Love, Respect, and Perserverance

Photos: Ben at the summit and Max and I at about 17,500, resting on a ledge.

Hello Everyone,

I wanted to follow-up our adventure with a personal update from me.  Now that we are home, I have had the opportunity to reflect on this amazing experience.  First, I want to thank Anne for updating the blog every day, even though we gave her very little information during our brief satellite telephone calls.  She did an amazing job.

I am also thankful for everyone who followed our climb.  I was amazed to hear we had almost 900 followers on the different social media we utilized.  

As many of you know, this was our second attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Two years ago (after 2 years of training) and one day from the summit, we had to abort when I fell ill.  The boys were extremely disappointed and I knew, if at all possible, that I needed to give them a second opportunity to summit.  Thus, we continued to train.  Then a year ago, Ben’s collar bone was broken in a soccer game in November which ended our plans to go last winter break.  We continued to train.  Finally, this year, we were able to go and give it a second try.  To date, we have been in intensive training for four years.   
The only other climber with us on this trip was our guide’s son, George.  George is the same age as Ben (14) and he has never left Tanzania.  However, he goes to school where they teach in English even though his native language is Swahili.  Max and Ben met George two years ago and have kept in contact via email.  During the ten days they spent together, they shared stories about their homes, the foods they eat and their religious beliefs.  For instance we celebrated Hanukkah on the mountain and lit a menorah each night even at the highest elevations.  The boys explained the story of Hanukkah to George.  Throughout the 10 days , I heard them teaching each other words in English, Swahili and Hebrew.  It was amazing to watch these three young men from completely different cultures share this life-altering experience.  By the way, while George lives within 1 hour of Kilimanjaro, he has never climbed it and told me he knows of no other friend of his who has ever climbed it either.
I am pleased to tell you that Ben summited the mountain and made it all the way to Uhuru Point, 19,341 feet.  This is the highest point in all of Africa.   Max and I made it to Stella Point, the second highest point,at 18,885.  Here is the back story.
There are about 9 routes on Kilimanjaro and they range in difficulty.  However, they all converge and in the end there are only three routes to the summit.  Locals have given these nicknames: Coca Cola (easiest), Whiskey (middle difficulty), and the Double Whiskey ( most difficult).  The Double Whiskey route involves what is called the western breach.  All other routes involve only a steep hike.  I am told that the western breach is attempted by less than ten percent of all climbers and requires a special waiver form to be signed.  The reason for this is because of it’s difficulty, high risk and the fact that there have been many deaths along this route.  The western breach is a portion of the climb that runs from about 15,000 to 18,000 feet.  It is a vertical rock face that requires a steep hike, turning to scrambling, bouldering and then rock climbing.  This is all done in heavy winter gear, you start this portion of the climb at 4:30 A.M., and the temperature is about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  The western breach is also prone to high winds and rock slides.  Several years ago, while camping at the camp where you start this assault, Arrow Glacier, three climbers were crushed by a rock slide.

We started our climb on what is known as the Lomosho Route.  However, after three days on this route we then headed toward the western breach, rather than following the normal Lemosho route.  From this point until our descent, we saw no one else.  The next day brought us to Lava Tower (14,500) and also the place we turned around on our first attempt.  From Lava Tower we climbed the following day to Arrow Glacier (15,500).  These are both very remote.  Arrow Glacier sits close to the base of the western breach.  It has a strange feel to it because you sense you are sitting under the summit and are facing a vertical rock face.  The winds can be very high here and as soon as it got dark, the temperature dropped quickly.  We had dinner and made our final plans for our summit attempt the following day.  We then climbed into our sleeping bags and tried to sleep.  Around midnight I awoke to a sound I had not heard on the mountain before.  It was a large rock slide.  It sounded like the earth was just moving and falling.  This was even stranger as it broke the silence of the quiet night.
With this background, here is how our summit day unfolded.  We arose very early and at 4:30 A.M., in full winter gear with our backpacks and 7 liters of water each; we began our assault.  It was very cold and as dark of a night as you have ever seen.  The stars of the southern hemisphere filled the cold crisp sky.  I was in awe of the night sky.  The climb started with a steep hike, then turned to more of a scramble and bouldering.  As we rose from 15,000 feet, a few hours later the sun came up and the ice covering many of the rocks began to melt.  The plan was that the western breach would take us 4-5 hours, and then we would rest on the crater rim, eat and then make the final assault for the summit which would be another 1,000 foot steep climb.  Within a few hours we began to shed some layers and were making good progress, on what was now a rock climb.  Due to the nature of this section there are no harnesses or ropes to assist.  Spirits were all high and we all felt that it was only a matter of time until we all made the summit.  However, around 17,000 feet, Max advised me he had a slight headache.  Max had these during the trip from time to time, but they were usually resolved by drinking more water.  By the way, on the mountain, you need to drink between 6 – 9 liters of water a day in order to handle the altitude.  So our guide and I consulted and we agreed Max would drink some water, rest for a few minutes and take some Ibuprofen. 

We then pressed on.  At 17,500, Max told me he was nauseous and the headache had worsened.  We stopped on a rock ledge, and then Max became sick and vomited.  Our guide and I consulted one another about our options.  Descending along the western breach would be dangerous and would pose a high risk of falls.  We agreed that finishing the breach was the only option, and at that time we could determine if Max could continue or if a rapid descent would be necessary.  After being sick, Max felt better and we continued our climb up the rock face.  This was very slow due to the nature of the rock face, winds, and slickness of the rocks.  A 17,700, Max told me while drinking water that he wanted to close his eyes and go to sleep.  This is a dangerous sign that can accompany High Altitude sickness.  The problem with being at this high altitude is that the high altitude sickness can progress very quickly (as short as 1-2 hours) to a life-threatening situation (HAPE or HACE), and thus descending quickly is necessary.  Due to Max’s condition it took us almost two more hours to finish the breach from this point.

We made it into the crater at about 18,300.  Both the entry point to make an assault on the summit and also the location for a rapid descent require crossing the crater.  The crater looks like a desert on one side and there is a glacier on the other side.  As we crossed the glacier, it was like a blizzard with a hard driving snow.  As we crossed the crater, Max vomited twice more.  At high altitude, circumstances change very rapidly, and the wrong decision or failure to be decisive in your decision-making can lead to death quickly.  Both our guide and I knew at this point that Max’s well-being and life required a rapid descent.   As you cross the crater the route to the summit came first.  Max and our guide wanted me to go to the summit and they would descend.  Max’s condition was so dangerous, I insisted that I forgo the summit and descend with him and the guide.  So I told Ben he would go to the summit with George and the assistant guide and I would descend with Max.  Ben and I spoke quickly, and it was extremely emotional for both of us.  I then gave him a hug and a kiss and he turned toward the summit.  He disappeared into the snow within a minute and I could no longer see him. 
In order to get Max down, we had to climb up and through Stella Point at 18,885 ft.  In the snow we did this as quickly as possible and then began our rapid descent.  This was a slope with crushed lava and we began almost a skiing action through this area.  Within about 40 minutes, we had descended to about 16,500.  Max ‘s color and level of consciousness were improving as we descended.  I was having difficulty keeping up with them, and felt I was slowing them down.  So I sent our guide and Max ahead, as I knew the faster he descended the better Max would feel and that the risk to his life would be decreased.  We agreed I would wait in a small cave at 16,500 until our summit group came down and I would descend with them.  Max and the guide then disappeared into the snow.  About 1.5 hours later, Ben came casually walking down the mountain with a big smile on his face.  By the way, he was wearing his HP winter hat! We hugged on the side of the mountain and began to descend together.  We talked about his great accomplishment and shared our feelings of what has just taken place.  We passed through a camp at 15,500 feet about 1.5 hours later and were told Max passed through earlier and was feeling better.  He continued on to high camp at 12,500.  Max knew that by going lower he would decrease his risks of an adverse outcome.
We eventually reunited with Max at high camp at 8:30 P.M. 16 hours after we started our summit attempt.  Max was feeling well.  The next day we finished our descent in about 8 hours and Ben received a certificate from Tanzania for reaching the highest point in Africa and Max and I each received one for reaching the second highest point.
I am so very proud of both of them.  This is one of the most difficult things I have done in my life.  Max and Ben never complained about the training, the route, the cold, or the long days.  They were focused and embraced this with their souls.  When fast decisions had to be made, they both did what had to be done.  Max never gave up.  He never cried.  He understood that he had to finish the breach, climb even higher, and then descend as fast as possible to save his life.  High altitude sickness not only is physically debilitating, but psychologically it is devastating too. When it strikes there is an overall feeling of despair that causes many people to give up and die.  Max did not give up.  He persevered and did what had to be done.
Ben was amazing.  He was focused the entire climb.  Our guide said he has never seen a boy Ben’s age be so strong both physically and emotionally.  To reach the summit, you have to be willing to give 1000%.  Ben did this and more, as in the end, he had to finish the last 1000 feet without us by his side.  He had to climb on even when he knew Max was physically in trouble.  To remain focused in this situation is unbelievable.

I titled this post “Love, Respect and Perseverance”.  Early in the climb as we hiked through the foot hills of Kilimanjaro and over a plateau at 12,500 feet, which was formed when another volcano exploded millions of years ago, I had time to think about many things.  What kept going through my mind over and over again is how lucky I am to have a family who embraced my dream and who agreed to live it with me…twice.  In this very dangerous place, the love I share with my family made me stronger and better. Not only were Max and Ben with me, but so were Anne and Shayna.

I use the term respect for two reasons.  Max and Ben were focused throughout and never lost sight of our goals.  They have my respect because this was very difficult. Hiking one day or sleeping in freezing temperatures for one night is difficult, but doing it day after day is a whole different situation.   The way they handled themselves on the mountain impresses me and for that and about a million other reasons, I respect them.  I also use the word respect because the mountain is something which is beautiful, enormous and dangerous all at the same time.  On the mountain, things change very quickly.  The weather changes by the second and your body changes that quickly as well.  One minute you feel great, and within minutes you feel terrible and debilitated.  So for these reasons, I respect the mountain.

Finally, I use the word perseverance because that is what it takes to reach a large goal.  Max and Ben have shown they have perseverance and this makes Anne and I so proud.  Perseverance also comes into play with our MDA campaign.  We have received a lot of support from everyone and I know that we have made good progress to our goal of purchasing an ambulance for MDA.  This coming week I will obtain an update from MDA about what we have raised and will post the amount here as soon as I receive updated figures.

Finally, many people, including Anne, have asked me why we climbed the western breach and not one of the easier routes.  My answer is simple.  We climbed the Western Breach because we could!  (Note from Anne here:  I’m really glad they kept me in the dark about this.  Hearing about it afterwards was scary enough.)

Thank you all so very much for your support and good wishes.  And we look forward to celebrating once we reach our goal of raising enough money to purchase an ambulance for MDA.

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