Last week I was in Tanzania, Africa, climbing the highest mountain on the continent, Mount Kilimanjaro. I decided to do this after meeting the CEO of a private equity software company and hearing his story of doing the climb with his son. My friend John Schirrippa (who grew up in East Hampton and who I’ve known since we were in grade school) and I both turned 30 in August and determined that this trek was the ultimate way to mark the milestone.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro equates to a ridiculously long, long, long walk up a mountain. You walk until you can’t feel your legs, then you walk some more. For seven straight days. Along the way you stop and set up camp, sleep in a tent and have no access to any showers. For seven straight days. Basic hygiene becomes somewhat complicated. You “bathe” by wiping yourself down with a cloth. Then, in addition to the physical effort, there’s the psychological stress that comes from being in a Third World country while doing something that is fairly dangerous and involves many unknowns—including how your body will react to high altitudes.
It is impossible to know whether or not your body can handle the change as you trek up 19,341 feet. For some people, it means nothing. Others turn into vomiting machines. You simply don’t know until you get up there. I had a few slight headaches and my breathing was constantly heavy, but I’m happy to say that I never actually got very sick, except for a minor “losing my lunch.” That scene took place on the second day, so I’m confident it was due to seven straight hours of intense hiking in hot temperatures, not the altitude. (When you’re not dealing with heat, there’s the cold. On the second-to-last day of the climb, the summit day, the temperature drops well below freezing.)
Our group of nine people got up the mountain except for a man from Australia, who suffered extreme altitude sickness on summit day; he got down with the aid of several “porters”—locals who carry heavy equipment such as tents, sleeping bags, food and other supplies on their heads. These porters are so poor that some were hiking with shoes so old and worn that their toes were exposed. When I shared the chocolate bars I’d brought with me, they looked as if I were giving them gold.
When we got to the top, after all the short nights of cold sleep inside a dirty tent, after all of the aches and pains in muscles that have never been worked before—Well, I can’t express the total sense of accomplishment I felt. It was a mental high I won’t soon forget. It’s absolutely beautiful. The views are astounding. You look down at the clouds as if you are God. It’s easy to see the curvature of the earth, and you can see so far that it completely blows
After having reached the highest point in Africa, the hike back down was incredibly fast-paced, an extreme challenge physically but one filled with smiles and funny stories that will last a lifetime.
I will say this. When we landed in New York, I was never so happy to be back in America, where food is plentiful and water is clean and, if you need to go to the bathroom, you simply ask where the restroom is. If I’m honest, there were many times I thought I wasn’t going to make it. But that’s what a journey like this is about.
At one point, I found myself on the summit at night, giving a 10-minute speech to John about how we couldn’t stop now, despite the fact that he was suffering from dehydration and altitude sickness. It was so cold that our water had frozen in our bags, even after we’d insulated them with hand warmers. But we couldn’t stop. And we didn’t.
I grabbed a rock from the summit and plan on having it encased, so I will always have a piece of Mount Kilimanjaro with me. I will never forget the journey, but the very first thing I did when I got home was eat a Big Mac.
See video and photos of David’s journey and read more accounts of his time in Africa at Danshamptons.com.