07/01/2012 09:10 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

Born to Explore: Mount Kilimanjaro Is A Hard Metaphor To Climb

Since the time of Moses, we have gone to mountains as supplicants in search of truth, as if their might and height is a doorway into the divine. The challenge of the climb, the oneness with nature, and the thinness of the air combine to bring out a clarity that is simply not available in the flat lands of normal day-to-day existence. And there is no better example of mountain mysticism than Kilimanjaro that rises, all alone and improbably symmetrical, from the flat table of the East African plain. Most of the people who climb its routes each year are looking for more than adventure; they are searching for someone they have lost.

My father was an airline pilot. He was a good father and a good man who gave me the gift of curiosity and embedded in me a real reverence for nature and its power to calm the most recalcitrant of souls. One of my earliest and most treasured memories from my youth was when he and I packed our rucksacks, left my mom and three sisters at home in the suburban smallness of Head of the Harbor, Long Island, and set off to climb Africa's highest mountain. I was just 11. It was my first experience pushing at the outer boundaries of endurance. My father had about as much experience climbing mountains as I did. And the trip should have been awful.

We did everything wrong. In the months leading up to the trip, we did no training hikes to prepare us for the grueling physical challenges and, dangerously ignorant of the dangers. We didn't bring enough water, and our cotton clothing was completely inappropriate for both the tropical conditions at the mountain's base and the frigid glacier at its highest elevations.

But the trip was also extraordinary in the way that matters. Against all the odds, we pushed each other towards the 19,345-foot summit. We bonded as son and father in a way that just would never be possible in the whirl of everyday routines. The elation of conquering my weakness, the adjective-defying view from the summit and that bond gave me a high that I have searched for ever since. It literally made me who I am today, igniting my lifelong interest in exploration and the flame has never dimmed. Over the last 40 years since my first experience with this majestic mountain, I have returned 18 times to wonder at its beauty and relive those precious days from my youth.

Like me, Keech Coombe, Alan Valdez and Kay Foster had their own personal reasons for wanting to climb Kili. I first met them in The Explorers Club in NYC. It was January, 2005. At the time I was working as The President of The Explorers Club and I had been tasked with leading this party and 7 other Americans as far up the mountain as they were capable of going. My job was to ensure they came to no harm and had a good time. Reaching the summit was gravy, not a prerogative. We had a few drinks as I laid out the itinerary and, by the time we finished dinner, it was clear to me that these three strangers, as unalike as three people could possibly be, all saw the climb in terms of a personal search.

For Keech, Kili was a physical test. A year earlier, this athletic twenty-seven-year-old recent business school graduate had broken her neck in a horrific skiing accident. Pulled from the mountain in grave condition, she had spent weeks in hospital with a halo device attached to her head and upper vertebrae. She was battered and scared. When questioned, her doctors had been brutally honest. They were uncertain that she would ever be able to walk again. But miraculously, over long days and months of therapy, Keech had clawed her way back from the psychological brink and regained her physical abilities. But could she return to her pre-accident form? She had come to the mountain to find out.

For Alan, A 55-year-old Wall Street trader, this trip was a second chance. In 1980 he had tried to climb the mountain in just three days. Driven by blind determination and aggressive self-assurance that is the trademark of his profession, Alan had tackled the ascent with gusto but no real understanding of his body's limitations. He ignored his porter's warning of "pole, pole" (pronounced "poh-lay, poh-lay," it means "slowly, slowly" in Swahili) and adhered rigidly to his preset plan. But Kilimanjaro, like all mountains, does not like a plan or take kindly to those who aspire to mastery. Suffering from altitude sickness at 16,000 feet, Alan had yielded to stronger forces than his need to over achieve and, after 6 days, was forced by nausea and headaches to retreat to lower elevations. Humbled and wiser, he had come back to finish what he had started.

Then there was Kay, a sophisticated older woman who lived on Beekman Place in New York, one of those exclusive addresses that is frequently paired with socialites and stretch limousines. Acting on an impulse that was as unexpected as it was terrifying, she had come to this mountain searching for something long buried, her zest for life. As she admitted to me privately, Kay had lost her confidence several years earlier when her much-loved husband had passed away, and she had not been able to shake off the funk that had engulfed her ever since. The idea of climbing Africa's highest mountain was at once so wonderfully absurd and so out-of-character that it had been able to spark a fire inside her. That light, she was sure, would guide her back to her old self.

After two days of rest and acclimatization in Arusha, the city in northern Tanzania that is a popular starting point for Kili expeditions, the four of us along with 6 other first time climbers jumped into land crusiers and bumped our way down the dirt road from Moshe to the Machame Gate, one of the entry points to the Mount Kilimanjaro National Park). Here we said goodbye to civilization, shouldered our light packs (the rest of our luggage was being carried by 60 porters) and began the 8-day, 7 night trek. Looking along the well-marked path, we had our first clear view of Kilimanjaro rising as perfect as a child's drawing to a snow-capped summit, silhouetted impossibly white against a cloudless blue African sky.

For most of that first day we hiked under a canopy of high trees, moss-coated vines and ferns that clogged the tropical rainforest that circles the mountain's base. The calls of the black and white Colobus monkeys filled the air. Fresh elephant tracks crisscrossed the path. After nine hours, we left the forest behind and entered a dryer, savannah-like ecosystem, with moses and sage like grass. We made camp for the night just below 10,000 feet.

Waiting for dinner in our small mess tent, everyone looked exhausted. Gone was the optimism and the quick-witted repartee and, in their place, was a growing understanding of the challenge that lay ahead. When Kay emerged from her tent much later than the others, looking pale and weak, I saw doubt in her eyes and that, even more than her physical deportment, made me wonder if she would make the summit. Dinner was served and we devoured the high-carbohydrate meal of rice, pasta, bread, chicken and vegetables (typically hikers burn 3,500 to 10,000 calories per day). The awkwardness of strangers was already breaking down and, over dinner, the conversation ran smoothly through turning points in ours lives, past romances, and earlier memorable journeys.

We awoke the next morning before sunrise to a frigid chill in the air and set out on the next leg of our journey. Trekking through heath and moorland, our goal was to reach Shira Camp, located on a spectacular high ridge at 12,600 feet. But by the early afternoon a lightning storm had turned the sky into a dark ceiling, and we were showered with hail that, in turn, became sheets of frozen rain. The trail soon turned into a river of ice-cold water and, as we splashed along, all conversation ceased.

Even when we reached Shira the mood didn't improve. Our tents were sagging heavily under the weight of water and the porters -- led by our guide, Jonas Rutta - were feverishly digging moats to route the puddles away. As we huddled in the mess tent for dinner, everyone looked worried. We all knew the next day was going to be a challenging one, hiking across the high desert to 15,000 feet, then descending to Barranco Camp at 12,750 feet. The elevation change was designed to acclimatize our bodies to the thinning air before we made our big push to the summit.

But mountains are nothing if not unpredictable and like to play games with your mind. When I opened my eyes in the early morning, in place of the gray gloom I had expected, there was sunshine filtering through the orange, canvas walls of my tent. Just as we were congratulating ourselves on our luck, the weather turned again and, as we pulled on soaked boots and took to the trail once more, veils of rain blew across the valley and once again washed away the team's high spirits. As we dropped finally toward Barranco, a coal-black thunderstorm menaced the summit.

Keech seemed to be doing well. To her obvious relief, she had experienced no physical difficulties so far and, even after this demanding day, she had enough energy left to teach the porters how to toss a Nerf football. Alan appeared strong and relaxed. He had finally learned the wisdom of "pole, pole," and now repeated the words like a mantra to slow the rhythm of his steps. But Kay was clearly struggling. The challenge of the climb, the increasing altitude and the insult of the weather were eating away both at her physical strength and her dogged optimism. The most difficult part was still ahead.

All the next day, we climbed the bowl-like side of the Great Barranco Valley and, by early afternoon, we reached our camp at Lava Tower, a 200-foot spur of orange volcanic rock. Our altitude was 15,000 feet, higher than the tallest peak in the Rockies. With some time on our hands, Keech and I decided to do something we hadn't done in five days. One benefit of the recent rains was that, behind a outcropping of rocks, a stream and waterfall had sprung to life. Finding separate, secluded terraces, we stripped off our dirty hiking clothes and plunged naked into the frigid waters for brief exhilarating baths.

It snowed during the night and, when the team emerged from their tents, a thin ice coated the rocks. Fortunately, Day Six of the climb was an easy one, a short ascent to 16,500 feet where our next camp, Arrow Glacier, sat in the lee of one of the famous glaciers that rolled with the slowness of millennia from the bowls that surrounded the summit. The crack and whump of distant avalanches echoed around the rock walls and made everyone uneasy. And the altitude was taking its toll. Appetites had diminished, and several of the team (me included) were suffering from headaches.

On Day Seven we followed the Western Breach that rises sharply up to the rim of Kilimanjaro's volcanic crater, an intimidating scramble of rocky crags and steep drop offs. We set off slowly, breathing hard, slow step by slow step. The climb would have been difficult enough under good conditions but today it was covered in ice, so Jonas and I had to painstakingly cut steps into the frozen scree with an axe.

As the hours passed, the group spread out. At lunch, we waited over an hour for Kay, but she never showed up. Jonas was with her and, not wishing to hold up the other two and deny them a chance to summit, I pressed on, up a series of rock scrambles, where we struggled to pull our bodies through narrow canyons and up and over large boulders. Our normal chatter was reduced to monosyllables. After a series of false ridge tops, we emerged on to the flat terrain of Kili's crater, 18,750 feet above sea level, an arctic moonscape accented by the huge, indigo-streaked glaciers to the west. Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the crater rim and the summit of Kili, was visible a mere 600 feet above us.

We stopped and rested, ostensibly to wait for Kay, but I was not sure she would make it. Privately, I had hoped that Jonas had not led her back down to last night's camp where the altitude would be kinder and she could regain enough energy to make it down. So I was thrilled when, an hour later, I saw her stumble up over the ridge, barely able to walk. She was completely spent, almost delirious with the effort, and held upright only by the sheet force of her determination. Surely, I thought, she would go no higher.

But the next day I was proved wrong yet again. We awoke the next morning at 5 and left camp at 6, early enough to gain the summit, spend some time enjoying the accomplishment and then drop back down to Forest Camp some two miles verticaly below. Kay was with us, walking even more slowly than before, yet resolute and uncomplaining. After half an hour of walking through the half light of dawn, we watched as the sun rose into a cloudless blue sky. The weather gods of Kili were smiling. For what seemed like hours (one) we ascended a steep, winding trail, up a series of rocky switchbacks. No one spoke and there was no resting on this last push to the summit. We finally emerged onto a slightly graded plateau and crossed a few hundred yards to a modest wooden sign, which marked the highest point on the African continent. Success.

I looked at Keech and saw her eyes were wet with tears. Exactly one year before she had all but given up hope following her devastating skiing accident. But here she was, standing on the summit of Kili. Alan was as ecstatic as a schoolboy. Gone was the formality and the conditioned seriousness that had defined him earlier in the trip. He hugged Jonas and, grinning, repeated for the last time the mantra that had gotten him there: "pole, pole." But where was Kay?

We waited, all of us hoping that this utterly fatigued woman with a steely spirit had been able to find those last ounces of energy necessary. Still Kay didn't appear and then, suddenly, there she was. Expressionless as if she was afraid to waste even enough muscle to make a smile, she stumbled up onto the summit plateau and ever so slowly allowed herself the realization that she had made it. She had done what nobody had expected her to do. None of her friends back in Beekman Place. Not me and, I strongly suspect, not even her.

I walked over and took her arm, as much to express my admiration as to keep her steady as she turned in a circle and took in the sheer enormity of the view. The vast African plain stretched out as flat as a blanket for hundreds of miles. Mount Meru rose in the west and beyond it, the green grass of the Serengeti Plain. I told her to breathe deeply and remember the sense of accomplishment that would stay with her for the rest of her life.

I had been in this very spot 18 times. I thought back to that day when my father and his 11 -year old son enjoyed this unchanging landscape. And I remembered the various friends that had shared this tabletop of rock with me over the years. I glanced over at Keech quietly sobbing to herself, at Alan beaming and, most of all, at Kay taking in the roof of Africa. And I marveled yet again at this mountain's reliable power to understand and restore what was once lost.