We were above the clouds, more than 12,000 feet up Mt. Kilimanjaro. My climbing partner and I had come from Michigan to attempt the ascent. To understand the nature of our endeavor, you should know that Kilimanjaro is one of the highest freestanding mountains in the world, and its summit is the highest point on the African continent.
It lies just 206 miles south of the equator, and it was not until the 1860s that explorers confirmed that the mountain was indeed capped with snow and ice, not "masses of white rock somewhat like quartz," as maintained by the legendary Stanley Livingstone. Our trip up and down the mountain would require a 60-mile trek. On top are glaciers, arctic conditions (as cold a minus 13 degrees F.), and about half the oxygen at sea level. Add to this the fact that, at 19,455 feet, Kilimanjaro's summit is higher than the first base camp on Mt. Everest, and you may appreciate that I was fast learning that we were engaged in a formidable undertaking.
During the past few days, we had met climbers coming down. To a person, they described the climb to the top in one way or another as "very difficult." We were at Horombo camp, the hub where climbers from the various routes converged.
The camp smelled of food being cooked outside, kerosene used for lamps, and the honest sweat of porters. The Swahili shouts of the Tanzanian guides and porters did not drown out the international chatter of the Swiss, Swedes, Germans, French, Dutch, Belgians, Norwegians, Australians, Asians, and others who had come to accept the challenge.
Horombo camp held a sense of accomplishment for those who had made it to the summit. For those who had not (most of a youthful Dutch group, for one), it was a place to acknowledge that one had given one's best, a fact that overrode any disappointment. Horombo was also a camp of aspiration, hope, and promise for those about to attempt the summit.
For me, it was a camp of confession. It had been a tough three days, and I thought I owed it to my younger partner, Dave, to say that I wasn't sure I would make it. I was ruing the mad moment a few months ago that had prompted me, in my retirement year, to suggest we make the climb.
After all the miles we'd traveled, I felt I was letting him down by telling him that he might have to go it alone, but I felt he deserved to know.
Kilimanjaro is enticing because most routes to the top permit the amateur climber to court her, to dance her dance and eventually kiss her on the forehead without technical climbing skills, of which I have none. But I discovered that the mountain is a strange siren - a tall maiden standing with her feet in tropical heat and an exposed midsection as barren as a desert. The more you press her, the colder her breath becomes. Ultimately, you find that her head and shoulders are wrapped in ice.
Kilimanjaro had ceased to be a challenge and had become my nemesis - an exhausting enterprise, a rapidly fading and seemingly unattainable ideal. I knew that if I were to continue to woo her, I would have to learn to love her, for to love is a necessary part of all true achievement.
Thus began the humbling review of my motives for the climb. Sir Edmond Hillary's "Because it's there" did not ring true for me. What was I trying to prove and to whom?
I would have to find an answer by the time we arrived at Kibo camp. Kibo sits cold and windy on a rocky shelf at 15,300 feet, the last stop before the final ascent. I wasn't alone in my self-reflection, it seems. Many confided their doubts.
A young Australian, climbing with his father, said that if he made it no higher than Kibo, at least he would feel that he had accomplished more than he thought he was capable of doing. Perhaps we were all there to learn that we are capable of something more.
I was still trying to sort things out when the call for the final ascent came. The temperature was cold enough to freeze the water we carried in our packs.
Bundled in enough clothes to weather a high-plains blizzard, headlamps burning, we left in the dark of midnight.
The goal was to reach Gilman's Point at 18,500 feet in about six hours, sunrise. Then, if still of sound body and mind, we'd continue another one or two hours to the summit, Uhuru Peak. I decided that I was there to honor the mountain, not myself. I was there to learn whether I might be capable of more than I thought I was.
There was no moon, but the heavens were brilliant, ablaze with stars. Ahead and above us, groups of climbers moved up the steep slope, flashlights twinkling, miniature earth-stars on the side of an ancient volcano.
Climbing in silence, as if in a candlelight procession, we ascended, each one honoring the mountain in his or her own fashion, one step at a time.
Over the years, I have planted many trees on my farm in Michigan - hand-planted more than 35,000 trees, to be exact. Planting trees is a solitary exercise, too. When you plant trees all day, boredom and fatigue may set in. At those times I have questioned my endeavor. Why am I doing this, when I will never see the full fruit of my labors?
So I occupy myself with planting trees for others - my wife, children, grandchildren, relatives, friends. "This one is for so-and-so," I say. "This one is for so-and-so."
The day goes faster. I feel better; it keeps me planting trees. I have planted a forest in the names of others. Even in your name, whether I know you or not, because the trees are there for your benefit, too. In the process, I have learned I can do things for others that are hard to do for myself, and that it is often easier doing things for others than for oneself.
Something like that happened on the climb. It was a solitary exercise. No one could do it for you. The final eight hours gave plenty of time for reflection. In that time I recalled all those who had helped me get there - my wife, my children, my friend Dave - and all those who, in one way or another throughout the years, believed in me, who thought I could do challenging things.
Some are no longer with me - my parents, a brother, and a sister - but they were there, too. The inspiration of everyone was there with me, encouraging me, cheering me on, supporting and sustaining me, helping me. I was not going alone.
In return, I was taking them where they might never venture or would not otherwise be. The adventure took on new meaning. We were going up together, and in the process I was honoring them. A hard task became a little easier.
Together we were honoring the mountain. The endeavor wasn't just for me; it was for all of us. I made it to the top, a little behind Dave. Only then did I begin to understand my motivation fully: I had to go up higher. I had to be reminded that I am capable of more than I imagine. I can do for others what I cannot do for myself. There is no accomplishment without love of the enterprise. There is no accomplishment without acknowledging the role of others in your success.