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Nathan and I wish to dedicate this account to:


Edward B. Abell Sr. for inspiration

Kristin Bell Abell for her loving support, understanding and being Mom

and The South African Team


Introduction: My father amassed an enviable library of mountain exploration books. He was an enthusiastic student of Himalayan climbing history. Over time I’ve added contemporary volumes to the collection that now resides in an honored place on my shelves. One of them is invariably on my nightstand. Since I was a boy those books instilled a quiet passion in me that only fanned the fires of action as I approached my 50’s. Not exactly an age to begin climbing at high altitude but getting arguably close to now or never. In 2001 I climbed, non-technical, Mt. Fuji with my family. (Non-technical means no ropes or special climbing gear other than your own two feet, a walking stick and some pluck. Climbing Fuji-san is like hiking up the stairs of five Empire State Buildings). That was 12,300ft. A wonderful, dream come true experience. I had been bitten, however, by the bug and, in time, restless for a more challenging adventure.

Many of my heroes in those books climbed The Seven Summits. They are the highest points on each continent, Mt. Everest being the highest. My 53-year-old frame does not possess the youth or skills to climb any of them except for possibility one. The notion of standing in a place my heroes have been was intriguing and the impetus for my decision.


Mt. Kilimanjaro is 19,340 ft. It is the highest point in Africa and the tallest mountain in the world that has the potential to be reached without technical climbing skills.


In addition, with our two sons now in their teens, my wife and I are taking advantage of one on one opportunity. With college imminent, I felt it was the perfect time to have a shared adventure of this magnitude with my 17-year-old son Nathan.


The story begins…

Crater Camp


Crater Camp 1:05am; temperature is 5 degrees F. Wind 15mph with -13-wind chill, altitude 18,370ft.


It was one of those times to have a conversation with myself, “You’re the one who wanted to camp on top of the crater old boy, so welcome to high altitude”.


Cocooned by our double walled tent, surrounded by -20 sleeping bags it is warm and comfortable. I’ve just attempted to fall asleep again and I continue to be jolted awake with a feeling of suffocation. I’d read about this predicable altitude condition in my many mountain climbing books. I understood the situation, there is not a lot you can do with 50% less oxygen in the air your breathing. You simply don’t sleep.

Big Tree Camp “2 am the first night…couldn’t sleep”


It was not as bad as it sounds. The same thing was happening to my son Nate, to a lesser degree, so we rested as best we could and decided to talk about brats, pizza, Doritos, turtle sundaes, hotdogs, pork tenderloin, egg foo young and all the food we were going to eat when we got back to Wisconsin. While awake we could breathe just fine. All things considered, we had a fun night imaging luscious and delectable foods. Plus, we were buzzed by our location (I don’t know how many times we said, “Can you believe were on top of Kilimanjaro?”).

 Reusch Crater

Sleep had already become arbitrary. Our journey to Tanzania jet-lagged through nine time zones and down across the equator in only 24 hours. We each drank 4 to 5 liters of water daily, so we got up and out of the tent 3 or 4 times a night. (The key to success climbing at altitude and preventing altitude sickness is to go slowly and drink lots of water). We were in the tent from sun down to sun up. Our sleep came in a succession of naps. There was always plenty of rest.

We also knew our toughest pitch, The Western Breach, was behind us. It was a mixture of hiking and rock scrambling. There were seven or eight areas of exposure to steep drop-offs close to the trials edge (I focused on my guide’s feet and didn’t look down. There was one spot I questioned my own sanity in bringing my son), but ultimately doable for flatlanders who can grip rock. We’d climbed it in just under 5 hours, which was an efficient assent time (I thought I was holding everyone up) gaining half a mile in altitude and spent the afternoon in wonderment walking around on top of the crater with its stunning glaciers, frozen snow fields and cinder-coned moonscape.


Arrow Camp and the Western Breach


Crater show field


There are six diverse routes up the mountain: Shira, Lemosho Glades (our path), Machame, Umbwe, Marangu and Rongai. Two routes down: Marangu and Mweka (our path). Four of them will deposit you at the foot of the Western Breach. You can choose to climb the Breach or carry-on around the mountain. Only the daytime Western Breach climb enables viewing of the whole crater top and camping overnight. The other “easier” routes have you climbing through the night directly to the true summit hopefully for sunrise.


Our first steps onto the crater need to be lived though to be understood. I hugged my son and we burst into tears. Reaching the crater qualifies you for a bronze certificate if you choose not to go the extra 1000ft. to the summit for gold. We knew what we had gone through to get here; planning, preparation, and miles of work, dust, occasional doubt and risk. We didn’t feel triumphant or profound, just a tremendous sense of being alive. It was an incredible emotion. I realized why people do this, an unforgettable experience to share with my son.


On the crater with summit ridge behind          


We knew the pitch the next day was a predicable one-hour climb to the true summit, Uhuru Peak and the rest of the day would be DOWN. That meant; more oxygen, sodas, and the first shower in eleven days, beds with sheets, flush toilets, clean cloths, ice cream and well, less dust anyway.


Our reliable support crew totaled nineteen. Nine came to the crater and three went to the summit. The crew that didn’t go to the crater traversed to our final camp on the way down the mountain. These guys dutifully carried everything; (35lbs each) including; our personal gear, food, cooking stuff, tents, sleeping mats, dishes and our outhouse (yes, we were the only clients I saw that had our own, just for my son and I. The views from the window of the ever-changing mountain scenery were outstanding). All we carried was water, camera and whatever layers we would need that day. (15lbs)


 Haji and I

My research of the outfitters was done one year in advance. Acclimatization time, reputation, safety and camping on the crater were my main criteria. Tusker Trail & Safari was the only one that combined all four. The nine days up, two days down hike offered time to get used to the altitude. We were checked twice a day with pulse-oximeters to see the oxygen content in our blood. Those numbers told the guides if we were acclimating or not so they could anticipate trouble. Our lungs were checked every morning. All the guides are medically trained. They carried oxygen, a stretcher and a Gamow bag (portable artificial pressure chamber) on the trip and had their own evacuation protocol. Indeed, the porter with the rescue equipment (Haji) was my wingman throughout the climb. No doubt my angioplasty in 1999 earned Tuskers’ quiet concern but I’d passed my pre-trip medical check and never expected or had any issues. As a father and a trekker, it was calmly reassuring to have Haji and the plan in place.

Prior to our departure we were inoculated for Yellow Fever, Polio, Hepatitis A &B, Typhoid and Meningitis. We felt fairly indestructible. The oral Lariam program we ingested for Malaria prevention, however, gave us nightmares and occasional anxiety attacks. Even with knowledge of these side effects, we both had moments of uneasiness during our outbound journey. We endured some very spooky stuff. My hands started shaking uncontrollably as I repacked my carry-on when we exited airport security in Milwaukee. Nathan fought panic as we prepared to board the plane to Amsterdam in Detroit. The panic would come and go like someone was flicking a switch. We helped each other though it. The irony is it was the dry-season in Tanzania. We never saw any mosquitoes.

Shira Plateau with our goal 22 miles away

Then, all that was necessary was to hike 50 miles traversing six eco-systems: cultivation, forest, heather, moorland, alpine desert and arctic. The trail gained three miles in altitude into very thin air and took us down the opposite side of the mountain back to an oxygen rich environment.


Our guides Stephen and Yusto became very good friends. I’d never had a “guide” before but I understood the absolute necessity of having people we could

rely on to keep us safe and successful. We were not disappointed. Each evening we were told what to wear for the next day and what we were going to do. As simple as this may sound, it was exceedingly helpful. We didn’t have to guess which layers to wear nor did we over pack. They tested us on the scarier pitches, and there were a few, so they could measure us, make comments and prepare us for things to come. Every day Stephen would say, “if you go slowly (pole’-pole’ in Swahili) and drink lots of water (maji) the mountain is easy.” As I stood poised at the foot of the Western Breach, I believed him. Not that it would be easy, but because of our preparation, I felt confident I could handle the challenge.


I liked and trusted Stephen the moment I met him. Businesslike and in control, he could read people (me) instantly and had a unique laugh to compliment his dry sense of humor. We’d read about the glaciers receding on Kilimanjaro that experts think will be gone by 2015. I asked Stephen his opinion on the subject and he quips back, “the experts guessed from Ohio”. The first day we met Stephen we gave him a “Wisconsin” t-shirt as a gift. Twelve days later we had our final dinner at the hotel. I’d forgotten we’d even given it to him and he exits the cab wearing it to honor us. This guy was centered and in the groove. It was another moment in a series of very special memories.

Yusto, the junior guide, endeared himself to me after knowing him only little parts of four days. The seven-hour hike to Moir Camp 13,350ft was our longest day on the trial. It took to us to an altitude we had never experienced. As we approached the wildly beautiful spot for our lunch break I was tired, felt nauseous, I had a brute of a headache and was overcome with self-doubt. Because of my age, medical history and the Lariam, I mistakenly thought there was some unknown set of circumstances that would somehow disqualify me from continuing. I was afraid to discuss it but my hunched and defeated posture told the story. I was sitting on the ground staring at the lunch I couldn’t possibly eat shaking my head from side to side. My mind was rehearsing the excuses I’d offer to my son, family and friends for my failure. As horrible a mental state as I’ve ever experienced.

Nathan touched my shoulder in an act of solidarity, encouragement and understanding. Then Yusto sat down next to me and asked, “How are you my brother”? He could not have picked five more impeccable words. That phrase unlocked the door to my imaginary cell. Those words communicated: empathy, trust and understanding the very moment I needed it. Boy, did we have the right guys with us! I shared my “symptoms” and he calmly explained how they divide and conquer each one. Then he added, “Don’t worry about your lunch, you can eat it later”. I was aware in an instant that I’d hit and broken through my self-induced “wall”. The rest of the day and, indeed, the rest of the trip I remained positive and focused. At the next rest break my lunch was delicious.


We were in seven different campsites (two for two days). We were only by our selves in one camp. In the others we met people from South Africa, Italy, England, Switzerland, Canada and Holland. All were climbing different routes with a variety of outfitters. Some of the trekkers on the mountain, only a few days, were sick in the higher camps and walking off the mountain. Too bad they didn’t have guides like ours. What a bummer, coming so far and turning back. (For me, the fear of failure was second only to my son’s safety). Our 9-day climb gave us time to acclimate and a 97% chance of success. Conversely, a 5 day climb gives you only a 50% chance to make it because your body may not adjust. There were many trail combinations to choose from.

Arrow Camp 16,000ft


When climbing high, headaches, loss of appetite and possible nausea are expected but that doesn’t mean you have acute mountain sickness (AMS) as I found out first hand. The “divide and conquer” strategy prevented us from being fooled into thinking we had cerebral or pulmonary edema or AMS. Symptoms for AMS are: headache, loss of appetite, fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, dizziness, blurred vision and vomiting. Nathan and I only flirted with the first two symptoms. If we’d experienced more of the others, I’d possibly be writing a different story. The cures for headaches were: wear a warmer hat, drink more water, eat a candy bar or take a pill based on where the headache was (front, on the sides, at the back, etc.). They were right every time. The headaches lessened. Hunger would come and go. The most difficult thing we did was force ourselves to eat but we had to, for energy. Stephen was relentless managing our caloric intake.


Nathan and Yusto negotiating the Western Breach above the clouds

 Popcorn and peanuts…mmm


Eric, our chief cook had a favorite saying, “enjoy the mountain…man”.

He and his team served a variety of delicious meals from a tent! Chicken, beef (I think), tuna, potatoes, rice, noodles, 5 different fruits, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, oatmeal, omelets and every day we got to camp (which was always setup) there was roasted peanuts and popcorn waiting for us. We always ate the popcorn. Both of us felt nauseous a few times, but never to the point of taking any medication. On one occasion I came perilously close to ‘decorating” the landscape but persevered.  We apologized to our cook if we couldn’t finish but our friendly porters made sure nothing went to waste.



Every morning I’d hear the porters starting to stir followed by the hiss of the kerosene heaters and pots on the boil. For wakeup and before every dinner our diligent waiter (August) would shuffle over to our tent and tell us he had wash water and the meal ready for us, always “Jambo” (hello) and a great smile. We’d peal ourselves from our bags and slide into our trusty boots followed by a short stroll to the dinning tent. There was soap and two bowls of warm water on the ground for washing. A table set with table-clothe, dishes, silverware and chairs. Chai tea, coffee, milk, “Milo” energy drink and hot water already there, welcome touches of slightly dusty civilization. (I know…not exactly roughing it)


The summit 19,340 ft.


The morning of our summit was no different except for the fact that this was the real “frozen tundra” and our hearts were pounding in tense anticipation of today’s mission. August skipped the wash water because it was 11 degrees. (Even washing twice a day, it took weeks to get the accumulated dirt off our hands after our return). We had spent the night wearing two sets of long underwear, our fleece suits, balaclava and hat, everything but goose down jacket, wind proofs and boots. We drank and ate with our expedition mittens on. It was the fastest we ever left camp. Numb more from lack of O2 than cold, we started the last pitch in shade. As soon as the sun crested the ridge above us, down went the zippers. This was still equatorial Africa…amazing.


Inhale on the left foot, exhale on the right, breathe deep and blow it all out. We almost whistled as we exhaled. The backpressure maximizes the oxygen intake efficiency. Slowly up the trail, watch the guide’s feet; keep your balance in the wind. Suddenly, I look up at nothing but sky. Huge relief washes over me, we don’t have to climb anymore. Man, there’s the top…we made it!

Twenty people are standing at the sign that marks the summit but are on their way down in the few minutes it takes us to cross the basically flat ridge.


My digital camera was frozen but we had Nate’s disposable as a backup and take our priceless summit pictures. 19,340 ft.


I remember thinking the view was better yesterday, but not much else. There were hugs all around, oddly, with less emotion than the day before. The altitude most certainly renders you pedestrian and slow. Stephen, Yusto and Haji want to start down, as this isn’t the type of place to linger. Plus, Haji was dressed in tatters. He didn’t have the latest North Face and REI gear like his clients. I walk 30 paces off the trail and remove my backpack. Hidden away are some of my father’s ashes. I release them into a 20-knot wind, with tears freezing on my cheeks, knowing how proud he’d be. “This is it pops, the highest one I can climb”. He loved mountains but never managed to climb any. He’s been with me on three mountain adventures. Our guides understood my gesture.


Rest stop on the Western Breach 17,000ft…a stunning view


From here it’s DOWN all the way. We walk 400 yards past the slow sunrise climbers still laboring up the trail just as we had been. “Keep going it’s worth it”. We get to the top of a ¾ mile scree field. This allows you to jump and slide down on the gravel almost like skiing. We remove our down jackets and off we go. Nate had been anticipating this pitch since before our departure and disappears in a cloud of dust. I don’t see him again until our mid-day stop…spectacular!


It took 5 days to climb the distance we will descend now in just 5 hours. We plummeted from 19,340 to 12,500ft. My knees underscored the distance we covered. We descended with feelings of accomplishment and confidence. Finally, we were able breathe and construct more than a two-word sentence again.


Nathan, Haji and the scree


At our final camp the hard working porters all gave us thumbs-up, they know a happy client tips well but their emotion is validating and genuine. We were kind to all of them, and they to us, the entire trip. We were always first to leave camp with the guides. The crew then packed the camp and practically ran past us on the trail carrying 35-pound loads on their heads. We’d step aside to give them room and acknowledgement by saying,”jambo” (hello) and “asante sana” (thank you) to every one. We even shared a few candy bars if they took a break when we did. A Snickers bar and a smile are international language when conversation is out of the question.


The last day we would say good-bye to all the porters, they sang a song in Swahili about our success climbing Kilimanjaro, a wonderfully empowering moment, we felt a calm dignity and joy.

It was dark after our candle light dinner that we were, at last, truly hungry for so we’re in the tent at about 7:30. As with every night, except the crater, the porters would stay up talking and laughing until 9:30ish. Listening to that din of beautiful sing/song Swahili as we drifted off is one of the experiences I’ll miss the most about our trip. Hearing that music, on a full stomach, with well-earned sleep imminent and a summit behind us was anything but suffocating.




I experienced everything I wanted to, and more, about mountain climbing on this trip. The epiphany of understanding, my heroes’ footsteps, the joy, fatigue, friendship, culture, laughter, resolution, tragedy, commitment, adventure, happiness, mission, success and more. The time with my son was irreplaceable, a life experience to be cherished. I would, however, be remiss in the telling of this heart-felt account without the significance and perspective of these last paragraphs…


A group of six South Africans had attempted the Western Breach the night before our day climb. We’d seen their headlamps above us in the moonlit night during our trips out of the tent as they twinkled in a mesmerizing serpentine pattern. As we began our assent in the morning, we were surprised to see three of them coming down. (The Breach is an up route. I have no idea how they down climbed some of the areas or where they spent the night). All one said was “farewell”. By his demeanor and delivery I knew something serious had happened. (I’ll never hear the word again without returning to that moment.) I figured they either got scared, injured or sick. Next, two of the ladies came along and told us they lost a companion to a suspected heart failure and subsequent fall. I was dumbstruck.

As horrible as this was for the South African’s, Nathan and I faced a different reality. This meant we would have to pass the porters bringing this fellow down and the potential of diluting our resolve and spiking our adrenalin with additional fear.


5 to 15 people die each year out of 25,000 that attempt Kilimanjaro. 60% of all the attempts make it to the summit. Statistically, this is not a dangerous place. We knew we could possibly confront some fear of heights issues but danger was not our game. With all due respect to the South Africans and their devastating outcome, I read opinions that even those few deaths could be prevented by preparation, safety and pace.


I told Nate, “That’s life. This happens on mountains”. There was absolutely nothing we could do for these folks other than the squeeze of an arm and to offer hollow condolences. Nathan and I agreed to stay focused on our task and sort out our feelings when we arrived on the top. Quitting was never discussed. We had no other choice; this was to be our most difficult pitch, the pitch that claimed the life of a climber the previous night. There was no time for extracurricular emotion or distraction. Our guide, Stephen, impressively took control of the situation as we passed the porters to minimize our exposure to the dead climber and up we went, one foot after the other, breath after breath, to the roof of Africa.




19,340 ft


 AT 8:15AM




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