Go tell it on the mountain

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I've often written about how purpose can add meaning to travel, and a little more than a year ago, I began to think seriously about how that could apply to my own travels.

I'm on the board of the industry nonprofit Tourism Cares and, seeing first-hand the results of its work, I believe deeply in that organization's mission. I have also long been interested in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world and Africa's tallest peak. But given the time and preparation necessary to make that climb, it was a dream all too easily deferred.

It occurred to me that by combining a Kilimanjaro climb with a pledge drive benefiting Tourism Cares, I could overlay meaning, motivation and inspiration to a trip I'd put on hold for too long.

In literature and myth, climbing a mountain can be a metaphor for facing life's struggles and challenges, and I reckoned that by tying the climb to Tourism Cares, with each step I'd take, I'd be helping a travel business recover from a natural disaster, or assist a deserving student to begin a career in travel that he or she might not otherwise afford, or support a social enterprise that enriches travel experiences while providing local jobs and keeping traditions alive.

Emma and Dash at our route’s trailhead, Lemosho Gate. The sign indicates we’re just under 30 miles -- and 34 hours -- from Kilimanjaro’s summit, Uhuru Peak, suggesting our average speed will be under one mile per hour. That’s partly because 2.5 of those miles are vertical, but it’s also reflective of the oft-repeated advice to keep altitude sickness at bay: “Slowly, slowly.”
Emma and Dash at our route’s trailhead, Lemosho Gate. The sign indicates we’re just under 30 miles -- and 34 hours -- from Kilimanjaro’s summit, Uhuru Peak, suggesting our average speed will be under one mile per hour. That’s partly because 2.5 of those miles are vertical, but it’s also reflective of the oft-repeated advice to keep altitude sickness at bay: “Slowly, slowly.” Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

To amplify the fundraising effort, I asked my daughter Emma, 27, and son Dashiell, 19, to join me on the climb. Emma is an associate editor at TravelAge West, and Dash is a student at Boston University. Each could also reach out to their communities. (My wife, though keen to climb, had to stay back with our youngest son, whose school vacation did not match our climb window.)

Scaling Kilimanjaro isn't a technical climb -- no ropes, no spikes driven into rock, crampons optional. In fact, it's accessible enough that 30,000 climbers a year attempt to reach its summit.

Which is not to say it's easy. The overall success rate for summiting is about 65%, though the rate varies, depending on how much time one takes to acclimatize to the altitude en route. The most common reason for failure is altitude sickness, which can be life-threatening in acute cases. We settled on an eight-day climb, where the success rate is around 90%.

We chose to go with Tusker Trail, for a couple of reasons, the first and foremost being safety. One can physically train for the climb, but not for the altitude, and there is no knowing ahead of time how an individual will react to the thin air and low pressure at 19,300 feet.

Tusker would provide two guides trained to deal with high-altitude medical issues. Among the supplies brought along would be a portable decompression chamber and oxygen.

The second reason was comfort. They provide walk-in sleeping tents, an all-weather dining tent and a private lavatory tent. Each year, Tusker flies an instructor from the Culinary Institute of America to Tanzania for three weeks to train its cooks.

And, finally, their treatment of their guides and porters is the gold standard on the mountain. All wear proper hiking boots (we saw many porters from other companies in sneakers, and one even in slick-bottom dress shoes). Our guides were provided with down jackets and rain pants, and said they were well paid. Each had started with other companies and aspired to work for Tusker.

While there may have been a sense of being pampered in camp, in the final analysis the trip is somewhere between glamping and a near-death experience. You may have a private loo, but you still have to get up the mountain on your own. Call it "adventure glamping."

Before being allowed to ascend, porters on Kilimanjaro climbs must have their loads weighed to make sure they’re not being asked to carry more than 44 pounds.
Before being allowed to ascend, porters on Kilimanjaro climbs must have their loads weighed to make sure they’re not being asked to carry more than 44 pounds. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Day 1 starts at Londorosi Gate, where all porters have their bags weighed. The regulations about how much a porter can carry -- 44 pounds, maximum -- are strictly enforced. From there, it's a short drive to Morum Barrier Gate where the climb begins at about 7,000 feet.

The first day -- half-day, really -- was climbing a muddy trail through a forest in the rain. The previous week, Emma had followed a Kili climber's blog, and he reported that he had endured constant rain every single day and was miserable.  

But it stopped raining shortly after we arrived at Big Tree camp, and we only had to put on our rain gear twice again during our eight days. Each of those times it was brief and bearable.

Although the mantra for success in climbing Kili is "pole, pole," (pronounced "pole-lay pole-lay"), Swahili for "slowly, slowly," our porters not only beat us to the camp every day, but had our tents set up and had prepared "welcome tea" in the mess tent. Day 1 was easy -- as it would turn out, deceptively so.

The Weissmanns are back from their climb, but the pledge drive continues. To support Tourism Cares, click here and check out their Instagram feed @Kili.Cares.

Climb sponsors/disclosures: Sponsor Tusker Trail provided a 50% discount to operate the climb; sponsor Kenya Airways provided roundtrip air from New York to Kilimanjaro International Airport; sponsor Northstar Travel Group, parent company of Travel Weekly and TravelAge West, provided email blasts and advertising space to solicit pledges.

Many thanks to the corporations and individuals who have donated to the pledge drive so far. A complete list of donors and acknowledgements to others who supported the drive can be found here. You can add your name to the list by donating! 

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