A Crazy Dream
So, you know my crazily ambitious—perhaps foolhardy—goal, but how did it form? The exact goal was to climb the highest peak in Africa and run the nearby Kilimanjaro marathon as a bonus (not that Africa is so special and it’s a place that I always wanted to go, oh no!). I wonder, what gave me the strong desire to do what I did?
To recap my formative childhood running, climbing, and exploring exploits, was it those times I mentioned of racing around Irondequoit on our bikes, discovering new woods, and swinging on vines in them like Tarzan of the Jungle? Was it the early years up on Grindstone Island bushwhacking across the terrain for the whole day, finding new cliffs to climb? Was it our expanding command of the Thousand Islands, betting ourselves to make it all the way around our isle in just twenty-four hours and then go on to the next? Was it camping with the formality of the Boy Scouts and the official way they groomed us to investigate and voyage around everywhere? Their Camp Barton? Algonquin Park? How about the spelunking we did? Or perhaps it was our all-day, arduous journeys rowing in canoes? I also think about the weekend trips in college in the forests and rivers of Missouri on field trips for my ecology and botany classes.
I remember my first Adirondack experience with my college girlfriend’s father and little sister. (Where was that girlfriend? Not with us!) I had climbed my first peak (not so high a peak, just about four kilometers), and it was awesome. We four canoed and camped in the summer of ’66. It’s funny that a recent canoe trip took me to the same lake and peak in Saranac. Mount Ampersand is not a wimpy climb. There was a reward, though. The view was fabulous both times.
So, decades later, this grandest expedition happened after I had been retired from Kodak not even a year. I was going with two running friends, two guys who had been in my social running groups. We would be climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, and running their village’s marathon. To do both of those together was going to be a great thing, an accomplishment of a lifetime using all the skills and stamina in my personal toolbox—and hopefully I’d live to tell about it, despite having heart disease. And that was a huge despite. Yet this kernel of a dream, this positive potentiality, rose to the top of my bucket list. I was determined. Yes, I had several cardiac stents in place for a weakened heart, but that didn’t matter so much to me.
The “high places” spoken of in the Bible were originally the spots of notable elevation where the ancient Israelites would go to be nearer to their God. They made sacrifices there to acknowledge their sin, ask for forgiveness, and be redeemed in the eyes of their creator. Moses received the Ten Commandments on a mountaintop, and the ark of the covenant that held the stone tablets upon which they were written was often brought to temples established in other high places. These were holy, venerated places. There is something about elevated places, where we feel closer to God, in communion. Standing there up high gives us a bird’s-eye view where the insignificant things fade into the distance. Surveying the surrounding vast expanses, rippling gently many miles into the horizon, immense feathery clouds are now strangely in our grasp, sometimes even below us. We feel above life; we feel “above” all that’s temporal. We feel more spiritually in tune and forget everything else. We feel only God in the rare, thin atmosphere.
Now to describe Kilimanjaro, majestic beast and dormant volcano that it is, with some numbers and factoids. It towers at about 16,000 feet above its plateau base. But you’ve got to remember that that plateau is way up high in the first place, about 3,000 feet. At a total of 19,341 feet above sea level, it is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain on earth. Tremendous! (The Himalayas in Asia are the only mountains higher, but those are conjoined). The first reported hikers to have reached the Kili summit, not until 1889, were Ludwig Purtscheller and Hans Meyer. Today, it’s the hiking destination, along with Everest, of course, that is considered the Holy Grail by courageous and stalwart hiking enthusiasts.
Kili's glacier splendor at dawn
Can someone ascend Kili and not train? Surely you jest. No way. We knew we had our work cut out for us. How to prepare? Research, research, research. Foresight. Uncompromising training. As they say, practice makes perfect.
We chose a long, steep hill at the Bristol Mountain ski resort in New York. We loaded the backpacks we were going to use on Kili with the weight of two heavy one-gallon water jugs, went to the location, scaled it, and did repeats—up and down, up and down for an hour once a week, half a year. In the early fall it was pretty and pleasantly cool. In the late fall, it was quite manageable as long as it wasn’t snowing. The closer it got to December, the closer it was to snowmaking by Mother Nature and the snow machines. In February with full snow conditions we found a road next to Bristol and repeated the same routine, getting used to wearing heavier clothes as well as breaking in our hiking boots. It was a profitable effort, testing our gear as well as our bodies. But we knew that once we got to the real thing, conditions would be far, far harder. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
It was go time! Bill Hearne and Craig Litt, compadres from my running group, were ready. To commence this amazing journey, we boarded the plane and left snowy Rochester on February 14th, 2006 (Valentine’s Day—again, I had Donna’s unwavering support). We were leaving the USA in the dead of winter, yet going to Tanzania during their dog days of summer. (Our February is their August.) Our flight from Rochester to JFK was to leave at 11:15 a.m. We would land in Amsterdam in Europe at 12:30 a.m. EST (that’s 7:30 a.m. European time, being they are seven hours ahead). Then we would hang out for half a day. Instead of going to the red light district there, we went on a tour of the Anne Frank house.
Then we had another flight, eight hours to Moshi, Africa. Touchdown in the world’s largest continent! We had a nice finish to our flight, arriving just after 9 p.m. in their time zone on the fifteenth, right on schedule, looking at a nearly full moon. I said to myself, I wonder what it will be like under this moon on the mountain tomorrow night. . .)
It felt hot as we disembarked and headed into customs, maybe mid-eighty degrees and quite windy. There we picked up our bus drive to the hotel, taking an unpaved, very bumpy road. My ankles and feet were swollen from sitting so long—not good. This concerned me because of my cardiac issues.
We checked in and started the process of organizing our packs for the following day. This was a complicated job. Although I was exhausted and feeling jet-lagged, I scientifically packed and repacked stuff that we would take—stuff that we would need. We would carry our own packs but also prepare extra bags of our things for others to carry, professional porters. I had to get to sleep, though. Our beds at the hotel had these funky green mosquito nets over them. I had strange dreams that night. Do you think we were nervous? You bet.