler Glacier glowed low blue like an old PC screen, with the rising sun adding orange every second. Freezing and exhausted, we snapped a few quick photos and then made a hasty retreat to more oxygenated altitudes.

The schlep back down to Kibo (3 miles) and then to Horombo (another 6.5 miles) was slick and quick.

A week later in Arusha, I bought a used copy of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a gripping account of altitude-addled decisions and death on Mt. Everest. Reading the book on the plane home, I realized I had snagged one of the seven summits—the highest peaks on each of the Earth’s continents. Although I do not aspire to climb many more of these overgrown hills, I must say that I’m a little proud of myself for hauling my Delta-born, flatland-lubbin’ backside up to one of the highest places on the planet. 


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