By Andrew McCarthy
My pack is by the door; I leave in the morning. I am standing with my fiancée, D, in the kitchen. The sight of my waiting backpack has triggered her anxiety. She’s a different person than she was just a few minutes ago. “You’re always coming and going, leaving and coming, you have no time to love me,” she blurts out. We have just returned from a long, romantic dinner, after having spent the afternoon together. And now the tears come.
Soon we are supposed to be married. But there is a lingering doubt, easy to deflect and blame on circumstances, or a partner, or on work. It is a doubt that looks for blame anywhere but where it belongs. This quiet nagging is telling me I lack the internal strength required to make this marriage work.
Perhaps it’s the failure of my first marriage that still hangs over me. Perhaps this doubt in my own strength stems from having too close a relationship with my mother when I was very young, or because I was late to enter puberty, or maybe the sensitivity I traded on as an actor in Hollywood somehow stunted me, or not knowing how to change the oil in a car engine — whatever the reason, it’s here, and it lingers, and I need to get over it.
While climbing a mountain may not solve all my issues, there is no denying that it takes a certain strength, both physical and mental, to get to the top. And I need to prove myself, I need an achievement I can point to, something that reflects my abilities and willingness to persevere. I need something I can hold on to as I move forward toward the big day. Mount Kilimanjaro, at 19,341 feet, is no Everest. But it’s still the highest mountain in Africa.
D and I go back and forth, and eventually I promise not to fall off the mountain and die. Like she always does, D responds instantly when I am able to pinpoint the fear that has been motivating her reactions, and her mood softens a bit.
“Look, luv, you shouldn’t even be going, not with your knee. You’ve been hobbling around for six months. What are you going to do if it gives out halfway up? How are you going to dance at our wedding? Because you are dancing at our wedding.”
“It’s Kilimanjaro, not K2. I’ll be fine.” But I have no idea if I’ll be fine. The thought of not making it to the top occupies a prominent place in my mind with every hobbling step I take. I tore my knee up over the winter while skiing — or rather, falling. I should have gone to an orthopedist right away, had the surgery and been done. I didn’t. Instead I went to an osteopath. He made great progress over several months but admitted finally, “There’s no doubt you tore the meniscus. It’s just a matter of how little healing can you live with.”
“And it’s very interesting,” he went on, “that you hurt your left knee as you were about to get married. Some associate the knees with ego and commitment and relationships.”
“What are you trying to say — that I don’t have the flexibility and strength for the relationship?”
“I’m just pointing out the correlation,” he said. “It’s for you to decide what it means.”
“Headaches are normal. Vomiting is common. And pulmonary edema can happen very quickly. The fluid can build up in your lungs and in 20 minutes, if you don’t descend, you could be dead.” The man telling me and four others this under an African tulip tree outside a hotel in Arusha, Tanzania, is the one responsible for getting us to the top of Kilimanjaro, and back down. His name is Zadock Mosha. He’s 33, he grew up in the shadow of the “white mountain,” and he has reached its summit 161 times. He regards us with slight contempt as he pulls out a pulse oximeter, which measures pulse and oxygen saturation levels in the blood.
“You want your blood oxygen level over 90 and your pulse below it,” Zadock tells us, and then he tosses me the small black contraption that clips onto the end of a finger. “Let’s just get a baseline on everyone.”
My blood oxygen level is 95, and my pulse is 64. I announce my numbers to Zadock with detached casualness and pass the meter to the youngest member of our group, a soft-bodied, chatty college student named Tim, who is here at the largess of a wealthy uncle. Then Roberto and Bob, a father-and-son team from Puerto Rico, each clip the pulse oximeter on for a minute. Finally, Hank, a mortgage broker and Ironman triathlete, knocks out a 99 and flips the oximeter back to our leader.
Zadock shows us our route up the mountain on a tourist map, but the red line on the paper means nothing to me. I first became aware of Kilimanjaro when I was a child. My oldest brother brought home a book from school, Hemingway’s story collection
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” On the cover was a painting of the famous, ice-capped conical mountain.
“Where’s that?” I asked my brother.
“Africa,” he told me.
“I’m going to go there,” I declared. I don’t know why I said it, and I don’t remember what my brother said in reply, but the idea stuck. Over the years, whenever I heard Kilimanjaro mentioned, I knew that one day I would go — this is a date I’ve had with myself since I was 10.
I knew I wasn’t going to have a solitary man-versus-mountain experience, but I’m in no way prepared for the scene the next day at the trailhead. Fifty porters are packing our gear and tents and scrambling to assemble our provisions, to support five hikers. We have a not insubstantial village, mobilizing toward 19,000 feet.
“We’re going poli-poli — slowly-slowly,” Zadock says. “Stay in my tracks.” We set out and Bob falls in tight behind Zadock, Tim is next, then Roberto, Hank and I bring up the rear. The pace is excruciatingly slow, a quarter my usual walking speed, and I find it impossible to find a rhythm. On the trail, porters wearing flip-flops and torn shorts, each lugging 40 pounds of gear on their backs or heads, hurry past us in our hiking boots and polypro tops, carrying only small day packs.
We’re climbing through a forest of dense and gnarled trees covered in thick strands of hanging moss. At just below 10,000 feet we crest a rise, break out of the forest and drop into one of the three calderas that comprise Kilimanjaro, entering into what is called the heather zone. Low scrub for as far as we can see. Around a bend in the trail we get our first full view of the iconic glacier-clad flat-top peak. The last century has seen 85 percent of the ice vanish; the mountain looks strangely bare.
At the campsite, they stuff us with pasta and Zadock launches into harrowing tales of people who died trying to summit. Before I climb into my tent, I try to call D but have no cell reception. That night I dream that D and I get married, to each other, but on different days in separate ceremonies in different locations. The sensation during the dream is pleasant and makes complete sense while it is happening.
A day later, around 13,000 feet, I wake up in the middle of the night — I’ve stopped breathing. A disturbance to the rhythm of oxygen and carbon dioxide entering and exiting the blood that occurs at altitude can cause breathing to temporarily cease. It’s harmless, but the first time it happens it’s an odd sensation. I lie awake, and anxious thoughts fill my oxygen-challenged brain. I wonder if my knee will hold out. I wonder if my son’s recent difficulty at school is symptomatic of a larger problem, I wonder if my father will die soon. And I wonder if I really am at peace with him, or at least as much as I can be, before he passes. After all my fear of his anger in my youth, and the resentment, and the judgment and disapproval of him in my early 20s, and the subsequent dissolution of our relationship, and then the amicable distance that now defines it, what remains — in the middle of the night in my tent on the side of Kilimanjaro — is simply a feeling of disappointment and waste.
Because of both my desire for independence and my natural tendencies toward separation, I would have benefited from the wisdom of a mentor. Because I allowed myself little access to any kind of group consciousness or shared experience, a single trusted person who had come before would have been ideal, and might have saved me a great deal of trouble along the way. My self-reliance has created a justification for a solitary way of living that is not useful in partnership. It is what D has most struggled with over the years, “I’m right here, I need you to come to me,” she’s often said. It took me a long time to even understand what she meant by that.
If I can offer mentorship to my children, so they feel its presence and avail themselves of it if they wish to, I will consider myself a success as a parent.
I unzip my tent and go out to stare up at the hulking black mass of Kilimanjaro’s peak. There is something in the challenge ahead — no matter how difficult — that is a relief in its simplicity. The night is cold. I shiver and hurry back in, but as I zipper into my sleeping bag my anxious thoughts return.
I wonder what would happen if D were unfaithful to me. I try to shake the image from my mind and pick up my book.Unimaginatively, I have brought along “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” I open to a story called “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In it, a wife is cheating on her ineffectual husband with their game hunter while on safari. When the husband discovers her infidelity, she mocks him and he withers. Then, when he does eventually step into his manhood, she panics, shooting and killing her husband, perhaps accidentally. I should have brought a different book.
The dawn is cloudless and we’re out of camp quickly. There is a feeling of gathering expectation as several of the trails up the mountain converge and the path becomes more crowded. I have strength in my legs, and my eyes keep lifting to the summit directly above us. I’m relaxed in a way I haven’t been until now. My thoughts are light, the day feels full of possibility. Roberto drops back and I slow to walk with him. His head is hanging low, his eyes on his shoes.
“You O.K., Roberto?”
“I’m tired, Andy,” he says.
“We’re almost there, just up on that ridge ahead.”
Roberto lifts his head, registers the distance to where the tents are visible, then drops his chin again.
We say very little and there is an awkwardness to our silence, yet I enjoy his company — my affection for him is an unexpected pleasure.
Then, at 15,000 feet, I develop a ferocious headache. It feels as if a metal band has been placed around my skull beneath the skin at my temples and is being ratcheted tighter and tighter. I try to breathe, slowly and deeply. I can feel my heart racing while I’m at rest. My chest is very, very tight. Panic rises. This is only 15,000 feet; the summit is at nearly 20,000. I guzzle water. The day wears on and yields to a frigid night. At 3 a.m. a light shines through my tent. “It’s time,” Zadock says. He didn’t need to wake me. I’ve been staring at my watch every 20 minutes since 12:30. I choke down a piece of stale white bread with peanut butter and put on another layer of clothing. At 4:15 we organize at the trailhead. I can see the head lamps of hikers who left before us, dotting a curving trail, like glowing gnats.
“The first hour is the most difficult,” Zadock explains. There is no sound except our breathing and boots scraping as we climb. In some places footholds have been worn into the stone. We squeeze into the face of a rock wall as we inch past a man on his way back down from his aborted attempt, doubled over and vomiting, the altitude having gotten the best of him. Suddenly, I’m nauseated myself, and panicking. I begin to count my strides. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. I keep climbing.
For another hour we advance in silence. Again I feel nausea coming on, but quickly breathe through it. Then off to our right the horizon begins to soften, first to violet, then pink, then a thin blue. The sun is up and we’re taking photos, laughing, swilling water. Zadock hands out chocolate. I eat a 3 Musketeers bar. I’m reminded of a camping trip I took with my son to the Catskills. For breakfast he ate sardines and M&M’s — he still describes it as his favorite meal.
Farther on, our long shadows spread across the rocky terrain, bathed in a golden early light. There is playfully boasting conversation, and then suddenly Roberto is struggling; his movements are heavy. He leans hard into his walking poles with each step. His son whispers encouragement, and Roberto nods.
After another hour we can feel we’re close. We reach Stella Point, on the rim of the crater, 19,000 feet above sea level. The air here is cold and hard under a cloudless sky. A natural bench is carved into the side of the rim and several porters are sitting, smoking, laughing. They make room as Roberto falls onto the bench. I lean down and grab his arm to pull him to his feet. “Push me, Andy,” he murmurs, “help me get there.” He says this with such unguarded vulnerability that tears burn into my eyes.
“We’ll make it, Roberto,” I say. “We’re there now.”
The trail sweeps around and up another 40 minutes toward the top. Ahead, a wooden sign is silhouetted against the sun — Uhuru Peak, the top of one of the world’s Seven Summits.
Since we first set out, six days ago, Bob, Roberto’s son, has been in first position behind Zadock. I slide up next to him from my usual position in the back. “Bob,” I whisper, “Why don’t you let your dad be the first to get to the top?”
Bob seems confused for an instant and then nods and calls out. “Pop,” he says, turning back toward his father. “Come on, lead us to the top.”
Roberto lifts his eyes from his shoelaces and the beginning of a smile passes over his exhausted face. He gives it all he has left and marches to the front of the group. Zadock hangs back, and Roberto strides the last 50 yards to the top; he may as well be the first man ever to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. He leans his weight against the sign welcoming us to the highest point in Africa, pumps his fist and falls into his son’s embrace.
Watching them, I miss my own father — and realize that I always have.
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” there is an epigraph that reads in part: “Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
The same lack of explanation may apply to my own journey to the top. I came to Africa to try and capture something I felt was missing. I had hoped to come down with a sense of completeness, but instead I’m left with a feeling of detachment. What was all that about? What was the point? Nothing changed. Yes, I have a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. I am glad I made it to the top — having to deal with the irrational metaphors associated with failure would have been another psychic obstacle I’m grateful I don’t need to work through. Yet I feel no great change or release, none of the feelings of manliness I previously lacked.
Upon descending, the time capsule of the last week releases me back into the world. Calls that need to be made, and e-mails sent, flood into my mind. I wonder what further wedding plans D has hatched in my absence.
Far off, across a field of long and golden grass, I see a lone Masai tribesman, tall and thin, wearing the traditional red shuka. He is erect, his stride has purpose. Suddenly I have the sensation of being out in that field, of the hard cracked earth under my feet, of the late day sun over my shoulder, of the slight breeze blowing across my arms. My walk also has purpose and my strides have rhythm and power and grace. And then I’m back in the van. I crane my head and look back until the Masai is out of sight.
Around me, the others are chatting, but their words go past me. My thoughts are now with D. I picture her face, her eyes squinting at me — suppressing a grin and shaking her head as I protest her ever-growing wedding agenda. Over the thousands of miles that separate us I feel a closeness to her, and an excitement about our future together. I realize that in this sensation, in this desire for unity, I feel like myself — and that is all I ever wanted.
On the outskirts of Arusha, I pull out my phone. It finally has service. I text D — “Off the Mtn. Remember me?”
A few minutes later, my phone pings. “Who are you, anyway?”
I’m reminded of her first e-mail to me, years ago, when she asked the same question. Now I have the answer. I text back,
“The man coming to marry you.”