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Tim Ward and I have been close friends for more than 20 years and in that time have shared many adventures and misadven- tures, some on wild rivers and mountain glaciers, others as we’ve stumbled through the dense and occasionally impene- trable forests of fatherhood. I first knew his son Josh as a lad of six, and recall fondly Tim carrying the boy on his shoulders on a high ridge above the Taku in the remote reaches of northern British Columbia, as the sun set over a herd of caribou on the skyline. Reading Zombies on Kilimanjaro I was pleased to learn that it is now Josh who carries his father up mountains, and in more ways than one.
In this wonderful story of fathers and sons, Tim poises two fundamental and related questions. Why are people drawn to climb the formidable summits of the world, and what is it about the experience that inevitably results in a catharsis of the soul, an opening of the spirit, a softening of the heart? To answer both questions he travels with Josh to the flanks of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest and most illustrious mountain, a beacon of light rising over an entire continent.
In 1923 while on a speaking tour in New York George Mallory at the end of a lecture was asked why he wanted to climb Everest, no doubt for the umpteenth time. Mallory replied, “Because it’s there.” This simple retort hit a nerve, and took on an almost metaphysical resonance, as if Mallory had somehow in his wisdom distilled the perfect notion of emptiness and pure purpose. In time, it would be inscribed on memorials, quoted in sermons, cited by princes and presidents. But those who knew Mallory best interpreted it as a flippant response just said to get rid of “a bore who stood between him and a much needed drink.” Whatever its genesis the phrase did in fact capture something essential. “Everest is the highest mountain in the world,” Mallory later wrote, “Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose of man’s desire to conquer the universe.” Elsewhere he added, “I suppose we go to Mount Everest, granted the opportunity, because – in a word – we can’t help it. Or to state the matter rather differently, because we are mountaineers.”
Kilimanjaro has this same magnetic appeal to our imagi- nation. But one does not have to be an expert mountaineer like Mallory to climb it. Some 20,000 people reach its summit each year, and so the mountain has become known as Everyman’s Everest.
As Tim and Josh make their way to the summit of Kilimanjaro, their conversations grow increasingly breathless as their attention shifts from the personal to the universal. With each step closer to the ice, they become ever more aware of the haunting backdrop of their adventure. First in the most visceral way possible they experience what a climbing friend once told me was the most amazing thing about summiting Everest. The realization that there was a place on Earth where you could get up in the morning, tie on your boots, and under your own power walk in a single day into a zone where the air was so thin that humans could not survive. It was for him a revelation, a completely new perspective on the delicacy of this thin veil of atmosphere that allows life to exist on earth.
Second, as Tim and Josh crest the highest point in Africa they encounter what can only be described as the end of the wild, the melting of the ice and the disappearance of the snows that have for all time given meaning to the mountain. The plight of Kilimanjaro, Tim suggests in some of the most powerful passages in the book, ought surely to serve as a wake up call for all of humanity. The global impacts of climate change are only
beginning to be felt. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are at their highest in 650,000 years. Natural habitats everywhere are under threat: coral reefs in the Caribbean, cloud forests of the Andes, the grasslands of the Asian steppe, the lowland rainforests of the Amazon, and the entire arid belt across sub- Saharan Africa.
Arguably the greatest immediate threat is to be found in the mountain ice fields that are the birthplaces of all the world’s great rivers. On the Tibetan plateau, source of the Yellow River, the Mekong and Yangtze, the Brahmaputra, Salween, Sutlej, Indus, and Ganges, there has been no net accumulation of snow since at least 1950. Half of humanity depends on these rivers. Throughout the world mountain people who played no role in the creation of this crisis not only are seeing the impact of climate change on their lives, they are taking personal responsibility for the problem, often with a seriousness of intent that puts many of us to shame. In the Andes glaciers are so swiftly receding that pilgrims, believing the mountain gods to be angry, are no longer carrying ice from the sacred mountains back to their commu- nities, forgoing the very gesture of reciprocity that completes the sacred circle of the pilgrimage and allows for everyone to benefit from the grace of the divine.
In Tanzania, the Chagga look up to a mountain that has lost more than 80 percent of its snowcap and ask what will happen to their fields and the very idea of Africa when Kilimanjaro no longer shines over the ancient continent. And this ultimately is the question that Tim ponders in Zombies on Kilimanjaro. Whimsical title aside, it is in fact a profound meditation on the current state of a world in which we as fathers, and mothers, may well be bequeathing to our children a natural world far more impoverished than the one we inherited.
“Your guide will probably tell you,” Ezekiel said, “that the name Kilimanjaro comes from kilima, the Swahili word for ‘mountain,’ and jaro, the Maasai word for ‘white capped.’ But that’s just for the tourists. We Chagga people who have always lived here, we believe the name comes from our own language: kilema-kyaro, which means ‘Impossible to Climb.’ ”
Flying south from Nairobi earlier that day, I had seen Kilimanjaro for the first time. Gazing through the plane window at 17,000 feet in the air, I looked up at the peak. Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa and at 5,850 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level it’s the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. I stared at it hard. I have hiked in the Rockies, the Alps, the Himalayas. Yet my mind struggled to fit this solitary, staggering mass of rock into the rest of the landscape: a glacier-ringed mountain at the equator; a rainforest in the middle of a desert.
From the Serengeti plains to the Indian Ocean, East Africa is mostly yellow sand and red clay. But from the white-streaked crown of Kilimanjaro’s volcanic cone run streams and springs that trickle down through miles of grey lava and scree to create a green girdle of rainforest in the foothills. A vast, flowing skirt of cultivated, fertile land encircles the mountain for hundreds of square kilometers below. As if by some mysterious power, the mountain makes its own weather. It conjures clouds from the hot air, bringing down rain and dew that nourishes the land even during the long, arid months when the surrounding savannah turns as dry as bones.
“It’s like walking from the equator to the North Pole in a week,” Ezekiel told me.
The two of us sipped sweet milk tea at stall outside Kilimanjaro Airport. Ezekiel was a young Tanzanian man with dark black skin. He wore a red t-shirt with SPAIN written on it in big yellow letters, the team he was cheering for in the 2010 World Cup. Ezekiel worked for the company we hired for our trek up the mountain and he had met me in the terminal when my plane landed. Now he was keeping me company while I waited for my son Joshua’s flight to arrive from the US.
“So do you work in Nairobi?” Ezekiel asked.
“I was only in Kenya for ten days, working for the World Bank. My wife Teresa and I run a small communications consulting company. We work for development and environ- mental organizations. The two of us train their experts all over the world to communicate better about why their projects and programs make a difference. Things such as why it’s important for local banks to finance small businesses, and how to get electricity into remote villages.”
“And where is your wife?”
“Teresa had to return home to Washington DC to spend time with her daughter. I stayed in order to climb Kilimanjaro with my son, Josh. He just finished his first year at college. He’s studying to be an actor at the University of Maryland.”
“He’s a movie star?”
“Not yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me someday. He has been on an American national TV show, and in a lot of plays.”
“He’s handsome then?”
“Hey, I’m his father. Of course I think he’s handsome. Friends tell me he looks like a young John Cusack.” From Ezekiel’s blank stare, I could tell this description meant nothing. “Well, let’s just say he’s got a lot more hair on his head than his old man,” I added.
“So it is just the two of you climbing, father and son?”
“Yes, that’s the idea,” I nodded. “I haven’t seen much of him in the last few years. We used to do a lot of wilderness vacations together. When he was younger, before he started doing theater camps every summer, we would go river rafting in Western Canada and sea kayaking. We even did a safari in South Africa when he was thirteen, and we got chased by a rhino. It’s been six or seven years now since we’ve done something like this–well, I guess we’ve never done anything quite like Kilimanjaro.”
We heard a distant roar in the sky. Josh’s KLM flight was headed for the runway. When the plane touched down, I talked the customs officers into letting me back into the baggage claim area. From there I could peer through the immigration lanes, spot him, and let him see that I was waiting for him. A minute later I recognized the unruly head of thick brown hair bopping through the gate and into the building. He was one of the first off the packed flight. We waved wildly at each other. When I see Josh after several weeks apart, it’s still sometimes a shock. How did that little kid I used to pick up by an arm and a leg and twirl around while he made airplane noises turn into this lumbering twenty-year-old with sideburns and stubble who wears the same- sized clothes as me? He may seem like a man on the outside, but I still see all the behaviors he had when he was a child–the way his right foot sometimes drags just a fraction, how he bites the inside of his cheeks when he’s distracted, that puppy-dog smile of unbridled affection. I see all these things and it sometimes creates the illusion for me that he’s still a little boy wearing a Halloween man-suit.
I gestured to Josh that he needed to fill out a form to get his entry visa. I knew if he could do this quickly, he could beat the rush. 350 tourists were filing out of the plane right behind him. He found the form then knelt on the floor, his legs splayed out in an M-shaped position as he filled in the boxes. No, no, I gestured frantically, not on the floor! Get in line and do it, otherwise the queue will fill up and it will take forever! But his head was drooped down, concentrating on the paper. The place was now too noisy for me to be heard even if I yelled. I watched, helpless, waiting for him to look up, willing him to look up. God, just chill, I told myself. He’s been on his own in college for a year. He can navigate his own way through a border crossing. So what if it takes an extra hour?
The luggage carousel started up. I know, I’ll wait for his bag, I told myself. For 45 minutes I watched four hundred rucksacks and gear bags spin round and round, searching for Josh’s new blue duffel among them. We had bought it together in the spring at REI, and stuffed it full with new boots, shirts, thermal underwear, fleece, and a poly-fill jacket. I remembered my own first duffel bag stuffed with similar gear–but for work, not play. I was seventeen and headed for Saskatchewan to live in a tent and sweat twelve hours a day under the hot prairie sun on a pipeline survey crew. By Josh’s age I had spent over a year of my life in various survey crews and oil rigs to make money for college. I watched the luggage go round and round, and remem- bered what it was like to be young, strong, and living outdoors.
It was hard at first for a nerdy, middle-class kid like me to do punishing, physical labor and fit in with the tough bastards who work on pipelines and oil rigs. But my dad had done the same thing when he was a young man. He had worked as a deckhand on Lake Ontario and cut brush for new power lines in Northern Ontario. He helped me get my first jobs out west. I remember figuring it out that for many generations boys my age went off to war, and the ones who survived came back as men. I knew I was lucky there were no wars when I was growing up. But I also knew I needed some kind of rite of passage. The oil rigs did it for me. There were days that I cried in my bunk, scared and exhausted, knowing that no one within two thousand miles cared if I lived or died. But I kept pulling on my boots and hardhat. Not a war hero. But by surviving I knew I could make it in the world of men. It changed my perception of who I was.
I remembered coming back from the rigs before starting university in the summer of 1978. My dad took one look at me, squeezed my large bicep then challenged me to arm wrestle. I tried to put him off, but he insisted. He had beaten me at this game more times than I could tell when I was a teen. We went out to the back patio and sat down on either side of the table. I beat him slowly with my right hand, then quickly with my left. That was last time we ever played that particular game together.
“Hey, Dad!” Josh bounded through immigration.
He threw his arms round me and squeezed. Josh has this great, uninhibited, full-body grab. When my own father hugged me, I used to flinch. Right up into my late forties I had to steel myself for his embrace. He’d spanked us as kids, and told us that love meant teaching us discipline. Decades later I still had to fight a reflex to pull back when he touched me. That’s part of why I never hit Josh, and I’m grateful to my ex-wife that despite all our fights, on this issue we agreed. As a little kid Josh would sling his arms around my neck and just hang on me. I’d feel him breathe deep and relax. I loved this sense of being a safe place for him, a shelter. That had changed some as he grew older, especially during his teenage years, when he and I had fought and there had been a time there was a real fracture in our relationship. That was past now, but the memory of those childhood hugs came back to me at moments like this.
“Good flight?” I asked as we walked back to the baggage carousel.
“Yeah, great, especially the part from Amsterdam. I was in the security line at the gate, and the guard was giving this Dutch family ahead of me a real hassle because they had one bag too many. It was just a small bag of candies and stuff, but they were really overloaded with kid stuff. They had these two cute little girls, just adorable and blonde, you know, pigtails and all. So I said, ‘Hey, let me take the bag through, no problem.’ The family ended up sitting near me on the plane and the girls fed me chocolates all through the flight.”
I grinned and choked back the urge to blurt out: ‘Never, never, never, never carry a bag through airport security that belongs to someone else!’ Instead, I told him the story of how his mother and I had once mailed a package for a friendly young couple we met at a youth hostel when traveling in Tibet:
“…And when we got back from the post office, where we had signed all the customs forms, the couple asked us how it went. No problem, we said. Then they told us the parcel contained hashish they were smuggling home. Your mom and I could easily have spent several years in a Chinese prison for that small good deed, had a postal worker decided to inspect.”
“Holy shit, Dad. But come on, it’s not the same at all. This was a bag of candy for some little blonde Dutch girls, not miniature drug dealers.”
“You don’t know, Josh, you don’t know. From Amsterdam, who knows what they are packing?”
“So,” Josh interrupted, “before even touching down in Africa, I’ve taken someone else’s bag onto an airplane and I took candy from strangers. I’d say I’m off to a good start getting used to the dangers of Kilimanjaro! Hey–there’s my bag!”
His blue duffel bag slid towards us on the carousel. Josh grabbed it and we headed past customs to where Ezekiel stood waiting.
“Hey Joshua!” he said, reaching out a large, black hand.
He shook Josh’s hand with a complex three-grab motion: clasp wrists, handshake, then clasp fingers. I had flubbed maneuver when Ezekiel first greeted me, but Josh caught on easily enough. Ezekiel grinned, grabbed his bag, and loaded us onto the bus.
One thing I admired about my son was his great natural timing. He could have stressed and made it through the visa lines first and waited for an hour. Instead, he waltzes out and his bag arrives as if on cue. He’s a classic Type B’ personality, relaxed and easy going. Me, I’m Type A. I’m more inclined to grab life by the horns and grapple with it. Sure, I think life is an adventure. But after thirty-five years of work, travel and parenting, I’ve learned to keep my bearings, watch for landmarks, pack the wet- wipes, and never ever leave my bag unattended. With Josh, however, I often feel like the grandfather in the Peter and the Wolf tape we used to listen to when he was a kid. Cue the bassoon: “But what if a wolf did come out of the forest? What if there had been drugs in the candy bag? What then!?”
It had been easy enough to get along with Josh while he was off at college. I saw him once a month or so when he came back to stay at his mother ’s house for the weekend. But now we were going to be together for eleven days and nights, including seven on the mountain. We weren’t even out of the airport and already I was struggling to stay out of lecturing-parent mode. As we settled into our seats on the bus, I thought again of my own father. I had chosen to go to university three thousand miles away from home in part because I needed to get away from his domineering personality.
There are many ancient myths in which the young hero kills or wounds his father in order to take the throne, throw off the old order, or overcome the Dark Side of the Force. Cronus, Zeus, Oedipus, Luke Skywalker: each mark out an archetypal struggle that is true for all sons and fathers in some way or other. Josh took his own turn at this when he was 17. Less than a month into his senior year of high school he and I were fighting over homework assignments that he had been blowing off yet again. It drove me crazy. I kept trying to make him do it, and he’d just lie to me or make up some excuse. Sure, he wasn’t doing drugs or stealing cars, so I figured a little bit of butting heads was probably healthy, and I didn’t mind being the bad cop, even though it aggravated me. I was yelling, about to ground him again, when he suddenly said to me:
“I don’t have to put up with this. I can go and live full time with my mom.”
Since the divorce, when Josh was only three, he had been living half the time with his mother, the other half with me. As an author and consultant, I had structured my life to be a full- time parent during my weeks with Josh. With a single stroke he ended that arrangement. He packed up his stuff and his mother drove over to my house to pick him up. I was furious, as much at her as at him. For the next six months Josh refused to see me, even at Christmas. When at last he broke the ice the following spring, we met for a milkshake at the Tastee Diner where we used to hang out. We talked about what happened between us, but he and I had very different memories about what led to our rift, so we just let it rest. He then told me he was going to keep living with his mother full time, but wanted to see me too.
With restraint I replied, “What’s past is past. So let’s use what happened between us to start a new relationship, man to man…” Since that day, almost three years earlier, he and I had pretty much patched things up. But I felt a distance between us that had not existed before. True to his word, Josh never spent a night at my house again. The cord had been cut.
We rolled through the warm African night towards the town of Moshi, where we would sleep before beginning our climb the next morning. I asked Josh about his plans for the rest of the summer.
“I’ll hang out with Andrew for a while at his mom’s house in Baltimore. He and I are going to be quad-mates at school next year with two other guys. It’s going to be great living in an apartment on campus with friends, instead of a dorm. Not that the dorm was bad. But my old roommate liked to drink beer and smoke pot. I mean, I drank the occasional beer with him, but I never even liked the smell of pot. One of the things I like about the guys I’m going to be living with is that we all agreed this was not going to be a party house. And between the four of us we’ve got some great gaming equipment…Then later in the summer
I’m going to fly out and visit Susie in her new place near Seattle.” Susie was his girlfriend, who had moved to Washington State at the end of the last semester.
“So, what about that pirate job?” I asked.
Josh had applied for a job working for a kiddie cruise line out of Baltimore harbor, a summer camp on board a pirate ship, where the crew-counselors dressed in costume and stayed in character. He had been telling pirate jokes and practicing his accent for about a month in preparation for the job interview, as in: “Why can’t little kids watch Pirates of the Caribbean? Because it’s rated Arrrr.”
“I didn’t get the job,” he shrugged. “But that’s okay. I need a break anyway.”
“What? From the rigors of acting school?” I blurted out. “Yeah,” he said, oblivious to my sarcasm. “So I’m just as glad I don’t have to work this summer.”
We lapsed into silence. I looked out the window. Josh seemed to be wired so differently than I was at his age, with my need to prove myself, earn my place in the world of men. I worried sometimes that he had missed out on the rites of manhood. The path my dad and I had taken, doing physically punishing work, is a toughening process. It seemed to me Josh wasn’t getting this. Everything seemed to come to him too easily. Like me, Josh took a gap year after high school. But instead of heading into the wilderness to work in a camp and save for college, he enrolled in massage school and got his professional license. He told me that as a young actor, a day job as a masseur would be better than waiting tables because you could see clients during the mornings and do shows in the evening. It made sense, but I didn’t see how that would pay for college. Years ago I had promised I would pay half his college fees (having set up a college fund for this purpose when he nine). It was a lot more expensive than when I was his age, so I figured fifty percent would give him incentive to earn the rest. But he didn’t seem to be thinking about it at all. Then midway through his gap year, he applied for and won an acting scholarship that covered about 85 percent of his total college costs for four years.
“You should thank me, Dad, for all the money I saved you,” he told me when he shared the good news.
I was happy for him, happy for me, too, having to write checks for only a few thousand dollars per year. When school started he set up an on-campus massage service, earning enough to cover all his running expenses so he didn’t have to ask for money along the way. So he was on the road to independence. Easy for him, easy for me. Yet something about our arrangement left me feeling jangly and unsatisfied. I guess just wanted to see him struggle for it more.
“So, how’d work go in Nairobi?” Josh asked, snapping me out of my thoughts.
“Good, good. Most of the people we trained were Africans working for the private sector arm of the World Bank called IFC. They work with businesses and regulators to help create jobs and deliver services to poor people. For example one of the women in our course is part of a Lighting Africa initiative that promotes low-cost ways of getting light to poor villages that are far from the electricity grids. They have competitions for the best ideas, and then help the winners get their lights to market. One winner is a device you stick in the ground that takes advantage of the slight conductivity of soil microbes to generate an electric current. Another is a solar-powered LED light you can put in front of your home to charge during the day, then bring inside at night, so kids can study for school, or adults can work. This clean technology also reduces the pollution, health and safety problems caused by kerosene lamps.”
“We also got to learn about some of the really tough problems in East Africa, the sort of things you might not think about at all in North America. For instance, another of our participants is working on changing regulations for land ownership in Kenya. She told us that right now, about 50 percent of the households in Kenya are headed by women. A lot of this is because of AIDS. But women own only about one percent of the property in the whole country. Property laws reflect this deep inequality of Kenyan society. Because these women often don’t own the land they and their families are living on, they have no collateral to get loans to start businesses. They don’t even have much incentive to improve their properties or farmland, because male relatives have the power to take it away. So of you are going to help people bring themselves out of poverty, you have to have laws in place that make it possible. Our job is to help these World Bank experts, who are very dedicated, very bright people, convince the public and government that it needs to be done. Frankly, people in these big development institutions are not very good at communi- cating. They have all this amazing technical expertise, but it’s hard for them to boil it down in simple terms so ordinary people can get it.”
“Well, that sucks.”
“Yeah, but it does keep Teresa and me in business.” “So, what’s next?”
“Well, we’ve got some work in India and the Philippines coming up in the fall. But for me the real challenge of the next few months is going to be distilling what I’ve been researching on meme theory into new course modules that we can teach. I’m really glad you’ve agreed to help me out with this.”
Josh had agreed to be my sounding board as I tried to figure out how to make meme theory comprehensible. For over a year I had been fascinated with this new understanding of how ideas spread and evolve. I wanted to use this theory in our communi- cations training courses. The problem I faced was that books on the subject seemed stuck in the same kind of dense, technical jargon that makes the World Bank’s work so tough to comprehend. Indeed, every time I tried to explain meme theory to others, their eyes glazed over. So, since Josh and I were going to have so much time together on the mountain, I figured this would be a great opportunity to go through the theory with him to see if I could talk about memes it in terms that made sense and seemed relevant to a college student.
“What can’t the two of you just climb the mountain together?” Teresa asked when I told her about my plan just before she and I parted in Nairobi. “Why does there have to be some kind of agenda?”
“I thought it would give us something to talk about on the long walk,” I replied defensively. “It’ll be fun.”
“Fun?” She looked at me with that who-do-you-think-you- are-kidding expression in her brown eyes. “It sounds more like you are trying to lure Josh into some kind of Socratic-dialogue- transmission-of-wisdom thing while you’ve got him captive.”
“Okay,” I admitted, “sometimes I find it hard to talk to Josh. I’m fine with the superficial conversations. How’s school, what’s happening at work, opinions about movies and shows. But I feel awkward a lot of the time, like I don’t really know what to say to him. I want to be able to talk about the things that are really interesting to me, too. I thought my plan would be a great way to give our conversation some structure, some depth…”
“You hear how weird that is?” “No.”
Teresa shook her head and put a hand on my arm.
“Tim,” she said gently, “You think you’re all better from the trauma you felt when Josh left you to live with his mom. But I think you’re not yet healed. On the surface, things seem fine. And for Josh, they probably are. He did what he needed to do, separating from you. But I notice you still seem tentative around your son, as if something you might do or say could break a bond that to you still seems fragile.”
Sitting next to me on the bus, Josh had fallen asleep. His head leaned against my shoulder. I smiled. Remembering Teresa’s words, I thought about what kind of a relationship Josh and I would have in the years ahead as he grew into a man. I found myself appreciating what it must have been like for my own father when I left home in my twenties, not returning at times for two years at a stretch. I had spent six years in Asia, and twenty more years in the US. I spoke about once a week with my parents by phone, and I tried to visit them in Ottawa twice every year. Suddenly I saw the father-killing myths from the deposed dad’s point of view. Even if Darth Vader couldn’t turn Luke to the Dark Side, I’m sure he still wanted to be part of his son’s life in a more than tangential way. But what does a parent have to offer when the parenting is done? Yes, we want our kids to be independent. But we also want them to stay connected, stay intimate. We don’t want them to drift away altogether.
At heart, I suppose I hoped climbing Kilimanjaro might put Josh and I on a clearer path to that man-to-man relationship I had said I wanted after our split. But there’s a risk, isn’t there, in seeking an adult relationship with your grown-up kid? When you are a parent, your children know you as “Dad” or “Mom” and that’s all that you are to them. There are things about ourselves we parents choose to keep from our kids. We tell ourselves it’s for their own good. That’s wise, no doubt. But if you are going to have an adult relationship, that’s got to change. I thought again of Darth Vader (the name itself a clever play on Dark Father). Dying in Luke Skywalker ’s arms, Vader asks his son to remove the black mask and helmet so that he can see Luke with his own eyes–and in the process, reveal his scarred and damaged face to his son. I wanted that kind of authenticity with Josh, but I had to admit, I did not know how to get there from here.
In North America when we think of Africa most often we think of gorillas in the mist, wildebeests sweeping across the plains, or else grueling poverty, AIDS orphans, and bloody, violent civil wars in places like Rwanda, Congo, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Sudan. We don’t think of Moshi, a bustling town of concrete and glass buildings at the heart of a thriving tourist industry. It has markets, banks, ATMs, pharmacies, souvenir shops and travel agencies. In truth, there are countless towns like this across Africa, as the continent’s steady economic growth over the past decade has begun to create a decent life for millions of people.
We drove through the lit streets of downtown Moshi and then down a dark and quiet road to the Springlands Hotel. Inside the high yellow wall we found courtyard garden filled with palm trees. Meandering brick walkways led through the garden to covered tables, an outdoor bar, a large, blue, chlorinated swimming pool, an Internet café, and an outdoor restaurant. A crowd of mostly European tourists gathered in the TV room, watching highlights of the latest World Cup match, the final now just eight days away. The temperature was pleasant, neither hot nor cool, and the air was still. I noticed there were no mosquitoes. Though malaria is a problem in this part of Tanzania, in the dry season there’s not a lot of water lying around, so mosquitoes don’t breed.
Ezekiel waved goodbye to Josh and me, instructing us to meet him in the courtyard at 8 a.m. the following morning for our final briefing. He told us we could rent any gear we needed right at the hotel, including sleeping bags, walking poles, and winter coats. He also said to repack our bags with only 15 kilos (33 pounds), including all our gear, as that was the legal limit the porters were allowed to carry. He pointed out a metal hook suspended from a metal frame with a scale attached, so we could weigh our bags to makes sure we were not over the allotted weight. The excess baggage we could store in the luggage room till we returned. Our passports, credit cards and any other valuables could be left in one of the hotel’s safety-deposit boxes. I appreciated the well thought-out efficiency of the whole operation.
The room was Spartan but clean, with three cot-like beds, mosquito nets, a row of shelves, and a clean private bathroom with abundant hot water–a luxury I knew we would soon leave behind. Neither of us had eaten for several hours, but the restaurant was closed. The gift shop, however, was open. I bought water, a package of chocolate biscuits, and two Kilimanjaro guidebooks. Back in the room we munched biscuits and sorted through our stuff. I had known about the weight limit, but had not counted on that including our sleeping bags. We evaluated every item, trying to decide what was essential and what to leave behind.
Exhausted, Josh slept.
I picked up the guidebooks and started to read.
The first recorded reference to a “great snow mountain” in Africa comes from the Greek mapmaker, Ptolemy, in the 2nd Century A.D. Sixteen centuries later, rumors of a mountain “topped with silver ” spread from slave traders on the East Africa coast to Europeans. The first European to explore the mountain’s bottom slopes, a German missionary named Johannes Rebmann, recognized that silver as snow. But when in 1849 he reported an ice-cap on the equator to his geographic society back home, the experts declared this was impossible. They concluded that Rebmann must have been suffering from malaria-induced hallu- cinations. Once Europeans established the mountain was not just a myth, they immediately set about trying to conquer it, only to be turned back again and again by steep walls of ice covering the top two kilometers of its cone. The peak was not summited until 1889–with a second ascent only succeeding twenty years later. Britain and Germany fought through World War One for control of Kilimanjaro’s green valleys, and then after the Second World War the impossible-yet-real mountain became a symbol of Africans’ dream of freedom from colonial rule. In 1961, newly independent Tanganyika placed a torch on the summit, which President Julius Nyerere declared a “beacon of freedom” for the rest of Africa.
Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro (also available at the Kilimanjaro gift shop) made the mountain famous throughout the Western world. Hemingway described flying in a small plane towards the peak, “wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun.” But this vision of Kilimanjaro was not the same mountain I had seen earlier that day as I flew in on my own small plane. Today Kilimanjaro is mostly grey at the peak, with streaks and splotches of white that look as if the mountain is wearing not a crown of ice, but a fractured tiara. In fact, in the past hundred years close to 90% of its permanent ice has disappeared.
Al Gore showed pictures of Kilimanjaro’s vanishing glaciers in An Inconvenient Truth. The shocking loss of ice in photos from 1970 and 2000 turned the iconic mountain into a geological poster child for Climate Change. Although rapidly retreating glaciers have been documented all over the world, Gore’s choice of Kilimanjaro created great controversy. Skeptics pointed out that Kilimanjaro’s ice fields have been shrinking for at least a hundred years, whereas the rise in global temperatures attributed to Climate Change only began in the 1980s. As a result, each new scientific study of this remote peak becomes the focus of furious debate: Are Kilimanjaro’s dying glaciers a harbinger of a human-caused catastrophe that we could still avert? Or are they result of natural processes beyond our control? Regardless of the cause, scientists agree that within the next twenty years, the last of the glaciers will have disappeared from Kilimanjaro.
With the melting of the ice, the mountain formerly known as “Impossible to Climb” has turned into a relatively easy trek, at least in terms of technical ascent. About 40,000 people make the attempt each year. But only an estimated forty to fifty percent make it all the way to the top. The guidebooks are all rather vague about the actual number. The reason so many trekkers don’t make the peak is Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), commonly called altitude sickness. At the summit, air pressure is so low there is only half as much oxygen as at sea level. It’s like living in a partial vacuum. The sickness hits people in different ways, most often with headaches, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, disorientation and exhaustion. One weird symptom I experi- enced a few times in the Himalayas was euphoria. High altitude makes me high. I want to run and jump and fly and everything seems really, really funny. This is not very helpful frame of mind when you are scaling a mountain top.
In the worst cases AMS turns into two conditions that can quickly kill you. With High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, fluid seeps into your lungs so swiftly you literally drown in your own juices. With High Altitude Cerebral Edema, fluid leaks into your brain. This affects your balance, your memory, and can even put you in a coma. The websites say that on average ten trekkers die each year on Kilimanjaro–most from altitude sickness, and a few due to rockslides. (No statistics exist on the numbers of porters and guides who perish). Ten deaths in 40,000 is only .025 percent. If it were a batting average, it would be a 99.975 percent survival rate. Not bad odds, I figured. But what makes altitude sickness particularly tricky is that you never know who is going to get it. You can be young and fit and it might kill you. Or you can be old out of shape, just shuffling along, and you’ll be fine. In fact, the oldest person up Kilimanjaro was an 87 year old Frenchman, while tennis champion Martina Navratilova had to abandon her climb when AMS hit her hard.
What precautions to take? Some websites recommend four-to- six weeks of intensive training, bringing altitude-sickness pills, oxygen bottles, and a portable hypobaric chamber. Blogs from some victorious climbers scoffed at all this. In the end I decided to follow the ‘travel light’ recommendation offered by Ultimate Kilimanjaro, the trekking company whose online photos and snappy prose had the attitude I liked best and decided to book with. I chose not to worry about emergency equipment, trusting that our guides would know what they were doing.
“You know Dad, it seems it’s not a vacation with you unless there’s a chance we’ll die,” Josh said to me while discussing AMS before the trip.
“Hmm. I guess that’s true,” I replied. “But it’s that risk that makes a vacation an adventure!”
“Who do I remind you of?” my father said to Teresa within five minutes of meeting her for the first time.
He stroked his short brown beard, flecked with grey. Teresa threw me a glance asking for help.
“Hemingway,” I said tersely.
“Oh yes,” Teresa said, “you look just like Hemingway.”
“That’s right!” My father grinned. “Everywhere I go people tell me I look like Hemingway.”
As a journalist, my father had covered wars in Cyprus and Viet Nam, gone on press tours of Taiwan, Cuba, Iran, and behind the Iron Curtain. When he visited Spain, he made a point to watch a bullfight. He had a sailboat on the Ottawa River, and he wore a captain’s hat. Charismatic and intelligent, overbearing and loquacious, he used to hold forth at the family dinner table about politics, economics and global affairs. Competitive, he hated to surrender a point in any argument. He had boxed when he was in school. He never let any of us win, even at simple board games. Every victory was hard-won. When I was a teen, he used to beat me regularly at chess, and when I started beating him, he said: “When your son defeats you, you never really lose.” He said it as if turning my victory into a feat of one-upmanship for him.
When he would introduce me to strangers, he would sometimes say “This is my boy, Tim” and I would rankle at his possessive use of that small word. When I finished high school, he wanted me to go to the military college where he had gone. Instead I went to university three thousand miles away and majored in philosophy. When I came home for Christmas, armed with rationalism and logic, I would challenge his premises across the dining room table, and call him on his faulty infer- ences.
“Now I know why they made Socrates drink hemlock,” he told me. Yes, to me he seemed just like Hemingway, and I was so damn clear that I was not going to grow up to be like him.
He also told me that he loved me, often and with affection. He would describe in teary detail how he felt when he first held the bloody bundle that was me on the day I was born. His sentimentality drove me nuts. I loved him and I wanted to get away from him, to create a safe buffer and live my life on my own terms.
I grew a beard like him when I turned 18. I felt it made me look like a man. I worked in the bush like him to pay my way, and after college I left to travel the world, living in India and China and Japan, working as a journalist like him. In my thirties, he invited me to join him in his media consulting business. He retired a decade ago, and that’s the company Teresa and I now own. She tells me in the training room I have many of his gestures and mannerisms, and that I cling stubbornly to his way of doing things.
And like my father, when I held my son in my arms for the first time and looked deep into his eyes, I knew I would to everything in my power to nurture and protect this little boy.