Climbing to the summit of Kilimanjaro was the easy part. What followed tested every member of the expedition, and continues to fuel controversy in the news and television. As one pilot, I see it as a success story. Others do not. This is how it unfolded through my eyes.
My brother JK leaned back in his seat as I snapped a photo through the jet window of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers dangling over its cliff faces. We were returning from a week in Burundi with Doug from Plant With Purpose, who had shown us what the charity was accomplishing in the villages and homes there. All the money raised through Wings of Kilimanjaro, however, would multiply the trees, crops and village community banks in Tanzania’s rolling green hills 20,000 feet below us.
That night we slipped in late to the back seats of the briefing room at our hotel, where a video projection showed a young Nepalese man lift off the summit of Everest in a paraglider with a Sherpa as his passenger. When it finished, the pilot, called Babu, stood up and in a thick accent urged the 90-something other pilots in the room to embrace the spirit and dream of adventure that transcend the minutiae of any expedition. An overwhelming applause affirmed that he had struck a note that cracked the stoicism and stress of our last-minute planning frenzy.
The next morning we held a press conference with Tanzanian news sources. As we packed that afternoon, JK and I noticed several pilots walking to the lobby with just their flying gear. We grabbed ours and ran after them, managing to force ourselves into the swelling ranks of what had started as a spontaneous flying excursion someone casually mentioned over drinks the night before.
Hours later four safari vehicles sped us down a dusty road south of Arusha toward a steep hill guarded by acacia scrubs with two-inch razor-sharp thorns. When the lead vehicle’s tires spun vainly in a dry riverbed, we piled out and proceeded upward on foot.
A disgruntled pilot stood next to the stuck vehicle and moaned, “You’re going to climb all the way up there? For what, a top-to-bottom, if you’re lucky?” I looked up through the scrubs at the distant peak and around at those climbing with me undeterred by the complaint. Then, I first knew I was with a very special group of people — doers.
The scrubs soon disappeared and we were unpacking our gliders on the soft grass at the top. Afternoon thunderheads died away to a golden sky — full of paragliders swooping and spiraling together. I took a deep breath of the warm African breeze carrying me over red fields and mud huts. We alighted beside the road after a good hour of flying terminated only by dusk, and barefoot children came running from nowhere to watch us. Some of the brave ones fingered the deflated fabric and colorful control lines. Our packing day turned into a night of packing, but our tired, knowing smiles the next morning showed no signs of regret.
At the mountain, a shouting mob of African men pressed against an iron gate, the main entrance to Kilimanjaro. Under the watchful eye of an armed guard, another man called individuals by name, who ran in carrying small tattered backpacks and sleeping pads. What we guessed to be last-minute porter recruitment resembled some kind of colonial labor mustering, which made us all a bit uncomfortable. We were the largest group to ever attempt Kilimanjaro, and our porters and guides alone would number between 400 and 600. Each of us was called by name to meet the porter responsible for getting our gear to the top. A scrawny man named Alex shook my hand as I entrusted him with my paraglider. His sweatshirt was thin, and his pants tattered.
Finally, our climb had begun. An endless line of porters and pilots snaked under the mossy rainforest branches, where blue monkeys dangled and watched inquisitively. Muggy rain swelled waterfalls along the trail. The trees were a little smaller where we stopped to set up our city of tents. To my surprise, the porters had set up tables with silverware and thermoses of hot water for tea or coffee. There were even candles the first night, and heaping plates of hot food. I couldn’t decide whether I liked having that much service on a mountain climb. It seemed heavy and unnecessary, but I didn’t complain.
The following day, we scrambled up steep, muddy stones, and the trees all but disappeared. It grew cold and windy. At camp, Mike Küng, a hotshot Austrian pilot followed by the “60 Minutes” crew, pulled out his glider and kited it in a dance with the wind up boulder faces. By nightfall a heavy rain pummeled our tents, and purple flashes of lightning boomed over the downpour. I found myself wishing we were up above the snowline where at least everything would stay dry, but our route kept us around 13,000 feet until the final two days of the climb.
Even so, several of the porters were sent down with serious altitude sickness. Those feeling fit had the option a couple days later to push up to 16,000 feet to help our bodies acclimatize, though we’d still be camping down at 13,000. JK and I decided to go. A thrill of excitement pulsed through my body as we passed 14,179, my previous best. No vegetation remained. A thin layer of snow clung to the steep rocks, and each step was in slow motion because anything quicker would rob us of our breath. I felt a dull headache, but that was to be expected and would go away when we descended. Mist shrouded the massive cliffs and glaciers above us, giving phantomlike glimpses and then hiding them seconds later.
A grove of prehistoric-looking giant groundsel trees lined the trail near camp. JK and I played satirical songs about our travel misadventures in the mess tent after dinner. The mood lightened with the group’s growing familiarity and declining hygiene. Stars blazed above our glowing tents, and a few man-made lights lit the valley below where we hoped to land in a few days’ time.
We needed all the energy for the next morning’s climb, which required pulling ourselves up jagged lava cliffs with two hands. Even the most adept porters occasionally had to heave their loads up ahead and clamor with both hands. Once we emerged on top, the summit showed itself in all its icy glory, with sheer cliffs across most of the face. I saw why we had to hike so far around to ascend any higher. Several pilots took short flights after we made camp. The air was already thin enough to increase their flying speed noticeably.
Two of the pilots from Mexico waved me into the kitchen tent where they’d borrowed a camp stove to cook some chorizo they’d smuggled onto the mountain. Babu sat with us and talked of his desire to end corruption in Nepal and improve life for his fellow Sherpas. As I walked back to my tent, I saw in the twilight a woman on a stretcher being carried away, breathing from an oxygen mask. She was not from our group. One of our doctors told me her lungs had been filling up with fluid, and she had collapsed and hit her head. Her oxygen saturation was 50 percent, and her group’s oxygen system was broken. If our doctors had not intervened, she would have been dead in 20 minutes, they told me.
The next morning my lower lip was cracked and swollen. The equatorial sun’s power magnified the higher we climbed, but soon it became cold enough that I left no skin exposed. We scrambled breathless up bare rock faces toward our last camp before the summit. Gusts of about 50 miles per hour shoved us around on the ridge we followed and made me wonder how we could ever take off with paragliders. Behind us, the needle spires of Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro’s sub-peak, jutted up through the snow. Again, we were higher than I had ever climbed.
I don’t know if there’s a better view anywhere in Africa. The sun sank behind Mount Meru to the west, and from a sheer cliff I watched the highest clouds splashed up against the mountain like frothy waves. In the mess tent that night a pilot told me his porters had quit. Another, who spoke Swahili, said about 100 more were planning to leave. I found this hard to believe, but had no real reasons to doubt him. We had run out of water that day, so our expedition leader, Adrian, had sent for more to be brought up. It was bitterly cold and windy, and morale seemed brittle.
The next morning, chaos slowly erupted. The porters milled about arguing in Swahili as the wind raged on. Alex found me, and in the little English he could muster said he would not be able to go to the summit and was going down. Suddenly I saw our 23-foot, 75-pound mess tent peel off the ground and rocket through the air straight toward me. I ducked, and it soared over my head like a house from the movie “Twister.” Porters dove out of the way as it bounced once and disappeared over the edge of the cliff. Some pilots were leaving camp for the summit, but I didn’t want to leave without knowing my gear would get to the top. JK and I talked to one of the head guides, who found us new porters. We could tell everyone else was in the same mess, but we figured we should get out of camp with our new porters if we wanted to summit.
The final climb was a brutal head-on assault. We clambered slowly up a sharp ridge that left no room for traversing. Icicles clung to the rocks, even in full sunlight. Far below us, I could see the tents from camp were still up, and the porter turmoil continued. A stream of porters bled from camp down the mountain in confirmation of the worst. I hoped our climb would not be in vain. My altimeter reached 17,000 feet, then 18,000 feet. We were among the glacier walls. Cresting the crater’s edge at Stella Point revealed a fantastic landscape, part Antarctica, part moon.
A group of pilots huddled behind a rock on the crater’s edge to get out of the wind. Our plan had been to take a group photo up at Uhuru Peak at noon, but it was already 2 p.m., and we had no idea when the others had left camp, if at all.
We eventually decided to summit together and take a picture with whoever was there. We trudged slowly up the rim like astronauts. I could hear my labored breath in my facemask. Finally, everything was below us, the sky and wind the only obstacles left in the expedition. We crowded in front of the sign congratulating us on reaching our goal and proudly stretched out banners reading “Wings of Kilimanjaro.”
When the hugs and cheering were done, there was nothing left to do but find Crater Camp and hope our decimated ranks were capable of continuing with the plan to fly as soon as the weather permitted. All pilots had made it to the top, but more than 100 of our porters were gone, and we had little food and no water.
Some of the porters were in bad shape. One came to me holding out his hands begging for gloves. I gave him mine, but told him I would need them back, or I wouldn’t be able to fly. Another sat and shivered on a rock, so I wrapped my sleeping bag around him. With no water, the porters were trying to melt snow just to cook what food we had. A woman collapsed in the mess tent waiting for food and water, which was supposed to come soon from down the mountain. One of the pilots began to complain angrily that the situation was unacceptable, and that we didn’t pay to be starving on the mountain. I reminded him that we were there to alleviate the suffering of the poor in Africa, and that our porters were worse off than any of us. A vocal minority continued to protest, so a pilot named Mike belted out a song to drown them out. Many were clearly at the breaking point.
As I tried to sleep that night, my head ached, and one side of my chest felt uncomfortable when I breathed. My mind replayed images of the woman on her stretcher and rehearsed the symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness). Twenty minutes, and she would have been dead. “Don’t go to sleep with symptoms,” the doctors had told us. You might not wake up. But my mind felt sharp, and I’d had no coordination trouble. It didn’t feel like AMS. I forced air into my lungs with deep breaths. Ice crystals formed inside the tent. My mouth was dry, and my lips cracked. I dreamed awake of running and lifting off the mountain, flying from it like a bird — fleeing the icy wasteland for the steamy jungle below us, where food and water were abundant, at least for a rich “mzungu” (foreigner) like me.
We awoke early in hopes of flying down. A cloud of ice crystals fell on me as I unzipped the tent door. Everything was ice-blasted from the wind. Water was promised during the night, but none had come. At the mess tent, I handed a porter my water bottle, which came back about 20 minutes later full of chalky white water with flecks of black lava dust. My hands shook as I drank. JK and I grabbed our gear and began the slow trudge to Stella Point as quickly as we could. As bedraggled as I was, the wild beauty of the crater dazzled me. Shadows of low-flying clouds glided like spirits over snowy plains and black boulder forests. Few who climb the mountain explore the crater, let alone camp there.
The scene at launch was disappointing. Clouds and fog tore sideways past us and were sucked downward over the jagged glaciers and cliffs to the west. We were bound to the mountain for a little while longer. Adrian announced that more food and water were on the way, and that if we weren’t able to fly that afternoon either, we’d be well-supplied to stay another night in the crater. Nevertheless, many people decided to leave. Some, no doubt, were feeling the altitude and were in no shape to fly anyway. Others seemed to have lost faith in the expedition and wanted to make a point of their dissatisfaction.
Morale improved somewhat with the most vocal critics gone, but our problems were far from over. Adrian called a meeting in the mess tent to say how much water was on its way and that it should arrive that afternoon, but the doctors added that they had made a decision that if the water remained unaccounted for by 2 p.m., they would call off the expedition and everyone would head down. Dehydration was becoming a serious threat.
I decided to go in search of my own water, and trudged off across the crater toward the blue glacier walls. The ice was too hard to chip, but I was able to shimmy up the cracks and pick icicles from the higher edges like fruit. I broke these up in my water bottle and placed them under a dripping spot to melt. Some porters arrived and scratched dirty snow into bottles. I tried to communicate to them that ice produces much more water with much less time and heat, and they too began collecting icicles. At first I was surprised at their seeming lack of competence on their own mountain, but I realized that this was probably the only place on their continent with snow, and it was unlikely that many of them had camped in the crater, let alone run out of water there.
While my ice melted, I followed the long, mysterious wall, which terminated at an even more mysterious looking cavern in the ice. I stepped inside to find a dome-shaped pile of rocks on the floor. A gap in the rocks revealed a dark chasm underneath, the bottom of which was some 15 feet below. I could have just squeezed down through the hole, but my better judgment overpowered my wonder at the phenomenon. The warm gas that had melted the ice, the sub-zero temperatures outside, the brittle lava tubes — all these elements, beautiful as they were, opposed life. I left feeling very privileged to have encountered another of the mountain’s wondrous secrets, shrouded in walls of translucent blue.
When I came in sight of camp, I could see pilots leaving again for Stella Point to see if an afternoon launch was possible. The sky looked blue over the ridge, but we found foreboding clouds behind it. The landing zone reported extremely high winds as well. Our second chance was gone. The next morning would be our third, and probably our last. We learned that some of the porters and guides who had left the day before had turned away the food and water being brought up to us by lying to those bringing it that we were on our way down and had no need.
Adrian said he’d hired a helicopter to bring food and water straight to us in the crater, but even this hope fell into murmurs of doubt. One pilot called the story a complete invention and told me I could have his glider if a helicopter made it up to 19,000 feet fully loaded. “Then why would Adrian tell everyone that?” I asked. He leaned over and whispered, “To keep the doctors from canceling the expedition.” Some food had made it to us, but we needed water to cook it, and the stove fuel was nearly spent on melting snow. We were still paralyzed without water.
I climbed into my sleeping bag early that night just to get warm. Would Adrian lie to save the expedition? Would we ever fly? Would any of us die on the mountain from the selfish spite of those who had revolted? The doctors had taken impeccable care of both pilots and porters. I felt safe in their hands, but they were the most grave and serious about the need to leave.
I slipped on my earphones and listened to The Kepple Band, a local Quincy group, sing, “Up into the mountain sky, there’s not a single place to be where you are not there with me.” JK had brought a ukulele up the mountain just for fun, but the harder things got, the more the group wanted to hear us play. Ironically, music was the only thing powerful enough to combat our hardship when it became most severe. My whole world transformed as I listened, and soon only the spectacular beauty of the mountain, and the glorious sacrifice of our faithful porters were left in my mind. Fear was gone. We would make it down one way or another.
The next morning the summit was locked in thick clouds. We packed up everything and headed toward Stella Point for the last time. I felt weak and dreaded the idea of hiking all the way down. Still no helicopter. Had it really been a sham? Gavin, the pilot in front of me breathed from his oxygen bottle as we inched through the crater on our moon walk. Suddenly the icy wind was shattered with the unmistakable thumping of a chopper. “The water’s here!” I shouted.
“He’s not getting through that,” Gavin said, pointing to the thick mass of clouds overhead. The chopper continued to circle as we walked, though it was a while before I could catch a glimpse of it through an opening in the cloud. A brief window of blue opened, and then another wall of cloud obliterated it. We could hear him circling and circling. I wondered how long he could stay over the mountain before fuel got low. We were at Stella Point when he finally made an approach, trying to get low enough to drop the supplies without pulverizing them. Another wall of cloud came, and the chopper dropped and peeled away from the ridge leaving a swirling trail of rotor vortices in the cloud.
After many attempts, he finally maneuvered in close enough to the ridge to dump a dozen boxes of water out the door. Cheers erupted from the group, and we raced in to retrieve the bottles scattered on the slope. Adrian drank from the bottom of a broken bottle, and I toasted his with mine. Below the launch where we were standing, a massive double-layer lenticular cloud poured over our intended flight path. The doctors announced that they would be going down with those who chose to descend, and that any remaining behind would be without medical support.
The forecast did not look good for the following day. Having done everything we could to fly, JK and I resolved without much regret to descend. A handful of pilots stayed on the mountain to see what the weather would do, but, aside from the doctors’ withdrawal, they would not have time to reach the bottom before nightfall, and were committing to another night somewhere on the mountain.
Those of us who could descended 14,000 feet in a matter of hours, and that descent punished my body more than any of the climbing we had done. I was sore for a full five days afterward.
That evening our bus pulled into the hotel, and we were greeted with a warm welcome back. Everyone was just glad to be down, but I noticed Babu’s wife sitting by herself with her face in her hands, tears streaming down her face. Babu had chosen to stay on the mountain. I’m sure after hearing the news of all we had endured his wife wanted nothing other than to have him off the mountain.
We waited and listened for word. There was no news until late the next morning. “Babu flew!” someone said. A flurry of questions exploded. How did he take off? Where? What was his flight like? Babu had a tandem wing that required two people to fly, and his passenger had descended the day before. But someone said he took his mountain guide as his passenger. It wasn’t till he showed up that evening that we heard the incredible story in his own broken English.
“I tried many times to take off, two times landing and getting picked up maybe five meters, and again bounced. This was on top of the summit. I tried maybe 45 times to take off — broken lines, but still the clouds increased almost near the Kilimanjaro levels. Still, I try. I cannot take off the north side because very strong wind, and I try to take off the lee side — helicopter takeoff.
“After I make a takeoff, I going into the clouds and then (climbing), and after 45 minutes go out. I didn’t have any GPS or anything, because in the middle of night I check my GPS — battery done. I said, maybe the sun, I watching the sun, and I go out (of the cloud). I asked my passenger, ‘You are a local, do you know where (the landing zone is)?’ He said, ‘I don’t know where, because I’ve never seen from above!’ I said, ‘You have the mobile phone?’ No signal. I tell him, ‘How come no signal? We are flying many, many (feet) above the tower.’ He said, ‘Babu, please I try my best. No signal.’
“Almost 45 minutes we were thermalling flatland. Never in my life (have I been) flatland thermalling. Suddenly I remembered the landing point. I saw many people down there waiting. I go down with wingovers and spiral dive. This is the right place, but these are not many people, this is full of cows.”
Only a few school children saw Babu land. His radio, GPS and video camera all failed from the freezing temperatures and bumpy takeoff. But he had reached legendary status by making a flight nobody else thought possible. Babu told me that the morning that he made his flight he saw the body of a man who died right on our launch site at Stella Point, probably from mountain sickness. One Tanzanian news source ridiculed us with the headline “Goodbye mountain fliers — Kilimanjaro is not easy to para-glide as you thought” and stated, “… it is now official; nobody can ever fly from Mount Kilimanjaro using gliders.” They had not heard of Babu’s flight, nor did it matter.
During the two days following our descent, we traveled to remote villages around Kilimanjaro where the money that we, and our sponsors, had contributed to charity was hard at work. The cement was still drying on a 10,000-liter cistern in a Maasai village when we pulled up. The villagers jumped, danced, and sang for hours and showered us with gifts as thanks. Women who had to walk 12 kilometers away for water can now get it with the turn of a faucet. Not far away, a huge drilling rig chiseled through granite to dig a well where an elementary school will soon stand, both of which are being funded by Wings of Kilimanjaro. We saw watersheds and farms being restored, community savings groups started, and advanced agricultural techniques taught to local residents.
A pilot remarked to me on the way down from the summit that it was ironic we had come to help the local villagers through charity, and they were the ones who sabotaged our expedition and left us for dead. I couldn’t say he was wrong, but I saw the other side as well — men in rags feeding us before themselves and risking their lives for ours. I also saw a few pilots who came in the name of charity totally blinded to the needs of the very people they supposedly came to help.
We climb mountains because they show what is truly inside us. For this reason, and for having seen thousands of Tanzanian lives changed, I call Wings of Kilimanjaro an overwhelming success. Others may call it a failure because they didn’t fly. I’m thankful for all those who have sacrificed — donors, porters, pilots and crew — to show what Wings of Kilimanjaro was really about.