If you want to take your original knees out for one last spin before trading them for newer models, there’s no place more challenging—or better—to do it than up a 19,341-foot-high dormant volcano in Africa.
Steve Wilson did just that.
The fact that he was having joint replacement surgery this month didn’t deter the Somers man from taking sons Ryan, 20, and Garrett, 19, on the hike of a lifetime on Mount Kilimanjaro in August.
“Basically, I did it with no knees,” Wilson said.
His wife, Meg, a speech pathologist, and their 17-year-old daughter, Meredith, both begged off, citing a lack of burning desire to experience altitude sickness, days without showering, and, oh, “the bugs, and everything else that’s out there.”
While the boys were off in Tanzania, the history-loving mother and daughter seized the opportunity to make a long-postponed pilgrimage to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
All agree that the “dynamic” would have been different if the entire tribe gone along. Besides, Meg says, wittily if not pragmatically, if something dire had happened, “there would be at least one parent left.”
‘How about Kilimanjaro?’
Wilson—by day a 50ish mild-mannered wealth management advisor—straps on his “Iron Man” exoskeleton in his off hours by participating in triathlons.
Garrett, a sophomore and business major at the University of Michigan, graduated from Somers High School where he played football and baseball. Ryan, a John F. Kennedy Catholic High School grad, is now a senior at Fordham University, studying sociology and marketing. He hiked a lot when a Boy Scout.
But they had never tackled something like this before.
Ryan broached the idea in February.
While at an “ice breaker” at college, a classmate turned to him and revealed that she had climbed Kilimanjaro.
Inspired, Ryan texted his dad to ask: “How about you, me and Garrett go climb a big mountain this summer?”
Wilson texted back: “How about Kilimanjaro?”
Ryan responded: “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
Kilimanjaro’s no Everest. It’s not a “technical climb” that requires specific expertise or complicated equipment. But neither is it “easy” or “just a walk,” as some of the literature implies.
There are dicey spots like Baranco Wall where, if you lose your footing, you will end up with a lot more than a twisted ankle and bruised ego; you could die. Then there are the implacable boulders and barren ice fields.
It’s hard, but doable.
“What Kilimanjaro requires, I guess, is fortitude,” Wilson said.
The Wilsons built up their strength by taking long hikes, but the thin atmosphere is something for which nobody can prepare. It’s like trying to breathe through a straw.
Altitude sickness is inevitable, even for seasoned mountaineers.
They took meds that lessened symptoms, but still were beset by headaches. Wilson ruefully recalls bouts with “the dry heaves.”
Garrett lost his healthy teen’s appetite and barely ate.
There are no wild on the mountain critters that will kill you, though cheeky monkeys try to steal your lunch and there is a small nocturnal mammal whose eerie shrieks make you think twice about answering the call of nature in the middle of the night.
After Wilson did some research, the intrepid trio flew to Kilimanjaro, changing planes in Dubai on the Persian Gulf coast, and at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s most populous city, before reaching base camp.
They brought along warm clothing, hiking boots, backpacks, and bandages for blisters. Harder-to-lug tents and sleeping bags were rented.
When asked if bags were cleaned in-between customers, Wilson, grimacing, admitted: “I don’t like to think about that.”
DON’T GO IT ALONE
Kilimanjaro is Earth’s highest free-standing mountain, meaning it sits on a plain and isn’t part of a range.
You can only climb it if you sign up with a registered trekking agency that hires porters to schlep the gear and provides food and water.
Picking the right tour operator is tricky but not as hard as making the commitment to go.
Do your homework, but don’t overthink things or take every horror story to heart or you might get cold feet, Wilson advised.
Because tourism is a serious moneymaker, some “cowboy” operations artificially inflate their “success rates”—the chances customers will reach the summit.
Be wary of any tour operator claiming a 100 percent rate. In reality, it’s usually between 45 and 67 percent. The rate changes with the difficulty of the route.
The Wilsons, limited by time, choose to trek Machame, a popular but difficult route that takes a minimum six days to get up and down. They reached the top in five days and took less than two days to get down.
Wilson praised the “excellent” porters who beat the group to each camp in order to set up, calling them “quite impressive.”
The on-the-trail menu, however, might have only rated a “meh” from Michelin had the food guide cared about high-altitude cuisine.
Unimpressed by the veggie patties and overcooked chicken, the boys dreamed of cheeseburgers, but were nevertheless grateful for whatever high-energy grub that fueled them whether it was guacamole, nuts, or protein bars.
After facing hardships and sharing joy with someone, bonding comes naturally.
“You’re all out there together experiencing despair, discomfort and, at times, anger and frustration. There’s also exhilaration,” said Wilson, who stays in touch with the other fellow climbers in their group.
Going up Kilimanjaro is like walking from the equator to the North Pole.
To play on the quote oft attributed to Mark Twain: “If you don’t like the weather on Mount Kilimanjaro, just wait a few minutes.”
The mountain has five climate zones ranging from tropical rainforest to arctic tundra. Temperatures can reach 80 degrees plus during the day and plummet to zero at night.
Camp showers only spray bone-chilling water, so it’s better to stay dirty.
Kilimanjaro has broken up couples. It could be the stress; on the other hand, the no-shower situation could be to blame. Anyway, sleep deprivation and using the bathroom outdoors isn’t anyone’s idea of “romance,” Wilson said.
If anyone had thoughts of quitting, they kept it to themselves, especially on summit day.
Garrett said it wasn’t an option: “You were going to have to keep walking, or you were going to have to turn back and keep walking. You might as well just go the right way.”
Everyone hit the hay around 8 p.m., rose at 11 p.m., and started hiking at midnight.
It takes eight hours to reach the summit in time to catch the sunrise.
The Wilsons recalled seeing the headlamps of dozens of climbers like fireflies bouncing along in a giant conga line.
The boys pressed on by gluing their weary eyes to the feet of the person in front of them.
“That last 500 feet was just brutal,” Ryan recalled.
The elder son thinks he will tackle another mountain, if not Kilimanjaro, then one of the other seven summits.
Garrett “might need some time to recover” before he chooses his next adventure.
Wilson? “I could get talked into it.”
After healing from knee surgery, Wilson can do everything except run, which stresses joints.
Pushing things physically? “I think we all learned that the body is capable of more than we think. When the mind is determined to do something, the body can respond.”
“It was a wonderful experience for me to have with the boys; something I wouldn’t trade for anything”
Ryan and Garrett called the trip “unbelievable.”
Climbing is like life itself. Every day you face different obstacles. Just when you think you’ve got those nailed, there are new ones to tackle.
Metaphors aside, it’s all about the people with whom you take that journey.
Stats say that five to 15 folks—mostly porters—die on the mountain each year.
Sure, there are risks to mountain climbing, but with the life’s unpredictability, you could just as easily snuff it by falling off a ladder at home, so you might as well enjoy it and make some lasting memories.
To drive home this mountainous point, Wilson quoted Morgan Freeman in his portrayal of an inmate in “Shawshank Redemption.”
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”