12 February 2013

My Words About Their Words: Kilimanjaro

At 19,341ft (5895m) above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain on the African continent and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.  Kilimanjaro is actually a dormant volcano consisting of three volcanic cones: Shira, Mawenzi, and Kibo.  Uhuru Peak is the highest point on the rim of Kibo and thus the highest point on the mountain and in Africa.  Conveniently, Uhuru Peak can be summitted without any climbing equipment or technical mountain climbing skills.  You just have to be able to withstand the effects of an altitude where there's half the amount of oxygen in the air as at sea level, bear the subzero temperatures, and walk to the top.  It sounds so simple, but my past experience with high altitude trekking in the Himalayas and written accounts of Kilimanjaro "climbs" tell me otherwise.

Kilimandjaro by Jeremy V on Flickr (used with permission)

In preparation for my upcoming "climb" of Kilimanjaro,
I've been reading some literature about the mountain.  It seems that most accounts of "climbing" Kilimanjaro involve horribly unprepared and naive hikers.  I'm not sure if this is because a story without drama typically isn't a very good story or because stories are typically written by writers, not hikers.  Also, with walking being the only physical skill required to reach the summit, I can't imagine Jon Krakauer writing an article about "climbing" Kilimanjaro.  True writer/adventurers like him would  either be hopelessly bored or completely annoyed by the mass tourism aspect of the "climb".

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Zombies On Kilimanjaro is Canadian Tim Ward's account of "climbing" Kilimanjaro with his son via the Lemosho Route.  As an established travel writer, Ward at least has the credentials of having done some adventure travel in the past, including hiking in the Rockies, Alps, and Himalayas.  Although the discussions with his son about meme theory seem somewhat artificial and distracting from the "climb" itself (Full disclosure:  I don't like the word "meme" or reading about how memes make the world go 'round), Zombies is a touching tale of father-son bonding and an evocative depiction of the physical and mental strain involved in "climbing" Kilimanjaro.  There's also some great snippets of information about climate change and the receding glaciers on the mountain.

My Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars
Buy Zombies on Kilimanjaro: A Father/Son Journey Above the Clouds at Amazon.com

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Michael Crichton may be more well known for science fiction novels like Jurassic Park: A Novel, Timeline, Congo, and The Andromeda Strain.  However, in 1988, he published a collection of autobiographical essays and travelogues appropriately called Travels.  Eventually, I plan on reading the whole lot, but for now I've only read his account of climbing Kilimanjaro in 1975, appropriately titled Kilimanjaro.  Crichton's story is a pretty straightforward portrayal of the "climb", complete with the standard unpreparedness, naivety, pre-climb jitters, mid-climb question of "Why am I doing this?", thoughts of turning around, eventual joy of reaching the summit, and complete exhaustion upong finally making it back down.  He doesn't mention it specifically, but Crichton seems to have taken the Marangu Route, also know as the Coca-Cola Route due to the huts where Coke can be bought along the way.  Kilimanjaro is a heart-warming, motivational, and interesting read, but doesn't really offer anything exciting beyond a typical traveler's tale.

Interesting Note #1:  Crichton mentions using lanterns to provide the light on the pre-sunrise climb to the summit.  I realize that there weren't fancy LED headlamps available in 1975, but to the best of my knowledge, regular flashlights already existed.  The lanterns made the story feel very dated.

Interesting Note #2:  Although the actual summit of Kilimanjaro is Uhuru Peak, Crichton stopped at Gillman's Point at 18,700ft (5700m).  Oddly enough, he claims that most hikers stop at this point and consider themselves as having summitted Kilimanjaro, as does he.  Maybe things were different in 1975.

My Rating:  3 out of 5 stars      
Buy Travels at Amazon.com

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Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly is part of How We Are Hungry, a collection of short stories by Dave Eggers.  Although it is classified as fiction, Up The Mountain is supposedly based on Eggers' own experience "climbing" Kilimanjaro.

After her sister Gwen backs out of the Kilimanjaro trip due to getting pregnant, Rita is left contemplating why she's doing this hike and if she's really ready for it.  Rita is accompanied by fellow travelers that signed up for the same package tour to Kili's Machame Route.   The trek is hampered by bad weather from the beginning and some porters back out before the first day of walking even begins. 

Besides Rita's own lack of preparation, it seems that the tour company is also horribly unprepared for the "climb".   The mess tent, which doubles as the porters' sleeping quarters, has a hole in it and constantly leaks water when it rains.  Also, at one point in the "climb", one of the other group members gives his sunglasses to a porter.  This is followed by a lecture by the American trip leader about how they must not give anything directly to the porters.  It should first be given to the lead guide, who will then distribute it to the staff member of his choice because there is a pecking order that needs to be followed.  It makes me wonder what tour company Eggers used when he "climbed" Kilimanjaro.

Eggers is a literary genius, although sometimes he can be a bit too gimmicky.  For instance, the hardcover version of How We Are Hungry includes a story called There Are Some Things He Should Keep To Himself, which consists solely of five blank pages.  Thankfully, Up The Mountain refrains from all his gimmicktry.  It is a superbly written and haunting portrayal of a Kilimanjaro "climb".  The story also brings up some good points about the ethical responsibility of tour companies taking care of not only their paying clients, but also taking care of the porters they use for hauling luggage and supplies up the mountain.  This is actually the third time I've read Up The Mountain, so I'd say that it's pretty obvious that I love the story even though it's much darker than most Kilimanjaro stories.

My Rating:   5 out of 5 stars
Buy How We Are Hungry at Amazon.com

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Although Ernest Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro barely mentions Kilimanjaro itself, the title is probably one of the more well-know "Kilimanjaro" pieces.  It depicts a man's conversation with his lover, as he lays dying of a gangrene-infested leg from a simple scratch by a thorn bush somewhere in the African bush.  Hemingway's story is definitely from a more macho era of African travel before killing big game became taboo.  As could be expected from Hemingway, the story is beautifully written and well worth reading.  My only disappointment is that the story wasn't actually about climbing Kilimanjaro, but rather uses Kilimanjaro more for symbolic purposes (in Masai, the western summit of Kilimanjaro is called Ngaje Ngai, which means "House of God"). 

My Rating:  4 out of 5 stars
Buy The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories at Amazon.com

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Tom Bissell, author of God Lives in St. Petersburg, Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, and Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, wrote Up The Mountain Slowly, Very Slowly, a 2007 article in New York times about his experience "climbing" Kilimanjaro.  Bissell article is wonderfully written and contains plenty of entertaining and humorous snippets.   Like many other writers before him, he proves to be horribly naive and unprepared for what a "climb" of Kilimanjaro actually requires.  However, I strongly suggest reading his article for some good chuckles and tips on Kilimanjaro.

My Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

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Photo courtesy of Canadian Himalayan Expeditions

About 40,000 people attempt to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro every year.  Only 40-50% of them successfully make it to the top.  I will become part of those statistics when I attempt to reach Uhuru Peak later this month via the Machame Route (also known as the Whiskey Route).

Have you attempted to "climb" Kilimanjaro, or read any good books, stories, or articles about it?  Tell me about it in the comments section below.

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