My second of the Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro rises to 19,300 feet from the vast African savannah. The peak is an oddity as its snow capped summit lies almost directly on the equator. It is also the only place in the world where you can pass so quickly through the Earth's five distinct vegetation zones: the farmlands of the lower slopes, forest, heath and moorland, alpine desert, and arctic.
Kilimanjaro stands alone on a flat plain, formed by a massive volcanic event which exploded beneath the Earth's surface and deposited magma in the shape of a gigantic cone called a stratovolcano. You can still smell sulfur emitting from the crater. The summit lies on the south edge of the caldera and has its own name, "Uhuru," meaning freedom in the Swahili language.
Kili will always hold a special place for me, since I married my wife, Ellie, on my first expedition at 13,000 feet on the Shira plateau. Ellie didn't have a wedding dress, so we wrapped her up in a Tanzanian cloth we had been eating from. Our friends built a rock alter and collected beautiful mountain flowers which Ellie held in a bouquet. At the end of the ceremony, we walked through a tunnel of Tanzanian porters as they threw rice over us; the slight mistake was that they had boiled the rice and it stuck all over our fleece.
On my second trip, I led a team of blind and sighted climbers from four continents, including Douglas Sidialo, who had been blinded in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi. Douglas wanted to climb Kilimanjaro to spread a message of hope and peace triumphing violence. After a week of climbing, Douglas became the first blind African to stand on the roof of his continent. The next year, I donated my tandem mountain bike, and Douglas, along with his friend Josh, peddled from Cairo to Cape Town, across the entire continent of Africa.
Excerpt from Touch the Top of the World:
Finally the terrain leveled out and we crossed a field of broken snow, the surface brittle and cracking like ancient flesh. My boots stumbled into little divots and tripped over unexpected lumps. “Where is it?” I asked, quickly losing motivation.
“There!” Baltazar replied, pointing my finger to a place that was only a few feet higher than us. “I see the sign.” In a few more minutes there was no place else to go. The ground dropped off on three sides. A thousand feet below us, I knew, the caldera stretched two miles and then dropped away again, this time into forests and then plains, and finally, hundreds of miles in the distance, the Indian Ocean. “You can see it curve. I don’t know the word in English,” Baltazar said, and I knew he meant the horizon. I had heard this before, that from the top of Kilimanjaro, you could see the curvature of the earth. Then I put my arms around Baltazar’s small shoulders. “Thank you,” I said.
“It is my honor,” he replied. “My father, in the Swahili tradition, he is married to seven wives. So, my friend, you come back to the mountain next year and be married again.”
The sign that marked the top read, You Are Now at the Uhuru Peak. The Highest Point in Africa—Altitude 5859 Meters. Sitting on the summit, leaning forward with my head resting on my knees, I asked Baltazar, “What does Uhuru mean?” He thought for a minute. “Freedom,” he replied.
Freedom. It was a word I didn’t understand. Freedom from what? Freedom from the limits of my body? From pain? From disappointment? What did it mean? I wanted to believe that by standing atop mountains around the world, I was achieving this kind of freedom, or at least coming close, but when standing in these high places, the immense power of the mountains only served to magnify my own fragility, my human need for food, for oxygen, for the help that I received from my team, for the warmth of their bodies.
Then it came to me, the thought coming slowly alive and charging my oxygen-starved brain. Perhaps it was the freedom to make of my life what I wanted it to be, or at least the freedom to try, or to fail in the trying. Perhaps freedom itself was unobtainable and the goal was only to reach for it, strive for it, knowing all along that I would fall well short. Perhaps the importance was in the reaching out, and in the impossibility of it all, and in the reaching out through the impossibility, my body planted heavily on the earth but my spirit soaring up and coming impossibly close to its goal. Standing on the top of Kilimanjaro, I hugged Baltazar and reached out and touched the sign. I still didn’t know whether it would be possible to breathe in all I wanted from my life, but I knew that I would try.
You can read more about my first climb of Kilimanjaro in chapter 14 of Touch the Top of the World.
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