Like a death march.
That's how Bryan Haack describes much of the final six hours of his ascent to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.
The Lawrence native said his recent trek to 19,340 feet was "long and hard and forever, taking 11-inch steps" that make you feel like you are "doing a million little squats."
Haack, a 1995 Lawrence High School graduate and 1999 graduate of Kansas University, said that despite the pain, the payoff of reaching the top of one of the world's highest peaks was worth it.
"I got to watch the sunrise at 19,340 (feet) over the plains of Africa incredibly beautiful, impossible to truly describe and utterly amazing," Haack said.
Haack's experience exemplifies the best and worst of mountaineering the exhilaration of reaching a summit and the dogged effort it takes to get there.
At such high altitudes, the body wages an internal war. Altitude sickness kicks in, breathing slows, lungs constrict, speech slurs. In cold climates, bare skin can freeze in seconds.
And still, avid mountain climbers go back for more.
Bowen Pope, a 22-year-old Kansas University senior and longtime employee at Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop, 802 Mass., said mountain sports generally referred to as "mountaineering" are gaining in popularity.
Whether it's spurred by the attention of high-profile ascents (and disasters) on major mountains like Everest or other factors, Pope isn't sure. But he is sure that Sunflower has seen increased customer interest in mountain-climbing gear and guides.
Sports that push the body to its limits are now in vogue.
"(Mountain climbing) is a combination of exercise and recreation that allows you to be out in nature," Pope said. "People are attracted to that."
It's a pursuit that purists describe as more than a sport and more like a passion.
The "passion" of mountaineering can take on many forms. It can be as treacherous as ice and alpine climbing (like on famed Mount Everest), as exhilarating as rappelling or as scenic as backpacking along wilderness trails.
In the book "Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills," editors Don Graydon and Kurt Hanson try to describe the allure: "Those drawn to the mountains can find them exhilarating and irresistible, as well as frustrating and sometimes even deadly."
The ultimate view
Pope suggests that mountaineering novices first read "Freedom of the Hills." The 528-page tome for beginners and experts alike covers everything from proper clothing to rescue techniques.
He also suggests taking a basic instruction class at a place like IBEX Climbing Gym in Blue Springs, Mo. That way you can figure out whether mountain climbing is for you and your body before you are stuck out on a mountain.
Like many mountain climbers, Haack traveled and climbed with a group. The benefit of group travel is that meals and lodging are usually part of the package, plus porters aid climbers during the trip.
Companies that organize and run group tours like Mountain Travel Sobek, Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School vary widely in their offerings and cost. The companies' Web sites give detailed information about upcoming trips.
Haack gained most of his training in the Boy Scouts, where he attained the rank of Eagle in 1994. As a scout, he climbed the 14,000-foot Baldy Mountain in New Mexico. He said scouting taught him "mental toughness" and basic camping skills.
But even with that training and preparation, he found Kilimanjaro to be the "most challenging climbing ever."
Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, forces climbers to hike through desertlike conditions, jungles and finally over glaciers to the summit. The climb is a constant battle against altitude sickness. Only three members of Haack's 12-member group made it to the top.
He described the experience in his journal: "(I) learned in Scouts many times that physical isn't the only issue, (you) have to be mentally prepared. ... The idea is to hike slow enough to not get out of breath. ... I drank 7 liters of water from 12,340 feet to 15,550 feet at our Kibo Hut camp ... it was like a desert ... no trees, no grass, no air."
One of his most memorable parts of the climb occurred around 15,550 feet, as he began the "assault on the summit" at midnight. Climbers have to leave at that time so that no more than an hour of sunlight warms the glacier trail, making it soft and more dangerous to traverse.
Haack said it was a "very surreal experience, walking in the pale moonlight, (on a) crystal clear evening, able to see for miles in the dead of night." He was literally above the clouds.
For all that work, though, Haack spent only 10 minutes at the summit. It was too cold and windy to soak in his accomplishment.
Haack has no immediate plans for another adventure. But a former roommate wants to climb Alaska's Mount McKinley (called Denali by natives). Another friend wants to try Kilimanjaro.
Like a mountain climber who has caught the "bug," Haack admits, "If anything presents itself to me, I am always up for the challenge."