The summit ridge — the rim of the volcano — on top of Kilimanjaro. (Photo by Gary Fallesen)
By GARY FALLESEN
MOUNT KILIMANJARO, Tanzania – I lost one of my biggest fans on Jan. 30, 1998. My mother-in-law knew I wasn’t good enough to marry her daughter, but she came to embrace me and hang on my written word like a doting parent.
When she died suddenly, my vacation plans — plans she did not know about for fear of worrying her — changed. I could not imagine, under the circumstances, leaving my wife and children to travel to East Africa to climb Kilimanjaro with my friend Kevin Flynn.
But my better half urged me to go, telling me — in one of those (swallow-hard) made-for-Lifetime-TV moments — to say hello to her mother when I reached the summit.
On Feb. 23, 1998, six days after we’d begun our ascent up the Umbwe Route, I took a knee on the highest point in Africa and fulfilled my wife’s wish. I was as close to the heavens as I’ve ever been while standing on this earth. I was on the summit of 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro.
We were told by our guide, Frederick Tarimo, that Kilimanjaro translates to ‘‘Mountain Snow.’’ In his classic, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway wrote: ‘‘Its western summit is called by the Maasai ‘Ngaje Nagai,’ the House of God.’’ More than a few people have met their maker on ‘‘Kili’s’’ slopes.
As we kicked steps into the snow on a steep section that covered the final 500 feet below the rim of this massive volcano, Frederick turned to warn us. He had been singing a gentle song in Swahili, while Kevin and I labored to walk and breathe in air half as dense as our lungs were used to at sea level.
‘‘This,’’ Frederick told us, ‘‘is where many have slipped and fallen.’’
Later I wrote in my journal: ‘‘Suddenly each step becomes even more painstaking, realizing it could be a life or death placement of your foot.’’
People often ask why I climb; why I would call seven days in ever-thinning air on a mountain in a Third World country ‘‘a vacation.’’ I am still a neophyte to climbing, but I have elected to go to high places because — first of all — I have been blessed with the physical ability to do so.
I have also found in climbing a simplification of life. You focus on each step, each breath. It is a back-to-the-basics approach, not unlike that faced by those who live in the Third World nations in which many of the great mountains are located.
The world is a different place from up there, above the dark clouds that fill so many horizons. The views are, literally, breathtaking.
And I appreciate what God has made. I drink it in like a dehydrated mountaineer.
A long walk home
Kilimanjaro is not a technical climb. Though Kevin and I carried ice axes and crampons, we did not use them. Nor were we roped up.
One of the attractions to Kili is accessibility. It is considered a trekking mecca. But only 15 percent of those who attempt the climb are able to reach the summit.
We saw why as we descended the Marangu — or ‘‘Tourist’’ — Route. Many looked as if they had walked no farther than the mailbox in preparation for their (dream on) 30-mile hike that ascends nearly three vertical miles.
If you can’t run five miles in 45 minutes, you should not even think about climbing Kilimanjaro.
Kevin, who was 40 at the time, plays in the advertising game. He had previously been to the roof of North America (20,320-foot Denali) and attempted the highest peak in South America (22,835-foot Aconcagua). (He was on his way to pursuing the Seven Summits, climbing Aconcagua in 2001, Elbrus in 2003, Everest in 2004, and Vinson in 2005.) He leaped at an invitation to join me on a trip out of Africa and into the troposphere.
Kilimanjaro is a strange place. Located just south of the equator, its biology is called ‘‘tropical alpine.’’ You pass through multiple vegetation zones — from forest to heath to moorland to high-altitude desert to snow-cap.
We began our climb in the 80-degree, dripping-wet humidity of a summer day and topped off in pre-dawn wind chill that was below zero.
We went from the rain forest to the arctic.
Guide to the top
To make the trek, you must have a guide. Frederick, 32, a farmer, husband and father of three, is permitted to lead two trips up the mountain each month. For each climb, he was paid about $77 U.S.
Welcome to the Third World.
He made more from us in tips ($90 U.S.) than he did from his employer.
Frederick, who was wearing a pink Chanel/Paris T-shirt when we first met, was assisted by 26-year-old Francis Minja. They brought four porters to carry our supplies.
For these six men, the mountain is a way to make a living. It is God providing.
Of all the athletes in all the world that I have seen, none stands taller than these. Their slender bodies are amazingly strong, their lungs incredibly able.
Frederick told us how farmers for generations have turned to Kili to pray. ‘‘Please God,’’ they would ask, thinking He lived on top of Kilimanjaro. That thought crossed my mind more than a few times as I breathed heavily during the climb.
The Umbwe Route that we selected is considered a more difficult way up. It is steeper than the Tourist Route. But after reaching our second camp, at 13,000 feet, we left the Umbwe. El Nino (or ‘‘El Mino,’’ as the Tanzanians call it) had made the Angel Glacier near the top more dangerous to cross. While on an acclimatization hike we heard an avalanche in that direction.
Frederick led us the other way around the mountain. We did not disagree with his decision.
To the summit
On summit day on a big mountain, you rise early in the morning — usually around midnight — to begin the final push. This is so the snow will still be frozen and less slippery.
As we made our way up the final 4,000 vertical feet, wearing headlamps to see our way, the night air was clear and cold.
We moved relatively quickly, covering ground that was supposed to take 7 ½ hours in less than 5 ½.
After crossing the steep snow to the rim, I staggered around the lip of the crater. Breathing was hard, movement almost painful. There was a falloff to the left that I was aware of, but only peripherally. I did not look to my left or my right, only ahead at the footsteps in the snow.
Before I knew it, I was on Africa’s rooftop.
The sun was not yet up, not for another 15 minutes, though the sky to the east had a sliver of orange. As this special day dawned, I gave thanks for my trip to Ngaje Nagai (The House of God). Then I said a prayer directed at my mother-in-law.
I told her she was missed by her children and grandchildren. A continent away from home, I felt my eyes fill with tears.