I wish to dedicate this account to:
Abell Sr. for inspiration
Bell Abell for her loving support, understanding and being Mom
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
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.
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
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
The story begins…
1:05am; temperature is 5 degrees F. Wind 15mph with -13-wind chill, altitude
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”.
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.
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?”).
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
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
Plateau with our goal 22 miles away
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Yusto negotiating the Western Breach above the clouds
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.
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)
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.
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!
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.
camera was frozen but we had Nate’s disposable as a backup and take our
priceless summit pictures. 19,340 ft.
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
on the Western Breach 17,000ft…a stunning view
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.
Haji and the scree
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.
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
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
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 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
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.
THE SUMMIT OF
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