A last look at Mount Kilimanjaro. My eyes fill with tears, which is a little embarrassing here in the bus from Arusha to Nairobi. Thankfully, instead of the usual rap music, our driver has a Christian station on the radio, with choruses of devout disciples singing happy songs: Asante Mungu, Assante Jesu. A pious and expansive Kenynan, Sephora, sits to my left, and David Bangama with his lovely wife from Tanzania sit in front of me. I do not want them to see my tears. They are Kili tears and cannot be shared just yet.
Through the vast African plain we roll, passing villages of Massai in their scarlet robes and sticks in hand as they govern small flocks of goats and cows. I have finally won a place in the real Africa. Umbrella-shaped Acacia trees populate her dusty grasslands. Three ostriches eye our passing bus, their large grey feathers flapping in the dusty wind. Every so often a ponderous anthill punctuates the plain, its lumpy towers looking like so many fumaroles communicating from a world below. Mt. Kilimanjaro is a volcano too, and I can still see it rising through various strata of clouds as our bus bumps along the potted road toward Nairobi.
Yesterday morning I watched the sun rise from Kilimanjaro’s highest point, Uhuru Peak. On my way down I saw a woman struggling to reach the signposts at Stella Point (600 feet below the summit); she grasped the sign, collapsing in sobs. Her lips were blue and she moved over to some rocks and vomited. Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest point on earth one can climb without technical equipment or life support. 50,000 a year attempt to reach her 19,300 foot summit, but less than half make it. My partner and I made it through careful planning and a dedicated guide named Davis from Tanzania.
At 11pm on Thursday night, my porter Mangusha tugged at the tent. “It’s time, Babba Joseph.” I unzipped my bag and felt how icy the air had become since I had turned in after dinner. After a bit of steaming porridge in the mess tent, we suited up for the climb. The vast group from the South Africa mining company was already filing out one by one, headlamps blazing in the inky darkness. Our group of four soon passed them under ten billion stars. Within an hour, though, the moon cleared Awanzi peak and we began switching off our lights to see the moon’s glow on freshly-fallen snow. The ascent was just over 4000 feet up, and we had spent five days progressively acclimatizing. So far, this trek had been a cakewalk for me. I ate up the miles between camps and hardly felt the altitude. Davis, our guide, took blood oxygen levels morning and night, and mine had maintained itself at over 90%.
Shortly after we started this final push, though, Davis began correcting me. “Father Joseph, you must follow me. Do not choose your own path.” I reluctantly agreed. At a rest stop he told me to zip all my pockets up and I became irritated. He kept pulling my water bottle out for me to drink (hydration hose long since frozen). At another rest stop I was having trouble getting my handkerchief out with heavily-gloved hands, and Davis moved to put it back for me. “Davis,” I said, facing him squarely. “I’m a big boy. We will get along much better if you treat me as an adult.” He responded meekly and we trudged upward. “Jeepers,” I ruminated, “I have probably hiked a lot more than he has. What does this African know about mountaineering that a Californian doesn’t?” I struggled with resentment toward a younger man.
We continued in silence for another hour. Then Davis began to sing. And my partner and I began to fail. We were not breathing that hard, but his head began to pound and I started seeing stars not only in the sky above but on the ground below. We stopped for the regulation “ibuprofen break”—even the guides pop 400mg at this point. We started again, and my stomach began to cramp up and my strength to fail. I looked up at the towering ridges framed in starlight above us: they were leaning, turning, falling on me. Davis gripped my shoulders: “You can do this, Father Joseph,” he insisted. “You climb this mountain with your mind. Do not think you are bigger than Kilimanjaro. But do not think you are smaller than God made you. You are small, and the mountain is big, but God is with you. You can do this, but you need to follow me.” I was panting: “Yes, Davis. Yes, I will follow you. Let us go.” We got up and now the slope rose almost 45 degrees above us. I glued my eyes on Davis’ heals and moved with him, one step, one step, one step.
And with that conversion of attitude, joy and strength returned. I had only to follow. It does not take that much to climb this mountain—only humility. Only the surrender of adult control and the willingness to follow Daddy up the hill. I began to sing with Davis and I began to weep. No one could see me in the dark, but I panted out great silent sobs with each gasping breath. God is with us; He is carrying us up this mountain. I had become a little child. All I must do is follow Daddy, one small step at a time. I need not worry about how long or how far or how difficult. I need not worry about myself.
And so we did it. We reached Stella Point under a sky filled with stars, but with the early dawn breaking in the east. We stopped for water and some biscuits, then another 50 minutes and we struggled up to Uhuru Point ten minutes before the sun cleared the eastern rim of Kilimanjaro’s far crater. I was drunk with oxygen deprivation, trying to utter rational lightheartedness but walking as if disembodied, as if I was watching the climb from far away. We took the pictures, gamboled a bit in the snow, and watched the mountain cast her shadow a thousand miles across Tanzania as the sun rose behind her.
We began our way down to base camp. Davis was very happy. “You made it guys! I knew you could!” He slyly leaned closer. “Just in case, I had this in my pack.” He pulled out a large steel canister of oxygen. “But you didn’t need it,” he said. “You just needed to follow your guide.”