Saturday, January 12, 2008 is a day that will live with me forever. That day I successfully climbed and summited Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. “Kili”, as it is affectionately know as, is one of the famed “Seven Summits,” and reaches 19,340 ft. This climb, which had been on my “Life Goals List,” was completed with the assistance of a professional outfitter, nearly forty porters, fifteen strangers, and my close friend, Frank Salazar. Our six day hike took us up the Marangu trail, a non-technical but strenuous route, which crossed through four climatic zones: rain forest, moorland, alpine desert, and nordic ice caps. At the top of the mountain, which lies a few degrees south of the equator, the temperature dropped to a low of 5 degrees Fahrenheit – and these were the favorable climbing conditions: no wind, rain or snow. Each year roughly 20,000 people attempt to ascend Kilimanjaro, with a 50% summit rate. In celebration of my 40th birthday this past year, I decided to attempt this life long goal and dedicate my climb to CURE and the many children who have been stricken with childhood cancer.
My trip also included a scenic safari in the Serengeti Plains and the Ngorongoro Crater. But it was my summit night experience that was by far the pinnacle of my African journey.
My Summit Night, January 11th, 2008
After four days of casual hiking, acclimatization, and daily doses of Diamox (the wonder drug for mountain climbing that reduces the risk of high altitude sickness), our team of sixteen nervously rested in Kibo Hut (15,463 ft.), the final base where nearly all Kili summit attempts begin. We were instructed to sleep, as best we could, until 10:00 pm, then gear up, and meet outside at 10:45 pm. I can assure you, nobody slept that night.
Our group was unique. Even though we were all Americans, we came from different parts of the country, were at various stages in our lives, but shared a common goal and sense of adventure. We began our trip as complete strangers, but quickly bonded and became a trusted team.
At 11:00 pm, our fearless leader, Peter Mato, gathered us for some final thoughts and instructions. We formed a circle, held hands and he lead a prayer. With headlamps illuminated, we started our trek into the darkness of the African night. I am amazed by the night sky and have never seen so many stars. For many, including myself, this would be the most challenging and rewarding 24 hours of our lives.
Trouble began halfway up the mountain. Taking our first break in a Hans Meyer Cave (16,900 ft.), shivers shot through my body like a bad flu. To make matters worse, I was on the verge of projectile vomiting. As I looked around, others seemed to fair better than I did. Knowing that I needed to stay hydrated to avoid more severe stages of altitude sickness, I attempted to drink a “power beverage”, but my body rejected it. I wondered if I would be the first to crack and revisit my last meal. Peter walked around and checked each climber, making sure they were ok to continue. As he came to me, I put on my best front and gave him the two thumbs up. Peter smiled, and said I was doing great. With that done, the group departed for our next target, Gilman’s Point (18,711 ft.).
As we made our ascent to Gilman’s, I found my rhythm: take five steps, stop; take five breaths, start; repeat. In the distance, I see Peter’s shadow. He is setting the pace. He sings African nursery rhymes that help the team focus on the task at hand. Having climbed the mountain over 630 times, he feels no pain. In contrast, my every step gets harder and harder. I repeat my own personal chant: (1) I have a great leader; (2) I have a great team; (3) I can see myself reaching the summit; (4) the weather is perfect; (5) I have prepared for this; and (6), pole, pole, which means slowly, slowly in Swahili.
Looking down the mountain, five groups of headlamps are evenly sprawled along the nearly 90 switchbacks we have made thus far. The world is well represented on the mountain. Teams from Japan, Australia, and Germany continue to trek, trying to reach the roof of Africa.
As the sun begins to break across the horizon, we finally approach Gilman’s Point. I look across the plains of Africa, and I’m amazed at how high we are. No picture can capture this vista. Bright red rays of sunlight reflect off the many glaciers that circumvent the volcano’s caldera. It is a beauty that can not be put into words. Miraculously, the whole team makes it to Gilman’s. With the sun now shining, my spirits improve and I get a second wind. To reach the true summit, a two hour push of rolling paths and a series of false summits is still required. Five of our team members stop, satisfied with their crowning achievement to stand at Gilman’s Point. The rest of use break for 15 minutes and begin our final push.
30 minutes after leaving Gilman’s, I notice a stark change in the disposition of my remaining team members; smiles have turned to faces of anguish and pain. The team that stuck together, and motivated each other to reach Gilman’s Point, slowly splits apart. Kilimanjaro has become the overlord. Each climber must now find their own way to the summit. Silently I walk. I am energized by my complete dependence on myself. Periodic emotional surges bring me to the verge of tears and elation. I am not going to give up; I am actually going to summit this mountain!
Fellow climbers hike past me in both directions. One woman is completely disoriented and unattended. She is suffering from High Altitude Cerebral Oedema or HACE, a climber’s worst nightmare. I wonder how she will get past some of the technical sections of the decent, where one misstep can lead immediately to your death. I am powerless to help her. Each year 2-10 people die in attempt to tackle the snows of Kilimanjaro. Many are porters who live under these adverse conditions year around.
Suddenly, I see my goal in front of me. The famous sign that we all seek to touch and photograph is in my grasp. Once I get there, it is bitter cold and windy. Having brought my camera, I am too tired to take pictures. I ask a stranger who looks terribly fatigued, if he will kindly take some photos. I dig into my day pack, roll out my CURE banner and pose. Too exhausted to take my hat and balaclava off, let alone smile, the camera clicks. I am mentally and physically drained, but I have finally reached my goal.
Why Did I Climb Kilimanjaro? Why CURE?
10 years ago, during a routine physical, my doctor discovered quarter-sized tumor on my thyroid gland. After the ultrasound, it was determined that the tumor looked cancerous and an operation was scheduled. As I sat in solitude during those days, I asked God for a second chance. If given, I would live each day with passion and attempt to make some kind of difference with my life. Two weeks later, I woke up from the operation in a daze with my surgeon standing over me. He informed me that the surgery was a success and the tumor was not cancer. I committed myself to find a path to give back some day in some way. Finding such an expression has not been easy.
Today, I stand in awe at children living with cancer. The disease confounds me; their courage inspires me. What they and their parents have to endure each day during their constant battle against the disease dwarfs any personal challenges I have faced in my life.
Climbing and reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro has given me a chance to express myself. My summit was nothing more than a celebration of life. By making this trip I have finally discovered a personal path for giving. I am no expert in childhood cancer, but these are first steps.
Thanks & Future Challenges
I am lucky to have a wonderful wife and 4 great kids. They have and will continue to support me in my efforts to help others in need. It is as much a sacrifice for them as it is for me.
I would also like to thank everybody, friends, family and complete strangers, who contributed to my climb through their time, support and donations.
Already, I am thinking to my next challenge. Perhaps I will bike across the country or climb another mountain. I have not given it serious consideration, since I am still reveling in my Kilimanjaro experience. Whatever the next adventure is, I hope to raise more money and greater awareness for CURE Childhood Cancer.