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Special Travel Issue | Tanzania

To the Roof of Africa

Inspired by a Film, a Father and His Daughters Take on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Its Five Climates and 19,000-Plus Feet. Pole, Pole.

March 21, 2004|CRAIG LIGIBEL | Craig Ligibel lives in Mission Hills, Kan. His last story for the travel issue detailed a motorcycle trip through the Alps.

The wind rustled the mosquito netting above my bed, and the sounds of the African night, a discordant symphony of high-pitched insect song mixed with the distant, plaintive bleating of goats, echoed around the room.

"What have I gotten myself and my daughters into?" I scribbled in my journal as the inky African darkness enveloped my home for the evening, the 42-room Mountain Village Lodge in the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania. "Bad enough I could get hurt, but if anything happens to those two girls ... "

"Those two girls" were my daughters, Katie, 22, and Betsy, 19, and together we were about to climb Africa's highest mountain, 19,340-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Our guide, 47-year-old Wilbard Minja, outlined it this way: "You will travel through five climates. You will walk 50 miles and climb over 13,500 feet. This may be the most challenging thing you have ever done. The mountain takes away your breath. Not everyone will make it to the top. I will do everything I can to bring everyone back safely, but you never know."

It hadn't seemed quite as daunting when I hatched the idea of the climb. Merely as a way to escape the sweltering July heat at home, my wife, Colleen, and I had gone to the David Breashears IMAX film "Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa." It told the story of six climbers, including a 12-year-old girl from Massachusetts, who reached the snow-capped summit in the company of a film and expedition crew. I was hooked from the opening credits.

I had recently retired and needed something significant on which to focus my energies. That film made climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro seem like the right physical and mental challenge to keep my juices flowing. I wondered whether my daughters would be interested in joining me.

Betsy, always up for an adventure, wanted in from the start. Katie, who is generally more reticent, kept her own counsel for several months. Then one night at dinner, she said, out of the blue, "Why should you guys have all the fun? I'm coming, too. Mother can stay home and pray for all of us."

Now I was looking the dream squarely in the eye. I put my journal down and tried to sleep, but my imagination was in overdrive, tormenting me with a seemingly endless series of scenarios, each more grim than the one before.

We had trained hard for this climb. betsy, a sophomore at syra- cuse University in New York, and Katie, a Chicago public relations professional, both good athletes, had undergone six months of hard aerobic and endurance training. Katie had even resorted to hiking home from her trendy Michigan Avenue offices, her full trekking gear often surprising the well-coiffed urbanites she passed.

During the past two years, I had dropped 60 pounds and embarked on a rigorous physical fitness regime that included two hours of exercise six days a week. I never passed a flight of stairs that I didn't tackle two at a time, and I was a near-fixture on the toughest hiking trails near my Kansas home. At 55, I was in the best shape of my life.

Still, we knew about the hazards of mountain sickness and, worse, high-altitude pulmonary edema. Being a flatlander from Kansas made me all the more apprehensive.

Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world. The summit was first reached by German geographer Hans Meyer and Austrian mountaineer Ludwig Purtscheller in 1889. Today, more than 23,000 people attempt it each year, but only a quarter of those who start up reach the summit. Most take the Marangu Route, dubbed the "Coca Cola" route because of its popularity. We had chosen the more challenging, longer and scenic route featured in the IMAX film. We figured if a sexagenarian and a 12-year-old could make the climb, why couldn't we?

Our tour operator, Thomson Safaris, reported a better than 90% success rate for this nine-day climb, which included an ascent to the summit by way of the difficult Western Breach Route.

A colorful cast of characters joined us for our July adventure. Bernice Kuca, 45, was an accomplished outdoorswoman who had taken successful treks in Thailand, made an ascent of Mt. Rainier in Washington and gone kayaking in Patagonia, Chile. Laura Anderson, 22, a recent graduate of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., had kayaked throughout Alaska and had hiked the Swiss Alps. Semiretired lawyer and Georgetown University adjunct professor Mark Kantor, 47, was a veteran of treks in the Himalayas. Brothers Paul and David Savino didn't have the climbing credentials of some of our other compatriots, but at 42 and 47, respectively, they were fit and mentally prepared. I was the elder statesman of the group, but I felt reasonably confident in my abilities.

As we gathered for breakfast, it was clear I wasn't the only one who hadn't slept the previous night. The group was subdued, each of us alone with our thoughts about the days ahead.

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