It is midnight. It is cold. We are headed north. And up…
A full moon lights the night. Covered by countless layers of Gore-Tex and fleece, we are about to summit Africa’s tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. After sleeping less than an hour, we were awoken at 11pm for ‘breakfast.’ I have little appetite, a common occurrence at high altitude. The Kilimanjaro base camp is 15,500 feet, and the closest clouds are at least 5000 feet below us. Nothing grows here. They call it alpine desert, but to me it’s indistinguishable from the surface of the moon.
Finally, it’s time. We head out. In front of me is our head guide, Onest, summiting the mountain for perhaps his hundredth time. He started as a porter and worked his way up. He is one of Thomson Safari’s most senior guides, which is just as well because we feel wholly unprepared for what we’re about to do. Behind him is my wife, Debbie, who somehow allowed me to coax her into the climb. She is wearing all her layers but will be the only woman summiting the mountain in a skirt. I have always believe that, despite her denials, she has far greater stamina than me.
Today, we’ll find out. I am behind her, and then behind me, our assistant guide James, and four more porters, two personal and two medical.
There is a deathly silence as we begin the ascent. All around us headlamps representing small teams of fellow climbers are converging from Kilimanjaro’s six routes for this, the path for the final ascent. They are just as silent.
We have been climbing for four days now, averaging 3000 feet per day.
Now, we must ascend 4000 feet to the summit in six and half hours in order to make the sunrise.
As we move from switchback to switchback I notice that this climb is different. Though Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa, it is famous for being accessible for non-experts like us. The extent of our own qualifications to ascend this mountain is that we both own a pair of boots. But the grade here is much steeper than before. Our feet are numb. My wife complains that, though she is wearing two pairs of gloves, she can no longer feel her fingers. Onest takes off his gloves and switches with her. We push on.
Two hours pass. Every muscle in my body is aching. It feels like torture. The ascent seems endless. We are beginning to be overtaken by other groups who slide by quietly, leaving a trail of dust that we breathe in. As a Rabbi, I’ve been taught that peering at the heavens is a good thing. But not tonight. I look up and see headlamps stretching into the endless sky. My last glimmer of hope all but disappears. “Is there no end to this mountain? Does it ever end?” I ask James our altitude. “17,500” he says. Half the night is gone. We have gone half the distance. But I have little left to give.
It’s now 5am and we’re climbing at what feels like a 45 degree angle. I begin to notice that Debbie is wobbling at the impossible steepness. I begin to fear that it she falls backward, she’ll take us both out in one fell swoop. I ask Onest to come to her rescue. For the next 90 minutes whenever Debbie comes to a switchback he pulls her up. We are a freezing, sorry sight. But we will not give up. We came to summit the mountain and, for heaven’s sake, we’re not going to quit. Lightheaded from the impossibly high altitude of over 18,500 feet, we finally arrive at the crater rim. The sun is rising. It is glorious. All of Africa is beneath us. The deep blue ice of the enormous glaciers that now surround us mix with the bright orange and red of the sunrise for a cacophony of brilliant color. We feel accomplished and content. We are alive and at the top of the world. Mazel tov.
But celebration is short lived. We still have the last thousand feet to ascend to Uhuru (Freedom) peak, the very roof of Africa. My legs are like spaghetti beneath me. Debbie is out of breath. “We made it to the rim. We did it. I can’t go on.” I tell her we crossed the world to come here, walked four long days, and the hellish ascent to get here. We have one more hour and we’ll remember it for the rest of our lives. She picks up her hiking poles and we continue. For the next two hours we walk the rim of the crater, stopping every few minutes to catch our breath, always ascending. It is ten degrees below zero. But at long last, miracle of miracles, we reach the summit. We are standing at the highest point of the world’s most mysterious continent.
I take out my talis and tefillin as the guides and a small circle of fellow climbers watch. I pray the morning prayer, slowly and deliberately, amid the caution that we dare not stay up too long or risk altitude sickness. As I finished, I walk in front of the sign marking Africa’s highest point and somehow find an audience at the top of the world. “Summits like these,” I say, “remind us of the things that humankind is capable of achieving. Possessed of both animal and human nature, we can descend to the level of the beast or we can rise to angelic peaks. Let us see the world as it appears to us now, a collection of people, blind to race, religion, and color, who struggle together, to rise to majestic, magical heights. May Africa be a continent of prosperity and peace, may my country, America, be blessed with G-d’s bounty, and may my people, the Jewish people, and Israel, the Jewish state, enjoy prosperity and tranquility.”
My audience of fellow climbers clap. We start the long climb down, transformed by what we thought impossible to achieve, grateful to God and our guides that amid our weakness we somehow found the strength.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is in Africa to visit the Rwandan Genocide Sites and to attend his son’s Rabbinical ordination in Pretoria. Follow his trip on twitter @Rabbishmuley.
Thomson can be found at www.thomsonsafaris.com.