Facing the wall (and abject fear) on Kilimanjaro

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Read Arnie's first dispatch from Kilimanjaro, "Go tell it on the mountain."

In Kilimanjaro’s moorland, altitude and perpetual mist nurture a forest of the groundsels dendrosenecio kilimanjari, found only on the mountain’s slopes.
In Kilimanjaro’s moorland, altitude and perpetual mist nurture a forest of the groundsels dendrosenecio kilimanjari, found only on the mountain’s slopes.

The second, third and fourth days of our Kilimanjaro climb were an avid hiker's dream come true. One moves steadily upward through dramatically different scenery, beginning with a monkey-inhabited rainforest, into what our guide called the "heather" zone -- enough altitude for beautiful views, with clouds below and above, and varied plant life (including wild gladiolas). The flora you see as you cross the misty "moor" are otherworldly -- giant lobelia and groundsels, and day-glo, globular purple thistles.

And the whole time, Kilimanjaro keeps getting closer. Interestingly, the further you are from it, the more intimidating it seems. In fact, on the third day, we met an Australian woman weeping by the side of the trail, her guides trying to console her. Still four days away from the peak, she hadn't actually hit the mountain's slope, but looking at its profile, she decided she couldn't do it and wanted to turn back. (Her guides were ultimately successful in persuading her to go on.)

We crossed the Shira plain, the collapsed remnant of an ancient extinct volcano that preceded Kibo, the (dormant) volcanic mountain most people picture in their minds when they hear "Kilimanjaro."

Dash, Arnie and Emma pause en route across the Shira Plain, thought to be the enormous caldera of a volcano that collapsed two million years ago.
Dash, Arnie and Emma pause en route across the Shira Plain, thought to be the enormous caldera of a volcano that collapsed two million years ago.

The hikes were made all the more pleasant by our guides' habit of wanting to be the last ones out of camp, which meant that until multiple routes merged on day four, we almost never saw anyone else on the trail, but we'd still reach the next camp with plenty of daylight.

But two worries lurked in my mind as we moved forward. The first was that as we climbed, my kids might get altitude sickness (altitude generally doesn't affect me much, and I was the only one of the three of us taking Diamox, a pill which helps one acclimatize). On day four, we had lunch at 14,000 feet, and my son Dash, who had been steadily losing his appetite as we got higher -- not an uncommon reaction to altitude -- felt nauseous and headachy.

Mexican food to the rescue! After Dash began to lose his appetite – a common reaction to altitude – a lunch of fajitas at 14,000 feet brought it back.
Mexican food to the rescue! After Dash began to lose his appetite – a common reaction to altitude – a lunch of fajitas at 14,000 feet brought it back. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

It may have been the Tylenol the guide recommended as soon as we stopped, but I don't discount the possibility it was the cook, Gaston Kessy, who restored his appetite and good humor by presenting us with a high-altitude lunch of fajitas and guacamole, as good as any I'd eaten when I lived in Austin. By meal's end, Dash was his old self again.

My other worry was Barranco Wall. This is an 800-foot cliff that must be scaled on day 5 if you want to get to the summit. (There is one route that goes around it, but it has even more challenges). My reflexes -- the type that help you regain balance quickly after shifting your weight -- were compromised by an illness about 20 years ago, so instead of making these adjustments automatically, I have to make a lot of subtle shifts in balance "manually" -- and quickly -- when I'm on precarious footing.

And my footing on steep or uneven grades is further challenged by my two big feet. When you think about it, who has perfect-sized feet for climbing mountains? Mountain goats. Animals whose entire foot is about the size of an infant's heel.

My shoe size is 15 -- same as Lebron, two sizes larger than Steph -- but I'm without their height, grace or talent. 

The escarpment known as Barranco Wall, beginning at the edge of this campsite, must be scaled to get to the peak of Kilimanjaro behind it.
The escarpment known as Barranco Wall, beginning at the edge of this campsite, must be scaled to get to the peak of Kilimanjaro behind it. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

So, the thought of a long scramble up a rock face made me very nervous. I awoke on the fifth day and looked out at a foggy landscape. Probably for the best that I wouldn't be able to see what's below as I climbed, I thought.

An optical illusion that was alternately encouraging and discouraging as I climbed the wall was that I kept thinking I could see the top -- the end -- relatively near. But in reality, the cliff inclined away from my field of vision and frequently gave me false hope. Eventually, I accepted that I couldn't see my goal, nor could I see through the fog to the ground below; I felt particularly untethered, which had the effect of keeping me very much in the moment.

In the end, scaling Barranco was like being on a rock-climbing wall, with switchbacks, for 90 minutes; no belay ropes, but the rocky face offered an ample number of handholds and -- though they were sometimes narrower than my boots -- footholds. There were three points at which I needed to stretch and shift weight around either gaps in the trail or rocks that jutted out from the cliff, but the guides seemed to know exactly where I would feel most insecure -- and they were always there with an arm extended.

Atop the wall – and glad to have it behind me. Encouragement and helping hands from lead guide Eliakim Mshanga (left), porter Joseph Lymb (to the right of Emma) and assistant guide Pastori Minja (right) came at just the right times during the climb.
Atop the wall – and glad to have it behind me. Encouragement and helping hands from lead guide Eliakim Mshanga (left), porter Joseph Lymb (to the right of Emma) and assistant guide Pastori Minja (right) came at just the right times during the climb.

The wall behind us, we entered the near-moonscape of alpine desert. Our next big challenge -- the summit itself -- was still two days away.

The Weissmanns are back from their climb, but the pledge drive that inspired their journey continues. They climbed to support the industry nonprofit Tourism Cares; click here to show your support with a donation. Also, check out the pledge drive Instagram feed: @Kili.Cares.

Climb sponsors/disclosures: Sponsor Tusker Trail provided a 50% discount to operate the climb; sponsor Kenya Airways provided roundtrip air from New York to Kilimanjaro International Airport; sponsor Northstar Travel Group, parent company of Travel Weekly and TravelAge West, provided email blasts and advertising space to solicit pledges.

Many thanks to the corporations and individuals who have donated to the pledge drive so far. A complete list of donors and acknowledgements to those who supported the pledge drive can be found here. Please add your name to the list by donating!

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