Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

After leaving ACPE faculty member Eric Berkowitz and Charles Cudjoe and the other Guild of Medical Directors staff in Abuja, my African vacation began with a solo journey through Nairobi, Kenya. Next I crossed the border by “tourist bus” into Tanzania, where I finally met my wife and daughter in Arusha at the central bus station.

After a day of rest and preparation at Hotel Marangu, we began our climb at the Rongai Route trailhead after a two-hour drive by Land Cruiser. Starting at about 8,000-feet elevation, the three Silbaughs and Freddie, Onesmo, and Erik (our guides and porters) moved up the mountain each day for the next three and a half days. Camping in our tents each night, I learned to appreciate the nightly call of nature. When else would you deliberately leave the warmth of a sleeping bag to see the stars shining brilliantly in the cold night sky?

Moving higher and higher, reminders of the risks were frequent. From Freddie’s stories of accidents on Kilimanjaro over the years, to the wreckage of a fatal plane crash a few months earlier, to the physical challenges of altitude, it made me appreciate my mortality. Knowing our time on earth is limited puts my daily activities in proper perspective. Confronting my mortality many years ago on my first visit to the Himalaya was liberating, and a refreshing change from how I viewed death as a physician.

The highest camp (Kibu Hut) is about 16,000 feet elevation. Arriving at Kibu around 2 p.m. in the midst of a snow squall, we crawled inside our tent for a few hours rest before the planned midnight departure for the summit. Each of us was thinking our own private thoughts about our fitness for the last part of the climb – another 3,000+ feet to the summit. If one of us couldn’t make it, the other two could still continue with one guide. But if two of us couldn’t, we’d all have to come down with the two guides. Our goals and well-being were clearly tied to that of the other climbers – the ultimate in team dynamics!

Midnight. Clear skies. Cold. Four layers of winter clothes. Headlamps all working well. Despite the discomforts of altitude, we all committed to going up. Focusing on one step at a time, I decided to avoid looking at my watch until the top. And I promised myself not to ask Freddie how much farther we had. What good would it do? I found that concentrating on how to make each step more efficient and less clumsy was my goal. A periodic glance at the intense, star-filled night sky was exhilarating! After a stretch of scrambling up some large boulders with great difficulty, we suddenly saw a sign that told us we were at Gilman’s Point – the so-called “false summit” of Kilimanjaro. Still pitch black, we could see other parties’ headlamps higher on the mountain. Only another one and a half hours to the top! Personally, I was glad it was still dark because seeing the work ahead in daylight might have been discouraging.

We watched the sun rise over Africa on Uhuru Peak, which cast a gigantic shadow over the cloud-covered jungle below. At 19,344 feet, it is the highest point in Africa. Being there with my wife and daughter was an unforgettable experience. We’d managed to successfully face thechallenges of travel and climbing in an unfamiliar place, and help our daughter fulfill a four-year goal of hers – climbing Kilimanjaro before the glacier disappeared. The experience of doing something challenging and hard with good people – not just the exhilaration of reaching the summit – was worth the effort, and will provide memories for a lifetime.