It was 2001, three days after 911. Airports in N. America had been shut down – Toronto and Vancouver among them. Hundreds of planes sat at each airport, silent, waiting for the OK to take the hordes of stranded world travelers back home.
Our eight climbers wanted to get to Africa badly. We’d bought our tickets. We were going to climb Kilimanjaro, the first ‘charity climb’ Tusker had arranged. We were raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Canada and we’d been training hard. Nothing was going to stop us from getting on our flights, not even bin Laden. Though each airport looked like someone kicked over an angry ant hill, everyone wanted out… now!
We got out. The Vancouver flight was direct to Amsterdam then Moshi, the bustling town at the foot of Kilimanjaro. Some of our group arrived in Tanzania without their luggage. No clothes, no gear, no very important satellite phone – and most importantly, a lost (but found later) bottle of Scotch. We got resourceful and in a day everyone was ready to climb.
It was a magical trek all the way up the Machame route, led by our ever-smiling guide Eric. Eight guys who didn’t really know each other, very quickly became the best of friends. We filtered water together, ate together, slept together, and played ‘Hearts’ with frozen fingers and sticky cards late into the night, usually 9pm. The only thing we weren’t wild about was the green soup.
All eight of us made it to the top. With the three wood that Eric carried for us (he’d never seen a golf club), we each hit one ball off the edge of the summit. From the top of Kili to forever! At less than half the oxygen pressure up there, those balls are probably still flying!
That night, after the very long 10,000 foot decent, with cold Kilimanjaro beers in hand, we hatched a plan. It would work like this:
Each of us would throw in a hundred bucks and we would buy a reeeeely good, and reeeeely BIG, bottle of Cognac. About 100 oz. would be fine. It would be called ‘The Kilimanjaro Tontine’.
We knew then, even though life was good, that our time on the planet was finite. So, it was agreed that when any one of the eight of us ‘goes’ (kicks the bucket, says nite-nite, expires), the remaining seven would gather and each have a good shot from the Tontine. We hoped we would all be old men at this stage. When the next one ‘went’, six would have a shot from the Tontine. Another one goes… and five would have a shot. And so on. Many years from now, the final, single climber will toast his seven fallen comrades. And the Kilimanjaro Tontine would be finished. Our Tusker Make-A-Wish climb would be but a memory.
This last paragraph is taken from the lawyerly-crafted Tontine Agreement, written by fellow climber Don ‘Twiga’ Baron (a lawyer) and signed by all eight climbers:
“Within 90 days of the passing of the seventh of the eight undersigned warriors, the surviving warrior shall assemble a select group of his nearest and dearest with the Precious Spirits in hand at such appropriate place he may, in his discretion decide, and, without assistance from or interference from any third parties, consume all of the remaining Precious Spirits, without interruption, in toast and celebration of his fallen comrades and the monumental achievement of 24 September 2001, until the last damn drop is gone.”
Fast forward to early 2014. ‘Twiga’ now lays in palliative care in North Vancouver, B.C., prostate cancer having got the better of him. All seven climbers ventured to his bedside from around Canada to join him for some laughs and shared memories of a wonderful climb where eight lads became friends for life.
A month later Don succumbed to the cancer, and again, according to the KILIMANJARO TONTINE AGREEMENT, the remaining seven gathered at his Celebration of Life. Later that evening we began what we hoped we would never have to. The Tontine came out and seven glasses were poured. We toasted Don, and we toasted us. Great friends were made on that African mountain, friends that continue to enjoy the re-told stories. We know that one day we will be together again with the Tontine to toast another fallen brother. But for now the bottle sleeps in a dark, cool place, as we hope it will for many years to come. And Don is practicing with his three wood somewhere, where the air is even lighter.