Wings of Kilimanjaro, Part 2 of 2: Challenges

“The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.”
― Carlos Castaneda

The night before summit day was the first time I heard people really worrying about the wind and the weather. This was a remarkably positive group, but positivity only gets you so far.  We were getting close to the top and the wind would need to change direction and die down in order for the launch to be successful. The wind at the aptly named “Camp Kosovo” was howling  and from the wrong direction. Let’s call this challenge #1.


 Looking down on camp Kosovo: It’s hard to tell from the picture, but it’s windy here.

It was still windy the next morning, so windy that one of our big mess tents lifted off and hurtled down the mountainside. As we were considering this we got word of something else, a misunderstanding amongst the guides and porters about the plan to not only climb to the summit, but to camp three days up there to maximize the chance of getting some flying weather. Apparently some of them had not heard about this, or else someone thought this would be the time to negotiate for a raise…Of our 600 porters and guides, about 100 decided they were done and walked off the mountain. Later we learned that they also blocked their replacements from walking up and bringing us the water and food we would need at the summit. As you might imagine, this became important later. (i.e., we ran short of food and water on the summit.) Challenge #2. We started up the mountain anyway, and we all summited, which was a wonderful experience. But we descended into the crater not realizing that supplies would run short and that the weather would not improve.

ImageLooking at the launch site- the body language says it all…

So what had been a remarkably smooth trip started to become quite difficult. Here are a few more personal highlights and observations about this last part of the trip:

1) Preparedness – I can’t imagine planning a trip for 700 people, nor would I ever want to. In looking at my pictures, my son Barrett said we looked like a huge line of ants climbing up the mountain. But for the most part things went very smoothly. We even had three team, doctors, Matt, Matt and Luke, and they did a great job keeping us all healthy. Have you ever been on a trip where the team had it’s own backboard?! We had one, and used it when a woman from a group camped near to us came down with pulmonary edema on the fourth night of the climb. The doctors saved her life, without a doubt. I doubt that we have had nearly as many people summit had we not had these guys along. The night I spent in the crater I felt truly terrible and was grateful for the docs good advice and meds (and their sense of humor…)


Docs with the backboard heading for the launch site

2) Compassion – Throughout this trip our group was really great about encouraging and taking care of each other, especially when people got sick. As we were getting close to the top, everyone wanted to summit, and of course to fly if possible. But a great many climbers were also very concerned about the porters and guides, who were thinly dressed and not at all equipped to sleep at the top of Kilimanjaro. Still not sure how this happened, though in doing some research I learned that guide services not taking good care of their porters is common. We had paid a lot expecting all this to be taken care of and when it was not a lot of people were understandably frustrated. But they weren’t just worried about themselves.


In a situation where everyone became cold and hungry, climbers gave a lot of their clothes and food to porters who needed it more than we did. For a trip whose ultimate goal was to relieve suffering, the irony of suffering porters was not lost on people and it bothered them. They couldn’t totally fix the situation, but they gave what they had. And at the end of the trip, when there was some doubt as to whether a few porters would be paid properly they gave a lot of cash over and about what they had already paid, just to do what they could to make doubly sure that they were treated fairly.

3) Perspective At the end of the trip, only one pilot, Babu, was able to pull off the flight and a lot of people were understandably disappointed.  Despite the careful planning, we had run into the worst February weather in 10 years. But despite the disappointment, people saw the trip not just as an adventure but as a way to help others. They had raised a lot of money, climbed Kilimanjaro and made some great friends, and that had been hugely successful.


Sydney planting a tree

After the climb down, about 50 of us had the opportunity to visit Plant With Purpose’s work in Siha, one the villages benefitting from the event. We were greeted with singing and dancing and were fed by the community. We learned about how the saving’s groups help people overcome poverty and planted trees together. For me, this was undoubtedly one of the highlights, right there with climbing to the summit.


Welome to Siha!

Final Thought: I grew up reading a series of books called “Choose you own Adventure.” Maybe you remember them too. They typically had some kind of mystery story-line, and at the end of every chapter you were presented with a choice. One choice might lead to the buried treasure, another choice might mean you falling to the bottom of a hole “with no one to hear you scream.” The books were hugely popular- I think because they put you in the story and it situations where you had to make choices, choices with “real” consequences.

Why do people climb mountains, or run marathons, or try to swim the English Channel? I think one reason is to test ourselves, to get ourselves out of our comfort zone, to try to learn something we might learn in no other way. In the mountains, we put ourselves in situations where things may go wrong and we will have to deal with whatever comes up. And in that we learn things about ourselves we might not otherwise learn. Who are we when we are exhausted, sick and on a mountain in another part of the world? Dealing with hardship shows us not only what we can do, but also who we really are.  Hopefully, if we are paying attention, the lessons learned come back down the mountain with us and we become better people in our day-to day-lives. Maybe that’s the biggest challenge of all.


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8 responses to “Wings of Kilimanjaro, Part 2 of 2: Challenges

  1. Karen Robbins

    I there are more episodes and pictures to come!

    • Thanks so much Karen. It will be a while before I’m in Africa again, but will be in Haiti a few times this spring- so that will be the next topic. I will be posting more updates from Plant With Purpose’s Tanzania program, though, and especially the ongoing impact that Wings of Kilimanjaro has made.

  2. Tom Parsons

    This was great Doug! I really enjoyed meeting you and learning more about PWP, I do hope we can meet again one day.


  3. Nicely written. Your thoughts on compassion for the porters and guides, as well as for each other, capture one of the most valuable lessons Kilimanjaro teaches. Improvements in equipment and salary for these vital members of every team have been dramatic over the past decade, and will continue if clients demand higher standards from their outfitters. Thanks for getting involved, Doug!

    • Thanks so much Doug – really appreciate it! It was a great privilege to be a part of the group and to also begin to learn a bit about the dynamics with the porters and guides. I’d never climbed with them before. Are you continuing to spend a lot of time on Kilimanjaro? Perhaps we’ll meet over there some time! Doug

  4. Good report on the trip. It sounds like real adventure. Glad everyone made it safely down.

    I’ve always been drawn to a quote from Mugs Stump on why we climb mountains. He said we climb mountains, “not because it’s there, but for convergence. At the peak of a mountain all the valleys and rivers and caves and cliffs come into perspective. The meaning of the whole thing comes together.”

    Maybe along with reaching the geographic convergence point, at the top of the mountain we also reach a personal convergence point where different threads of our lives come together and meet in meaningful ways.

    You report makes me want to get out and do some climbing.

    Look forward to connecting soon.

    • hey Craig, it would be great to catch up and thanks for the feedback. I tried to keep this post as short as I could, but there is a lot more that I’ve been thinking about along the lines of that Mugs Stump quote, as well as the Carlos Castaneda. More and more I feel like what happens to us, or what we try to achieve, is just the set-up for how we respond to whatever comes. (If we “succeed” and are jerks, have we succeeded, and if we “fail” but are gracious, self-aware and content, have we really failed, etc…talk soon.

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