Two summers ago, I was relaxing at our neighborhood block party when a friend mentioned his lifelong fascination with the idea of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. This sounded like a great adventure to me. A couple of beers, some big talk and the next thing we knew we had agreed to climb to the roof of Africa.
We also decided to bring along our 16-year-old sons. We thought this would be a great opportunity to connect with our boys and broaden their perspectives on the world.
After making the decision, the first thing I needed to do was get in shape. At that time I weighed 220 pounds. Getting my weight under control would be essential. I set my target weight for the climb at 175 pounds and started working out every morning.
By early March, I was down to 185 pounds. Then life threw me a curve ball. I went into the emergency room one fine Sunday afternoon with chest pains. Things went badly, and I spent eight days in the coronary intensive care unit at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Fortunately, my doctor was able to repair the problem and cleared me to make the climb.
My doctor also told me that if I had not been in shape and had not lost that weight, I wouldn’t have survived my heart issues. So I believe Mount Kilimanjaro really saved my life.
By the middle of June I was fully recovered, back in shape and at my target weight. We boarded a plane for Tanzania, where nine other climbers from around the world and a small army of 52 porters and guides joined us.
We started our climb at the Machame Gate. We slogged through the rain forest for six hours to reach our first camp at 10,000 feet. I remember lying awake in the mud and freezing rain that night seriously wondering if I was going to make it. It was only the first day, and already I was out of breath and shaking with cold and fatigue. I worried about my heart, I worried about my son and I worried about my own ability to persevere.
Early in day two we climbed out of the rain forest and above the clouds. This is where we caught our first glimpse of the summit. By late afternoon we were at our camp at 12,500 feet. Along the way our guides taught us high-altitude breathing and climbing techniques.
It was below freezing at night, but warmed up a lot each day as we climbed. We dressed in layers to manage our body temperature and moisture. I decided that mountain climbing is all about water. The right clothing to keep you dry and wick away moisture is crucial. I have newfound respect for Sir Edmund Hillary for climbing Mount Everest without the benefit of Gore-Tex.
We climbed four to eight hours each day to get to the next camp. On day five we reached high camp at 15,000 feet. It was really difficult to sleep because you had to breathe so hard all the time. Once you dozed off and your body relaxed, you often suddenly woke up just to catch your breath.
Day six started at midnight. We lightened our packs, put on headlamps and our warmest clothes and started the climb to the summit. The operative words were “Pole, pole” (Swahili for “Slowly, slowly”).
A group we met as we were starting our climb had made its summit attempt in sleet and high winds. We felt lucky to have a clear night, with brilliant stars lighting the way. Glaciers lined both sides of the ridge as we climbed. We could see distant headlamps of other groups above us and below us as we put one foot in front of the other and trudged our way up. We reached the crater rim just as the sun was starting to rise. This was the scene of much rejoicing, as we knew the hardest part of the climb was over.
We climbed along the rim and reached the summit (19,340 feet elevation) by 8 a.m. We were exhilarated but exhausted. Several team members were near collapse and needed oxygen.
After 20 minutes at the top, we started back down. Going down was as difficult (or more so) as going up. It took four hours to work our way back to high camp, where we packed up and climbed another six hours down to 10,000 feet. After 13,000 feet of elevation change in 18 straight hours of climbing, exhaustion just seems like too small a word to describe how we felt.
We spent a wet, muddy and strangely restful night at 10,000 feet, and then trekked down to the park gate and took a bus back to our hotel. After a week of strenuous exercise in mostly the same clothes, a shower was the first order of business. An ice-cold beer (the first that we know of for our sons) was the second.
Did we achieve what we had hoped?
It was every bit the adventure I imagined. Having hitchhiked around the world after graduating from St. Thomas, Tanzania was one more check mark on my personal quest to travel to at least 100 countries. I’m now at 61. Climbing was much more difficult physically than I expected, but also very rewarding to have reached the top in spite of the many challenges.
More importantly, our sons got to interact with a part of the world where people have a completely different life experience and worldview than their friends in Chaska, Minn. Before we left, I was worried that my son Ted would whine and complain and maybe not even make it. To be fair, I was worried that I would whine and complain and maybe not even make it. But we both made it, and we developed some new respect for each other and for our ability to work as a team and preserve under difficult conditions.
If you are thinking about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, my advice would be to get in shape first. If you aren’t thinking about climbing a mountain any time soon, get in shape anyway. It could save your life.