2007.10.28: October 28, 2007: Headlines: Figures: COS - Uzbekistan: Writing - Uzbekistan: COS - Tanzania: Tourism: Mountaineering: New York Times: Tom Bissell writes: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

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Tom Bissell writes: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Tom Bissell writes: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

"To travel from a nation in the industrialized West to a nation like Tanzania is to marvel at many obvious divergences. But between such places there also exist far subtler divergences of what might be called extra-religious spirituality: how people think about life, and what they believe it means; how people look upon landscape, and what they believe they see — and these are exceedingly hard to parse when you have paid a great sum to come to Tanzania to do something virtually no Tanzanian of sound mind would contemplate doing for free." Author Tom Bissell served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan.

Tom Bissell writes: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Up the Mountain Slowly, Very Slowly

Published: October 28, 2007

A few days after coming to terms with Thomson Safari, whose guides would escort me to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, I received an e-mail detailing the items I might want to bring along. The suggestions ranged from the sensible (hiking boots) to the unprecedented (battery-heated socks) to the alarming (personal urinal system). At the time I received this list, I was living in Rome, a city uncelebrated for its camping stores, and so I eventually landed in Tanzania with much less than was recommended. At a ranch a few miles from where I would begin my climb, I watched my bags being weighed. My conundrum was mathematically unfathomable: I had nowhere near what I was supposed to have, yet both my bags were overweight.

I had briefly intended to carry my own gear up the mountain, but a Thomson representative sternly disabused me of this delusion. All trekkers were required to allow a porter to carry his or her second, heavier duffle, while the trekker was responsible for a day pack. My day pack, at 32 pounds, was much heftier than recommended, and my duffle, at 38 pounds, was heavier than the 33-pound limit Thomson set for its Tanzanian porters, who have other equipment to carry as well. While I transferred eight of my duffle’s forbidden pounds to my day pack, my fellow trekkers offered to mule some of my gear themselves. To incredulous head shakes, I announced my intention to carry my 40-pound pack to Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak. Forty pounds. How difficult could it possibly be?

To travel from a nation in the industrialized West to a nation like Tanzania is to marvel at many obvious divergences. But between such places there also exist far subtler divergences of what might be called extra-religious spirituality: how people think about life, and what they believe it means; how people look upon landscape, and what they believe they see — and these are exceedingly hard to parse when you have paid a great sum to come to Tanzania to do something virtually no Tanzanian of sound mind would contemplate doing for free.


I walked over to one of several large wooden signs planted around the perimeter, just inside the fences wreathed in barbed wire to keep out wildlife. The sign said, “Hikers attempting to reach the summit should be physically fit.” It was Day 1 of the climb, and I felt pale, grub-like, physically decrepit. This, like everything else inadequate about my current life, I blamed on the city in which I had been living for the last year. Two weeks after my arrival in Rome, one of my closest friends died unexpectedly, and I was not able to attend the funeral. Established work habits correspondingly atomized. I did little but play the appropriately titled Oblivion on my Xbox 360, surf up and down the Krakatoa of the Internet, and swig whiskey like a Welsh versifier. What put me in Rome was a generous literary prize, and yet the longer I spent there the less deserving of this gift I felt. When, after six months, my relationship with my girlfriend fell apart, I blamed the city for that, too. The 20 pounds I gained: Rome. The loss of my novel, which I threw away in disgust after months of work: Rome. Yet it was easily the most beautiful city I had ever seen. To fall apart in that place, I realized one day, was to hate life. A realization that should have presented a fork in the road of my depression only blackened the skies above it. The chance to climb Kilimanjaro — which is perhaps the world’s most literary mountain, forever identified with Hemingway, but also climbed by Michael Crichton (who was encouraged by the fact that it looked more “like a breast than a mountain” and who considered his climb “the hardest thing I had ever done”), Dave Eggers (who used the experience to write “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” among the finest short stories of the last decade) and the science-fiction writer Douglas Adams (who reached the summit in a rubber rhinoceros costume) — felt less like an assignment than a salvage operation.

The writer Jon Krakauer once referred to the impulse to climb a mountain like, say, Everest as “a triumph of desire over sensibility.” Those who give in to this desire are “almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.” I was beyond no such sway. To me, climbing a mountain seemed pointless at best, suicidal at worst. Kilimanjaro, however, was different. Unlike the rest of the world’s so-called Big Seven peaks, Kilimanjaro required (as almost every promotional broadside reminds) “no technical skill.” Thousands of people reached its summit every year. But it was not considered easy, and ominous talk of how well one had prepared begins as soon as the customs line at Kilimanjaro International Airport.

How had I prepared? The day before I left Rome, I stuffed my backpack with everything I had bought and climbed up and down the Janiculum, central Rome’s highest hill, twice. By the time I finished, I looked and felt as if I had fallen into the Trevi Fountain, swallowed gallons of its microbial water and then sprinted home.

While a pair of black-and-white colobus monkeys, which looked like tree skunks, watched from a pendulous branch, we shouldered our packs and walked to a nearby clearing. Our 39 porters were already here, dressed in Salvation Army attire: cutoff blue jeans, Planet Hollywood and U.S.M.C. T-shirts, knit hats from the 1998 Nagano Olympics. A few waved. We made our way to the utterly surreal sight of a tableclothed fold-out picnic table in the middle of a jungle; upon this table, quite a repast had been set. We had already received some inkling of North Face Africa’s luxuriousness when we pulled up for a pre-climb stay at Ndarakwai Ranch, where Tanzanian youths came toward us bearing trays of flower-scented washcloths and passion-juice cocktails. We had assumed such treatment would end on the mountain but now took our seats to find juice boxes, coffee, hard-boiled eggs and pizza. It then occurred to me that this table, and the nine chairs around it, would be following us up the mountain and that the nearby gentlemen would be carrying them.

Andy brought up how he was not comfortable asking people to carry something that was so supererogatory to the task at hand. “You need the table,” Kaen said. Andy countered that, no, actually, eating on boulders was more than fine with him. He looked around for the concordance our timid nods provided. “You need the table,” Kaen said again. “You paid for the table.”

As I ate, I considered the porters. Representing every size, age and shape, these men worked in a field that thousands of Tanzanians attempted to break into every year despite the often distressing fates of the porters who accompany outsiders up the mountain. Porters routinely suffer from altitude sickness, and many travel with inadequate gear and clothing; shortly after our trip, two porters working for another trekking company died from hypothermia.

Most of my fellow trekkers had selected the expensive services of Thomson Safari because of its salutary reputation for how it treats its porters. Thomson’s porters are paid a salary of $8 a day, and they are not charged for food, unlike the porters of many other trekking operations. The Tanzanian minimum wage is a government-mandated $35 a month, but a regularly employed Thomson porter can clear nearly seven times that, even before tips. A Thomson guide, meanwhile, earns about $35 a day.


We walked now without any purpose but ascent. Our legs were no longer legs but barely functioning flesh pistons. I heard Andy say something in a small, weak voice. When I turned, he was giving Willison his pack, his face a lunar color and his footing fawnishly unsteady. Dana patted Andy on the back. He nodded with no shame or embarrassment and carried on.

One by one we made our way onto Stella Point’s plateau. I fell to my knees and wondered how I would find the strength to make the last push up to the summit. All of us switched our digital cameras to video mode and narrated. Here we were, at last: the snows of Kilimanjaro. Of course, in Hemingway’s story, the action takes place far below the snows, which merit only a few, if significant, mentions. This snow all around us was not fresh snowfall snow but instead formed of millions of tiny triangles of ice. The ice field’s adjacent glaciers were hundreds of feet tall and a beautiful magnesia color. It was this whiteness that allowed the glaciers their survival against the equatorial sun. The light, after its rude reflection, sought the first absorbent dark surface it could find: the black volcanic rock upon which the glaciers had formed 12,000 years ago.

From here we could see Uhuru Peak, the last and highest protuberance on Kibo’s rim. It was a journey of 45 minutes up a thin, snow-covered ridge through a force field of utter silence. The footsore decision to go for the peak now rather than wait until morning was unanimous, though I do not remember voting to do so. After setting off for Uhuru, much of my memory ends. I do not remember passing by what Dana later recalled as “a perfect rest stop” and having a few bitterly clandestine words with him about how we both wished we had stopped. I do not remember Willison’s calm, watchful presence beside me. It was morning and had been morning for some time and he heard the plane. I do not remember repeatedly stumbling, Willison’s steadying hand always hovering above my shoulder. I do not remember turning to him and asking him, please, to take my pack. I do not remember telling him, “I think I’m dying.” It was difficult getting him in, but once in he lay back in the leather seat, and the leg was stuck straight out to one side of the seat where Compton sat. I do not remember the cirrus wisps swirling above us, as though reconfiguring themselves in deference to the mountain to which they belonged. Then there were other mountains dark ahead. I do not remember what my notes describe as “an unusual number of bowel movements” on the path to the peak. And I do not remember writing in my notes: “My life is in the hands of a stranger, whom I suddenly love. So there’s one compelling reason to climb a mountain, then: to ascend into a strange, airless heaven with a person whose existence is foreign to you and to feel fundamentally altered because of it.” But all of this was confirmed by my fellow trekkers. And then he knew that there was where he was going.

As if in a most curious dream I came to and gently touched the sign on Uhuru Peak (“Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania. . . . Africa’s highest point. . . . World’s highest free-standing mountain”), thinking how strange it was that climbers had draped the sign with bunting and covered it with stickers from their high schools, their places of work, their hobby organizations, but then recognizing that this was not strange in the least. People were proud of having made it here.

The clouds had all drifted away as though on divine pulleys, revealing a view so broad and clear that the horizon’s global curve was discernible. Everyone was smiling, hugging one another. I tried to join them, even going so far as posing for a few photographs, but soon I sat down again. I was too tired. Now that we were done climbing, it was an agreeable rather than a pestilent tiredness, and I felt glad for my fellow trekkers. I thought of what they had all told me climbing this mountain would mean to them: “I’d like Beth to make it more than me. I don’t know why. I could probably come up with some . . . mumbo, but I don’t know.” “It’ll be success, a goal, it will be something to cross off the checklist.” “Personal satisfaction. That’s all. Nothing big.” One writer speaks of the view from the summit of Kilimanjaro as being “deserved” by those hearty enough to have made it. The day before, in a low moment, I had written in my notebook, “Basically, this ‘achievement’ means nothing.” Thousands of people climbed this mountain every year, and had been doing so for decades, since the 1930s. Other than a six-day-long headache, it was difficult to know what I had achieved, much less what to take from an experience threaded with so many reminders of the world’s essential inequality.

In one of the first recorded mountain climbs, in 181 B.C.E., Philip of Macedonia scaled Mount Haemus in the Balkans to use the perch as a military observation post. Eight decades later, a rock-climbing Ligurian legionnaire in search of snails stumbled upon an overlook above his Berber enemies’ camp. A precedent was set. For much of recorded history, to climb a mountain was to spy on or attack whatever was on the other side. Until the age of European mountaineering in the late 18th century and the aesthetics of exploration that accompanied it, the act of climbing was rarely seen as something potentially transcendent. The first person known to climb a mountain for purely aesthetic purposes was the poet Petrarch, but his torch remained unpassed for centuries. To which tradition did the paramilitary rituals of modern climbing harken? Was it Petrarchan, or surrogate warfare? Or was it simply some price-controlled back door into extremities of human behavior that were once freely, if painfully, available? We had done violence to our brains and bodies getting here, and we had almost certainly done some violence to this mountain. To learn . . . what? That we could?

A few days before, I had asked Kaen Kapange if Kilimanjaro meant anything to him, or it was simply his job. “It’s just my job,” he had answered. “It doesn’t mean anything to me.” Looking at him now, posing for yet another photo, draped with the arms of the people he had led here, his smile unfakeably joyful, I was not sure I believed him. The most compelling reason to stand atop Africa, I realized, was that it would help send people like Kaen’s daughter, Jackline, to college and beyond. This was, no doubt, the source of his joy, just as it was the source of my sadness.

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Headlines: October, 2007; RPCV Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan); Figures; Peace Corps Uzbekistan; Directory of Uzbekistan RPCVs; Messages and Announcements for Uzbekistan RPCVs; Writing - Uzbekistan; Peace Corps Tanzania; Directory of Tanzania RPCVs; Messages and Announcements for Tanzania RPCVs; Tourism, Ecotourism and Travel; Mountaineering

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