‘A father-and-son moment to remember’
By ERIC F. EDMUNDS JR. ’75
“Pole, pole,” intoned the guide – Swahili for
slowly, slowly. It was half-past midnight on June 23 as we emerged
into the clear bracing air of 15,000 feet from our barely warmed
hut. The Southern Cross shone brightly in the night sky and the
full moon illuminated the snows of Kilimanjaro, 4,000 steep feet
We were five: a UCLA friend who had summited McKinley; his girlfriend,
a two-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete; an ultra-distance running
friend; me; and my son Alex – newly graduated from high
school, soon to join Princeton’s Class of 2009 and its championship
water polo team.
The thin air quickly took its toll. The temperature, freezing
as we started, began to drop. The loose scree crumbled underfoot,
all the while our guide urging us “pole pole.” Passing
the Hans Meyer cave at 16,000 feet (Meyer was the first white
man to reach the summit, in 1889), we saw other climbers turning
back with altitude sickness or, more alarming, pulmonary edema.
On we pushed into the night.
To our dismay, the first wisps of fog appeared. By 3 a.m., clouds
concealed the snowcapped summit. Vegetation and all signs of green
were a memory. Kilimanjaro is a remarkable mélange of five
ascending “zones” or micro-climes: Beginning at about
5,000 feet, tropical jungle and cloud-forest; next, temperate
woods of pine and ferns; followed by high alpine meadows, filled
with clear creeks, bizarre lobelia trees and exotic wildflowers;
then barren wind-swept plains; and finally, the so-called Arctic
Zone, covered by snow, ice, and slippery rock. We donned down
parkas, Gore-Tex shells, ski gloves, and masks.
We reached Gilman’s Point, on the edge of the volcanic
crater, altitude 18,655 feet, at 4:49 a.m. Here we caught our
breaths and drank some last water before the canteens froze, readying
for the final push to the summit, at 19,340 feet the highest point
on the African continent. The winds increased to a howling 40
mph, the temperature dropped to 8 degrees Fahrenheit, and snow
blew horizontally in the darkness. We reached Uhuru Peak ahead
of schedule at 6:05 a.m. There would be no traditional sunrise
photos of the crater for us.
Two days later, we were back at the trailhead, buying obligatory
rounds of beers for the successful guides and porters. In return,
they rose and sang us a Swahili song about “Kili.”
It occurred to us that the government-decreed requirement for
guides on the mountain is a Full Employment Act for the otherwise
impoverished (but fit) residents of northern Tanzania.
The scenery and vistas on Kilimanjaro are beyond compare. Later,
as we gazed up at the peak from the flat plains and wispy acacia
trees of Kenya’s Amboseli Game Reserve, with elephant and
zebras grazing before us, and later still looking down at the
peak from our flight home, we were struck by the majesty of Kilimanjaro.
Hemingway famously wrote that a leopard was found embalmed in
the snows of its peak.
A more timely point of controversy is the well-documented fact
that Kilimanjaro is losing its ice cap to global warming. The
first explorer, Meyer, could barely reach the peak for the forest
of ice formations and fields blocking his path. Today these are
gone, and the ice inside the crater shrinks annually.
For us, meanwhile, it was a father-and-son moment to remember.
Alex is leaving the nest, and soon would be ensconced in the Princeton
cocoon of new discoveries and parentless living. In May he marched
in the P-rade, alongside my 30th reunion classmates. But “Kili”
is a march neither of us will soon forget.
ERIC F. EDMUNDS JR. ’75
Los Angeles, Calif.