Last week, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.

I could write about how great of a cultural experience it was, how much fun I had, the beauty of the mountainside, or the joy of camaraderie between strangers that had never met before and might never meet again.  But I won’t.

I won’t, because what struck me most about my experience on Kilimanjaro was not the expected storyline of adventure, camaraderie, and scenic grandeur.  What struck me was the stoic coldness with which the mountain rose above the African plains, and how I internalized that coldness as I marched slowly towards its summit.

I’m writing about clouds and dust.

Kilimanjaro to the sky

It all began when I left my familiar soil – oaks and redwoods, Pacific skies, coffee shops and bike lanes – and I encapsulated myself in a giant metal tube with tiny windows and crying babies.  A day or two later, the tube opened up, and I was in Tanzania.

Summit SunriseAir Travel – the means of alienating an individual from the passage of land over time.  When I drive, I see the landscape shift before my eyes.  I feel the air get colder or warmer according to the whims of the weather.  The sensation of traveling from one place to another is gradual, tangible, and comprehensible.  You can talk to natives on the way, and smell the wind as you stop for gas.  When I fly, it’s as if the plane never leaves the ground, but rather a crew of architects and painters rapidly sets up a facade of another land while I sleeplessly toss about in the fuselage, and I step out into this fabricated land when their work is complete the next morning.

Flying is a conspiracy to the senses.

This Tanzania, it’s not the real Tanzania.  It’s a Tanzania built for me, built for my benefit by an army of skillful set designers.  The horizon is a painted wall, the jungle is plastic, the tribesmen are actors.  They can’t fool me – beyond the wall lies the San Francisco Bay.  When I’m done indulging my fantasy, they’ll lock me up in another giant metal tube and tear down the set, removing every scrap of Tanzania from the land before letting me step out into the San Francisco International Airport, which I never left.

the jungle of Kilimanjaro

I’ve never seen Mount Kilimanjaro.  I’ve stood atop its summit and looked down on its slopes, but I’ve never seen it from a distance.  The East African plains maintained a cloud layer at around 8,000 feet, obscuring any view of the mountain from below it and any view of the plains from above it.  I would not have been aware I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro had someone not informed me.  As I marched on, I felt the ground slope gradually upward.  I had to believe it was Kilimanjaro, because that’s what I was told by my guides, and I had no reason not to trust them.

Looking up at KiliI know what the peak looks like from its slopes, but I have yet to see the postcard picture from a distance.  Any mountaineer knows – a mountain’s scenic character shifts when you go from beneath it to upon it.  Every mountain may as well be two different mountains: the mountain from afar, and the mountain up close.  And even beyond the duality of distances, each mountain face has a unique character.  I am very familiar with what Kilimanjaro looks like up close, from the south side.  I spent a week looking at it.  But I have no idea what it looks like from afar beyond the photography of others, or from any other angle.  Most of the mountain is still a stranger to me.

How can something I climbed and conquered continue to hide its identity and keep its secrets?  How can we say we’ve known someone or been somewhere if even the objects of our triumphant conquests continue remain a mystery to us?

Again, lets return to clouds and dust.

the mountain face

For most of the journey, we hiked above the clouds.  You couldn’t see the earth below.  Earth might have not existed below.  It was as if we were atop a mountain island, suspended above a great white sea.

Had I not already known we were in Africa, would I have been able to guess?

hiking above cloudsWhen talking of places we’ve been, we debate what counts and what doesn’t.  It’s generally accepted that only being at an airport doesn’t count as being in a place.  For some, you have to at least touch the ground.  For others, you have to talk to a local, or spend the night.  But what is a place?  If you are within a place, but that place is devoid of its ethereal essence, can you say you’ve been there?  Like a resort on a Caribbean beach – an outpost of the USA on some unspecified foreign nation’s soil.  Is that really going to another country, or is it just going to an extension of the Florida Keys?

What is the essence of Tanzania?   What is the essence of Africa?  What does the African Continent mean to us?  Is it the jungle and the savannah?  Is it the combination of regional languages and cultures that create modern ethnic and national identities?  Is it the history of European imperialism over an indigenous and subjugated tribal population that carved out imaginary borders grouping together people who had no business being considered the same?  Giraffes?  Monkeys?  Zebras?  Malaria?  Marathon runners?  How can we reduce an entire continent of people into an essence that we can feel and believe?

Atop Kilimanjaro, looking down onto the African Continent, there was no jungle or savannah.  There were no zebras or giraffes.  Only clouds – clouds stretching as far as the eye could see, and beneath my feet, not the dirt of a cultured road, but rather volcanic dust, upon which stood Americans, Europeans, Asians, and of course Africans – a globalized blend of flavors that could belong anywhere.  But in what sense could I say I was in Africa if the essence of Africa was left beneath the clouds where I could not see or feel it?

Looking from the summit over clouds

The dust – volcanic dust.  Not too different from the dust covering the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest.  Looking at the volcanic alpine desert, and myself standing upon that desert, I could’ve been fooled into believing that maybe I wasn’t on Kilimanjaro after all, but Mount Rainier, or Mount Shasta.  There’s a point of elevation at which land loses its character.  It’s the point at which life becomes lifelessness.  The soil becomes dust.  Where I stood, on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, had more in common with the slopes of the Oregonian peaks than it did with the African plains resting somewhere below the clouds.

Sunset over the African plain

But alas, ascending to the final upper reaches of the crater rim, a midnight march guided by moonlight and determination revealed that the enigma of being, that alienating plague of doubt, the numbness of emotional distance, and even the dust and the clouds can be transcended by the stars of the Southern Sky reflecting off the glacial ice.  And as the sun rose from somewhere over that bubbly white sea, I began to understand that I don’t need to feel some ethereal essence; I don’t need to believe that I exist in a time or place that suits my fancy.  The Earth owes me nothing.  It does not need to dignify me with peace of mind or arrogant pride.  It only needs to remind me that it’s there, and that I am weaker and more fragile than it.  Mankind is but a temporary anomaly of existence, crawling foolishly on its skin.  My search for essence is laughably trivial, because I am a being of limited perceptive power, and infinitesimal importance.

But I should take comfort in that.  I should take comfort in knowing that there exist things in this universe far greater than myself, because if We, with our five senses and foolish whims, were the greatest beings in the universe, then how much incomprehensible awe must the Universe really contain?  Just because we can’t feel something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Let us kneel with humility and accept the limitations of our egos.

brothers hiking

About Doctor Quack

Just another bonehead with an internet connection.
This entry was posted in Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

69 Responses to Kilimanjaro

  1. awax1217 says:

    I enjoyed this post immensely. Your descriptions of the climb were superb. I liked your illusion of the plane ride as a box of metal. Great illusion. The mountain was well put. You can see where you came from so how do you know it is Africa-nice. I guess it is like outer space, where is up, and what does exit mean in space?

  2. reneayling says:

    This is a very good blog post and a great sowing of what you did, you did what many wish to do leave what makes them comfortable and do something amazing, but sadly we are chained down by our government in dept. So many will never get the chance to touch the highest peak of there mountain so to speak

  3. sonjacali says:

    “Flying is a conspiracy to the senses.” Great line and a beautiful post.

  4. “My search for essence is laughably trivial, because I am a being of limited perceptive power, and infinitesimal importance.” Nice!

    Great piece! I enjoyed reading your unique perception on things.

  5. mcwatty9 says:

    Incredible pictures.

  6. Michelle says:

    I’ve lived in Kenya and see Kilimanjaro from a distance and it was a real treat to be able to spot it because as you say frequently hidden in clouds. Your blogs gave a very different insight – thanks.

  7. segmation says:

    What a wonderful accomplishment! Love your digital photos. Thank you for sharing!

  8. The photos are amazing! What a beautiful world we live in! Thanks for the post!

  9. poemattic says:

    I would love to be brave enough to go on such an adventure. I live vicariously with the help of courageous folks like you.

  10. henryk02 says:

    Wow You Really inspire me to try to take on a climb like that myself
    Those pictures were stunning!

  11. marissafh says:

    Beautiful photos. And I didn’t expect that there would be snow up in Kilimanjaro – maybe because it’s in Africa, and I expect to see green jungles!

  12. It’s all about being in the moment, seeing beyond, as well as seeing within, and coexisting in the now.
    Beautifully written post!

  13. valesoul says:

    Beautiful piece!

  14. Wow…one of the most powerful posts I can recall!

  15. Reblogged this on estivenmoreno and commented:
    ola qiien eres
    si estas interesado en conocerme avsisame

  16. Thanks for sharing – I’ve just recently finished reading Michael Crichton’s account of his climb of the mountain…(in his book Travels). – you might find that interesting as well.
    Thanks again!

  17. vnp1210 says:

    “How can we say we’ve known someone or been somewhere if even the objects of our triumphant conquests continue to remain a mystery to us?” I need to dwell on that for a while. Best post I’ve read in a while now, thank you.

  18. jayantadeepa says:

    How so well written. I was almost reliving your tale. Hope to make it to the mountains in Africa some day.

  19. remarkable sharing – so powerful and has potential for more…loved so many excerpts but am marking just a few
    ‘The Earth owes me nothing. It does not need to dignify me with peace of mind or arrogant pride. It only needs to remind me that it’s there, and that I am weaker and more fragile than it.’
    ‘How can something I climbed and conquered continue to hide its identity and keep its secrets? How can we say we’ve known someone or been somewhere if even the objects of our triumphant conquests continue remain a mystery to us?’
    ‘Just because we can’t feel something doesn’t mean it’s not there.’
    there are so many bits, actually the entire post has left me pondering.
    hail to you and your realisation, congratulations and thank you.

  20. The Rider says:

    Beautiful post! Thanks!

  21. Great read! I climbed Kilimanjaro a few years ago and I feel like we had differing experiences. Whereas you write about feeling disconnected with the Africa around the mountain, I felt a strong connection. I saw very few clouds on my climb and was able to see all that lay at the foot of the mountain and standing there, on the slopes, looking down at wide plains, I felt apart of something big, a part of Africa, I guess. I did not feel the isolation of clouds. Of course the experience will differ depending on the person. I have a long family history in Africa and my return to climb its highest peak was, for me, something deeper than simply climbing a mountain. I am glad you were able to go though and discover something as important as accepting “the limitations of our egos.”
    Well done!

  22. Sandy Beatty says:

    What a great post! I have led 14 trips up this mountain and directed countless others to lead their own ones too, so have a little experience of being on this mountain and living in Africa. Yours is a unique perspective on what I bet is what most people feel, but can’t quite articulate, about their whole journey to and from wherever they went. Brilliantly written!

  23. Reblogged this on sagarpatilblog and commented:

  24. Incredible pictures and great post. I climbed Kili a couple of years ago and it was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had!
    All the best for your future adventures.

  25. nikkimusingsandthoughts says:

    Reblogged this on Other thoughts and musings and commented:
    Loved this post – me and a couple of girlfriends are planning a trip next year and we are in the research stage – this has inspired me even more! – can’t wait to go!

  26. tekwanee says:

    How i envy you for doing what i only dream of..your post is both inspiring and challenging.

  27. evsetia says:

    I like photograph about mountain. And Kilimanjaro describe African as generally.

    Thank’s for share

  28. Chris says:

    What a great post . I love the story, the contrasts between clouds and dusts. You took a great angle and made the post very unique

  29. A great post about a wonderful journey. Thank you!

  30. marlajill says:

    Wow this is great! Keep writing

  31. Yatin says:

    That’s one mountain that offers diverse climatic experience with the changing altitude.
    Beautiful pictures

  32. Adkslade says:

    To most, it may not be easy to understand this essay. It is, however, the closest explanation to the mountaineer’s experience I have ever read. Ultimately, there are no answers on the mountain. No lessons to make our lives easier or to make us wiser. I go to face myself, and to forget myself. Thanks, Jeff.

  33. I absolutely love this piece of writing . To knowbh

  34. bhuwanchand says:

    Wow what an amazing experience. I must have been a mountaineer died while climbing K2 or Everest because I love to read the climbing expedition yet I have never done any of it in my life. The other emotional connection is there in the Himalayas where my ancestors lived for generations.

  35. boozilla says:

    Ah, Quack! You’re getting there…..ego really is something to transcend as you have perceived. But it doesn’t mean you are teeny in the scheme of things once that Thing gets jettisoned a bit. It means you’re closer to the center of it all and the huge dance of which we all, ants, mountains, humans, flowers, dogs..on and on, are a part. This is a wonderful post! I’m intrigued by the thought that Mt. Shasta (which I live by) could be….Mt. Kilimanjaro…which of course I ‘spoze it is. Carry on!

  36. hobo hippie says:

    Reblogged this on MUSE-AHOLIC and commented:

  37. Gina says:

    This is so beautifully written! What an experience you must have had, I almost felt like I was there myself.

  38. Pingback: Dust and Clouds: Kili | Oikos

  39. aoileann66 says:

    Your picture of the cold, bare mountain is wonderful, as is your opening paragraph

  40. felt nice reading this

  41. thirdeyemom says:

    Wonderful post! I am planning on doing this climb (have wanted to for 15 years!) and am actively researching it now and looking into companies. Sounds like a fabulous experience. Surreal. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Doctor Quack says:

      The company we used was Alpine Ascents International. They did a fantastic job; everything was well put-together, the service was impeccable, and the entire team of twelve ragtag sea-level coast people successfully made the climb.

      • thirdeyemom says:

        Cool! Thanks so much for letting me know. I will look them up. I am planning on going alone but want to join a group once there. I’m also hoping to add some philanthropic piece to it such as either fundraising or a visit to one of the NGOs I write for. What route did you do?

      • Doctor Quack says:

        We went up the Machame Route, camped the first night Machame Camp, second night in Shira Camp, third night in Barranco Camp, fourth night in Karanga Camp, fifth night in Kosovo Camp (just up from Barafu), then started up at midnight to summit at sunrise, and then went out the Mweka Route. As I understand it, chances of success are much better on the Machame Route than other routes because the route takes more time and acclimates you better to high altitudes. The trick for success is to go slowly, and every single Tanzanian porter on the mountain will tell you “Pole pole!” (“Slowly!” in Swahili).

      • thirdeyemom says:

        Thanks so much for the tips! I have been to 18,000 in Nepal yet it was over a period of time. The one thing that concerns me about Kili is it is relatively short so I’m going to go with your advice. I’m hoping for February. I just need to find the right outfitter. There are so many options and the price varies so incredibly much. This is where I need to really research. Plus I will most likely fly over myself and meet up with the team on the trip.

  42. alaalala says:

    I loved this post! I am climbing Kilimanjaro next week and being a person I still have loads of things to buy, pack and book. but thanks for restoring my faith in the adventure I am taking on! It sounds Awesome.

  43. Beautifully written, eloquent thoughts. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  44. Reblogged this on Homie Williams. and commented:
    — J.W.

  45. karishma97 says:

    beautiful photos and beautiful writing

  46. styleuni says:

    wow! some great images!

  47. paulng2013 says:

    Magnificent Mount Kilimanjaro

  48. A. Mittal says:

    “Mankind is but a temporary anomaly of existence” I must say your writing is surreal. I was completely lost in it. Great work !! And yes this Universe is far too vast from the imagination of a human mind.

  49. bethbyrnes says:

    Beautiful! And, I love ducks, like really love them too! 🙂

  50. f4ischer says:

    Hello, I am new to the blogging world. I see that you have a good audience on your blog. I am an author and I just published my autobiography. I self published so I need to market it on my own. I want to raise awareness about my book so that it can reach and impact as many people as possible. If you can put this on your blog for your readers I would greatly appreciate it. I see that you have quite the following and it would really help if I had somebody with experience to help me promote my book. Thank you!! If you can even go to my blog and ‘reblog’ my post about my book that would be awesome thank you so much!! Even if you can support me by reading my book that would be awesome!!

    • Doctor Quack says:

      Hi, Ms Fischer. Congratulations on your autobiography, and I hope you’re doing well to promote it. I’m sorry to say: In keeping in line with the rules set forth by myself about my blog, it is important to me that all of my blog content be my own work, stories, and essays. While I do hope your efforts go rewarded, I don’t think I can, while maintaining my own guidelines of content, promote your autobiography on my blog.

      I may, however, buy a copy myself and support you that way. Myself, I’m a self-publishing composer with no success, and so it’s important for me that other self-publishing creative minds find success.

  51. Pingback: Kilimanjaro | Doctor Quack | GlobeTripper®

  52. I enjoyed reading this, and your descriptions of climbing Kilimanjaro are poignant. The description of airplanes metal boxes rings true and soaring from one country to the next without talking to or seeing any of the locals in between has become the norm. There are fly-over countries and fly-over states. Inspiring– would be great to climb this one day.

  53. Really great article. Kilimanjaro – the roof of africa 🙂

  54. Adam Goebel says:

    Sounds like an amazing experience. Thank you for sharing it. It’s on my list of things to do. Some day I will make it there.

  55. thenoveilst says:

    Stunning photos and love the ending of your story, because that puts the ‘checking of our own pulse’ right into perspective. Brilliant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s