Before I advance too far into this story, let me make a caveat.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is kind of cushy.
Oh, certainly it's hard work -- I don't think I've ever had such an intense workout in my life. But consider:
The entire route up is a trail. The most technical part of the climb is a scramble of about 50 meters or so on the very final approach of the summit (or, rather, the lip of the crater -- the distinction will be elucidated later, when it actually matters). You can make the whole trip with nothing more than a good solid pair of hiking boots, which I did. No crampons, no ropes, no belaying, none of that. Just warm clothes and boots.
More importantly, you get porters. You do not, in fact, have to carry your equipment yourself. Or your clothing. Or much of anything at all, in fact, other than water for the day. For the five people in our party, we had no less than 10 porters and 3 guides. Yes, that's two porters per person. Witness our support crew:
What do porters mean on a trip like this? Well, for starters, they mean that all your gear -- your sleeping bag, your clothes, your Thermarest, your iPod -- goes up on someone else's back. They mean that you have a tent set up when you're done with your long, arduous hike.
They mean that you get a piping hot cup of tea, along with popcorn and biscuits, waiting for you at the end of every day.
So there's that. I admit to being a little more pampered on this trip than expected.
The camp entrance to Kilimanjaro is already at about a mile of altitude and after that it's all uphill. Every day adds another kilometer or so to that number. Sure, it's a kilometer of gradual ascent, but it's there. The altitude and lack of acclimatization are killers. The entire climb up is taken at a pace I would describe as a "sullen mope". One foot ever-so-slowly in front of the other.
Altitude sickness is a very real worry. If you take it too fast or don't drink enough water, you risk experiencing what is colorfully described as "the worst hangover of your life." Some non-trivial percentage of people experience symptoms of altitude sickness on the climb. Every year a couple people die. On our very last day, we saw a woman -- a woman we'd been happily chatting with as we passed each other -- carried down the mountain on a stretcher. (Don't worry: it looked like she was going to be fine).
So, then: slowly up the mountain. Or, as our guides helpfully told us every hour or so in Swahili: "Pole pole".
Prepared, bussed out to the base of the mountain, we suited up and set out on the first day of climbing.
Oh, yeah. It rained the entire first day.
Next post: climbing!