t is midnight, and Kibo Hut is drenched in moonlight when our guide delivers hot tea to wake us for the final ascent of our climb. At 15,520 feet, my reflexes are sluggish and I struggle to lace the ill-fitting boots I had rented, remembering the day I agreed to attempt this 19,340-foot peak, the highest on the continent of Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.
Our travel plans for Africa had not included this quest, but after our first glimpse of the majestic, snow-capped mountain looming alone on the plains, my companion and I were hooked.
Organizing a climb at the last minute was relatively easy. We stopped at a travel agency in Arusha, where the owner assured us that even though we were unprepared, we could rent xcanything we needed from him.
Only after we had paid in full were we shown his selection of rental goods: a hopeless array of moth-eaten wool sweaters, a box of single gloves and for me, a choice of two pairs of battered boots, one size 6 and one size 10, which the outfitter claimed would "fit nicely" with extra socks.
Day one, we are introduced to our guide, Felix, who is 26 and has guided on the mountain for seven years. Four porters will carry all of the food and gear. Kilimanjaro National Park regulations state that hiring a guide is mandatory; porters are optional.
The hike today is a gentle climb through a lush rain forest on a busy trail. We meet several barefoot young girls on their way down who are carrying straw baskets on their heads. They smile and say "Jambo" (greetings in Swahili). We repeat, "Jambo."
After several hours we reach Mandara Hut, where hikers are relaxing on a large, inviting porch. We join them in what becomes my favorite ritual of the day -- afternoon tea and biscuits.
There are several small A-frames that contain bunk-bed style mattresses; we have flush toilets in a separate facility but not showers.
Dinner is served by our porters and begins with steaming hot soup, followed by generous servings of rice, pork and potatoes. The dining area is rustic, but the food and service are first-class.
Day two is made for Kodachrome and T-shirts, and we get our first view of the peak, snow-covered and sparkling against a crystal-clear blue sky. We ascend gradually above the forest zone and reach Horombo Hut in the pastel light of an equatorial sunset.
A group of German hikers has been to the summit today and is spending the night at Horombo before trekking down. There is a definite distinction between us. They look scruffy and tired, but sure of themselves, while we are tense, fidgety and full of questions.
Deaths on the mountain
Talk at dinner eventually settles on the three deaths that have occurred on the mountain in the last year. Stories vary, but, apparently, a guide died of asthma, one American collapsed after complaining of chest pains and a German climber succumbed to hypothermia several hours before reaching the summit. His body is buried on the mountain.
I have a restless night, shivering in my flimsy safari sleeping bag and worrying about whether or not I will have enough warm clothes for the final ascent.
Our third day begins at 6:30 a.m., when Felix delivers a basin of hot water for washing. Today we hike with a British couple, while our respective guides walk ahead and visit in Swahili. The sky is a steely lackluster gray that blends with the earth. The air is thin. Except for huge boulders scattered about, the terrain is barren and lifeless, and resembles the moon.
We reach Kibo Hut by mid-afternoon. It feels cold, dismal and unfriendly. The porters have arrived ahead of us and are singing tribal chants about Kilimanjaro in the cooking house. Felix brings hot soup and recommends we go to sleep early in preparation for our midnight wake-up call.
I am still awake at 10 and my heart is pounding, even as I rest on the cot. A short walk to the outhouse leaves me winded. I finally doze off for what seems like a few minutes before Felix knocks on the door at midnight to begin day four. The room we occupy sleeps 12 and is now bustling with activity. The mood is serious.
Outside the air is frigid and still. Fresh snow has fallen, and the mountain is luminous under a perfectly full moon.
We join the British couple and their guide, and begin the hike slowly to pace ourselves; climbing too quickly at this altitude is asking for trouble.
A cross at the grave
We hike in a line behind Felix, tediously zigzagging across the mountain. When we come to the wooden cross that marks the German climber's grave, no one stops or says a word; the only sound is our boots crunching on the hard-packed volcanic gravel.
The British couple's guide cheer fully announces we are almost halfway, and I feel like collapsing. I am nauseous and dizzy, and my head is throbbing. The icy wind is blowing right through me, and I have no more layers of clothing to add. I tell Felix and my partner that I cannot continue.