Ernest Hemingway writes in the introduction to The Snows of Kilimanjaro: “Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called Masai, the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
Like the leopard, I, too, was searching for something unknown on Kilimanjaro. When I announced to my wife and daughters that I was planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, they thought I was nuts. After seeing a Kilimanjaro video, their position moderated to just, “Please don’t do it.” Eventually my wife agreed that as long as I trained sufficiently, chose the trekking company with the best safety record and made two promises to her, I could go. The first promise was that I would do everything in my power to “not die” on Kilimanjaro. The second promise was to climb only as high as I could safely go – even if that meant descending down the mountain without reaching the summit.
I made these promises freely, feeling confident they would be easy to keep. In reality, I came very close to breaking both of them.
It is just before sunrise on August 13, 2011. We are making the final push to the top of the crater rim of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Although we are near the Equator, the weather is brutally cold, so cold that my water is frozen and I cannot feel my fingers. Thankfully, the night is almost over. The moon is full and millions of stars seem to be following us as we climb in single file behind our guide, Tobias. As the hours crawl by, the torch beam of my headlamp is focusing on the boots of Sarah, the climber just ahead of me. Looking up, I see the Rebmann Glacier, a silver overhanging piece of the ancient ice cap that crowns the square top of Kilimanjaro. High above is the rim of the great volcano itself – closer now—but still beyond reach. A chill creeps through each layer of clothes and begs every part of me to cry out. The temperature is minus 20 Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit).
Almost forgetting the reason for coming, I am tempted to end it and ask a guide to lead me back down the mountain. Then I remember what it took to get to Africa and thought back to a time, three years earlier, when illness was getting the better of me and I promised myself that upon recovery I would do something important, just for me. With the singular clarity of Hemingway’s leopard, I am reminded of the reason I had come and why I have to push on.
In 2008 I was 49 and faced both prostate cancer and a heart condition. The cancer was diagnosed early and I decided to treat it aggressively with radical prostatectomy. Just after recovery from surgery, I developed a rapid and irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation. As with the cancer, I chose the most invasive approach, but the one with the best chance of full recovery. In December I underwent a five hour surgical procedure to cauterize (burn) the sections of my heart causing the abnormal rhythm, thereby eliminating the atrial fibrillation. Thus, 2008 was a year that could have turned me into an old, sick man. Instead, I had overcome two potentially debilitating illnesses and could begin to dream again.
I wanted and needed an adventure, something to test myself, something significant. It was hard for me to shake the underlying fear that I was not done with the illnesses, but merely between them. If another medical incident occurred, the door could close and my one chance would be lost. Searching for the dream, I looked into my past and saw things I could no longer realistically accomplish for a variety of reasons. Before marrying my wife and starting our family, I took a long, solo voyage in a small sailboat and hoped in my lifetime to sail alone to Bermuda or beyond. Such a voyage now would be out of the question due to the unacceptable level of risk it involved. I also dreamed of bicycling 3,500 miles coast to coast, but this would be too time consuming; I could not be away from my insurance practice for more than a few weeks at a time.
The goal of climbing Kilimanjaro arose at my three-year post surgery cancer check-up as my surgeon described his trek up Africa’s highest mountain. The seed was planted; I was hooked and there was no turning back. Half a year of intensive training followed, which included daily two-hour workouts, thousands of stairs climbed, long city miles walked and timed, hills run up and trainers obeyed. I hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail on weekends with Outdoor Bound and hired a nutritionist to help turn fat into muscle, dropping additional weight; all culminating in my trip to Africa to attempt to scale the great mountain. By the time I landed in Tanzania, I felt as though my entire life was leading up to this moment. These memories motivated me to keep pushing on.
Back on the mountain, we continue to move in silence. Our climbing party includes Larry, an American living in Nigeria; Wendy, an airline pilot; and Sarah, an attorney. We had never met before the climb. Of the four of us, I am the only one without high altitude climbing experience and, not surprisingly, am having trouble at this extreme altitude. In five days we had climbed through a dense rain forest, over Heathland and Moorland, used our hands and feet to scramble up an 800 foot volcanic rock face called The Great Barranco Wall and through a high alpine desert. At this point we are scaling the scree (a combination of shale and gravel) toward the icecap on the way to the summit. Twelve hours earlier, during our final meal before starting out on the all-night summit attempt, I admitted I would willingly lose a finger, a toe, or a few of each, in exchange for making it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. With that, I was on my way to breaking my second promise.
We began this sixth day of hiking at midnight. Each of us having donned every layer of clothing in our arsenal. I had multiple layers on top and bottom including: hats, face mask – even three pairs of socks.
Our guides were carrying the safety equipment, including large tanks of oxygen and masks for each climber. A rescue porter carries a portable altitude chamber called a Gamow bag and folding stretcher. In all, each guide is burdened with 75 pounds of gear. At this stage of the climb, I had merely to lug my own 52-year-old, 5’10”, 205-pound butt 4,000 feet up to the top of the mountain. To put the trek to the summit in perspective, journalist John Reader describes: “It is equivalent to clambering up the side of nine Empire State Buildings laid end to end at about sixteen degrees. Yet, at 4,710 meters (15,452 feet) there is little more than half the density of oxygen which occurs on Manhattan or at the foot of most staircases. So in effect, the aspiring climber attempts the equivalent of those feats with the equivalent of only one lung.”
Throughout the preceding days, as we climbed to ever higher altitudes, our bodies worked to acclimatize to the decreasing amount of oxygen pressure. Failure to acclimatize could result in acute mountain sickness (AMS). The intensity and severity of AMS symptoms can vary, but can quickly become extremely serious and, although rare, prove fatal. Of those who attempt the climb each year, more than 1,000 are evacuated from the mountain and approximately 10 deaths are reported – mainly due to AMS.
Despite these risks, Mount Kilimanjaro is sometimes called “everyman’s Everest,” because it is the most achievable of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each of the world’s seven continents). No technical climbing skills or mountaineering equipment such as ice axes and ropes are required. While thou- sands of people climb the peak successfully, the mountain is often underestimated. Fewer than half of those who begin the trek up Kilimanjaro reach the top of the mountain due to the debilitating headaches and nausea from altitude sickness, or physical maladies ranging from blisters to fever or an infection from water borne organisms. Sometimes failing to reach the summit is a simple lack of will on the climber’s part.
As we climb through the night, we pass many hikers on their way down – some dragged down due to the effects of AMS. The sight and smells of the remnants of their illnesses line our path up the mountain. Looking up toward the top of the crater rim called Stella Point, I feel that I cannot go on any longer. The positive thoughts that helped me put one foot in front of the other for so many hours have vanished because breathing takes so much energy. Several hours and a thousand feet remain to climb. Having already asked my guides to stop for me several times, how can I ask again?
And then there is the secret I am keeping from my guides and climbing partners. For the past three nights I have not slept at all. Alone at night in my tent, working to breathe and nursing a deep, persistent cough, I am fearful that if I fall asleep I will not wake up. My resting pulse rate on the upper mountain is more than 100; although my heartbeat is regular, I fear a return of the atrial fibrillation high on the mountain. If the guides learn the extent of my insomnia, they will surely make me descend the mountain, ending my climb. Sleeplessness is my demon; I spend the nights praying for morning to come.
As the sun makes its slow rise over Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro’s eastern summit, the scree forces us to slip back and dig our poles into the earth, pulling up with every step in order to advance. A howling wind picks up and, with it, the top soil of the slope becomes airborne. I take out my goggles, but it’s too late. Gritty dust gets in both eyes, stinging and temporarily blinding me. I can’t give up, I must get to the top of this mountain, which is so close now. We reach the top of the volcano at 7:30 am – but this is not the true summit.
Now we must hike from Stella Point around the crater rim to the summit – Uhuru (Freedom) Peak, which could take another hour. The going is painfully slow; but thankfully, with an elevation gain of 500 feet, not as steep. I can barely see due to the sand in my eyes. For a time, I follow Tobias, fixing my gaze on a red string hanging from his backpack to guide my way. Above the clouds the landscape looks unworldly. Breathless, we trudge around the volcano, passing other climbers who successfully reached the summit and are now on their way down.
The summit is capped by a primitive, hand-carved wooden sign proclaiming “Congratulations you are now at Uhuru Peak Tanzania 5895 M. AMSL.” We can see it long before we arrive. For me, there’s no more air to breathe, and I am parched, but my water is still frozen. The thought occurs to me to puncture my arm and attach a straw to quench my thirst; then I realize I’m not thinking clearly.
We hike up to the sign and arrive at the mountain’s summit. It’s 8:30 am and after climbing throughout another sleepless night the experience is quite literally breathtaking. I cannot believe I am standing on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro!
We wait to be photographed at the most famous marker in Africa. A German group is ahead of us – shooting every possible angle to document their journey. Then it’s our turn. Amazingly, even at 19,340 feet, in the purest, cleanest air in Africa, graffiti litters the sign. Stickers advertise Fila and radio stations; one proclaims Nick’s famous roast beef restaurant. All are slapped on this sacred sign by those wishing to capitalize on their achievement, marring the beauty that is Kilimanjaro’s summit.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a geographical wonder. Rising majestically from the Tanzanian plains near Kenya, it can be seen from 95 miles away. It remains one of the world’s largest volcanoes and is technically not extinct. Kilimanjaro was first documented by the ancient world when the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy recorded a great snow mountain in the second century AD. In 1849 a German missionary reported seeing a snow-capped mountain at the Equator, but was ridiculed by the Royal Geographical Society – believing snow near the Equator to be an impossibility.
After our summit pictures we sit by the sign. My head spins and my breathing is labored. We stay too long in the thin air. Now it’s time to trek back around the crater rim and head down the mountain – which we do – although I have almost no memory of this. At 9:30 am we reach the point where we descend steeply. It is then that I physically implode; it feels as though someone with a baseball bat is whacking me repeatedly on the back of the head I sit down – or fall down – and stay there.
Tobias takes out his medical kit and measures my blood oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter. It reads 58 percent; a normal reading is above 90 percent. A reduction in blood oxygen (hypoxia) can become life-threatening. I feel disoriented, so another guide sets up his oxygen tank, affixes the plastic tubing and puts it around my neck. I breathe like the first breath after being born. I have early symptoms of high altitude cerebral edema – swelling of the brain due to AMS. The guide gives me Decadron, a powerful steroid used to reduce inflammation of the brain. I take it and breathe more oxygen. After 20 minutes I am stable enough to continue. My climbing partners patiently wait while I receive treatment. Since the sun has been up for several hours, the air finally warms enough for our water to de-ice. We are at 18,900 feet, still 6,500 feet above a helicopter rescue possibility. In obvious peril, I realize I will have to walk many hours down this steep mountain from now until dusk. We begin without delay.
Ascending the mountain consisted of back and forth trails called switchbacks – to lessen the effect of the steep terrain. Descending is literally straight down. I’m determined to descend under my own power. A guide, aided by the porter who carries my backpack, steadies me as we head down the side of the volcano. The only cure for my sickness is a quick descent to lower altitude. Despite the trekking poles I use to keep me upright, I fall frequently. For hours we stumble down the pebbly scree toward Barafu (Ice) camp at 15,000 feet. It seems to take a lifetime.
We finally arrive in the early afternoon. Waiting for us is a lunch of soup and rice with butter and bread prepared by the porters who awaited our return. I breathe more bottled oxygen, take more steroid pills, and am told to take a brief nap. Head still pounding, I fight the need for sleep and choose instead to stay awake – convinced that I cannot safely sleep at 15,000 feet with symptoms of brain swelling. I recall the promise I made to return safely. The medicine and oxygen must be working because I am feeling some relief now. We decide to continue down toward our planned destination of Mweka Camp – at 10,400 feet – a four-hour hike from Barafu. As we descend, the terrain becomes more earthly. We see lush, beautiful vegetation found nowhere else in the world and running streams. The air fills with increasing amounts of oxygen. We pass Millennium Camp with its helicopter landing field and continue down the mountain. Time and miles pass by and the pounding in my head subsides. I become more alive with each passing hour. It is dusk when we reach Mweka Camp, after hiking for 18 hours, including the brief stop at Barafu. I send a text to my wife Carol to let her know I am safe.
That night I sleep in my tent like a child without a worry in the world. Although spent and exhausted, symptoms of illness have disappeared.
In the morning, our porters and guides who had cared for us over the past week, serenade us with African songs. We shake hands and thank them using the few Swahili words and phrases we had learned over the past seven days on Mount Kilimanjaro. Together, we descend to the base of the mountain.
When I consider how easily my experience could have had a different outcome, I shudder. Every aspect of the climb was more difficult than I had envisioned. Like Hemingway’s leopard, I was driven to climb to a dangerous altitude. But unlike the leopard, I knew both why I was driven to climb the mountain and the reason I had to return home. In my promise to descend if I became sick, I did not count on pushing myself so hard to get to the top, leaving absolutely nothing for the return trip down. However, I was comforted in knowing that there were those at home – family and friends – who helped will me up the mountain, giving me strength during the endless nights and praying for my safety. The new friends and guides with whom I was climbing understood how to help when things went wrong. I learned that I was not alone.
Looking back on the adventure of my lifetime, I wonder how in the world I got through each day, let alone stood at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Jay Scheiner, JD, CLU
Jay lives in Long Island, NY. For the past 20 years, he has been a partner at Agent Support Group, a life insurance brokerage agency based in New York City, which is a member of LifeMark Partners. An avid fan of the outdoors, Scheiner enjoys boating and bicycling—in addition to hiking. He can be reached by telephone at 516-467-1190 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.