Nothing But Sky
A father/son trek to the roof of Africa
By Ed Abell
W. H. Murry, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
My father amassed an enviable library of mountain exploration books. He was an enthusiastic student of Himalayan climbing history. Over time I’ve added contemporary volumes to the collection that now resides in an honored place on my shelves. One of them is invariably on my nightstand. Since I was a boy those books instilled a quiet passion in me that only fanned the fires of action as I approached my 50’s. Not exactly an age to begin climbing at high altitude but getting arguably close to now or never. In 2001 I climbed, non-technical, Mt. Fuji with my family. (Non-technical means no ropes or special climbing gear other than your own two feet, a walking stick and some pluck.) Fuji-san was 12,300 ft. A wonderful, dream come true experience. I had been bitten, however, by the bug and, in time, became restless for a more challenging adventure.
|The Beautiful Mt. Kilimanjaro|
Mt. Kilimanjaro is 19,340 ft. It is the highest point in Africa and the tallest mountain in the world that has the potential to be reached without technical climbing skills. It is the one mountain where I have a chance to climb to a summit where Reinhold Messner and others have been. (The only higher elevation that can be hiked to is arguably advanced base camp on the north side of Mt. Everest, 21,400 ft.)
In addition, with our two sons now in their teens, my wife and I are taking advantage of one on one opportunity. With college imminent, I felt it was the perfect time to have a shared adventure of this magnitude with my 17-year-old son Nathan.
The story begins…
Crater Camp 1:05 am; temperature is 5 degrees F. Wind 15 mph with -13-wind chill, altitude 18,370 ft. It was one of those moments to have a conversation with myself, “You’re the one who wanted to camp on top of the crater, old boy, so welcome to high altitude”.
Cocooned by our double walled tent, surrounded by sleeping bags rated to -20, it is warm and comfortable. I’ve just attempted to fall asleep again and I continue to be jolted awake with a feeling of suffocation. Panic was a choice for both my son and I. I could feel the sensation starting to germinate inside me but panic is a choice and it would not have changed our situation. An extra day of acclimatization may have helped us but not now or perhaps oxygen to sleep with but I knew there were only one bottle and one mask. Plus, we didn’t want to use it at all. Thankfully, I’d read about this altitude condition in my many mountain climbing books. I understood the issue at hand, there is not a lot you can do with 50% less oxygen in the air your breathing. You doze to the point where one breath recovers your oxygen. Deeper sleep required 2 or 3 desperate breaths which we learned very quickly to avoid. Had we been exhausted and in need of sleep, it could have been very unnerving.
We rested as best we could and waited impatiently for morning and our coveted summit. When nature called, our sleep predicaments were subjugated by the stunning beauty of the moon lit cerulean blue glaciers capped by stars so bright and close you felt like you could wipe them off your forehead. Relentless wind chill always chased us back to the tent. This wasn’t the Wisconsin winter sea level type wind chill we experience every year; with less heat producing O2 in your blood, this really got our attention. Back in our warm bags, our night was filled with many conversations including the; what are you going to eat when you get home game? Our list included; brats, pizza, turtle sundaes, hotdogs, pork tenderloin, egg foo young and what anyone from Wisconsin would miss, cheese. While awake we could breathe without issue other that what is all in a days work at 18,000+ ft. All things considered, we persevered through a shared experience together we will never forget, a situation that could have never been manufactured and bonded Nathan & I beyond the spoken word. How often do a father and son get to fight a common foe like that? A night made unavoidably surreal by our location, I don’t know how many times we said, “Can you believe were on top of Kilimanjaro?”
|Dad is the Short One|
We also knew our toughest pitch, The Western Breach, was behind us. It was a mixture of hiking and rock scrambling with four areas of exposure to “sporty” sections close to the trails edge. Nate and I called them “oh shits”.
It is because of the exposure and perceived difficulty, only 5% of the potential summiteers use the Western Breach. We didn’t find any of the scrambling overly difficult from a flatlander point of view and after all, the porters negotiated the assent carrying 35 lbs loads on their heads, but in one 15 foot section, we could have fallen/bounced to the bottom of the Breach. It was the only time I silently prayed for my son to pay attention. Now, I don’t particularly like heights but for me there is a substantial difference between standing on the edge of a drop with or without hand holds. Here, I could grab a handful of volcano and I used the porters as inspiration. My technique was to shadow my guide, Stephens’ actions in the “sportier” sections. Patient and deliberate, he would point or tap the foot and hand locations, then execute the move. I focused so hard, I didn’t look down…much. I never even considered releasing my grip to take photographs.
Nate copied me as the second guide, Yusto, stayed in his wake. As Nate put it, “ready to catch what ever fell past him”. In the end, we climbed it in just under 5 hours, which was an efficient assent time. We averaged 9.75 feet per minute, which says volumes about how altitude affects performance and the steepness of our assent. I used water and photographs as excuses to rest my legs as we gained half a mile in altitude going from 16,000 ft to 18,300 ft and spent the afternoon in absolute wonderment walking around on top of the crater with its white/blue glaciers, frozen snow fields and cinder-coned moonscape. A sight few people ever see and a just reward for a challenging and exhilarating days work.
There are six diverse routes up the mountain: Shira, Lemosho Glades (our path), Machame, Umbwe, Marangu and Rongai. Two routes down: Marangu and Mweka (our path). Four of them will deposit you at the foot of the Western Breach. You can choose to climb the Breach or carry-on around the mountain. Only the daytime Western Breach climb enables viewing of the whole crater top, exploring and camping overnight at 18,300 ft+. The other “easier” routes have you up at midnight, climbing from Barafu Camp or Kibo Huts, through the night, directly to the true summit, hopefully for sunrise.
George Mallory, “It is impossible to make any who have not experienced it realize what that thrill means. It proceeds partly from a legitimate joy and pride in life.
Our first steps onto the crater need to be lived through to be understood. Cloud had followed us up the final, ramp like, section of the Breach, but as soon as I stepped onto the top the ever-present wind produced the equatorial sun. There before me stood the famous “Snows of Kilimanjaro”, a gigantic Everest-like plumb coming off the summit ridge and the symmetry of volcanic creation. All blanketed by a cobalt blue sky only a journey to altitude can gift. I hugged my son and I burst into tears. Reaching the crater qualifies you for a bronze summit certificate if you choose not to go the extra 1,000 ft. to the highest point for gold.
We knew what we had gone through to get here; planning, preparation, and miles of work, dust, occasional doubt and the Breach itself. We didn’t feel triumphant or profound, just a tremendous sense of being alive. It was an incredible emotion. I realized why people do this, an unforgettable experience to share with my son.
We also knew the pitch the next day was a predicable one-hour climb to the true summit, Uhuru Peak and the rest of the day would be DOWN. That meant; more oxygen, sodas, the first shower in eleven days, beds with sheets, flush toilets, clean clothes, ice cream, hunger returning and well, less dust anyway.
Our reliable support crew totaled nineteen. Nine came to the crater and three went to the summit. The crew that didn’t go to the crater traversed to our final camp on the way down the mountain. These guys dutifully carried everything (35 lbs each) including; our personal gear, food, cooking stuff, tents, sleeping mats, dishes and our orange outhouse. We were the only clients I saw that had our own, just for my son and I. The views from the window of the ever-changing mountain scenery were outstanding. The “public” outhouses were, in a word, unpleasant. All we carried was water, camera and whatever clothing layers we would need that day. (15 lbs)
|Arrow Glacier and the Western Breach|
Our lungs were checked for fluid build up with a stethoscope every morning (a symptom of Pulmonary Edema). All the guides are medically trained. They carried oxygen, first aid kit, a stretcher and a Gamow bag (portable artificial pressure chamber) on the trip and had their own evacuation protocol. (If you needed the Gamow bag, you were in real serious trouble with cerebral or pulmonary edema, but it was there if necessary). Indeed, the porter with the rescue equipment (Haji) was my “wingman” throughout the climb. No doubt my angioplasty in 1999 earned Tuskers’ quiet concern but I’d passed my pre-trip medical check and never expected or had any issues. As a father and a trekker, it was calmly reassuring to have Haji, the equipment and the plan in place.
Preparing a year in advance offered other opportunities. We took considerable care in our selection of boots. We had them fitted at REI in Milwaukee. I gave myself the whole afternoon to try four different styles on their up/down bridge device so you can experience assent and descent. Time well spent when you consider how important your boots are. (They were with us as carry-ons in case our checked luggage was lost) We trudged most of the Kettle-Moraine trails in south eastern Wisconsin like; Glacier, Zillmer, New Fane and Parnell to put break-in miles on the boots and the 53 year old who needed to accelerate his activity level. I prepared my own gear list from a variety of outfitters and kept my eyes open for any sales which helped keep my wife on our side. We had an impressive pile of stuff to shoe-horn into our travel bags when to day finally came to actually pack. The last item and perhaps the most important for me was having a picture of The Western Breach on my desk top. Every day I’d see it and visualize myself climbing to the top. Hokey maybe but all I can say is, I made it.
Then, all that was necessary was to hike 50 miles traversing six eco-systems: cultivation, forest, heather, moorland, alpine desert and arctic. The trail gained three miles in altitude into very thin air and took us down the opposite side of the mountain back to an oxygen rich environment. It remains the only place in the world you can travel climatically from the Sahara to the South Pole in a handful of days.
Nathan and I learned enough Swahili to be polite, but Haji and I couldn’t speak to each other. We did, however, create a bond through facial expression and hand gesture. On the last day coming off the mountain, my knees hobbled my progress down the mix of steps and grades to the point where I was lagging behind. Haji calmly matched my pace and eagerly shared my remaining trail snacks during breaks as we descended the nature filled rain forest valley listening to cascading streams, birds and Colobus Monkeys navigating in the canopy above us. Thanks for your friendship Haji.
We had landed at Kilimanjaro International around 10:00 pm punchy to say the least. On approach, I’d mentioned to Nate we’d probably not have a jet-way to exit through. As the big KLM 767 lumbered to a stop, here come 15 guys pushing the mother of all three story metal staircases up to the plane. As we stepped out of the jet, the terminal has a gigantic Kilimanjaro International Airport sign on it. I suddenly felt a long way from home but charged with an unmistakable sense of real, honest to God, adventure. Once inside, we each had to pay $50 to enter Tanzania and most of the passengers were non-citizen. The crowd ballooned outside the single windowed office and I feared more sleep deprivation. The window slides open and the official says “please to have the US passports first.” Outstanding! I handed him two passports and a crisp Ben Franklin. Two hits with a rubber stamp and we are collecting our two huge rolling bags, heading for the door. The customs agent had no issues with us and we were the first passengers to walk through to the lobby. Twenty five tour guides are standing with signs looking for clients; right in the middle is the Tusker guy. My name is misspelled but in a flash, we are tucked into the Land Rover driving straight through the crowd, over the grass, across the sidewalk and out of the airport. Welcome to the third world. In the 40 minutes it took to travel to the hotel, I knew right where to look. I sat transfixed on the moonlit magnificence of Kilimanjaro; she was beautiful and immense beyond expectation. The dreams and a year-plus of planning funneled to a single thought,” how the hell are we going to get to the top of that?”
|Crater Top with Summit Ridge and Glacier Behind|
“We’re in Africa. ”
“What’s that ball of stuff on the ceiling?”
“Should we use it?”
“I don’t know.”
The Land Rover ride to the trailhead is called a Tanzanian Massage, three hours of dusty, rutted, rock strewn dirt roads, driven in excess of 70 kph with four inches of play in the steering wheel as we hung on for dear life. We knew enough to have bandanas to breathe through, but we were covered in a ghostly film that attacked us from every ill-fitting seam in the vehicle. Our next shower was eleven days away.
The march to our first camp meandered through Tarzan-like rain forest with just about every measured step up hill. We were finally climbing. The scenery was a fresh and beautiful world unfolding at every turn. Camp routine defined itself with intuitive simplicity; wash water, snacks, wander about meeting other trekkers, dinner with Stephen (the head guide) and we settled in for our first night in the tent. Every sound from the forest was new to us and we wondered aloud how many could eat us. We were told not to wander outside of camp at night. Copy that! At 2:00 am we were both awake because of adrenalin and jet-lag. I decided a picture was in order. I set the timer in the blackness of our abode. In the instant the flash illuminated we both roared with laughter seeing the image of the tent lighting up in the middle of the night. Everyone in camp must have heard us…tourists!
|Curly Stooge Crew Cuts|
Prior to our departure we were inoculated for Yellow Fever, Polio, Hepatitis A &B, Typhoid and Meningitis by the Travel Nurse in our area. We felt fairly indestructible. The oral Lariam program we ingested for Malaria prevention, however, gave us nightmares, occasional anxiety attacks and paranoia. Even with knowledge of these side effects, we both had moments of uneasiness during our outbound journey. We endured some very spooky stuff. My hands started shaking uncontrollably as I repacked my carry-on when we exited airport security in Milwaukee. Nathan fought panic as we prepared to board the plane to Amsterdam in Detroit. The panic would come and go like someone was flicking a switch. On our third day I almost talked myself into walking off the mountain (way out of character for me). We patiently helped each other through it. The irony is it was the dry-season in Tanzania. We never saw any mosquitoes.
Byron, “This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold converse with nature’s charms, and see her stores unrolled.”
Our English speaking guides, Stephen and Yusto became very good friends. I’d never had a “guide” before but I understood the absolute necessity of having people we could trust, rely on to keep us safe and successful. We were not disappointed. Each evening we were told what to wear for the next day and what we were going to do. As simple as this may sound, it was exceedingly helpful. We didn’t have to guess which layers to wear nor did we over pack. They tested us on some scarier pitches (scarier for the flatlander), and there were a few, so they could measure us, make comments and prepare us for things to come. Every day Stephen would say, “If you go slowly (pole’-pole’ in Swahili) and drink lots of water (maji) the mountain is easy.” As I stood poised at the foot of the Western Breach the night before our climb, I believed him. Not that it would be easy, but because of our preparation, I felt confident and ready to handle the challenge. I gazed up at the ridge softly illuminated to a sanguine orange by the dwindling sunset and smiled with the confident joy of knowing I was in the correct place at the correct time to succeed.
I liked and trusted Stephen the moment I met him. By design, our first day in Africa was for rest and recovery from the flight. We met Stephen and Yusto in the afternoon to go over the route, understand the safety equipment and check our gear. All the stuff we had was from the equipment lists but we left a good third of it behind. Nathan and I had our gear laid out on our beds. Stephen made his own pile from my things to pack in the special duffle. What was left on the bed were; foot powder, bug repellent, pee bottle and a bunch of clothes he said I wouldn’t need. The cheese heads never considered questioning his wisdom and our experience proved him correct. It was exactly the critical first impression I was looking for…he was going to get us to the top. Businesslike and in control, he could read people (me) instantly and had a unique, shy laugh to compliment his dry sense of humor. We’d read about the glaciers receding on Kilimanjaro that “experts” think will be gone by 2015. I asked Stephen his opinion on the subject and he quips back, “The experts guessed from Ohio”. I walked past him at the trailhead excited to finally be climbing and he says, “I go first” with a matter of fact-ness that calmly established his leadership on the team without question.
One of our practice scrambles was up Lava Tower (300 ft.). I have a photograph of Stephen and I standing together on the top of the tower. We’re arm and arm. He’s relaxed, but if you look close, I’m 5″ closer to the camera, scared shitless, trying not to get too near the edge. Nate would not come to the edge to be in the picture. The first day we met Stephen we gave him a “Wisconsin” t-shirt as a gift. Twelve days later we had our final dinner at the hotel. I’d forgotten we’d even given it to him and he exits the cab wearing it to honor us. These are just some of the moments in a series of very special memories. Mountain guides are impressive people, I wondered if he’d be as impressed seeing me presenting to clients in some board room…probably not.
Yusto, the junior guide, endeared himself to me after knowing him only little parts of four days. The seven-hour hike to Moir Camp 13,350 ft was our longest day on the trail. It took us to an altitude we had never experienced. As we approached the wildly beautiful spot for our lunch break I was tired, felt nauseous, I had a brute of a headache and was overcome with self-doubt. Because of my age, medical history and the damn Lariam side effects, I was absolutely convinced an unknown set of circumstances existed that would somehow disqualify me from continuing. I was afraid to discuss it but my hunched and defeated posture told the story. I was sitting on the ground staring at the lunch I couldn’t possibly eat shaking my head from side to side. My mind was rehearsing the excuses I’d offer to my son, family and friends for my failure. As horrible a mental state as I’ve ever experienced. Nathan touched my shoulder in an act of solidarity, encouragement and understanding. Then Yusto sat down next to me and asked, “How are you my brother”? He could not have picked five more impeccable words. That phrase unlocked the door to my imaginary cell. Those words communicated: empathy, trust and understanding the very moment I needed it. Boy, did we have the right guys with us! I shared my “symptoms” and he calmly explained how they divide and conquer each one. Then he added, “Don’t worry about your lunch, you can eat it later”. I was aware in an instant that our guides were there for our absolute success.
The rest of the day and, indeed, the rest of the trip I remained positive, focused and, thankfully, the Lariam side effects never returned. At the next rest break my lunch was delicious.
We were in seven different campsites (two for two days to acclimate); Big Tree 9170 ft., Shira 1 (2) 11500 ft., Moir (2) 13650 ft., Lava Tower 14950 ft., Arrow Glacier 15925 ft., Crater 18370 ft. and Millennium 12500 ft. We were only by ourselves in one camp. In the others we met people from South Africa, Italy, England, Switzerland, Canada and Holland. All the groups were climbing different routes with a variety of outfitters. There were many trail combinations to choose from. I found it interesting that I could always spot the head guides of the better outfitters by their swagger and confidence.
Some of the trekkers on the mountain only a few days, were sick in the higher camps and walking off the mountain. What a bummer, coming so far and turning back. I had seen my own failure on day three; I was relieved I wasn’t facing it now. Our 9 day climb gave us time to acclimate and a 97% chance of success. Conversely, a 5 day climb gives you only a 50% chance to make it because your body may not adjust. I’ll also say that not every client was listening to their guides, a mistake that still probably haunts one of the teams.
John Muir, “Walk quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer.”
When climbing high, headaches, loss of appetite and possible nausea are expected but that doesn’t mean you have acute mountain sickness (AMS) as I found out first hand. The “divide and conquer” strategy prevented us from being fooled into thinking we had cerebral or pulmonary edema or AMS. Symptoms for AMS are: headache, loss of appetite, fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, dizziness, blurred vision and vomiting. Nathan and I only flirted with the first three symptoms. If we’d experienced more of the others, I’d possibly be writing a different story. The cures for headaches were; wear a warmer hat, drink more water, eat a candy bar or take a pill based on where the headache was (front, on the sides, at the back, etc.). They were right every time. The headaches lessened. Hunger would come and go. The most difficult thing we did was force ourselves to eat, but we had to, for energy. Stephen was relentless managing our caloric intake by always adding servings to our plates as we groaned our disapproval.
Our filtered water came from streams born from the melting glaciers and tasted fine. We’d often see two porters wandering off with 5 gallon containers to fetch water. We were told to drink enough to pee “Clear and copious”. This meant we were hydrated which was the corner stone of our success.
Every morning I’d hear the porters starting to stir followed by the hiss of the kerosene heaters and pots on the boil. For wakeup and before every dinner our diligent waiter (August) would shuffle over to our tent and tell us he had wash water and the meal ready for us, always “Jambo” (hello) and a great smile. We’d peel ourselves from our bags and slide into our trusty boots followed by a short stroll to the dining tent, most of the time, above the clouds. There was soap and two bowls of warm water on the ground for washing. A table set with tablecloth, dishes, silverware and chairs. Powdered; Chai tea, coffee, milk, “Milo” energy drink and hot water already there, welcome touches of slightly dusty civilization.
|The Porter and Guide Crew|
The morning of our summit was no different except for the fact that this was the real “frozen tundra”. Our hearts were pounding in tense anticipation of today’s mission and lack of oxygen. Even lacing our boots had us breathing hard. August skipped the wash water because it was 11 degrees. We had spent the night wearing two sets of long underwear, our fleece suits, balaclava and hat, everything but goose down jacket, wind proofs and boots. We drank and ate with our expedition mittens on. It was the fastest we ever left camp. Numb more from lack of O2 than cold, we started the last pitch in shade. As soon as the sun crested the ridge above us, down went the zippers. This was still equatorial Africa…amazing.
Our slow, steady, step cadence was exactly the same throughout the trip. All that changed was deeper more deliberate breathing as we gained altitude. Inhale on the left foot, exhale on the right, breathe deep and blow it all out. We almost whistled as we exhaled. The backpressure maximizes the oxygen intake efficiency. Slowly up the trail, watch the guide’s feet, keep your balance in the wind, listening to the same song snippet over and over again in our heads. Suddenly, I look up at nothing but sky. Huge relief washes over me, we don’t have to climb anymore. Man, there’s the top…we made it!
David Breashears, “Now, suddenly, I felt an inexpressible serenity, a full-blooded reaffirmation of life.”
Twenty people are standing at the sign that marks the summit but are on their way down in the few minutes it takes us to cross the basically flat ridge.
My digital camera gave up to the extremes of temperature and dust but we had Nate’s disposable as a backup to take our priceless summit pictures. 19,340 ft.
I remember thinking the view was better yesterday, but not much else. The Reusch Crater is not visible due to the enormity of the cinder cones guarding it. There were hugs all around, oddly, with less emotion than the day before. Even climbing to 19,340 ft. the task was easier and less daunting than ascending the Breach. Plus, the altitude most certainly renders you pedestrian and slow. I didn’t start to feel the tremendous glow of accomplishment until we were well on our way down. Stephen, Yusto and Haji want to start our decent, as this isn’t the type of place to linger and my buddy Haji was dressed in tatters. He didn’t have the latest North Face and REI gear like his clients. I walk 30 paces off the trail and remove my backpack. Hidden away are some of my father’s ashes. I release them into a 20-knot wind, with tears freezing on my cheeks, knowing how proud he’d be. “This is it Pops, the highest one I can climb”. He loved mountains but never managed to climb any. He’s been with me on three mountain adventures. Our guides understood my gesture with the dignity of silent approval.
From here it’s DOWN all the way. We walk 400 yards past the slow sunrise climbers still laboring up the trail. All of them had been on the move for 8+ hours. We collect at the top of a ¾ mile scree field. This allows you to jump and slide down on the gravel almost like skiing. We remove our down jackets and off we go. Nate had been anticipating this pitch since before our departure and disappears in a cloud of dust. I don’t see him again until our mid-day stop…spectacular!
It took 5 days to climb the distance we will descend now in just 5 hours. We plummeted from 19,340 to 12,500 ft. My aching knees underscored the distance we covered. We descended with growing feelings of success, pride and confidence that remain to this day. Finally, we were able to breathe and construct more than a two-word sentence again.
At our final camp the hard working porters all gave us thumbs-up. They know a happy client potentially tips well, but their emotion is validating and genuine. We were kind to all of them, and they to us, the entire trip. We were always first to leave camp with the guides. The crew then packed the camp and practically ran past us on the trail carrying 35-pound loads on their heads. The next camp was always ready when we arrived. We’d step aside to give them room and acknowledgement by saying,” jambo” (hello) and “asante sana” (thank you) to every one. We even shared a few candy bars if they took a break when we did.
Later, upon our return to the hotel in Moshi, we would say goodbye to all the porters and crew. The trip information suggested we give our tip money to the hotel manager for distribution to the team. This makes perfect sense when there is more that one tipper but in our case, it was simply me. I undoubtedly ruffled the manager’s feathers but I broke protocol and handed out the tips to each team member myself. This act enabled me to share my gratitude, thank each member in their own language, offer handshakes of course, and special hugs for my “wingman” Haji, our waiter August and the two outstanding guides Stephen and Yusto. The teams’ last act was to encircle Nathan and I to sing a song in Swahili about our success climbing Kilimanjaro, a wonderfully empowering moment. Timeless and unforgettable, we felt the warmth of quiet honor.
|Arrow Glacier Camp 16,000 ft.|
I experienced everything I wanted to, and more, about mountain climbing on this trip. The epiphany of understanding, my heroes’ footsteps, the joy, fatigue, friendship, doubt, culture, laughter, resolution, tragedy, commitment, happiness, mission, fear and more.
We succeeded because we respected the mountain and took only what she gave us which were beauty beyond description, adventure and safe passage. We took time to acclimate; listened to our guides, were kind to the porters and climbed by “fair means” (we did not use Diamox which is a drug to prevent altitude sickness, or oxygen.) The time with my son was irreplaceable, a life experience to be cherished. I would, however, be remiss in the telling of this heart-felt account without the significance and perspective of these last paragraphs…
A group of six South Africans had attempted the Western Breach the night before our day climb. We’d seen their headlamps above us in the moonlit night during our trips out of the tent as they twinkled in a mesmerizing serpentine pattern. As we began our assent in the morning, we were surprised to see three of them coming down. (The Breach is an up route. I have no idea how they down climbed some of the areas or where they spent the night). All one said was “farewell”. By his demeanor and delivery I knew something serious had happened. I figured they either got scared, injured or sick. Next, two of the ladies came along and told us they lost a companion to a suspected heart failure and subsequent fall.
I was dumbstruck.
As horrible as this was for the South Africans, Nathan and I faced a completely different reality. This meant we would have to pass the porters bringing this fellow down and the potential of diluting our resolve and spiking our adrenalin with additional fear. So goes the psyche of the mountaineer.
Like any city of this population size, 5 to 15 people die each year out of 25,000 that attempt Kilimanjaro, heart attacks and AMS mostly. 60% of all the attempts make it to the summit. Statistically, this is not a dangerous place. We knew we could possibly confront some fear of heights issues but danger was not our game. With all due respect to the South Africans and their devastating outcome, I read opinions that even those few deaths could be prevented by preparation, safety and pace. The positive statistics, however, did not prevent me from a wave of horror as I felt I may have put my son at risk. It was milliseconds and had no dialog, just a feeling of dread but I saw myself standing before my wife explaining why I wasn’t bringing Nathan home. I threw it out of my head almost as fast as it had arrived. Ultimately, our guides, being prepared and concentration won the day.
I told Nate, “That’s life. This happens on mountains.” With our emotions already anesthetized by altitude, there was absolutely nothing we could do for these folks other than the squeeze of an arm and to offer hollow condolences. Nathan and I agreed to stay focused on our task and sort out our feelings when we arrived on the top. Quitting was never discussed. We had no other choice; this was to be our most difficult pitch, the pitch that claimed the life of a climber the previous night. There was no time for extracurricular emotion or distraction. Our guide, Stephen, impressively took control of the situation as we passed the porters to help minimize our exposure to the dead climber laying on the trail and up we went, just like we’d learned, one foot after the other, breath after breath, to the roof of Africa.
WE REACHED THE SUMMIT OF
August 6, 2004
AUGUST 8th WE ARRIVED AT THE PARK GATE
DUSTY, DIRTY, TIRED, HAPPY, MEN
At the hotel, Dad won the toss for the first glorious shower. Relatively clean, we wandered the hotel grounds with the sore leg wobble that identifies Kilimanjaro summiteers. This promoted smiles, understanding nods and conversation with interesting people. Our first post shower business was the call home. (The South African team were wealthy and apparently of high social status, I hoped my wife hadn’t stumbled across, “Man dies on Kilimanjaro” on CNN. Fortunately, she had not.) 4:30 pm in Moshi meant 7:30 am in Wisconsin, Kristin picked up the phone on the second ring. Upon hearing her voice, emotion choked me to the point where all that I uttered was stuttering babble. She knew it was I and she understood through my blips and braps, we were successful and I’d be returning our first born home safely. Her support had been steadfast from the beginning because she knew how much this journey meant to me. Her joy matched ours as I slowly regained composure and told the tale. It was months; however, before I told her the call metered at $20 per 3 minutes and cost me $100…Thanks Baby.
Please understand that our inability to sleep at Crater Camp, although at first annoying, was never life threatening and proved, like our experience with the South African climber, to add intrinsic; dimension, perspective, character, reality and life to an experience I would whole heartedly recommend to anyone. The Breach Route does not guarantee a sleepless night on the crater and adds real quality to the trek, not to mention a decent story line, the chances of hiking past a dead climber very rare indeed. This was an event of such magnitude, upon our return; I found my “normal” life boring for months. The ache for a new adventure still burns over a year later.
We spent three days on photo safari after the climb wishing we were already on our way home. We took the opportunity because we were there, of course, but we were over tired and emotionally spent after the trek. We were prolific in our picture taking, however, and I view them now with the enchanted awe that was not completely available during the experience. We drove past 18′ Giraffes and Elephants with babies that dwarfed our Land Rover. As we entered the first park I told Nate,”I hope we see Zebras”. Silly me, I had researched the climb so thoroughly, I never read up on the game parks. Hence, little did I know there were thousands of them and each one was different…marvelous!
The flora, fauna and topography were unique and stunningly beautiful but we both wrestled with the urge to take a nap to aid our recovery rather than hop in the Rover with our friendly guide “Freddie”. I’m not making any recommendations here about how to handle a climb and safari because the people we met that were doing the safari first were all distracted with anticipation of the climb and how they would perform at altitude. I’ll wager they felt better about their chances knowing the Cheeseheads from flatland made it. All I can say is if you have spent the time and money to go to Africa, why not do both and simply let the unparalleled adventures sort themselves out.
Our package wisely included a hotel room for 4 to 5 hours when we were dropped off at the airport. The wonderful village of hut style rooms gave us a chance to shower and find the cleanest clothes we had for the trip home. (Yes, I wore my “I climbed Kilimanjaro” t-shirt home. More self-promotion than I’d normally get into but damn-it, we’d knocked the bugger off). We repacked or gear for the flight, Nate slept and I sat by the pool in my lounger basking in the African sun in full view of Kilimanjaro feeling like I’d accomplished something very special. The other travelers near by were from Germany. Our conversation quickly established they had not made it to the top. I was the only one at the pool who had succeeded as the snow capped summit stood timeless and indifferent to all of us. I was reminded and amazed by the fact that everyone we encountered during our adventure was taking away hugely different experiences. The mountain looked so far away and inaccessible now. She had, however, lead my son and me to the ultimate gift she possesses and for that I will be forever grateful.
The last special moment I’d like to share happened on the over night flight from Kilimanjaro International to Amsterdam. We both took the opportunity to sleep but I awoke to find my 17 year old teenager sleeping with his head on my shoulder. He trusted enough, was fatigued enough and loving enough to use his father as a pillow. It brought back the wonderful feelings I had the first time he fell asleep on my chest as a baby. Even with our good relationship prier to the trip, I recon we would not have had the right circumstances to enable this moment of personal joy. The fatherly glow warmed me as I drifted off again but I knew this was yet another gift, an immeasurable parting gift, from the goddess Kilimanjaro.
A very special “asante sana” to our most excellent crew;
Senior Guide – Stephen
Junior Guide – Yusto
Rescue Pack – Haji
Head Cook – Eric
Camp Master – Aron
Waiter – August K.
Porters – August N., Aloyce, Eocaud, Tico, David, Seus, Valentine, Alex, Gerald, Justin, Bryson, Barike and Christopher
Since our adventure, I have kept in contact with our guides Stephen and Yusto using; letters, packages and email. I continue to collect DVD’s, books about Kilimanjaro, share these written words and tell the story to all who will listen.
|It Was Cold But We Didn’t Feel It|
With my favorite search engine, Dogpile, at my fingertips, I queried with a variety of key words to discover as much as possible. One particular site, Kiliwarriors, which is an outfitter that I did not discover while researching my own trip, rendered some startling information.
This outfitter touts a 100% safety record and boldly discusses deaths on the mountain to bring awareness to safety issues and the protection of; clients, guides, porters and the mountain ecology, all worthy and noble causes.
Within their chronology of lives lost, August 5th, 2004 jumped out and froze me right in my tracks. It was the day my son and I climbed past the dead man on the Breach. The information also produced some background and a name. The man had attempted Mt. Everest in 2002. He ran marathons and was co-founder of a retail store chain in South Africa called GAME. He had, indeed, suffered a heart attack.
My story explains the shock; forced compartmentalization and life experience we rendered from that day and after. I never figured I’d ever find anything out about this man…I have included his name to honor his memory…
Barry Clements (57), South Africa, died August 5, 2004