I tried to brush it off as just another climb, but no one would have it. Our group of 8 climbers and 56 Tusker crew reminded me in no uncertain terms that this was something more than just another climb. It was at 16,000 feet, our last camp before the summit. The winds were howling. The massive clouds rolled in and out. We felt as if we were in the depths of a wind vortex. It was exciting and eerie. Just the way it should be before you embark on the biggest trip of your life. And there I was, 49 Kilimanjaro climbs behind me and waiting for tomorrow. It was 4 pm and the group put me in the “hotseat” – a single chair in the middle of the group. For the next 45 minutes all 56 crew and our 8 climbers sang and danced around me as if there was plenty of oxygen to spare at 16,000 feet, which I knew from experience there was not. We were joined by another group of Norwegians sharing our campsite. Their singing and dancing sent two important messages:
- This achievement by a foreigner was worthy of celebration
- The group had acclimatized to the altitude fairly well.
This was a good sign.
Just three hours before our celebration, a Polish climber from another group had died from severe altitude sickness; not far from where we were celebrating. This was a sober reminder of where we really were, and what could happen if you weren’t properly prepared or if you didn’t have skilled guides leading you into the ever-thinning air towards the summit. While the rescue team carried the body through camp down the mountain, I managed to keep the group occupied in the mess tent without them knowing. The group was nervous enough about our summit attempt in 12 hours, and dead bodies passing through camp don’t do a hell of a lot for motivation. We certainly didn’t need it. Not now.
Fifty climbs for a Tanzanian porter or guide is nothing. Most Tanzanians who work on the mountain do that in two years. But for a foreigner this is a hefty achievement. I also realized that what our crew was celebrating was not my achievement, but rather what it symbolized. Fifty climbs by their boss symbolized how much work Tusker provided for them over the years, and how important these climbs are for the welfare of the community. Tusker spends sixty percent of its Kilimanjaro revenue in Tanzania, hiring over 2,300 crewmembers annually. And this does not reflect the hundreds of family members supported through the hotels and other peripheral services such as fuel and market purchases and other services we use. The amount of food it puts on the tables for thousands of people is huge and our impact on the community cannot be underestimated. It’s a massive infusion that affects the lives of tens of thousands of Kilimanjaro residents; and the value is not lost on them.
My fifty climbs has not just been a list for me to rack up. It’s been an accumulation of a lifetime of dreams. Dreams of my own, and dreams of our clients. Ultimately, to me, my fiftieth climb illustrated to me what a competent team I had built over the years. And it’s this competency and teamwork that plays a big role in helping our climbers’ dreams come true.
And dreams did come true. One climber had to turn back on day 3 because of a bad ankle sprain, but all eight climbers who danced with me at high camp made it to the summit. It turns out that we run a functioning dream machine. And according to Gaston Rebuffat, the renowned French mountain climber, “A dream that comes true leads to other dreams.”