Wednesday, October 27
Summiting Kilimanjaro: Hakuna Matata
At some point, every little boy or girl wants to be a cowboy, own a pony or be a rock star, dreams that may never be reached. But at ten years old, British citizen Richard Thomson wrote climb Mount Kilimanjaro on his list of goals. “As an English person, we are more connected to East Africa as kids,” said Thomson, now a resident of Stow. Forty-five years later, Thomson and four friends were able to cross that item off his “bucket list,” scaling the African mountain this October.
Thomson and his brother-in-law, Wayne Munns, had taken other trips together venturing to Australia and Ghana. While planning the trip, Thomson quickly learned it was easy to get ripped off or land in a dangerous situation because of the lack of reputable expedition guide companies. “I decided to find the best company, one that I trusted and had the authority to stop us if needed,” he said.
His search led him to a firm that, although expensive, appealed to him for several reasons. First, Thomson’s wife, Claudia, met the co-owner years ago; second there was a local outpost in Watertown where they met very competent staff; and third, the company enjoyed the support of the Tanzanian government, with a reputation for paying fair wages to workers. Plus, it was named Thomson Safaris. “Spelled the right way,” added Thomson. “Everything was designed to be.” Three friends joined up and the five were off to Africa.
Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. Expeditions to summit Kilimanjaro start at 4,000 feet above sea level and climb 15,000 feet to Uhuru Peak at 19,341. The expedition started in a rainforest, scaled an alpine meadow in a crater valley, then marched up to the peak across an arctic landscape, dotted with glaciers. “It’s like walking on the moon,” described Thomson. “I had a bandana on my face. There’s no water in the air, your nose aches. When it snowed, you could watch it evaporate.”
A common cause of failure for any high altitude expedition is altitude sickness. Thomson was lucky and avoided most of the common effects - fatigue, stomach illness, dizziness. The safari company moved a pace that helped the team adjust slowly to the changes in altitude. “We spent three days acclimating to the highest elevation. We were all fighting against it. It helped that we were fed properly,” said Thomson.
To support the 11 man team, there was one head guide, three assistant guides and 45 porters to carry the tents, food, and portable toilets. Each climber had a personal porter and Thomson developed a relationship with his porter, Danken, exchanging email addresses. “I can’t express how phenomenal these people were. Strong, friendly, reliable,” he said.
Thomson described one porter who was always at the rear of the group. The large man was always the slowest person and at first Thomson assumed he was having trouble with his load. Thomson soon learned that this strong, very capable porter was carrying the oxygen tank and had the job of staying with the slowest team members. Nicknaming him “the vulture,” Thomson explained, “If you’re walking with him, you are the end of the pack.”
The porters and guides constantly checked on the team members, asking “Mambo?” in Swahili as they went by. The answer to their question, “How are things/How are you?” was a familiar phrase, thanks to Disney. “They wanted to hear ‘Hakuna Matata,’ no worries,” said Thomson. The porters would respond to a greeting with a simple “Poa” or “cool” or sometimes with the longer, “Poa kichizi kama ndizi.” “Which means ‘cool like a crazy banana,’” said Thomson.
At 2:00 pm ten days into the trip the group reached the highest camp, nestled below Uhuru Peak. They decided to summit that day and began the slow walk toward their goal. The guides taught the hikers how to move at an exaggerated slow pace. Thomson learned the wisdom of this approach after he stopped to take a picture, then tried to catch up and found it difficult to breathe. “Most fail on the last stage of the trip at 16,000 – 19,000 feet,” said Thomson. Although the 11 had done well for the entire journey, one member couldn’t reach the summit and had to remain at the camp. This was difficult for the other ten team members, who bonded during the adventure. “Ultimately it was his decision. He knew we would have done what it took to help him. We would have carried him,” said Thomson.
Reaching the summit and his childhood goal was a dramatic moment for Thomson. “45 years of thinking about it, two years planning, one year training,” Thomson paused. “The positive energy of reaching the top and not having anything go wrong, the release was undeniable,” said Thomson quietly, still in awe of the experience. “It’s about climbing mountains, not just physical mountains, achieving goals and sharing the experience with loved ones. It’s about taking advantage of privileges to take the most out of life. It’s about meeting emotional, physical, mental - any kind of challenge,” Thomson said, adding, “It’s indescribable.”
Thomson’s adventure didn’t end with reaching the summit. The next morning the guides offered to take the team to the Ash Pit, a short hike away. Thomson was one of the few who ventured to the crater of the inactive volcano. The route to the Ash Pit took the group close enough to touch the glaciers and brought them to a barren landscape, laced with the smell of sulfur and dotted with smoldering rock.
Thomson admits he’s been tired after his trip, heading to bed early each night, but he says it’s not let down from reaching a life long goal. “On the contrary, there’s utter satisfying peace,” he said. As for what’s next for Thomson and his brother-in-law, Thomson doesn’t know the destination, but he knows something will catch their interest. “There will be other goals and I will enjoy them,” he said.
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