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Climbing Kilimanjaro

They don’t call it a mountaintop experience for nothing.

Eighteen months after standing at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, Dr. Craig Brookins can remember what he was thinking as he began his attempt to reach the summit of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, 19,351 feet above sea level.

Brookins, an associate professor of psychology and Africana studies, shared his experiences with a rapt audience during a Fabulous Faculty presentation at D.H. Hill Library as part of Black History Month events.

He wanted to feel a physical connection to the continent that had tugged at him since his first trip as a graduate student in 1983. “The first reason was easy,” he said. “It was Africa.”

Brookins’ climb began on July 24, 2009, following a study abroad trip with students. He found himself looking forward to a little time for reflection, some solitude.

Brookins took no special gear for the climb along the most accessible path to the summit.
Brookins took no special gear for the climb along the most accessible path to the summit.

Black People Don’t Climb Mountains, Do They?

Brookins began his quest with no specialized climbing gear other than heavy duty boots, an extra layer or two of clothing, walking sticks and a coat. With help from African colleagues, he had hired experienced local guides, one of whom held a Tanzanian record for ascending and descending Kilimanjaro in 14 hours.

Brookins’ journey was scheduled to take five days via the Marangu Route, the most accessible trail to the top, maintained by the Tanzanian park service.

Brookins hoped to get to know his guides personally, though they treated him as a client, with polite deference. Their brief conversations focused on the essentials: what lay immediately ahead and what to do at the solar-powered huts on the first night: Eat, drink (water, tea and hot cocoa) and sleep. He ended the day with a sense of loneliness and a slight headache, a normal effect of the altitude.

He talked a bit with fellow travelers, who hailed from around the world, before falling asleep. In the back of his mind a question he’d heard from others and asked himself lingered: Black people don’t climb mountains, do they? He had found few accounts of climbing Kilimanjaro written by Africans. Aside from the professional guides, he didn’t see another climber who was African or African American until the third day of the trip.

“I got the sense that for many Africans, climbing a mountain without being paid to do so is an expensive luxury and often not a life goal, but not that they are less adventurous.”

Ever Upward

As they set out the second morning, Brookins felt his thigh muscles tighten. A butterfly fluttered along the path ahead, lifting his mood.  He knew they would pass through a variety of zones—forest, moorland and alpine desert—as they climbed to Horombo Hut at 12,205 feet.

He found the adventurous notion of “conquering the mountain” absurd. “If anything, the mountain conquers you,” he said. “It forces you to adapt to it.”

A deep weariness began to settle in, and he noticed that the guides had a tendency to be overly optimistic about how long it would take to reach the next stop. “They lied again,” he thought to himself.

Still, he noticed the birds outside on the third morning and found himself humming “Freebird.” As they slogged on, he saw a plane overhead and wondered if the departing students were aboard.

The goal was to reach Kibo Hut, elevation 15,430 feet, the staging point for the final climb to Uhuru Peak. The summit held historical significance for Brookins. Julius Nyerere, the nation’s first president, had planted a flag at Uhuru, the Kiswahili word for “freedom,” after the country gained its independence in 1961.

Midnight Ascent

The trip to the top began at midnight the fourth day, by design. The guides wanted to avoid problems with altitude sickness and to give the climbers a breathtaking early morning view.

Brookins had given up on sleep the night before. As he rested, he listened to his companions toss and turn.

In the darkness, it was all he could do to put one foot ahead of the other on the trail of loose gravel, which zigzagged back and forth. The Milky Way was visible above, but he could see only a short distance ahead on the trail.

When they reached Gilman’s Point, at 18,651 feet, the wind howled around them. He remembers reaching inside his coat for the camera batteries at one point, surprised to find ice inside.

Brookins, who used ski poles during part of his descent, stopped briefly for a photo with the glacier.
Brookins, who used ski poles during part of his descent, stopped briefly for a photo with the glacier.

Not Lonely at the Top

At long last, he was there! The summit was crowded with climbers, all hugging each other and fumbling for their cameras. Brookins waited to get a photo with his guide at the Uhuru Peak sign.

Their time at the top was brief, less than a half-hour. To prevent altitude sickness and stay on track for the trip, it was time to descend.

Though going down sounded good, it was hard to check his speed and control the descent to minimize the wear and tear on his joints. “Folks move fast when they’re on the way down,” Brookins said. He paused briefly for a photo in front of a massive glacier, exhausted, admiring the spectacular view.

He continued down the mountain but finally decided to opt out of the last leg of the descent and ride down to the gate in a 4×4. Having reached the summit, he felt no guilt.

“If the ascent and descent of Kilimanjaro parallel the two halves of life, the second 50 years definitely will be as challenging as the first,” Brookins said. “My hope is that I’ll be a little more surefooted.”