By Laura Lee Huttenbach
“If you ever make it home from Africa alive, I’m going to kill you myself,” said my mom. She wasn’t happy with my decision to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro without an oxygen supply.
“But Mom,” I said, “it was like an extra two hundred dollars.”
“Two hundred dollars? You opted out of air to save two hundred dollars?”
“But I didn’t even need it. Everything’s fine. You raised me to be frugal.”
“I raised you to be frugal, okay. But I didn’t raise you to be stupid.”
I had just gotten off the mountain one day earlier and was talking to my mom from my room at The Leopard Hotel in Moshi Town, Tanzania. The room was included in my Kilimanjaro package. The two months prior had been spent backpacking the east coast of Africa, staying in tents, hostels, or homes of hospitable bus passengers. I was delighted to spend one night in the lap of luxury—or, at least, the town’s best attempt.
The room had air conditioning, a ceiling fan, a television with more than twenty channels, a flush toilet, and a hot shower. The only thing it didn’t have was electricity. Tanzania was suffering from resource shortages and, to conserve, the city shut off power during the day. I pressed my wet face into my pillow. My body still ached from the climb, and my head hurt from the celebratory beers I’d consumed the night before. But I’d gotten so used to altitude sickness that I almost didn’t notice my hangover.
I arrived in Moshi Town, Tanzania, situated in the lower slopes of the now-dormant volcano of Kilimanjaro, on September 24th, 2006. Most people prepare for years to summit Africa’s highest mountain. But I just showed up in the base town. My other American friend, Patrick, was supposed to climb with me, but he ran out of money and headed straight to Rwanda. My new plan was to spend the next afternoon visiting different tour operators to see who had treks leaving on the 26th. Climbers were required to have a licensed guide accompany them, along with a crew of porters to carry equipment, prepare food, and set up camp.
A safari guide from New Zealand who I’d met earlier in my backpacking trip advised me to visit a non-profit organization called the Porters’ Assistance project. “Since you’re going alone,” said the guide, “I want you to climb with a good company. Visit the Porters’ Assistance Project and see which outfitters they endorse.” Some tour companies paid their local porters less than a dollar a day. They climbed in flip-flops and short-sleeved t-shirts. Although maximum weight limits restricted how much porters were allowed to carry on their backs and heads, outfitters got around regulations by redistributing the weight after the first checkpoint. Sometimes, I’d heard, porters mutinied near the top of the mountain, demanding money from the climber or threatening abandonment.
The Porters’ Assistance Project lobbied on behalf of the porters. Many Western climbers went on safaris after Kilimanjaro, and they didn’t want to carry their warm winter climbing gear to the hot, arid national parks. This organization accepted their equipment donations and then loaned it out. The project also organized classes in English, reading and writing, financial management, and health. I stopped by their office first thing in the morning. Zamo, a young man from Dar es Salaam, greeted me. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“I want to climb Kilimanjaro tomorrow,” I said. “What do I need to do?”
He looked down at my sandals, scanned up my bare shins, the Capri pants, and my short-sleeved shirt. “You want to climb Kilimanjaro tomorrow?” he asked. I nodded. “Do you have any equipment?”
“Like . . . ”
“Well, you need good boots, gloves, long pants, wool socks, a warm hat, a heavy jacket—do you have any of this?”
“I have a pair of jeans.”
“And hiking boots?”
“You do know that the mountain is on a glacier, yes?” I nodded again. “Okay, what about tennis shoes?”
“I lost my tennis shoes,” I said. “Actually they were stolen. Some teenagers in Dar es Salaam held me up and asked for money or a camera. I didn’t have anything, so they took my new cross trainers.”
Zamo swallowed. “I am so sorry for that trouble,” he said. “There are bad people in this world—even my country is no exception. I will help you. What is your shoe size?”
“A ten in women’s,” I said.
“I received a pair of running shoes from an Irish man, and I have not worn them. I will bring them in tomorrow morning. Collect them before you leave. They should fit you. Now what else?” He pointed to the back closet. “We have some supplies here—poles, wool socks, a heavy jacket, and boots for the snow. You’ll borrow them at no charge. The rest of the apparel you need to negotiate with the company.”
He wrote down the name of four outfitters for me to consult regarding routes, availability, and price. “These are all fine companies who take care of their porters. Visit them and then you make your decision. If I had to pick a favorite route, I would do the Machame. It’s the most beautiful.”
The most popular route to get up the mountain was the Marangu route, also called the Coca-Cola route. Along this route, huts provide a roof over your head and a bed to sleep in at night. The safari guide had advised me against this route. “First of all, it’s crowded,” he told me. “Although it is supposed to be the shortest route and the least strenuous, it has the lowest success rate.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“With the Marangu Route, you climb up to high peaks and sleep there. Your body doesn’t have enough time to acclimatize to the elevation. But on other routes, like the Machame, you climb to the highest peaks during the day but then you descend to set up camp in a valley. You sleep at a lower altitude, and your body adjusts gradually. So it’s more hiking, but it’s better for you.”
“Is there a big difference in price?”
“The Marangu is cheaper because you don’t need as many porters to carry tents and other camping equipment. And it usually takes less time. But to be honest, the Machame is more scenic, and it’s worth the extra bucks to have a better chance of making it to the top.”
While most of the trip up Kilimanjaro feels like hiking and requires no technical climbing experience, only fifty percent of people who set out to reach the summit succeed. Altitude sickness is the cause of most failed climbing attempts. Based on Zamo’s and the guide’s recommendations, I was interested in the Machame Route.
The first tour operator on Zamo’s list only had a Marangu expedition leaving the next morning, so I talked to the owner at the second place. “We don’t have anything scheduled for tomorrow,” he said. “But we are happy to arrange one for you.” I asked about the price. “That depends on the number of days in your trek. What route are you interested in?”
“Good choice. How many days do you want to climb?” I shrugged. “The basic package is six days and five nights, but many people want to build in an extra day to acclimatize and increase their chances of summitting.”
“Could I do the basic package and then add a day if I need to while I’m on the mountain?” I asked.
“Sure, we can do that,” he said. “See how you feel and if you need an extra day or two, it’ll be $100 every additional night. Okay?”
“Put me down for six days, five nights,” I said. Negotiations were in my favor because if they didn’t book me, they probably wouldn’t book anyone else. We agreed on $1000 with equipment included.
“Now the last thing to decide is if you want us to carry oxygen,” he said.
“That sounds like a good idea.”
“It’s an extra $200.”
“Oh. Do you think I’ll really need it?
“I can’t say. Most people get it just in case, but the cost gets divided in a group. Again, looking at you, I say you are fit, and you should be fine.”
“In the worst case scenario, do people share up top?” I asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Alright. Your guide and crew will collect you from your hotel in the morning. You will begin the climb tomorrow. Good luck!”
I went straight to an Internet café to email my family the itinerary and complete my weekly “I’m still alive” check-in. It wasn’t until I started typing the words that I became nervous. My fingers shook as I pushed the keys: “So I’m climbing Kilimanjaro tomorrow . . .”
At 8am, the hotel receptionist told me that a van was waiting outside. I met a twenty-five-year-old gentleman with dark, healthy skin and short dreadlocks. “Karibu,” he said. “That is how we say ‘welcome.’ I’m your guide, Shani.” He was a little taller than me, around six feet, attractive, with an awesome, wide, reassuring white-toothed smile. In my three months backpacking in Africa, I’d learned to trust my gut when meeting people for the first time. I immediately felt comfortable with Shani.
“How many times have you gone up the mountain?” I asked.
“Ah, this will be the first time. It will be a very good trip for both of us.” My face twisted into disbelief and shock. Before taking out my cell phone to complain to the tour company, Shani let me in on the joke. “I am only kidding. I’ve been up more than thirty times. There will be no problems.” His dreads wrapped around his face when he shook his head and laughed. “Shall we go?” I climbed into the van and met the other passengers. In addition to Shani, five men made up my crew—an assistant guide, a cook, and three porters.
“Hello, everyone, nice to meet you,” I said. “My name is Laura Lee, but a Tanzanian friend on the train nicknamed me ‘Pendo.’”
They all clapped. “Pendo is a very nice Swahili name,” said Shani. “It means ‘Love.’”
The assistant guide, Innocent, was slender and taller than Shani. “So, Pendo, we are happy to have you climbing with us,” he said. “Shani and I are very good, very laid back. We like Bob Marley. Do you like Bob Marley?”
“I love Bob Marley,” I said.
“We are what you call ‘Rastafarians,’” Innocent explained. “Anyways, we will spend some nice time together. You look very strong. You are imara cama simba, strong like a lion. You will conquer the Roof of Africa.” We pulled up to the gates of the national park and began unloading the car. Stern rangers in tan uniforms checked various permits, and the porters weighed their loads. The only thing I carried was a daypack with sunscreen, a water bottle, granola bars, tissues, a windbreaker, and my camera.
The first day was a steep hike through the “cloud forest,” a dense brush with heavy air. “Today, you can set the speed,” said Shani. “But tomorrow and the rest of the trip, with the altitude, we’ll go pole-pole, pole-pole.” Pronounced “poll-ee, poll-ee,” the saying meant “gradually, gradually,” or “slowly but surely.”
When we arrived at the first campsite, Machame Camp, the porters had only beaten us by a few minutes. “Pendo wanted to go fast,” explained Shani. “She’s an athlete, very fit.” They pitched the tents (I got the biggest one to myself), and the cook set up his gas stoves to cook my first meal on the mountain, spaghetti and meatballs. I asked Shani if he was going to join me. “If you’d like me to, I can,” he said.
“Please,” I said, dipping my garlic bread into the marinara sauce. “I wasn’t expecting such fine cuisine. I thought we’d be dining on bush meat.” He laughed. “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten?” I asked.
Shani set down his fork to think. “Probably giraffe,” he said.
“Giraffe? Wow. What’s that like?”
He thought again, mentally savoring the giraffe meat, and then picked up his fork. “Quite a bit like zebra,” he said. I nearly spit out the meatball. “You don’t think so?” he asked.
“I have no idea. I was thinking you’d say ‘chicken’ or something.”
“Oh, no, couldn’t be. It is very different.” Then he started laughing. “I see what you mean now.”
After dinner, I thanked the cook, Kennedy, for such a tasty meal. “Do you cook this well for your wife?”
“My wife? Oh no. She can never know that I cook. That would be very bad for me.” In most Tanzanian villages, the traditional gender roles are still intact. I assured him the secret was safe with me. “I am Chagga. Do you know the Chagga?” asked Kennedy. I only knew they were a big ethnic group of Tanzania and lived near Kilimanjaro. “We are known for our mbege,” he said. “That’s our beer, made from bananas and finger millet. Anyone who knows the Chagga knows our mbege. I think after you finish on the mountain, we can have you taste a little.”
“I hope that we can celebrate a successful summit with mbege,” I said.
“You will do it,” he said. “I know you will do it.” The day had felt like a brisk hike, starting at around 5,000 feet from Machame Gate and ascending some 4,000 feet to Machame Camp. I’d heard the best way to deal with the altitude was to keep hydrated and get plenty of sleep. With that in mind, I bid everyone goodnight, brushed my teeth, and climbed in my tent. I expected a long four days ahead of me.
The next morning, just after sunrise, a tap on my tent flap awoke me. “Good morning, Pendo,” said Samwel, one of the porters. “I have your tea here, can you open please?” Rubbing my eyes, I unzipped the door. He placed a tray with a thermos of tea and milk inside my tent. Sugar and a banana sat next to the thermos. “Your eggs will be ready in a moment.” He left the tray and returned with an omelet and toast. “When you are finished, I’ll bring you heated water to wash your hands and face.”
A short walk away was the wooden outhouse, and the chilled mountain air woke up my skin. Rays of sun closely followed the wind, and it felt like God was blowing in my face and then kissing my cheeks with warm lips. I was ready for the day and dressed in Capri pants, a short-sleeved shirt, and a heavy fleece. The second day wasn’t as steep as the first, but Shani said he was setting the pace. “Pole, pole, Pendo. Today we go pole-pole.” Our pole-pole was still faster than other heavy-breathing groups, which we passed on the way. The porters flew by all of us, carrying fifty-pound satchels on their heads. Shani taught me some Swahili slang phrases and suggested that I greet the porters as they passed.
“Mambo vipi,” I would say. What’s up, man?
When they returned the question, I threw my fist in the air. “Ful ile laana. Upsimi.” I’m awesome, or out of this world. Reactions of the porters ranged from surprised, to impressed, to confused, but always ended in laughter. Shani observed with a proud grin on his face and exchanged high-fives and handshakes with other porters. Occasionally, if I heard American accents, I would say hello. People would ask where the rest of my group was, and I said it was just me and the crew. “You’re climbing by yourself?” they would ask.
“I’m not by myself,” I said. “I’m with a crew.”
“But that’s all?”
“That’s everything,” I said. They would look concerned.
Then Shani would interrupt. “Twende, Pendo.” Let’s go.
We stopped for a lunch break of juice, an orange, and a sandwich, and we made it to Shira Hut in the late-afternoon, at an elevation of 12,300 feet. The crew had already set up camp, and the cook was preparing dinner. With the sun setting, I changed into jeans and put a heavy ski jacket over my fleece.
Kilimanjaro’s peak loomed in the distance, disappearing occasionally when clouds swallowed it. “In three days, we’ll be there,” said Shani. “Want to take a snap?” he asked, pointing to my camera. I passed it to him. “Beautiful,” he said. “Are you drinking plenty of water, Pendo?”
“I think too much,” I said. “I’m having to use the bathroom all the time.” The two suggestions for combating altitude sickness—staying hydrated and sleeping well—were interfering with each other. I was drinking so much water I couldn’t through the night.
The next morning we followed the same routine—breakfast in my sleeping bag, a face wash, a trip to the outhouse. I put on Capri pants, a short-sleeved shirt, and a fleece. Shani examined the outfit. “I think today you’ll feel the cold,” he said. “Do you have more clothes?”
“I only have two pairs of pants.”
“Okay, I’ll bring an extra pair—if you feel too cold, you tell me. But anyways, do you feel strong today?”
“I have a little headache,” I said. “But it’s not serious. I think I can take some Tylenol and once we get moving, it will be okay.”
“She’s imara cama simba,” said Innocent from behind his tent.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I think I’ll walk some with you today,” said Innocent. “We can talk about Bob Marley and Rastas.”
“That’d be nice,” I said, thinking I would have little to contribute to the conversation other than lyrics to a few of my favorite songs.
“Twende,” said Shani.
“And Pendo, do you smoke?” Innocent asked. In the context of Bob Marley and Rastas, I knew he wasn’t talking about cigarettes.
“No,” I said. “But it doesn’t bother me if others do it.”
Innocent shook my hand. “That’s good,” he said. “Now say ‘Yes Rasta!’”
“Yes Rasta,” I said. Innocent started singing. Just don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing’s gonna be alright. “You like that song?” he asked.
“I love it.”
“Good, now, you stay with Shani here, I’m going ahead. We’ve got to refill the water jugs today in the streams. We’ll talk more about the ganja later. See you at Barranco. Imara cama simba.”
“Yes, Rasta,” I said. “Shani, have you ever smoked on the mountain?” He nodded. “What about the altitude?” I asked.
“I know this mountain,” he said. “I think it helps. I’m Rastafarian. But I never do it when I’m guiding clients, though, until after the summit. Unless they ask.”
“I’ve never smoked and don’t want to try here,” I said. “But if you do it a lot, and it helps you, feel free.”
“Really?” he asked. “Then maybe later, if you want to hike around the campsite and let your body get used to the altitude, Innocent and I will go and ‘acclimatize’ ourselves.”
Around 1:30, as we were climbing up the Lava Tower, the sun went behind clouds. At nearly fifteen thousand feet, I missed it. The fierce wind spun off of the rock formations and lashed out against my bare calves and shins. “How are you wearing shorts?” said an American voice behind me.
“They’re Capris, actually,” I said, turning around and wiping my nose. The middle-aged lady was dressed appropriately in leggings and pants, a wool hat, and a jacket.
“It’s freezing today,” she said. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Atlanta,” I said.
“Really? Me too. My name’s Ann.” She told me she was climbing with a group of fifteen people from Georgia on a church mission trip and had raised several thousand dollars to support an orphanage in Arusha, a base town. “We all had to pay for ourselves to climb, but we got pledges from friends and family that if we did it, all the moneys raised would go to the orphanage.”
“Cool,” I said, trying not to look at my now-purple exposed legs and cracking skin. The wind pushed tears out of my eyes and down my face.
“Pendo, you okay?” asked Shani. I smiled. “I think now maybe you should put on my pants,” he said. He unzipped his backpack and placed his black fleece pants into my outstretched arms.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll be waiting here,” said Shani.
“I think you’ll catch up to me,” said Ann. Walking behind a rock, I put on Shani’s pants and tied the drawstrings of my hooded windbreaker tighter around my chin. We caught up to Ann and hiked with her. “So where’s your group?” she asked.
“It’s just me and the crew,” I said.
“Wow, how did that happen?” she asked.
“I’ve been backpacking in Africa for three months now. I met up with a friend who was doing Peace Corps in Lesotho, Southern Africa, and we’re aiming to get to Cairo by December.”
“That’s crazy,” she said. “And you didn’t pack any pants?”
“Right. I wasn’t prepared for this. I just showed up in Moshi Town and arranged the trek in one day. But I lucked out with an awesome crew, and they’re confident that I’m going to make it.”
“That’s something,” she said.
I looked back at Shani and gave him a nod. “You ready, Pendo? Twende.”
“See you at the campsite,” said Ann.
“Everybody wants to talk to Pendo,” said Shani. “We have the most popular climber. Now, we are going to walk down to Barranco. You see? We climb high, then we sleep low. Your body will acclimatize. How is your head?”
“I forgot about it, but I guess it’s still a dull ache,” I said.
“We’re almost there. You can have some hot cocoa or tea when we arrive, and you’ll feel better.” When he approached the camp, Samwel the porter already had the cup out.
“Pendo, you want hot cocoa tonight?” he asked. I wanted to hug him.
“Ah, Pendo, you look strong!” said Innocent. “Good job. Today, after your cocoa, I hear we are going to ‘acclimatize.’” I knew what that meant.
They waited for me to take my last sips. “Twende,” I said. We got about five hundred feet from the campsite, heading in the direction of the next day’s climb. We were crossing a small brook, when I heard someone shouting “Laura Lee! Laura Lee!”
“Did you hear that?” I asked Shani.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s the American girls. They’re over there, calling you.” He pointed back towards the campsite, and I saw two girls waving to me from a hundred feet away.
“What American girls?” I asked. “I don’t know them.”
“Yes, I think they know you,” said Innocent. “They are from your state.”
“LAURA LEE!” they shouted again.
“Are you from Valdosta?” one asked.
“What? No, I’m from Atlanta.”
“Oh, I thought you were a girl I knew from Valdosta, sorry,” she said. “Ann told us about you, and it’s not a common name, so I thought—but anyways, is it true? Are you really climbing by yourself?”
“I have a crew. This is Shani, and this is Innocent.” They waved.
“That’s so cool!” she said. “Do you want to come over to our tent later for popcorn?”
“Thanks—that sounds good,” I said. “We’re just going to acclimatize a bit, then I’ll find you later. See you!” Innocent giggled, and Shani said he’d take me to their campsite. “Twende,” I said.
We walked towards a rock overhanging. “Okay, Pendo—you go on ahead and walk,” said Shani. “We will stay here to acclimatize ourselves. Don’t go very far.” I sauntered ahead, leaving them in the cave. Every fifteen seconds, they would shout, “Pendo?” I would reply, “I’m over here.” Then after a few minutes, if I fell out of earshot, they would come running out of the cave, smoke billowing behind them, shouting, “PENDOOOO! Where are you?”
They would chase me down within seconds and scold me for walking too far away. “Now, shall we continue acclimatizing?” Innocent asked. I explored on my own, but they were never far behind.
Barranco was our third night on the mountain, around 12,800 feet, and we went to bed early. Samwel awoke me with the usual breakfast and tea. “Wear your warm clothes today,” he advised. “And your rain jacket.”
“Are sneakers still okay?” I asked. I’d climbed in tennis shoes every day so far.
“Ask Shani, but I think boots today.” I put on pants, layered my shirts with the coat on top, and laced up my boots.
“Twende, Pendo, we have a long way to go today,” said Shani. “And you need to get up the Tea Wall before it rains. Or else we won’t make it.” The “Tea Wall” was the first real obstacle. Almost a vertical rock face, the Tea Wall required rock-climbing skills. People struggled, but Shani told me not to worry. He took my daypack. I scaled up the five hundred feet and waited for Shani up top as he pointed out the best grips to another climber. Two hours after the Tea Wall, the skies opened up. Torrential downpours beat upon us and soaked our clothes. With the wind biting at our faces, it was hard to tell which raindrops were frozen. We took lunch under a tarp at Karanga Valley. The rain and clouds obscured any scenic views. Most of the other people were spending the night there, but I was doing the accelerated climb. “I don’t want you to get too comfortable,” said Shani. “If you’re ready to keep going, let’s go—otherwise, you’ll have to spend the night here. It’s your decision.”
“Twende,” I said. The Georgia group was also pushing through to the next camp but had been on the mountain for three days longer than me. They were following the Lemosho route, an eight-day trek. That afternoon Shani and I didn’t talk much along the way. We put our heads down to make sure our feet didn’t slip, and we continued pole-pole up the mountain. The wind and sleet numbed my cheeks and fingers.
When we arrived at Barafu camp, the cook called to Shani. Though they spoke in Swahili, it was clear from Shani’s reaction that the news was bad. He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Oh my God,” he said and walked to his tent.
Kennedy, the cook, brought me hot chocolate. “Pendo, change into your trainers and give me your boots,” he said. “We’re going to put newspapers in them for drying. They’re too wet and will freeze before the morning.” I bent over to untie them, but my fingers trembled, and I couldn’t grab the laces. “Let me assist you,” he said. We walked to my tent. I sat down inside with my feet sticking out the flap while he removed my heavy, waterlogged boots. “I’ll clean them, and we’ll do our best. But I don’t know if they’ll be ready for your summit.”
“Thank you,” I said. Retreating to my tent, I put on dry clothes and the windbreaker. It had stopped raining for the time being, but a wet, thick mist blanketed the air. Shani stopped by my tent to give instructions for the next twelve hours. “I received some bad news from the crew,” he said.
“What happened, Shani? Is everything okay?”
“The rain was too much today. Two porters fell off the mountain.”
“Oh, God. Are they okay?”
“No, Pendo. They fell off the mountain. Of course they died. They were probably carrying too much weight with improper attire. This is terrible, terrible.” The cold fog collected around us and began to rise, as if it carried the spirits of those conquered by the Roof of Africa.
That night we only discussed logistics for our summit day. On the Machame route, climbers hike through the night and arrive at the top around sunrise. “You’ll eat dinner now, then go directly to sleep,” he said. “We will wake you at 11:30pm. You will have a cup of tea, a little snack, and we will begin the final climb. Wear your headlamp and your warmest, driest clothes. Also bring your hiking poles. Innocent has decided not to go tomorrow because all of the equipment is too wet. The rest of the crew will stay here at Barranco until we return. So now, for tonight, please eat and rest.”
I wasn’t hungry but stomached a small helping of rice and chicken inside my tent and then zipped myself in my sleeping bag for the short night. Rubbing my feet, I tried to imagine what the mountain had in store for me. I slipped on another pair of socks and laid my head on the folded fleece. I fell asleep praying for strength and warmth. Barafu Camp was at 15,091 feet. Uhuru Peak, the summit, was just shy of twenty thousand.
Four hours later, Samwel was tapping on my tent. “Pendo, it is 11:30. I have your chai here.” I turned on my flashlight, then sat up to unzip the tent. He dropped the tray inside and told me to prepare myself for the climb.
“Do you know where my boots are?” I asked.
“Shani is meeting with the others to see what they can do. We tried to dry your boots, but they were too wet. You can’t wear them. Your feet will freeze. And your gloves, too, are frozen. Your start will be delayed.”
Kennedy came to my tent minutes later. “Pendo,” he said, “There was not enough time to dry your boots. I think you will have to wear mine.”
“Your boots?” The cook was over six and a half feet tall. His feet looked like skis, even in proportion to his body. “But, how will they fit? Can I not wear my trainers?”
“No, no, the snow will go through the trainers, and your feet will get wet again. Add a pair of socks, maybe two or three. Pendo, we have no other shoes. I only have these because I didn’t wear them yesterday.” I put on two more pairs of socks and stomped out of my tent. My feet were barely recognizable in the men’s size thirteen black leather lace-up combat boots.
On my way back from the outhouse, I passed Shani. “Pendo, are you ready?” he asked.
“I guess,” I said.
“Innocent has given you his gloves because yours are still too wet. Twende?”
I grabbed my little backpack with my camera, water bottle, and cell phone. Adjusting my headlamp, I followed Shani. “We are getting a late start, so we may have to go a little faster to reach Uhuru before sunrise.” Uhuru meant “Independence” or “Freedom.” We trudged behind other climbers on the narrow path. When the trail opened up, we passed people in front of us. “Pole-pole, Pendo. Pole-pole.”
“Laura Lee!” I heard. “Is that you?”
“Oh, hey, Michelle,” I said. “How are you?” It was the group from Georgia. They were wearing dirty socks on their hands with Ziplock plastic bags duct taped over them.
“It’s a rough morning,” she said. “A lot of us are really sick and tired. Our equipment is soaked. How do you have gloves? Did you bring an extra pair?”
“Innocent gave me his,” I said. “And I’m wearing the cook’s boots, which are about four sizes too big. I keep tripping.”
Shani interrupted us. “I’m sorry, Pendo, we got to keep going.”
Michelle waved. “I don’t know if we’re all gonna make it,” she said.
“Same here,” I said. “Good luck. Keep going.” Every forty minutes, I would insist on taking a break to catch my breath. I stepped to the side of the path and put my head on my hiking poles. “Give me thirty seconds,” I would tell Shani. The next thing I’d remember was Shani shouting at me, pushing me forward, nearly knocking me over. “Stop it,” I said. “Why are you doing that?”
“You’ve been asleep for twelve minutes. You’re going to get too cold. It’s dangerous. Come on Laura. We’re almost there.” I knew he was serious because he called me “Laura.”
“Don’t tell me we’re almost there when we’re not even one-quarter of the way,” I said. “Tell me the truth. You know I’m an athlete. It’ll help me.”
“Fine, Pendo, but let’s keep moving pole-pole.” I was mad at him. I was mad at how hard it was for me. I had to think about every step. If my jacket weren’t zipped so tight, I worried my heart would pop out and bounce down the snowy cliff. Being short with Shani was a distraction that I welcomed.
When we passed other groups, everyone whispered encouraging remarks. “Keep going.”
I kept my head down, trying not to blind other climbers with my headlamp. Total darkness embraced us. I focused on the circle of light from my headlamp on the path in front of me. For five hours, we climbed. Shani allowed me three breaks—on each, I placed my forehead on my fists on top of the poles, and I fell asleep. Then I yelled at him when he accused me of such. “I was only resting,” I lied.
Just before 6:00 am, Shani announced, “Okay, Pendo—really, this time—we’re very close. We’re approaching Gilman’s Peak. We’re going to make it before sunrise.” Gilman’s Peak was about 1,000 feet below Uhuru and was the first part of the summit. I took my last steps up the steep path and tripped on the last one. I rejoiced being on flat ground temporarily. Climbers around me were falling down as soon as they reached Gilman’s Peak. Guides administered oxygen to those gasping for air.
“Do you think they’ll share if I need it?” I asked.
“Don’t worry Pendo, you’ll be okay,” Shani said. “We’ll watch the sunrise here and then continue to the summit. How do you feel?”
“I don’t feel strong,” I said. “But I think I’ll make it.” The looming sun started to push the darkness from the sky. We were in those weird, fuzzy, grey pre-sunrise minutes. I turned off my headlamp. The snow got a little whiter, and things came in focus. What I thought was snow in front of me actually were clouds—hundreds and thousands of clouds. I was on top of them. Then I saw the first peak of the sun. The sky split in half—the lower part turned a deep red while the above changed to a grey-blue. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” I told Shani.
“It’s good we got here in time,” he said. “I wanted you to see this.”
I watched the sun as if it were the best show I’d ever seen and almost burst into applause when it finally left the clouds behind and took its place in the sky.
Shani snapped some pictures of me. “Ready to continue, Pendo? Twende.”
In all of my years of soccer, volleyball, basketball, and cross-country, I had never been this winded. I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes, but I didn’t really notice because breathing required such concentration.
“Pole-pole,” said Shani. “You’re going to make it. Almost there.”
“What did I tell you about that?” I asked.
“Okay, sorry, in an hour, we’ll be at Uhuru,” he said. “Pole-pole.”
In an hour, we joined about fifty other climbers on top of Uhuru Peak, the summit. Shani took my commemorative picture by the wooden summit sign—“Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak Tanzania; 5985M [19,343 feet]; Africa’s highest point; World’s highest free-standing mountain; One of world’s largest volcanoes”—then we asked someone else to take a picture of us together. The views and the triumph distracted me from my exhaustion and altitude sickness for the twenty minutes we spent on the roof of Africa.
“Do you think my cell phone will work?” I asked Shani.
“Why don’t you try?” I clumsily removed it from the Ziplock bag and mashed the numbers until finally they matched what I was trying to call. I folded my hat and hood away from my right ear and listened. It rang once, twice, then I heard my Dad’s voice. “Hello? Hello?”
“Dad,” I said, choking. “It’s me. Guess where I am!”
He paused. “Well, you’re in Africa,” he said. It was after midnight for him, and Dad never functioned well on less than eight hours of sleep.
“Very good Dad, but where, in Africa?”
“Let’s see—last time we heard from you, it was Tanzania—oh, you’re on Kilimanjaro.”
“Yes! I made it to the summit. I did it.”
“That’s great, honey. Do you want to talk to your mom?”
“I’m already on the line,” said Mom. “I just had the feeling this was going to be you. Congratulations, sweetie. What an accomplishment.”
“Thank you, Mom! It’s so awesome up here, I wish you could see it.”
“I know, I can almost feel your high. Do you have enough oxygen?”
Uh-oh. “Everything’s fine, Mom. I’m with a great guide. I gotta go though. Love you tons. Talk to you when I’m off the mountain.”
“We need to begin our descent,” Shani told me. “Take your last pictures, and let’s start going down.”
We started walking back towards Gilman’s Peak when I recognized the big group approaching.
“Hey y’all! Congratulations! You made it,” I said.
They looked like the mountain had run them over. “I can’t stop throwing up,” said Michelle with a yellow face. “But every one of us is here. I think we’re going to do it.”
“You are,” I assured them. “Uhuru is steps away.”
“We gotta keep moving,” they said. “We’ll swap stories back at camp.” I got about ten steps away before I realized the severity of my headache. Had it been this bad the entire time? Or did the contents of my skull suddenly expand to three times its previous size? Each step, each breath, each blink felt like my brain was going to pound its way through any open cavity—my eyes, ears, or nose. My vision blurred. My feet were watermelons. I hadn’t had one sip of water on the ascent, but I thought I’d throw up if I tried to drink any now. I lost my footing on the loose gravel and couldn’t expend the energy to stop myself from falling. I tumbled gently and curled into fetal position, which, after a brief slide, stopped the descent. Instead of getting up, I just closed my eyes and put my head on the ground. I was comfortable, and the pounding stopped for a second.
“Pendo,” said Shani. “Get up, Pendo. We have to get off the mountain. You’ll feel better down below.”
“I’m just resting,” I said.
“You’re not resting,” he said. “You fell down. We have to get back to camp.”
“I didn’t fall down. I just needed to take a break,” I lied.
“Pendo, please—let’s go,” he said. This scenario repeated itself every thirty minutes. Shani would eventually capitulate and allow me five or ten minutes on the ground. Being dragged out of sleep was agonizing. Again, I took my pain out on Shani. “Look,” he said, pointing in the distance, “We can see our camp from here. We only have to cross that valley.”
“Good,” I replied, crossing my arms and pouting. “I can take a longer break then.” I put my head back down.
Sighing, Shani took out his phone and dialed a number. “Hi, Innocent—yeah, Pendo made it. But now we’re having problems. I can’t get her off the mountain.” Shani hung up. “Innocent is coming.”
I opened my eyes every couple minutes to see if Innocent was nearby. He thought I was imara cama simba. I wasn’t going to let him see me in this state. When I saw his lanky frame and his confident swagger approaching, I leapt to my feet, brushed myself off, and slid into his arms. “There she is,” said Innocent. “You conquered the Roof of Africa. Imara cama simba.” Shani bit his lower lip in frustration. “Let’s go back to camp so you can rest,” said Innocent. I walked ahead, and Shani likely gave Innocent the full report about my poor behavior and childish antics.
Walking into camp, my crew cheered for me. The cook had prepared tea and hot cocoa, and I ate some soup and crackers. “Now you will rest for a couple hours,” said Shani. “Then we’ll begin the descent.” I took some Tylenol, and my eyes closed en route to the pillow. Dozing off, I heard the voice of an Argentinean man I’d met the day before. He’d just arrived at the camp and was going to summit that night. “I’m sorry, but Pendo is resting right now,” said Shani. “She’s not accepting visitors.” I slept for three hours before packing up my bags and heading down the mountain, in my own tennis shoes—or, at least the ones I was borrowing from Zamo. And my headache went away.
Shani and I made up over a snack and then continued our descent on the mountain. “I’m so sorry for your bad experience in Dar es Salaam, when those boys stole your trainers,” said Shani. “I wish that you didn’t have any problems in Tanzania like that.”
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “Bad people are all over. I wish it never happened, but you all are more than making up for them.”
“We have a problem here in Africa,” said Shani. “And that is we have a lot of time. I think, in America, you are very busy. Everyone is very busy. And when you’re busy, you don’t have time to feel. But here in Africa, all people aren’t busy, and they have too much time to think and feel what they don’t have. So people steal.”
“I think it’s like that everywhere,” I said. “But at least I didn’t get hurt. And look, Zamo and Kennedy both gave me their shoes.”
“I just want to make sure you have the most positive impression of our people here. So, please, if there’s anything we can do, we will always help you.” We spent the last night on the mountain at Mweka Camp, around 10,000 feet. We could’ve descended the whole mountain in one day, but my knees ached from walking downhill, and my body begged for a rest. The crew had a small celebration for me and our successful climb. We danced and clapped. In gratitude, I distributed small tips to everyone. Guidebooks suggested gratuity to equal ten percent of the trip’s cost. “Remember you promised that you would taste mgege,” said Kennedy. “I think tomorrow, we will stop by a Chagga village where a Mama prepares the nicest brew.”
“I would like that very much,” I said. “And I’m treating.” This statement elicited another round of applause. We all retreated to our tents in high spirits.
The next morning we walked down the remaining four thousand feet to Mweka Gate [at 6,000 feet]. “Pendo, you can set the pace again today,” said Shani. We walked at a good clip, but my knees were sore. I received my certificate for making it to the summit, and I signed-out on the mountain’s register that I’d made it back. I got the chills thinking about the names of the two porters who had fallen off the mountain. They would never sign out.
The van was waiting in the parking lot of Mweka Gate, and the crew told the driver we were going to a nearby Chagga village for celebratory drinks. On Kilimanjaro, I’d become used to being one of many wazungu [white people], but, in this village, I reclaimed my celebrity white person status. I accompanied Kennedy to get our beer. The Mama served the mbege from a vat that ran from the floor up to my waist, and she poured it into a one-gallon plastic tub.
“I hope that’s not just for me,” I said.
They laughed. “No, Pendo, we share.” Before the Mama passed the tub to me, she took a hearty sip herself. One of the perks of serving beer, I thought. “She does that to show you that it’s okay to drink—she tastes it herself to prove it,” said the cook. “It’s a nice tradition.”
I rifled through my bag looking for shillings, but the cook told me we would pay at the end. “How much is it, anyways?” I asked. It came to less than two dollars. “Well drink up!” I said. “That’s a good deal.”
We found the rest of the crew sitting in a circle on plastic chairs and tree stumps. Shani saved me a seat next to him.
“Please, Pendo, take the first sip,” he said. “Then pass it around.”
I brought the heavy tub to my lips as delicately as I could. The mixture sloshed towards my face, and I opened my mouth a little wider. After coating my upper lip and the tip of my nose, the thick drink finally made it to the back of my throat. I had been intrigued by the idea of banana beer and was hoping for a banana smoothie-type beverage with a kick of Malibu Rum. Oh no, no, no. It was like a spoiled apple cider with extra handfuls of yeast (or sorghum, I suppose) thrown in. Gagging, I set the tub in my lap until Shani took it from me. Everyone was waiting for my reaction.
“Mmmm, that’s something!” I said. The frothy fermentation still hugged my lip and dripped from my nose. I couldn’t bear the thought of licking it, so I wiped my face with the back of my hand.
“That’s mbege!” said the three Chagga crew members. We passed the tub around the circle, and by the time it got back to me, it was more than halfway gone. And it was already well in my bloodstream. It may have tasted disgusting, but it earned points for efficiency. The next several sips were not as painful as the first.
“Shall we order another?” said the cook.
I didn’t want to offend anyone, but I couldn’t take any more. “Or they have regular bottled beer—do you prefer that?”
“I think so, if that’s okay—I just don’t know if my stomach is used to this,” I said.
“Good,” said the cook. “I think we all prefer the bottled beer.”
“What?” I said. “I thought this was your culture!”
“Yes, but the bottled beer has a better taste,” he said. “Mbege is very cheap, but, if you’re drinking the bottles, then we’ll accompany you.”
“Perfect,” I said. “Whatever you want. I’m treating—let’s get another round.”
Shani told me to order a bottle of Kilimanjaro, one of the national beer brands. “You’ve conquered it, so now you can drink it,” he said.
The waitress asked me if I wanted it cold or warm. “Cold please,” I said. Without refrigeration, many Africans preferred their beer at room temperature. “When it gets too cold, you can’t taste it,” said the driver.
We sat and drank together for a couple hours, then we stumbled to the van and drove back into Moshi Town. They dropped me off at my hotel, the Leopard. Shani and Innocent made plans to pick me up around 8pm that night, so we could all get dinner and drinks at their friend’s restaurant. After a shower and a change of clothes, I felt and looked like a new person. Shani complimented me on my new, clean outfit. “But we still know you are imara cama simba,” said Innocent. I smiled. “Just say, ‘Yes Rasta.’”
So I did.
Laura Lee P. Huttenbach graduated from the University of Virginia and has written the life story of “The General,” a Kenyan Independence leader whom she met while backpacking in Africa. The manuscript is under review.