Pamela Blair
A Realization at 15,000 feet

Kibo Huts
December, 1973

At 15,000 feet, the encampment around Kibo Hut resembled a miners’ camp:  three A-frame and two rectangular aluminum shacks dotted a bare, rocky hillside. Stu and I, as usual the first of our group, found bunks for three in one of the shacks, for us and the other four people in our party.

Before dark, I sat outside on a boulder, fashioning a face mask out of two black socks—the socks stretched across my face, creating slits for my eyes in the space between the two socks. I hoped it would protect my skin and eyes from the ultraviolet rays of the high altitude sun.

The three bunks for us six were totally inadequate, but I was expecting it to be unbearably cold and we were all a little sick anyway, so more room probably wouldn’t have helped. We would sleep from six until 12:30am, start out for the top at 1 am, and reach Gilman’s Point, 18,635 feet above the Indian Ocean, at seven. From there, we’d hike around the crater to Uhuru Peak, 700 feet higher. I didn’t know if I would make it to Uhuru Peak, but I was determined to get to Gilman’s Point, at the rim of the crater.  

After I made my sock mask, I greased my boots, put everything in their proper pockets, and got other last-minute items together. Then we crawled into bed, six in a space for three, couples toe-to-head-to-toe. Stu couldn’t lie still. I was on the outside, so I wasn’t warmed at all on one side and kept falling off the bunk. 

I was so uncomfortable I decided to go outside. I tried to write, but the pen’s ink froze in the cold and what I wrote was only engraved on the paper. I returned to bed. I still couldn’t sleep so I went out a second time.  The 15,000-foot sky was like a black velvet cape, glimmering with rhinestones.  A satellite moved slowly across it, as if one of the rhinestones had detached and was floating away. I stared at it for a while, then returned to bed, with another unsuccessful attempt at sleep.

Fifteen minutes later I got up, hoping a walk would make me sleepy. I passed in front of one of the guides’ A-frame corrugated-aluminum huts, with the door open and a light shining out into the darkness. When they saw me passing by they shouted, “Karibu, Mama!” (Welcome, Ma’am!), and I thankfully entered. Inside, about ten guides and porters were lying wall-to-wall in their sleeping bags, with a stove warming them—something we didn’t have in our hut. A teapot sat on it. I took a chair next to the stove, warming my frozen fingers.  

”Unataka chai?”  a porter asked.  

“Ndio,” yes, I replied, happy to accept their offer of tea. 

We proceeded to have a lively conversation about their work, much of it in Kiswahili, while I drank my tea. One man, the eldest, had been climbing Kibo for twenty-seven years. This would be his 364th trips. He was on the expedition which had planted the Uhuru torch at the highest point on December 9, 1961, Tanganyika’s Independence Day, three years before they united with Zanzibar to become Tanzania.  

The men spoke about their families and what they did the rest of the year—mostly farm on their shambas, raising coffee, bananas and maize.

One guide mentioned he wanted to move down to Dar. The others chimed in—they wanted to go to Dar, too. To myself, I thought they had a much better job than what they’d be able to get in Dar. I thought of the hot, crowded, smoky, dark neighborhoods they would probably live in. The unpleasantness of the work they’d be doing. The pay much less than they’re paid as porters and guides.

“Being a porter or a guide doesn’t seem so bad,” I said. “Your farms are beautiful, and the pay is much better than you’d be able to earn in town.” I thought how gracefully these young men climbed the mountain.  They made it look easy.

“Ndiyo, lakini kazi nyingi, Mama!” “Yes, but it’s lots of work, Ma’am!” one man countered. 

And then I got it. I’d been totally wrong about the guides and porters. Passing me on the trail, they had made carrying huge loads on their heads seem effortless, and they were always smiling, friendly and helpful. I assumed they loved their work. How could I have missed how they really felt? It was another instance of my unintended insensitivity for what it was really like to be a Tanzanian. Guides went up the mountain three or four times a month, each time hiking five days, for about $21 a trip. Porters, who carried loads on their heads in excess of fifty pounds, made only $17. In that moment I realized how hard it is to climb up into these high-altitude regions on a regular basis, no matter how easy they make it look, or how much they’re paid. Nothing but insects live up here and yet these porters and guides are breathing 19,000-feet oxygen-deprived air at least three or four days out of every week. 

Earlier, I’d felt pangs of guilt for hiring a porter to carry my pack. Poorly dressed, of all ages, in ill-fitting plastic shoes, raggedy pants and jackets, the porters carried immense loads, a long line of black men, hurrying along the trail, followed by a few wazungu, white people carrying nothing, wearing expensive climbing gear, hiking boots, and perhaps hiking poles. It reminded me of the trips those nineteenth-century explorers had made, slaves followed by their masters on a forced march.

All the porters and guides who passed us on their way down the mountain as we were going up greeted us with jambo or habari, terms meaning “hello,” “what’s new.” Once, when an older porter passed, I greeted him with shikamoo, Mzee, a term of respect for the elderly, literally “I hold your heart, old man,” which I truly felt, so much did I respect his ability to climb the mountain, carrying such a heavy load. I really wished I’d carried my pack, instead of a day pack with just the bare essentials in it. Next time I climbed a mountain, I promised myself, I’d be more sensitive.

That night in the guides’ A-frame, I was pleased that I could carry on a conversation with them in Kiswahili. We talked for about an hour, then I got up to leave.

“Have a good hike,” they all said to me as I was leaving.  

“I hope so, but I’m not sure I’ll make it,” I replied.  

“Oh, you’ll make it,” they all said. My fear diminished with their words.

I climbed back in bed where Stu was still a bundle of constant movement. Although I couldn’t sleep, my conversation with the guides had lifted my spirits, giving me more confidence in my ability to reach the top. It’s possible I slept an hour before it was time to get up and put on all my clothes for the climb.  

I dressed—four borrowed sweaters and a shirt, a windbreaker, scarf, hat, face mask, two pairs of socks on my hands for mittens, the bamboo walking stick that Stu had fashioned for me. Even with all that clothing, I was freezing. I was so stuffed, I could hardly move.  

A nightmarish six hours followed.  We started off together, the guide, Rwauichi, in front, then the six of us, and the assistant guide in the rear. The other four in our party continually needed rests, breaking up what little rhythm I was able to establish. I tried to climb like a machine, getting maximum use of my energy with rhythmic steps, coordinating my breath with my step, but each time we had to stop it broke the rhythm and cut into my meager fund of energy. Finally, I hung back behind the assistant guide, staying far enough away that I’d be able to maintain a rhythm even when the others stopped.  

At first the cold was the hardest. But later, as we got into more and more scree (fine gravel), I would put one foot forward and then feel it slide back a half-step. I was miserable—the cold, the dark, the scree, the stopping-and-starting of the others, especially the difficulty breathing. We walked about two hours and arrived at what in distance was the halfway point. Just after that, two in our group decided to turn back with another group, also returning, so we had two guides for four people. Stu and I went on with Rwauichi, and a few minutes later the assistant guide yelled to tell us he was taking the other two back. I knew then that I had no choice but to at least get to the crater’s rim.

Our guide, Rwauichi, and me, with a bamboo hiking stick and flag made from khanga material, saying “Chakula Bora,” or “Good Food,” a motto of the nutrition project where I worked.

The next section of the climb was the worst part of the nightmare, crossing back and forth along switchbacks. My nose dripped and my hand on my bamboo walking stick went numb as we climbed the zig-zag trail—cross one, switch, put stick in other hand, cross the next, switch, put stick in other hand, time and again. I couldn’t get enough air.  I’d have to stop after about 60 steps, do abdominal breathing until I’d taken in enough oxygen to start again, then 50 steps, then 40, then 30. I began to doubt the porters’ confidence in me would be as prophetic as I’d hoped.

At last, the sun edged up behind Mawenzi, the second, lower peak of the mountain, now visible across the saddle.  Then the sky appeared, like an overturned bowl, turning everything from the blacks and grays of night to blue. I gave a weak cheer because I knew that at least the unbearable cold would end.  

I stumbled on. A half-hour later, around 7:30, I finally dragged my overspent body onto the rim of the crater, gazed down at the snow-covered emptiness of its hollow cone, and immediately collapsed onto a boulder.

I forced myself to get up to take souvenir photos with Rwauichi. Stu planned to  keep on climbing to Uhuru Peak, 700 feet higher and an hour away, but I could go no farther.  

“Well, then, you have to go down,” he said.

“I can’t.”

“Well, you can’t stay up here by yourself.” 

“I can’t move.”  I suddenly realized we were having an argument.

“You’re being childish!” he yelled.  

After several more rounds of the same response from me, Stu realized he was defeated. He agreed to leave me at Gilman’s Point while he and Rwauichi went off to climb Uhuru Peak.  

Alone, I lay in the sun, staring down into the snow-filled crater, my face covered with my makeshift sock face mask. It felt so strange, this long-standing dream, finally realized. I could hardly believe it. I’d used every ounce of physical and psychic energy to get to the rim, but I was so exhausted I couldn’t feel the satisfaction I’d expected. I stared down at the crater’s frozen lake of whiteness, hoping to feel jubilant, or proud—after all, I’d just conquered Mt. Kilimanjaro (sort of). I was at the highest point in Africa, and one of the highest points in the world. But all I could think was how hard it must be to endlessly repeat the trip as the guides and porters did. I saw even more clearly why they wanted to work at a lower altitude.

An hour later, after I’d gathered a smidgen of energy, I started off, flying down through the scree, gliding several yards with each leap, the mountain was so steep. It’s like wearing seven-league boots, I thought, like skiing, and if I hadn’t been so spent, it would actually have been fun. Momentum built so fast that I paced myself by stopping after 100 leaps, took a deep breath, then started the next set of 100. It took almost every ounce of energy I had, but knowing that with each descending leap I would find more oxygen, I was motivated My legs were trembling when I finally reached Kibo Hut. I immediately took off all those layers of clothing and crawled into my sleeping bag. Exhausted, I thought I’d catch a two-hour nap before Stu came.

Fifteen minutes later, Stu rushed in from Uhuru Peak.  

“Get up!  We have to pack up right now and leave so that we can make it to Horombo Hut by dark!” he demanded.  

I don’t know where I summoned the energy to actually do it, but we packed our gear and left. The walk downhill was effortless, passing back through the saddle, that low point between the lower and upper peak of the mountain, that had seemed so difficult not 24 hours earlier. We easily climbed up the other side. I kept looking back at the peak, hardly believing that I’d been at the top just four hours before. We stayed at Horombo Hut that night, the 12,000-foot altitude feeling almost like sea level. The next day we stopped at Mandara Hut for lunch, and the guides and porters surprised Alan and me with pink cornflower wreaths for our heads, a symbol of our success. After another three hours, we reached the point where we’d started.  

 It was over—five days, 65 miles of grueling hiking, 13,000 feet of altitude gain.  We found a tiny bus, crammed ourselves into it, six across in a space for three, and rolled back into Moshi, to the Dutch volunteers’ house where we’d stayed the night before the ascent. We dropped off our bags and walked back to town. It was New Years Eve.

We met our guide Rwauichi, the assistant guide and our porters in town, and took them out to a hoteli for a beer. As we sat drinking, Rwauichi asked about the possibility of getting work in Dar as a cook.  

“Oh, you shouldn’t do that!” the others chorused.  

But after talking to the guides and porters at Kibo Camp two nights earlier, I stayed silent, understanding why Rwauichi would consider any job in Dar preferable to spending so much time in 19,000-foot air. Working at sea level, regardless of conditions, would be easier on his lungs and muscles than the slog up Kilimanjaro. For us, it was a dream, an adventure we could brag about when we got home. But for him, it was unending torture.