A trip to Africa's famed Mount Kilimanjaro leads to reaching – both for the heights as well as into the depths of self, relationships and growth.
My father is almost motionless 100 feet below on the slanted, icy western slope of Mount Kilimanjaro. The winter dawn light plays off the white swath of the Kibo Glacier below and the sheer cliffs on either side. Our seven-day journey has taken us just a few hundred feet from the 19,340-foot summit – tantalizingly close to the top of Africa – but he is struggling.
In the rarefied air, his strides have become baby steps followed by 30-second to one-minute intervals of labored inhaling and exhaling. His movements are slow, fragile, as if he could tumble down at the slightest misstep or burst of wind. Until this moment, we jokingly refer to this stunted style of hiking as the Kilimanjaro Shuffle. But it is no joke now. Bundled in layers of pile and Gore-Tex, my father looks like an astronaut moving across the moon. The rocky, windswept landscape, devoid of vegetation, provides the perfect backdrop.
As I look down, my slight impatience turns to worry. My toes are chilled beyond feeling. The air bites at my nostrils. I am sucking in half the breathable oxygen one gets at sea level. Part of me wants to yell, "Step it up!" But part of me wondered: After all this way, would my nearly 70-year-old father make it?
I can't remember ever spending a solid week with my father. Not in childhood, and certainly not as an adult. My Midwest-born father came of age in the Baby Boom 1950s, and like most men of his generation, he worked long hours and wasn't around for much more than dinner and an hour or two before bedtime. I can recall a few shorter trips – traveling to tennis tournaments, scouting out colleges together – but we were more close acquaintances, not buds. So when he proposed that we scale Africa's highest peak, the idea filled me with a certain amount of anxiety as well as anticipation. What would I learn?
A year later, we are gathering our bags on a humid January night in East Africa. We have come to climb the solitary, volcanic peak in the vast Tanzanian plain to mark two events: the new millennium, and my father's 70th birthday. The numerical symmetry is powerful: 2000, 70, and 35 – the age I turn this year, exactly half my father's.
Typical of men his age but particular to my mostly inscrutable father, the decision to climb, and even risk our lives (death from altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro is not uncommon) remains a mystery, even after our arrival. When I ask him on our flight over why he wants to ascend the white-crowned relic of eruptions 750,000 years ago, he replies: "It's a notion." My goal? I scribble it in my notebook: To gain new perspective, whether we reach the summit or not. I'd heard you can see farther from Kilimanjaro than any place on earth.
We begin the trek one jet-lagged day after arriving. Our climbing posse includes our excellent Tanzanian guide, Justin Bell; Lema, the assistant guide; several porters and a cook. Almost immediately, the porters earn our respect (and bestow on us a certain amount of shame) as they deftly and cheerfully lug heavy loads of food, tents and other equipment along the same slopes we sometimes struggle to ascend encumbered only by our modest daypacks.
Justin determines we will take the Shira Plateau route from the mountain's western side. Because it takes a day or two longer than other routes such as the popular Coca-Cola trail (so called because of soda vendors along the way), my father nicknames it Camino Viejo – Old Man's Road. But it has other advantages: more time to acclimatize to the altitude, fewer hikers, and spectacular views of Kibo Glacier. That is why Shira is also known as the Whiskey Route – it offers intoxicating vistas.
Our first four days of ascent take us through several distinct climatological zones. We pass through a band of cultivated agricultural land; a stretch of thick, semitropical rain forest; a Scottish-like moorland marked by large shrubs and giant heather; a rocky, high-desert terrain almost devoid of flora; and the barren, arctic summit. At the same time, we experience a smorgasbord of climate changes. The temperature ranges from about 90 at the base to 10 at the peak, and we encounter a weatherman's dream of meteorological changes from sun to rain to hail to snow – often changing with dizzying speed. We also discover that the snow-packed slopes immortalized by Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" aren't nearly as snowy as they used to be. Global warming has taken care of that, lopping off huge swaths of glacial formations that crisscross Kili's top plateau.
As promised, we are rewarded with gorgeous views of the lush forest below and of the Kibo crater above. We are also treated to a cresting moon that becomes full on our fifth night, and the incomparable African celestial canvas. On our fourth day at about 14,800 feet, we scurry up a minor peak called Lava Tower. The mist that often creeps up the slope is too thick for us to see Mount Meru, Kili's nearly 15,000-foot high cousin.
Mountain life is refreshing if not comfortable. The long nights in our two-man, tortoise-like tent – nine, 10 and sometimes 12 hours – and the constant nocturnal nature calls that require trudging out into the freezing air make my father and I feel like we are trapped in a space capsule. We dub our tent Mir after the dilapidated Russian space station. The smell inside isn't much better than Mir either, I imagine. Lacquered on my skin are layers of grime – several days mix of sweat, dust, rain, hail, snow and suntan lotion.
Our food is decent, if bland: soup, pasta, chicken, potatoes, but by the fifth night we are pining for something, anything, different. Still, dinner is important because huddled around our collapsible table is the one place I can really converse with my father. One evening over chai, a mixture of milk and tea, I ask him something I've always wondered but never had the courage – or time to build up the nerve – to ask: "Were you ever in love before you met Mom?" It's an innocent enough query, but somehow I'd never gotten around to asking. I expect to hear stories about at least one or two women, but amazingly, he says there were none.
We also talk about my older brother, who died tragically from an accidental drug overdose nine years earlier. "I wonder how Matt would have enjoyed this trip," he says in a low, almost apologetic tone for having brought up such a painful subject. Much more the outdoorsman than I ever was or will be, I answer: "Matt would have loved it."
Still, it isn't easy to talk. As is perhaps common among father and sons, through the years time and distance and striking out as an adult on my own have created a tension, maybe even a small rift. Politically, we are at opposite ends of the spectrum (he is a card-carrying conservative Republican, I am a liberal Democrat) and he views the world from an American-centric prism, while I have a more global perspective. But as we chat about everything from politics to sports and bodily functions, I come to realize that we share many core values, though we see and interact with the world from entirely different places. I come to realize over the course of the trip that that is OK, as long as we respect each other's separate place.
We also quickly realize that while the mountain takes a physical toll, the trick to climbing Kili isn't about fitness: It's about handling the elements, the wind, the cold, the rain, the snow – and most of all, the altitude. At this height, you can't take breathing for granted. An array of bodily dysfunctions can strike, some more serious than others. Among them are nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, inability to sleep, dehydration and, in extreme cases, a sort of dementia called acute mountain sickness. AMS can lead to to death, and we carry emergency oxygen for that reason. Despite our gradual ascent, we are struck by many of these afflictions. After a few days, we decide to take Diamox, an altitude sickness medicine, to help us reach our goal.
Despite the precautions, my father is nauseous almost from the outset, and he lives on bread, soup and bananas for the final days. I experience insomnia and some loss of appetite, but the scariest altitude-related event is a two-hour shaking fit I experience at our highest overnight stop, the 18,500-foot Crater Camp. During the feverish attack, I wonder if I'll be able to reach the peak the next day.
Our last two days are the toughest. First, we must get past the Western Breach, a craggy, jagged, Dali-esque rock face covered with small loose rocks and narrow, steep passages. We rise before dawn and spend about eight hours climbing before reaching Crater Camp, a majestic site at the foot of a giant, white glacier. Our last night, we hardly sleep. Besides being exhausted, our breathing is tight – you just can't get enough air. For the first time in my life, I have to transfer the unconscious act of breathing and to a conscious level and actively tell myself to take deep breaths.
The morning of our final ascent, we awake before dawn, try to down a bit of coffee and breakfast, and set out to conquer the final 900 feet. My father hasn't slept well for several nights and appears a bit ashen. Our porters break off and will meet us 10,000 feet below, so it is just four of us – Justin and Lema included – heading for the top.
Traversing the final 900 feet should take only a couple of hours, but one hour into the climb it seems we've hardly progressed. Lema and I repeatedly climb ahead and wait for my father and Justin to catch up. I begin to worry. My father's halting steps look somehow weaker in his bundled state. At one point, I whisper to Justin, "Do you think he can make it?" He assures me that he can, but I wonder if he's just assuaging my concern. I pass along my own words of encouragement and an occasional pat on the shoulder – words and gestures he has offered me so many times – and even invoke the tough-guy maxim that is family lore: "Robsons never quit." But it is strange to see him so vulnerable.
But each time he seems ready to call it quits, the old geezer musters the energy to continue. Robson-like, he refuses to give in. About 3½ hours later, we reach the top of the continent, Uhuru Peak, which means "freedom" in Swahili. We are literally above the clouds. Meru is an anthill in the distance. We embrace and snap photos, and we eagerly await the trip back down to 10,000 feet later that day, where it will seem like we are swimming in oxygen.
Later that evening, my father likens the experience to the two-a-day practices from his college football days, and he admits the trek put demands on his physical resources and resolve surpassing any previously. I'm sure it's the toughest thing we've ever done together, and I'm glad we had the chance. On the way down, Lema tells us a Tanzanian expression for extreme muscle fatigue: feeling like "ripe bananas." We do.
Ultimately, a mountain is knowable only in small parts, in piecemeal fashion, never in totality. I can't wrap my hands around it, feel all its contours, grab onto its whole. I catch its breath or snatch a glimpse of its essence in the closing light of day or in a small alpine flower or from the craggy rocks overhead – everything in small degrees. In the same way has my father become more knowable to me.