Kilimanjaro and the point of no return: “Up or down?”

Dash, posing in front of Mawenzi peak at 18,000 feet. It was the moment I knew Dash had truly recovered.
Dash, posing in front of Mawenzi peak at 18,000 feet. It was the moment I knew Dash had truly recovered. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

This is the third in a series of four Dispatches from Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann about his pledge drive to raise money for Tourism Cares by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with his daughter, TravelAge West associate editor Emma Weissmann, and son Dashiell, a student at Boston University. 

It was the evening before summit day, but the guides and I were debating whether to send my 19-year-old son, Dash, down in a stretcher that night or wait until morning. We were at our highest camp yet -- 15,000 feet -- and Dash was nauseous and sick to his stomach. He could barely sit up, let alone contemplate climbing another 4,300 feet.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/Byrdyak
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His sister Emma and I wept. His life was not in imminent danger, but if this was indeed altitude sickness, there was only one cure: moving him to a lower altitude. We had all agreed ahead of time that if one of us couldn’t make it all the way to the top, the others would still go on. But even if Emma and I summited the next day, the accomplishment would feel diminished.

Both the lead guide and assistant guide were medically trained to deal with high-altitude sickness. Every morning they went through a 12-point medical questionnaire with each of us (“How is your appetite? Have you been coughing?”), listened to our lungs with a stethoscope and took blood-oxygen and pulse readings. Eliakim Mshanga, the lead guide, had led 280 ascents, and he wasn’t convinced Dash had altitude sickness. He thought perhaps he had picked up a bacteria and had administered an antibiotic earlier in the afternoon, as well as giving him oxygen. He said we should wait until morning and see how Dash was doing before deciding next steps.

Lead guide Eliakim Mshanga, trained to assess high altitude-related illnesses, suspected the underlying cause of Dash’s symptoms was a stomach bug.
Lead guide Eliakim Mshanga, trained to assess high altitude-related illnesses, suspected the underlying cause of Dash’s symptoms was a stomach bug. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

At 4 a.m. the next morning, Eliakim came to my tent. “Let me control the game,” he said, referring to evaluating Dash’s condition. I assented, though I added that as Dash’s father, I might want to take back control at some point.

Eliakim went into Dash’s tent. I could hear him encouraging him --  “You can do this!” -- and he began dressing Dash as one might dress a 2-year-old. Dash got up and joined us for breakfast, looking weak but with more color in his face than the night before.

We started out into the dark, wearing head lamps. The first part included an almost vertical scramble over boulders. Dash kept moving.

As the first rays of sun lit the horizon, we took a break and assistant guide Pastori Minja poured pure white glucose powder -- “Kilimanjaro cocaine” he called it -- down Dash’s throat, washing it down with water. The grade of the trail continued to get steeper, and Dash continued to climb, the glucose and guides’ encouragement keeping him moving.

Assistant guide Pastori Minja.
Assistant guide Pastori Minja. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

At 17,000 feet, Eliakim took me aside. “What do you think?”

“He’s not complaining,” I said.

Eliakim went to Dash. “We’re at the point of no return,” he said to him. “Up or down?”

“Up,” Dash replied.

At 18,000 feet, I knew Dash was feeling better when he asked me to take a picture of him with the peak of Mawenzi, an extinct volcano, behind him. He flashed a broad smile.

When we reached the glacier at 18,885 feet, Dash seemed completely back to normal. The final 45 minutes, to Urhuru Peak at 19,341 feet, was on a snow-packed trail through a sleet storm, but the sting of the sleet didn’t bother us -- we knew we were near the end of our seven-day ascent. When we saw the sign saying we had reached Africa’s highest point, the feelings of emotion, elation and exhaustion came together in a mix akin to euphoria. We had made it. We all had made it.

We spent about 20 minutes at the top, hugging each other, hugging our guides, taking photos. Having made a relatively late start, we were the only ones on the mountaintop, and our guides led us in a song of celebration.  

Tired though we were, we still had another challenge -- our camp that night was 5,870 feet below us, via scree and a rocky trail. We had started the day in the dark, and we would end it in the dark.

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Day 7 — Summit day! The night before was very emotional. Dash was feeling very ill, and we were debating with the guides whether to send him down in a stretcher that night or wait until morning. We were all bummed. But guide Eliakim — who has led 280 summits — sensed it wasn’t just altitude, but that Dash had caught a stomach bug, and gave him an antibiotic. In the morning, he motivated Dash to give it a try and, with encouragement and glucose powder, Dash rallied and climbed another 4,500 feet. We all made it! 2) As we climbed, the scenery changed to a moonscape with no vegetation. 3) We knew Dash had recovered when we saw this smile at 18,000 feet. 4) Stella Point is where you reach the plateau and glacier. 5 & 6) We took a short break there before the final ascent; behind Dash and Emma, the snowy cauldron. 7. The last 45 minutes, a steady upward trek, was through fog and a sleet storm. We were emotional, elated and exhausted when we finally saw the sign through the fog and sleet saying we made it! The guides led us in a song of celebration, before we began a 5,870 foot descent through scree and rocks to Millennium Camp. 8) On our way down, we passed wheeled stretchers used to bring down accident victims or those with acute altitude sickness. 9) Our final view of Kili before darkness fell. We started and finished this very long day in the dark. @tuskertrail @officialkenyaairways @ntgtravel @tourismcares #tourismcares #kilicares #kilicareswhentourismcares

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The next day, our eighth since we began, we had another 7,000 feet to descend over an uneven, rocky path and then mud and rain. But we began the day with a ceremony of thanks to the 19 porters who accompanied us. Most of the porters were actually carrying provisions, supplies and tents for other porters and the guides -- like us, they had their own cook, food for eight days, tents, etc. The logistics of a climb for just three people becomes fairly complex, though climb organizer Tusker Trail made it seamless.

The Tusker Trail team of porters and guides kept us safe, motivated and comfortable.
The Tusker Trail team of porters and guides kept us safe, motivated and comfortable. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

The porter team was amazing, from start to finish -- whatever we did, they did as well, right up to our camp at 15,000 feet, but without the aid of trekking poles, while carrying significantly more weight and then being “on duty” while we rested. Nonetheless, the entire team maintained a cheerful disposition that we often wished we could muster after a day on the trail. We were endlessly amazed by their strength, stamina and grace. Our success was intricately tied to their support -- we never forgot that en route, and never will.

We had been told that more accidents occurred on the descent than the ascent, and I could believe it. We weren’t being rushed, but we seldom heard “pole, pole” (“slowly, slowly”) anymore.

The flora continued to amaze us. We sidestepped columns of fearsome red ants crossing the trail, and we happened across a beautiful civet cat, the first any of our guides had seen on the mountain.

After eight days ... back to civilization.
After eight days ... back to civilization. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

There was a sense of accomplishment in having climbed Kilimanjaro, but our journey wasn’t over yet. We had made the climb to raise money and awareness for the industry nonprofit Tourism Cares, and we are still hoping to move the total significantly higher. The following day we would visit a fantastic project to teach local women tourism-related business skills in Moshi, the town closest to Kilimanjaro. If it checked out as we hoped, it would receive some of the money we were raising for Tourism Cares.

To be continued.

The Weissmanns are back from their climb, but the pledge drive that inspired their journey continues. They climbed to support the industry nonprofit Tourism Cares; click here to show your support with a donation. Also, check out the pledge drive 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. Click for a complete list of donors and acknowledgements to those who supported the pledge drive. Please add your name to the list by donating!

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