Devil's Tale


A journey to the top of Kilimanjaro

By Kim Brooks-Blum

You can never tell who will make it and who won’t. Even Marines who have climbed [Kilimanjaro] have said it’s the hardest thing they have ever done.


The icy wind whipped our faces. The bright snow made my eyes water. I was more exhausted than I had ever been in my life. The thin air kept our conversations brief, so we quickly congratulated each other and posed for pictures in front of the sign that proclaimed our grueling ascent to 18,000 feet. As we rested briefly on the snow-covered rocks atop Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, all I could feel was relief. My silent adversary—altitude—had been defeated.

Altitude’s effects can be minor, or they can be fatal. They can strike victims without explanation. Even more than physical stamina, terrain, gear, or weather, altitude proves to be the deciding factor in a hiker’s success.

At its best, altitude sickness is a mere inconvenience, causing headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, or listlessness. At its worst, it’s deadly. Lack of oxygen at high altitudes can cause fluids to leak through the capillary walls into the lungs or brain. Death follows in a matter of hours if the victim doesn’t descend immediately.

My journey up Mount Kilimanjaro began a few months before returning to the United States from Kenya. For four years I had been teaching at a school for the children of missionaries in Africa. Fellow staff members Dave and Libby, a young married couple, and recently engaged Emily and Chris joined me in the adventure. Two visiting friends, George and Richard, who were brothers, also joined us on the hike. The group numbered seven adults ranging in age from 23 to 30. All four men and three women were active, healthy, and outgoing.

Courtesy of Kim Brooks-BlumSeven hikers and three guides began the trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.

Silent but deadly
I knew little about the effects of altitude, so I talked with veteran faculty. Their foreboding responses disturbed me. “You can never tell who will make it and who won’t,” my department chair said. “Even Marines who have climbed [Kilimanjaro] have said it’s the hardest thing they have ever done.” Others related seeing people taken off the mountain on stretchers, unconscious. Even more disturbing were the personal experiences of those who had suffered from acute mountain sickness. Our P.E. teacher turned around on her ascent when she hallucinated that her mother was beckoning her to sit down and have hot chocolate.

Rick Curtis, director of the Outdoor Action Program at Princeton University, said that because “few people have been to such altitudes, it is hard to know who may be affected. There are no specific factors such as age, sex, or physical condition that correlates with susceptibility to altitude sickness.”

Although scientists can’t predict who will be affected by altitude sickness, they do know its causes. According to Dr. John West, “The concentration of oxygen is 21 percent at both sea level and at higher attitudes, but the decreasing air pressure at higher elevations means you get significantly fewer oxygen molecules per breath once you go over about 8,000 feet.”

Since three out of every four high altitude climbers suffer altitude sickness, each of us had to assess the threat and plan our defense. I began to drink two liters of water a day. Dehydration can occur when the body tries to deal with the change in altitude, so keeping myself well-hydrated would be key to making—and surviving—the climb. In addition, I took Diamox, a preventative medication, to help my body acclimate.

How to battle
altitude sickness

• Make sure you keep a good work and rest schedule. Try to avoid working excessive hours or last minute packing.

• Avoid alcohol and narcotics

• Drink lots of fluids.

• Eat foods high in carbohydrates, such as rice, pasta, and cereal.

Note: Symptoms of altitude sickness can be mild and eventually pass over time with some people. However, if symptoms are especially severe, stop your climb and seek medical attention.

For more info, visit the Travel Doctor.

The ascent
We began our hike on a clear, sunny morning in April, during Tanzania’s rainy season. Our route, known as the “Coca-Cola” or Marangue route, was wide and well-tread because it was popular with groups. This fact also meant it had the highest death rate. The Centers for Disease Control warns that people in groups are more likely to die or suffer altitude sickness than solo travelers, possibly because of group pressure and a fixed itinerary.

Our three guides insisted that we travel up the mountain slowly. Going too high too fast translates into altitude sickness, so we casually made our way through the rain forest, sipping water. Moisture in the form of vivid green moss draped the trees.

Hidden in the trees at 9,000 feet above sea level was Madara Hut, where we spent the first night. We continued on to Horombo hut the next day, sitting above the clouds at 12,648 feet. As the sun set, I marveled at the smooth clouds smeared across the sky, now several hundred feet below me.

The third day we marched up to 15,990 feet, the foot of Kibo crater. From here we would ascend to the highest point on the continent of Africa. I was tired but feeling good. So far the altitude had claimed no victims. The sun was warm and the sky was clear.  Heat emanated from the volcanic rock strewn across the dusty and sparse expanse known as the saddle between two of the mountain’s volcanoes.

Kilimanjaro stats and facts

• Located in northern Tanzania, Africa

• Stands 19,340 feet above sea level, making it the highest free-standing mountain in the world

• “Kilimanjaro” is Swahili for “the mountain that glitters”

• Highest peak is Uhuru

• First climbed by Dr. Hans Meyer in 1889

• Features five different ecological zones

For more info, visit Africa Travel Resource.

No turning back
My optimism vanished, however, when Chris doubled over in pain and wretched for 10 minutes before moving on. We were all silent. Who would be next? I attempted to distract myself with light conversation. Five hours later we arrived at Kibo hut, hot and exhausted.

Richard was next. He laid down as if dead, a warning of altitude’s overpowering effects. We pushed as much water into him as we could before he drifted off to sleep. Sobered by the presence of sickness, we crawled into our sleeping bags to rest before starting the ascent.

Emily succumbed to altitude sickness while we tried to sleep. She vomited every 15 minutes for five hours. I laid in the darkness and listened, sure no one would make it, especially not me.

At midnight we got up. A guide took Chris and Emily back down to Horombo hut. We were now five. Snow blanketed the trail. As had we rested, a storm had straddled the mountain’s crater and settled around us. We were going to be hiking up in a snowstorm. At 12:30 a.m., we walked into the cold darkness.

Dave turned back three hours later, nauseated and shivering. His wife, Libby, and the second guide descended with him. I watched them fade into the falling snow, swallowed by the night. We were now three.

A recovered Richard turned to me and said, “If anyone has to turn around, now is the time, because from this point on, with only one guide, we will all have to turn around.” I only blinked back at him in response, defiant of his warning. We pushed on through the dark.

Courtesy of Kim Brooks-BlumOnly three hikers and one guide made it to the top of Kilimanjaro.

The snow fell, darkness covered us and we hiked. The trail was endless. When I dared to look above me, I only saw white disappearing into black obscurity. Every shallow breath was a gift bought with pain, every move a labor of determination. Each step took all the strength and energy I possessed. This was all I knew for eight hours. Yet, somewhere in the snowy haze, the sun was rising.

I became altitude’s next victim. My vision lit up with tiny bright lights twinkling at the end of a narrowing tunnel. A mental fog and dizziness filled my head. I feared hallucinating that my mother was beckoning me to sit and drink hot chocolate.

Then I remembered Richard’s words. There was no turning back. I stared at the trail before me and plowed on. Far above me the fuzzy outline of a rim drew me forward.

Almost two years have passed since I reached the top of Kilimanjaro.  I wasn’t sure if I would make it to the top. I wasn’t sure if I would get sick, or how I would handle it if I did. I wanted desperately to make it, but I knew I couldn’t control getting altitude sickness. The best I could do was pray, prepare myself and endure.

William Barclay, a 19th-century theologian and professor, said, “Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” Overcoming altitude sickness has given me a deeper understanding of my ability to endure. Knowing I hiked to the top of Kilimanjaro makes me feel stronger. Now, when I doubt my ability to endure, I remember that the longest night of my life was spent on that mountain. I remember the cold, the darkness and the altitude. Recalling my endurance helps turn difficulties into glory.


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