June 30, 2008
Angels on Kili
In the Chagga language, Kilimanjaro means "shining mountain",
"mountain of God". It is the highest free-standing mountain in the
world. A little more than a week ago, my son Michael and I and twenty other
Climb For Hope teammates stood on the top of it. Michael and I bookended the
team- he at 17 the youngest, me at 59 the oldest. I was keeping a promise to Michael I had made
ten years earlier when I had summited Kili- that I would return one day with
The summit success rate on Kilimanjaro is 40%. Our team of twenty-two
defied all the odds. Every one of us reached the summit. A minor miracle considering the make-up of
our team. Many of the team, including Michael, were at high altitude for the
first time, climbing for friends, mothers, and sisters lost to breast cancer.
Before the start of the climb, one of our teammates said: “The angels of our loved ones will pull us to
the top of the mountain.” When I hear stuff like that, I just shrug it off. I
know from hardened experience what it takes. Grit, teamwork, doing the right
things would get us to the top.
But sometimes mountains give you incredible moments.
The Macheme route up Kilimanjaro is spectacular. A different
climate zone every day, you're trekking through rainforest (today in
jungleland), flowing through misty Scottish moors, moonwalking through alpine
desert, until finally reaching the summit zone and the snows of Kilimanjaro.
Every time we hit 15,000 feet along the way, Michael is hit with altitude
Midnight in our base camp dining tent, getting ready for the
summit push, I give Michael a Diamox. Too fatigued to get his water bottle
outside the tent, Michael tries to get the pill down with hot chocolate. It’s
too hot. Michael chokes on it, dives
under the dining table, vomiting everything inside him just as Dan, our head
guide, pops his head in the tent to tell us it's time to go for the top.
Michael and I make our way into the bracing night, cold high stars blazing
overhead, crunching in the snow past the waiting team. Evan, Travis, and Alessandra wait for us to
join the lead team to take us all to the summit. Seven to eight brutal hours
ahead of us. It's a fight for Michael every step of the way. Freezing,
vomiting, dehydrated, staggering, beyond physical exhaustion, he leaves it all
on the mountain. Every hour we climb 55 minutes, break for 5, and during every
break Evan (the guide on our lead team) and I ask Michael if he wants to hang
it up. But Michael refuses to quit. As we approach Stella Point, we stop on a
steep vertical pitch to talk a gonzo Alessandra down from a meltdown, and we climb on.
Dawn at Stella Point is jaw-dropping.
Forty-five minutes later, at 7:15am, all twenty-two of us are on
the top of Africa, Uhuru Point, 19,340 feet. Michael is totally wasted. I hug
him and he holds on tight, his tears flowing with everyone else's. Emotions running high, I'm the only one of
our team not crying. My focus is on Michael's condition. At 19,340 feet you’re
breathing half your normal oxygen, and Michael's breathing is very labored. He
honors his pledge to his high school graduating class- he's missing his
graduation for the climb- and leaves their yearbook pictures under a monument
of rocks. Worried, I call Dan over to listen to Michael's breathing. "Is
it HAPE?", I ask. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema can kill you if you don't
go down. Dan immediately calls over two of our African guides and tells them to
rush Michael down the mountain to the safety of lower altitude. Arnold takes
Michael's pack and one of his arms, John takes the other arm. Together they
bomb down the mountain, Michael's feet barely touching the ground.
Pretty fried myself, I can't keep up. So I get separated from Michael on the long
way down to our summit base camp. The downhill is pure torture. I'm wracked
with guilt. Did I blow it? Did I let Michael cross that line between going for
the summit and turning around to live to climb another day? I know better. But
look what I’ve done- put my son's health, maybe even his life, on the line. All
the way down the mountain, my mantra is a prayer: "Be all right, Michael.
Be all right."
After a few hours of all-out worry and fear, I catch up with Evan, who's taking
a break on a rocky outcrop. There's a radio clipped to the shoulder strap of Evan’s
pack. I ask if there's any word on
Michael. "Sorry, Gary", Evan answers. "No word." Evan and I
are still above the clouds, and we gaze down as a cloud races up the mountain
to overtake us. We brace ourselves for the burst of cold, wet air we know is
coming. But as the cloud passes through us, it brings a rush of warm, electric
air and a luminescent glow. A smell of new
grass and something ethereal hits us. We
stand transfixed, every nerve ending tingling.
"What the fuck was
in that cloud?", Evan asks.
In the next instant his radio crackles. Then Michael's voice,
sure and strong: "John, Arnold, and Michael are safely down in base
I fall back against the rocks.
"That was an angel," I answer Evan. “There was an angel in
that cloud." And then my tears come.
The next day we make our way down through lush, dripping jungle and off the
mountain. As we're driving back through
Moshi to the Kia Lodge to well-earned hot showers and cold beers, the clouds
clear and from the side of the road the hidden Kilimanjaro rears in all its
majesty. Michael looks up at the summit and then at me and says, "Dad, we
conquered that mountain." Michael, what you really did was conquer
yourself. You hit your wall on Kilimanjaro but refused to give in. You broke
through with courage and strength and determination. On the other side of that
wall is rarefied air and the stuff of greatness. When you win in the high places, you know
that you can win anywhere.
It's your time now, Michael- the end of an amazing high school
career, the beginning of the rest of your life. You are destined for great
things. Get out there and change the
world. Climb some more shining mountains- and know that in that rarefied air, you’ll
sometimes find angels in those clouds.