My tent flaps ferociously in a fierce 40-mile-per-hour wind. It is painfully cold. Frost gleams white on the inside of my thin canvas walls. I am at 15,900 feet. It is midnight and in just a few short hours I will attempt the 19,341-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Before I drift off into an uneasy sleep, I soothe myself with the hopeful thought that maybe the severe, inclement weather will cause the final leg of this grueling ascent to be called off. What a perfect excuse that would be for my failure to make it to the top—after all, weather is an act of God, right?
Eleven months earlier I awoke one morning in the comfort of my king-size bed and realized I would soon be reaching a landmark birthday. I surprised myself with feelings of defiance. I thrusted my middle finger into the air. To hell with this, I said. I will not allow a number to define me. I decided, in that moment, I needed a challenge.
I had run and successfully completed nine marathons over three decades. I knew the focus, discipline, mental and physical stamina required for such attempts. Did I still have the puissant will to overcome such great physical and mental challenges? And if I did, what would that look like? Could I combine a self-imposed challenge with an adventure beyond anything I had previously experienced? As I considered these thoughts, I was reminded of a childhood game inspired by my favorite Doctor Doolittle books. The game was called Blind Travel. It is a simple game to execute. With your eyes shut, you open a world atlas and you stick your finger on whatever page has fallen open. Then, within that location, you must imagine, and then execute, a great adventure.
Inspired, I jumped out of bed. The globe sitting in my office would do just fine. I closed my eyes spun the globe and jabbed it with my finger. I opened my eyes and saw I would be going to Africa. But once in Africa what would be my adventure? The rule of Blind Travel is that you cannot go anywhere you have already been. I visited Nigeria many years ago on business, and I had also travelled to the South African game parks for fun. So, East Africa, maybe? Tanzania? Kilimanjaro—Africa’s highest point and the world’s highest freestanding mountain—is in Tanzania. The idea had been planted, and I surprised myself by how quickly it took root.
Within a week my planning had begun. I would climb this behemoth. There are a number of options offered for getting up this mountain, which has four distinct ecological zones: rain forest (2,500–9,200 feet), heath and moorland (9,200–13,200 feet), alpine desert (9,200–16,500 feet), and ice cap (16,500–19,341 feet). I had my work cut out for me. I would have to find the right tour company, research and buy the necessary equipment, organize the travel and read books about climbing the mountain. Of equal importance, I would have to start my training—and that could not just be walking the dog on the beach or using the gym’s jogging machine. At least some of the training would have to be at altitude, and it had to be in the elements.
Within a few months, I found myself alone in Colorado hiking mountain trails at altitudes between 9,000 and 12,000 feet. Later in the year I would return to Colorado to climb the 14ers. There are 53 14ers in Colorado, and I would climb two of them: Greys Peak and Mount Bierstadt. But even at 14,000 feet, I was still 5,341 feet shy of what it would take to successfully summit Kilimanjaro.
Returning home from my second trip to Colorado, I had completed nearly a year of training. I was feeling confident. After all, how difficult could this be? It was mostly just a trail, albeit a trail with an 11,541 foot ascent from what would be my starting point at 7,800 feet above sea level. You need no technical equipment to climb Kilimanjaro. Of necessity are strong lungs, legs and, most important, a strong will. I could boast all three, I told myself. Little did I realize the exigent efforts that would be required of me over eight days on this unpredictable and unforgiving mountain.
I boarded my KLM flight to Kilimanjaro via Amsterdam on September 8 at 8 p.m. I arrived 17 hours later. Excited, now close to the equator, everything felt comfortably warm. My driver Eddy greeted me as I exited customs. I was on my way to Moshi, the base town for Kilimanjaro, where I would spend my first night and where the next day I was to meet my guide, Shabani, who would later prove to be a great mentor and supreme motivator.
After a good night’s sleep, I awoke the next morning to the Muezzin reciting the Adhan and summoning the faithful to prayer from the nearby mosque. Juxtaposed was the aberrant blaring of American pop music mixed with the chatter of animated trading in the local market. I was now in a very different place—just what I wanted. After a quick shower and organizing my gear, I found my way to the hotel lobby where I was to meet Shabani for the first time. He greeted me with a giant, sincere smile and a strong handshake, welcoming me to his country with great exuberance. Shabani and I became fast friends. Almost immediately I felt confident with him as my guide. He would later refer to me as father after explaining to me that he had lost his own father when he was only five. To this day we continue to correspond.
After an inspection of my climbing equipment and the signing of necessary pre-climb paperwork for the park authorities, we toured around the exotic, colorful and noisy town markets to purchase various items I still needed. We then sat down for a delicious curry lunch, eating while he briefed me on what to expect during the next eight days. The climb would be six and a half continuous days up the mountain and one and a half days down. We would trek between seven and 16 hours a day.
That evening over a dinner of spiced meats and vegetables, along with cold locally brewed beer, I met my travel companions—six very fit 40-something fraternity brothers and Georgia Tech alumni. We shared great exhilaration and much anticipation mingled with a healthy dose of apprehension for the unknown challenges that lay ahead.
The seven of us together with our three guides and eight porters—making a party of 18—piled into a bus with all of our equipment. The nearly two-hour trip on dusty dirt roads would take us through farm country where we would witness the majestic Masai carefully tending to their cattle and herds of goats. Onwards and upwards, we travelled through mountain villages where ubiquitous coffee and banana crops crowded the fields flanking our road. Higher still, we came upon new roads being built, surprisingly, under Chinese direction. At an elevation of 7,800 feet and roughly 20 miles later, we reached the Kilimanjaro park gates.
After unloading our gear, with no time to waste, we began our 35-mile journey to the summit, starting from the Lemosho Glades. Our first half-day of hiking was through rain forest, the first of the four zones. It was much steeper and tougher than I had expected, with challenging climbs over erratic and sometimes treacherous topography, which included regular clusters of narrow and unstable steps—taxing on even the fittest of knees. However, there were many pleasant distractions. The trail had a Jurassic quality. Exotic birds as well as blue and colobus monkeys filled the trees. Our keen-eyed guide Shabani managed to point out a baby colobus clutching its mother’s belly in near camouflage.
The stunning plant life included vast swathes of Impatiens, Lobelia, St. John’s Wort, African Holly with its bright vermillion clustered berries, African Rosewood and elephantine Camphor trees. Shabani pointed out the prolific Dracaena plant, known locally as Masale, explaining that the region’s Chagga tribe believes it to have mystical qualities capable of warding off evil spirits. It is also used as an offering of contrition, a proverbial olive branch, and is presented to one’s rival to settle disputes and to ask for forgiveness.
Doctor Doolittle would have thoroughly approved of this approach! Tired, after several hours of climbing, I enquired how much further we had to go. To my dismay, Shabani reported that we had another two hours. I was relieved and amused to find he had been pulling my leg, when only five minutes later we reached Mti Mkubwa camp at 9,100 feet.
The first night on the mountain, I slept badly. Despite all of my detailed planning, I had forgotten to bring what would prove to be one of the most important items—earplugs! The endless zipping and unzipping of sleeping bags, tent flaps and the toilet tent, not to mention the bodily noises of my human companions, made this inexpensive piece of equipment, quite possibly the most valuable. Fortunately, one of my jovial Georgia Tech companions kindly gave me a spare set in the morning.
The Georgia Tech guys would prove to be an inspiration in the following days. Given my advanced age on these fit 40-somethings, I would set off on my day’s climbing sometimes more than half an hour ahead of the group. At some point every day they would pass me—always an opportunity for a cheerful chat and a drink stop. I would often arrive at camp a full hour after the other members of our group. There was no braggadocio among the men. In fact, quite the opposite as each night upon my arrival at camp they would stand, applaud and cheer me in. I never tired of their heartfelt encouragement, nor did they tire of offering it.
We climbed the next day for seven hours, reaching Shira Plateau at 11,500 feet. The first hour of our journey was through the remnants of the rain forest before we broke out to walk another six hours through the moorland zone with its colossal, cascading lobelias vibrating in pink, blue and lavender hues followed by expansive heather fields that reminded me of the Scottish highlands. That night I played poker with my friends from Georgia as we admired the outstanding view of the starry night sky.
After a tough start on day four, our eight-hour hike up to the Moir camp would take us to 13,600 feet. The trail was steep and rocky and strewn with slippery boulders. We saw eland and duiker (a small antelope native to sub-Saharan Africa) and the tracks of the elusive klipspringer deer. We had to use our wet weather gear for the first time, and temperatures began to plummet as we got further away from the equatorial warmth we had enjoyed in the rain forest.
We endured our first snowstorm during our nine-hour hike to the Barranco camp where Shabani saw signs of my weakening resolve. Casually, he asked if I had ever tried mountain cocaine, which rather shocked me. Then with an impish grin he produced a pouch of white powder that he said would help me to conquer the mountain. On his instructions I held out the palm of my hand to receive and then lick up this powder—it was pure glucose! It was exactly what I needed. That evening over dinner, Shabani looked me full in the eye and said, “I do not think you are going to get to the top of this mountain.” Then, tapping his temple with his finger, he continued, ”Because you have not got it up here.” What an excellent motivator he was! How did he know exactly what to say to me? I was determined to prove him wrong. I decided there and then that I would not turn back. I was going to make it to the top.
I found myself at the base of the 843-foot Barranco Wall, a near vertical “scramble” that would take me 90 minutes to negotiate. Gripping the often-narrow lips of the rock face and steadying myself on the equally narrow ledge beneath my feet, I listened to Shabani from a small distance above as he directed me to the next handhold, allowing me to slowly inch my way up the rock face. A careless grip or misstep could result in a several hundred-foot drop onto the rocky and unforgiving surface below. Patience and focus were essential in completing this sometimes dizzying part of the climb. But once again I was rewarded with a spectacular view over the Barranco Valley. A five-hour trek to the Karanga Valley would follow.
The flora and fauna were disappearing at this altitude, but we did have white-necked ravens for company. The white-necked raven is indigenous to Southeast Africa and nests on the ledges of cliffs. They stand at nearly two feet tall with a wingspan of three to four feet and can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. They are an impressive bird. That evening we were given our usual medical checks. On the first day I was proud that my pulse had been measured at 58, blood pressure at 117 over 80 and blood oxygen level at 97. My latest readings were not so encouraging. My pulse rate had risen to 80 and my blood oxygen was now down to 90. Shabani, who later that month was booked for an Everest expedition where he would be the chief medical officer, was watching my measurements like a hawk!
Our six-hour climb ended at Kosovo Camp. We were now at 15,900 feet—this altitude was a game changer. There are three altitude regions recognized by mountaineers: high altitude (4,900–11,500 feet), very high altitude (11,500–18,000 feet) and extreme altitude (higher than 18,000 feet). At nearly 16,000 feet, I found breathing was no longer a simple, satisfying, unconscious effort. I had become aware of every shallow breath and even simple tasks such as zipping up my sleeping bag would have me huffing and puffing hoping that the next intake would fill my lungs. The next day’s climb would take us into extreme altitude.
Over dinner, we received final briefing and instructions on what to expect on our next day’s summit attempt. Then they checked our vitals. My resting pulse was now close to 100 and my blood oxygen down to 73. Quite normal, Shabani said for this altitude—but I didn’t feel normal. Last but not least, I prepared and checked the equipment I would need for the final ascent: headlamp, energy snacks, sunblock, sunglasses, water bottles, two under trousers, one waterproof trouser, warm hat, gloves, three long-sleeve tunics, a down jacket, waterproof jacket, camera, loo paper, trowel and, of course, mountain cocaine!
I had a hard time falling asleep. It had become even more unpleasantly cold and damp. The wind clocked in at over 40 miles per hour and my tent walls glowed with icy condensation. It was nearly midnight when I caught myself drifting into an uneasy sleep. I would be awoken in three hours to begin the final ascent. But before I drifted off, I comforted myself with the thought that surely the next day would be called off. How could we be expected to climb for more than nine hours up 3,000 feet over icefields in such dangerous conditions? What a perfect excuse that would be for my failure to reach the top. After all, weather is an act of God, right?
Then the hour came. At 3 a.m., my guides and I were on our way. Ahead of us we had a nine-hour climb to the summit at 19,340 feet, followed by a seven-hour descent to the Millennium Camp at 12,590 feet. It would be a 16-hour day. The wind was still blowing hard and it was pitch black, but I was prepared in my seven layers of clothing and my headlamp. I knew from my marathon days that mentally I would be more apt to cope with the daunting task ahead if I could keep my mind focused on small, incremental goals.
So, I had worked out a mathematical approach to help me do this. We had to climb roughly 3,500 feet in nine hours, over 400 feet each hour at a very hostile altitude. I could do it if we climbed 60 10-minute stretches with a two-minute breather after each one. All I had to do was count the breaks, and Shabani would be my timekeeper for each of the 10-minute stretches. Easy in theory, but in practice the oxygen deficit was definitely getting to me. Like a kid on his way to Disney, after every five minutes I found myself asking, “Have we done 10 minutes yet?”
A third of the way into the climb, the wind at last died down. It was roughly 6 a.m. We were at 17,500 feet and we took a moment to witness the breathtaking sunrise inching out of the distant horizon. There was little time to linger over such events, so we carried on toward the top. After seven and a half hours, we reached the penultimate summit of Stella Point at 18,885 feet where we stopped to take photos in front of the congratulatory sign. Soon after, we came upon the southern ice field, which is made up of five glaciers—Rebmann, Decken, The Wedge, Kerstien and Heim.
The ice field’s snowmelt water rivulets created stalagmite mounds that were nearly impossible to traverse. Our guides would have to hack through these giant inverted icicles to clear a path for us to navigate. This was the last and perhaps most challenging zone we would traverse. It would take another one and a half exhausting hours to cross.
Finally emerging from the ice field, we were greeted by a long narrow path, snaking awkwardly around the mountain’s aerie peak—our final goal. It was the best of the journey and it was the worst of the journey. I knew now that I would succeed in making it to the summit, but I was also very much aware that I had a seven-hour descent immediately following.
The journey had taken nearly every bit of mental and physical energy I had in me. But standing atop this tallest freestanding mountain in the world felt like I had just scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Buddhist prayer flags strewn on strings crisscrossed the ragged summit peak. The long green plains below contrasted sharply with the infinite blue sky. I perched on a rock in front of the sign that stood as proof we had made it to the top. The inscription read, “Congratulations you are now at UHURU peak, Tanzania 19,341feet.” After we took a few photos, I was once again on my feet as we began our seven-hour, 7,000-foot descent to the second to last campsite that would take us back to 12,590 feet. We had been working very hard at very high altitude over strenuous terrain for 16 hours straight—one hell of a day!
On the final morning at our last camp, and before starting a surprisingly tough six-hour descent down to the Mweka Gate at 5,500 feet, our eight porters and three guides gave us an amazing salute in song that acknowledged our successful climb. It was both a hail and a farewell. They were welcoming us as worthy new members of an exclusive club—knowing what an ordeal we had shared. And they were bidding us farewell from their beautiful mountain. So it was both a very happy and also quite sad song. Without instruments, they delivered it and addressed each of the seven of us with a separate verse picking out our idiosyncrasies. Mine caused a lot of mirth, but because it was delivered in Swahili I’m still not sure why! Forget the Welsh, Russian, Harlem or Mormon male voice choirs—this was the best singing I have ever heard. They delivered it with such energy, movement, rhythm and emotion, and at times humor, alternately loud and then soft, and beautifully harmonized. Such praise from such worthy men gave me an even more rewarding feeling than reaching the top of Kilimanjaro.
These men had been like Olympic athletes, each carrying no less than 50 pounds of gear right up to the last campsite. They had carried our tents, toilets, water, food and kitchen equipment with tremendous skill and humor. Then each night they had set up camp for us and prepared our meals before dismantling it all and moving on again the next day. They were exceptionally fit, strong and always cheerful. They came from many different tribes, including the Chagga and the Masai, and were a mix of Christian and Muslim. Inter-tribal and inter-religious marriage is fully accepted and their common bond is the Swahili language. They were the true heroes of this adventure.
The challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro on my milestone birthday proved so much more than accomplishing some physical task I once thought reserved for the young and fit. I made lifelong friends on that mountain and created powerful and enduring memories.
I was absentmindedly spinning my globe again last week. My finger fell on Nepal! Anyone for Everest base camp next year?
As a side note my wife, Kathleen, decided that she, too, would go on an adventure in celebration of my milestone birthday. So, over the same nine days, she and her best friend Anne, loaded up their bicycles and cycled the 444-mile Natchez Trace, a former Indian buffalo trail and trade route between Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi. We both completed our self-imposed challenges on the same day, within the same hour. But that’s another story—including fire ants and 111 degrees in the shade—for another time.