Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

April 6

April 7th, 2016

April 6


Commencing a long hard hike at midnight seems ridiculous, and it pretty much is. I asked the guides about the rationale for such a strategy. After all, we had spent days acclimating to the altitude, it seemed unwise to disrupt diurnal patterns just at the moment we were readying for the big push. They offered three explanations, each with some merit, but not entirely convincing. The hike up from Kibo huts to Uhuru peak is less than six km with a little more than 1000m altitude gain. The summit is 5895m which, for you non-metric folks is 19,341 ft. For comparison, Everest is 29,029′. The highest peak in North America is Denali (McKinley) coming in at 20,310′ and there is only one other North American peak is higher than Kilimanjaro. So the first answer had some merit– seeing the sunrise from the crater rim is an incredible experience (spoiler alert: it is). This is similar to many hiking strategies. People walk up Poon Hill in Nepal starting at 4:00 am to see the sun rise over the Annapurna massif and Daulighiri, but that is a well-marked and fairly short track. Another reason: as this is the wet season and the rains tend to start mid-morning, they like to get up and off the mountain early (missing a whole night’s sleep vs. getting wet, I dunno). And the last, which seemed both patronizing and nonsensical, was actually best. Hikers cannot see what they are climbing in the dark. It might only be six kilometers and only 1000 meters elevation gain, but it is straight up the highest mountain in Africa. I had gone out to piss around 10:00 pm, and the weather had cleared after a torrential downpour. The skies were filled with stars for the first time in several days, though the only constellation I could recognize was Orion (as usual). At 11:00, we got up, had coffee and biscuits (cookies), and by the stroke of midnight we were walking out of camp, each wearing a headlamp directed at our feet, except Anna who carried a torch (flashlight) and consequently had a pretty cold hand most of the walk. We walked out over lava cinders for a short while, but soon it started to snow, the dusting accumulating in the shadow of the stones. We soon discovered that yesterday’s rain had made snow up high, and within the hour we were in ankle-deep powder. People wealthy enough to ski celebrate that stuff, but climbing a mountain in it is profoundly difficult. Off we set, Abu picking out the path and each of us following single file, seeing only the terrain illuminated by our headlamps and concentrating on the footprints directly in front of us. This would go on for six hours–SIX HOURS. Initially, I treated it the way I do all long treks. Walking is an opportunity to think. Indeed, for me, it is the best chance for thinking. I’ve been re-reading Whitehead’s Process and Reality, so it was a good time to consider “actual occasions” and “prehensions.” But we were soon gaining altitude, and the path became more faint and steep. My next “pointless essay” will be about Air (I already have fire–Vital Heat–and Water, so I am well on the way to covering the original four elements, will just then need Earth). Walking at high altitude is a curious and subtle experience. I found doing the Kili shuffle–placing one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe with no space between (very much the Pink Floyd The Wall walk)–I could mentally explore the intricacies of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, but soon the lack of oxygen took effect, and I could only see the feet stepping in front of me, step after step, hour after hour. I tried to focus but found I was only able to direct my thoughts toward very intense moments from my past. They had life and vibrancy, but soon faded in the monochromatic landscape I crossed. Walking in snow is physically taxing, so as the air thinned, each simple misstep or slip interrupted carefully patterned breathing, which in turn made me stop and pant, trying to get oxygen balance back. This kept the experience from becoming like meditation, which is the closest activity I can imagine to a pitch-black, many hours, strenuous trek. Like meditation, I concentrated on my breath, but that was not to find release. Instead my body demanded it. Imagine turning to spit and that takes you out of a breathing rhythm and causes distress. The other factor was the cold. Here is where hiking at night was good, as there was little wind. Still, it was well below freezing and my hands would often ice up. I had borrowed one of those down jackets like those people wear on Everest, and found if I pulled up the down-filled hood, my body temperature would go up and my hands would warm. But of course if you get too hot and start to sweat, chills can occur and soon you are heading off the mountain on a stretcher. Thoreau was right, Vital Heat is vital. The snow slowed our pace — it locked it down– so we arrived at Gilman’s point on the crater rim much later than expected. Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano– a singular peak rising out of the Rift Valley that characterizes the geology of East Africa. We rested briefly, and for the first time could see beyond the halos of our headlamps. The sun washed across the landscape, making shadows of unbelievable intensity and finally breaking the monochrome of our night walk. The break was short because the risk of chill is higher than the need to rest. By now I was really feeling the altitude. Last month I had crossed Thorung La in Nepal (5400+m) with little distress, but given the exertion of climbing in snow, I was gasping for oxygen and feeling many of the symptoms of altitude sickness. Abu explained later that our trek, in the deep new snow, was exceptionally strenuous so he was not surprised that I was feeling it. I was uncomfortable but felt capable to continue the last bit of the climb around the crater rim to Uhuru point. Of course it was much longer than any of us hoped but soon we gathered around the sign which signaled the end of the climb. Lots of congratulations all around, many pictures were taken, but of course what stunned us all was the sheer magnificence of a clear, rainless morning looking out over the glaciers surrounding a breathtaking crater (and I mean breathtaking in its most literal sense). We soon turned back– lingering at the peak invites many problems including body-temperature drops and perhaps more time sliding down the incline in the rain. As we left, we passed some trekkers who had come up on another route and who appeared to be American. Soon I heard whooping which sounded like someone at an SEC football game instead of standing on the top of a continent. It is a singularly American thing, that self-congratulatory hooting and hollering, that I will never understand. Climbing a mountain is an accomplishment that deserves celebration, but it is also a reverent act. Mountains need to be approached with humility, and not treated as a tick-mark in the inanity of someone’s bucket list. We made our long return to Kibo, and each step brought more oxygen. After a glorious hour resting there, we geared back up and made the descent to Horombo, had supper and slept the sleep of the dead. Emily Dickinson once wrote that “the brain is wider than the sky.” Today I learned that a tired, physically stressed, and oxygen-starved brain is no wider than the faint outline of a headlamp illuminating footsteps in the snow.


T. Hugh Crawford