|Base of Kilimanjaro - Christmas Eve, 2016|
Without a doubt, getting out of bed in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and climbing to the top of Africa's highest mountain was the hardest physical and mental challenge I ever faced.
I'm no mountaineering expert, but I chuckle when I read that Kilimanjaro is "easy" to summit because there's no specialized equipment involved. Essentially, a person just hikes to the top.
That's true, but there's a major downside to scaling Kilimanjaro that doesn't come into play on other mountains – the rapid ascent subjects climbers to the dangers of altitude sickness.
When I traveled to Everest Base Camp (17,600 feet/5,364 meters), we were told it shouldn't be attempted in under nine days. Yet, hikers on Kilimanjaro can sign up to reach the summit in four days, an altitude 1,741 feet/531 meters higher than the camp on Everest.
I never understood this inconsistency and am still uncomfortable with the fact that climbers on Kilimanjaro are subjected to such extreme altitude gains. I attempted to counteract the problem by electing a six-day route because the rule of thumb is that the longer a hiker spends acclimatizing on the mountain the better. A seven or eight day trip up Kilimanjaro would have been even safer.
According to Jim Duff, a prominent doctor and mountaineer, a conservative recommended rate of ascent for climbers is 1,000 feet per day, with rest every third day. When climbing above 11,500 feet, the recommendation is 500 feet of ascent per day.
During my hike up Kilimanjaro, I averaged 2,800 feet per day. On summit day, we ascended almost 4,000 feet.
It's no wonder altitude sickness is so common on Kilimanjaro.
Statistics are hard to come by because the park service isn't eager to publish them, but it's estimated that approximately 1,000 climbers a year must be evacuated from the mountain due to medical reasons. In addition, approximately 10 people die annually, mainly due to the altitude, as well as avalanche and the cold.
These aren't just weekend warriors, unprepared for the trials of mountaineering.
2006 – 3 American climbers died from a rockfall
2008 – Ken Moskow, an ex-CIA agent, died from altitude sickness, just 20 yards from
the summit. According to witnesses, his final words were, "Come on, Ken! Come
2011 – A British businessman, Alistair Cook, arranged a trek to fulfill his lifelong ambition to
scale the mountain and celebrate his upcoming 70th birthday. Cook, an experienced
climber, made it to the top and sent a text to his wife, saying he was
"exhausted but so happy." Minutes later, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
2013 – Irish mountaineer, Ian Mc Keever, was killed in a lightning storm.
2015 – Scott Dinsmore, a 33-year-old American entrepreneur/motivational speaker, was
struck and killed by a tumbling boulder
2016 – A South African race car driver, Gugu Zulu, complained of breathing
problems during his ascent. A crew rushed him down the mountain, but he died
These are the exceptions, not the norm, but it demonstrates that Kilimanjaro is not to be taken lightly.
It's now 10 days since I returned from Kilimanjaro. People have asked me what I learned.
Summiting gave me a profound sense of personal satisfaction at overcoming adversity, but I can't say I experienced a life-changing moment or suddenly gained a new insight, other than a reaffirmation of something I've always believed – we don't realize how much we're capable of achieving because we're seldom pushed.
Day after day, year after year, I hear students and adults say, "I can't do _______ because of _______."
I'm certainly guilty of this mindset.
Most of my six-day hike up Kilimanjaro was fairly uneventful and not overly difficult, with the exception of a 30-hour period, one I'd not choose to relive.
The period began with a six-mile morning hike from Horombo hut to the base of Kilimanjaro. At 5 p.m., I had dinner. At 7 p.m., I went to bed. At 10 p.m., I awoke, after having slept less than an hour. At 11 p.m., I hiked up to the summit, descended, rested for a couple of hours, before hiking the six miles back to Horombo.
On the surface, it doesn't appear to be that bad.
But looking more closely ...
During that 30-hour period, I hiked 18 hours, covering almost 20 miles.
I gained 7,000 feet in elevation, descended the same amount, and did it on less than an hour's sleep.
For the summit alone, I hiked all night for almost eight hours, ascending 3,800 feet, a distance of more than three miles uphill. I made it to the summit at 19,341 feet, battling single-degree temperatures Fahrenheit, as well as gale-force winds and altitude sickness.
My experience was far from being unique.
My point is before my trip if I had seen all of these facts written down I might not have attempted the climb. At the very least, I would have questioned whether – as a 51 year old with a bad ankle – I had the stamina to pull it off.
We're capable of achieving much more than we realize, but sometimes we've got to pushed.
This is the person who pushed me, my guide Raphael. During the summit attempt, I resented everything he did.
Earlier in the week, Raphael once an hour always gave me a 5-10 minute break – an opportunity to sit down, relax, drink water, and chat. He praised my efforts. He encouraged me. He made me feel good.
Climbing to the summit, he transformed into a dictator, issuing terse, harsh commands – "Don't sit down!", "Let's go!", "Dig deeper!", "We've got to move on!"
I don't like to be pushed, and after descending from the summit, I exploded, telling Raphael that he did a lousy job motivating me. To his credit, Raphael took it all in stride.
The next day all was forgotten. The man who I had previously yelled at I now hugged, praising him for his efforts because I realized he honoured our agreement – he got me to the top safely.
After my hike, I did a two-day safari, where I met others who had climbed Kilimanjaro. They all shared similar stories about how their guides, too, were all business on summit night. I also chatted with a former guide, who laughed when I told him how upset I had gotten at Raphael. "That happens all the time," he said. "We don't take it personally."
The reason I had gotten so angry at Raphael was because I felt he was treating me like a child, barking out his orders. Now, I understand that's just what I needed.
On summit night, guides are fighting against the clock. Their job is to get climbers up and off the mountain as quickly as possible to minimize the effects of altitude, temperature, and winds.
Raphael says the longer climbers spend on Kilimanjaro the greater the chances they'll "lose hope and quit" or succumb to the harsh environment.
Had I been allowed to sit down and rest on the ascent my body temperature might have dropped significantly. Had I been allowed to linger at the summit the altitude sickness would have likely intensified. There wasn't time to negotiate. Under these circumstances, "Let's go" makes perfect sense.
Now that the hike is over people have also asked me if I'd ever want to try to scale another mountain.
When I returned from Everest Base Camp, I swore I'd never do another multi-day, high-altitude climb, and yet, less than two years later, I headed up Kilimanjaro.
This time I think I'm done for good. I'm 51 years old. While I still feel capable of such feats, it takes that much longer to recover physically. It's been 10 days, and I'm still wiped out. It's obvious I'm not a young pup any more.
Still, I must admit that I yearn for a challenge, something to test my limits, something to escape the day-to-day routine we fall into, something that makes me feel alive on all levels.
Maybe, I'm not done yet, or maybe it's time to find a new type of challenge.
Before closing, I want to thank you all for your positive vibes during my climb, as well as your words of encouragement prior to the trip.
When I began to lose hope heading toward the summit, I felt your energy on Christmas inspiring me to keep going. Now that I'm back in Zimbabwe many friends have told me they were sending out cosmic help on Christmas Day, knowing I might need it. When I seriously considered quitting, I thought of my friend Jeff who said he'd "push me upward" with his "secret mind powers"; my school's human relations manager Noleen who said, "I know that you will represent us"; my principal telling me how proud he was of me.
That did the trick, along with a lot of pushing, and a little bit of genetic help.