Receding glacier on top of Kibo.
Kilimanjaro, the largest freestanding mountain on the planet, rises more than 16,000 feet above the East Africa plain. It is one of the world’s most recognized peaks, a magnet to those with a spirit for adventure for many decades.
“There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in the classic The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
The snows are said to be receding. Some claim the great glaciers on the southern slopes will be gone within 15 years. But in December waist-deep snow greeted anyone attempting to reach the summit and that snow melted into an ice-crusted hardpact for those climbing in February.
The winds tore shards of that ice from the mountain and blew it into the faces of those ascending with the Climbing For Christ team. Finally, after about two hours of enduring winds of 70 to 80 mph and gusts of 100-plus mph, Hemphill had enough.
He moved up toward the climber in front of him, likewise leaning against the wind.
“Tell the people in front of you to halt,” he shouted, thinking he was speaking to Catlin. “We’re going to pray and rebuke the wind.”
The person Hemphill was talking to looked at him and said: “Yeah.” He was all for it, even though he was a complete stranger.
“I looked around and I didn’t recognize anyone with me,” Hemphill says, laughing. He had fallen behind other members in his climbing party.
But he was not dissuaded. He pushed on toward other mountaineers up ahead, catching them about 500 vertical feet below Stella Point. This time he was with his teammates.
“We asked the Lord to calm His own winds,” Hemphill recalls. “It (the wind) came down.”
Before that, there had been a brief discussion about turning back. The decision was made to keep going for a while longer, to see how everyone was feeling and what conditions were as they neared Stella Point, located at about 19,000 feet and an hour from the summit.
“Physically, I felt good,” says Catlin. “I was breathing fine. I had energy. But it added 33 percent more effort going uphill against the wind.”
The wind “made it more of a mountaineering feat,” Hemphill says. “Twenty-thousand people got to the top this year (during the December-through-February climbing season). That many people would not have made it in those winds.”
Lesh said the experience was special – in spite of the “rough conditions” – because it was the first big peak with his 18-year-old son Joshua. “To stand on the summit and have a photo with my son and Jim (Doenges, his long-time climbing partner) was special.”
But, he added, no summit is worth risking life or limb. “Even a partial toe,” he says.
Shawn Dowd, a 41-year-old photographer from Rochester, N.Y., pushed on despite experiencing snowblindness. He had no regrets. But he also realized he was blessed.
“All sorts of things could have gone wrong,” he says, reflecting on the climb while waiting for a flight from Kilimanjaro International Airport to Amsterdam and then back to the States. “They didn’t.”
He said it was not because of anything he did or didn’t do.
“If you’re looking for an indication of something beyond me,” Dowd says, “that was it. It was on that hill.”
This story originally appeared in The Climbing Way (Volume 7, Spring 2007).