Careening down a narrow jungle road staring, fascinated at the beautiful and exotic African flora and fauna, I sit, somewhat stunned, in the back of a Land Rover, contemplating the seemingly insurmountable challenge ahead of me. At this point I am grossly naïve about the climb; to this point I have only heard stories from veterans of the mountain and about summiting the famed and majestic Kilimanjaro. Although merely a few miles from the origin of the trail, the imminent journey ahead seems surreal, almost as if it is a dream that will never evolve into reality.
Arriving at the trailhead, the massive scale of the expedition was revealed to me for the first time. Four-dozen porters, tons of equipment and supplies, and food were all getting organized in a controlled chaos, while our entourage was eating a packed lunch in quiet apprehension. Tobias and Urio introduced themselves as our two primary guides and quickly briefed us before we launched ourselves into the even more remote and stunning territory heading up the mountain.
The trek began with a long, steep ascent through a florid rainforest. The sense of serenity endowed by the natural environment was an experience to rival any. After escaping the shroud of the canopy after a couple days, we emerged onto a rocky and desolate expanse of dust, rock, and the occasional small shrub. As we climbed in elevation, the climate worsened; during the day the temperatures would rarely exceed forty degrees while at night they plummeted into the negatives, made even more frigid by gale force winds, which battered our tents, tipping them sideways and increasing the surrounding noise that mimicked sleeping in the wash of a jet airplane. The only solace from the storm resided in the volume wheel of my iPod.
Six days after the commencement of our expedition, after traversing alpine deserts, scaling massive rock faces, descending into deep canyons and scrambling up the other side, and witnessing some of the world’s most beautiful and rugged terrain, we arrived at our final camp before the last four thousand foot ascent to the summit of the fabled mountain. Fifteen thousand feet up in elevation, there was not a spring from which to retrieve water even remotely close to our camp. All of the various amenities, such as the toilet tent, hand washing, and cooking, that required water, mandated that the porters travel multiple miles back down the mountain to our previous camp to retrieve water, which they balanced on their heads while hiking the switch backs to our camp. After marveling at the spectacle of superhuman coordination and cardiovascular strength and witnessing a spectacular sunset that encompassed the entire spectrum of visible colors, I returned to reality, refocusing on what lay ahead of me, just hours in advance.
We were rousted from our tents only hours after we retired for the night. Suiting up, we were shrouded by the night; the darkness so thick that visibility extended only several feet ahead of us. Soldiering up the trail for several hours, the sun finally broke the horizon, illuminating the entire African savannah and making the curvature of the earth visible. The radiant sun illuminated the rock, debris, and desolate nature of the precipitous slope, which extended above us another three thousand vertical feet to the first possible location for a respite.
As we ascended higher and higher towards the peak, the air became noticeably thinner, and the symptoms of altitude sickness became far more intense. I slowly stumbled up the narrow path, head spinning, feeling completely inebriated from the lack of oxygen in my blood, which was around sixty-two percent saturated at the time.
Reaching the rim of the volcano and at last a flat spot to rest, Uhuru Peak came into sight at last. Monoliths of ice encompassed the entire vicinity, rising vertically up one hundred feet, creating an eerie yet spectacular atmosphere, made yet more astounding by my partial lack of consciousness.
I thought to myself, “Five hundred feet up, that’s all.” Trudging forward, step by step against the massive weight of exhaustion on my shoulders, the sign marking the summit of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world became visible. The simple sign, unspectacular in its own right, weatherworn and battered, was the perfect understated testament to the magnificent accomplishment made. After a brief period of comprehension, a wave of euphoria swept over me and I stood gazing silently over the breath-taking panorama on that crystal clear day. At that moment, I stood on top of the world, not as a conqueror of nature, but as a guest witnessing the ephemeral beauty displayed by the grandeur of the mountain.
The moments, which I spent on the roof of Africa, although brief, left a colossal impact upon me and has helped mold me into the person who I have become.