As a boy growing up at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, Simon Minja cut grass for his father’s cows, but knew he had a higher calling. He peered skyward to the Kibo summit hoping to join his dad atop the mountain one day.
His father is a climbing guide and still leads climbers well into his 60s. “One day I met a friend of my father and he asked me if I would be a guide like him and I told him that was my dream. The first time I climbed I was 15, I got close to the summit, but started vomiting and I had to go down,” Simon recalls.
Today at 44, Simon is one of the top guides on Kilimanjaro helping climbers avoid altitude sickness while achieving their own summit dreams. He has spent 17 years working for Tusker and now is its Chief Senior guide.
Inheriting the leadership gene from his dad, Simon also understands how far education can take him in life and on Kilimanjaro. High altitude medical training enhances his clients experience and he embraces the proprietary Tusker training course. His own early education was boosted by attending summer school in Lake Victoria, exposing him to the larger world outside his Marangu village. As the oldest of seven children, Simon was heir to the family guiding business and he didn’t disappoint.
Surviving the danger zone
When Tusker founding guide Eddie Frank met Simon he was working as a guide at a Moshi hotel. His earlier stint as a porter was risky and he saw fellow porters die on the mountain. He painfully learned what kind of gear and medical training was essential to survive there.
Eddie immediately sensed Simon’s potential and hired him. It was the start of a strong relationship that now transcends boss/employee.
“Everybody loves Simon; he has a really good style for Kilimanjaro. He is firm, but fair with his crew (porters/fellow guides,) aand compassionate yet motivating with all our clients. He will get you to the summit, but will never sacrifice safety for the summit,” Eddie says.
On all Eddie’s climbs Simon is Eddie’s right hand guide, and has accompanied him on all his climbs since he hired Simon.
Through a guide’s eyes
Simon has spent all his life living and working on Kilimanjaro and has a much different perspective on it than the Westerners who drop in for a few weeks and leave with photographs and memories. We see it through the prism of our climb, but for a sensitive guide like Simon, Kilimanjaro is both his livelihood and his family history. His cousin, Alex has been a Tusker chef for just as long.
Simon is sensitive to Kilimanjaro’s changing environment and will impart these observations to his clients. “When I was younger I remember walking through the forest and seeing it getting cut as people were using the wood for their fires. Today there is less tree cutting. I also remember the glaciers being much bigger. The effects of global warming are here,” he recalls wistfully.
Among the biggest positive changes on the mountain is the way porters and climbers are equipped. Porters have much better equipment than when they climbed in the early days. Their safety has improved. Climbers are also showing up with much better clothing and equipment and are taking their climbs more seriously than in the past.
Still incidents occur.
“My biggest challenge came in 2015 when we had a client with pulmonary edema at midnight. We were able to evacuate him to the hospital in Moshi and it turned out okay,” Simon recalls with his characteristic seriousness.
Meet Eddie Frank Minja, the next generation
Simon is a father of three, two boys and a girl, but is not pushing them to be guides. He wants them to be educated first and if they choose a guiding career so be it. He hopes to continue guiding for at least another few years and then return to Kilimanjaro’s base and the family farm.
He named his first son, now ten, Eddie Frank Minja. Don’t be surprised if in ten years you see another Eddie Frank leading climbs up Kilimanjaro. The Tusker crew think that it’s a good name to have.