Reflections on "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" by Grant Smith

Monday, January 27, 2020
Grant Smith
In August 2019, retired Viterbo University English Professor Grant Smith climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, pictured behind him, at the age of 68.

NOTE: Retired Viterbo University English Professor Grant Smith in 2019 wrote a memoir of sorts, with each chapter focusing on an influential author. The following is Smith's chapter relating to Ernest Hemingway, author of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," a chapter tied to Smith's life-changing climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain.

I did not intend to include Ernest Hemingway in my list of authors who have impacted my life. It is true that when I was a sophomore in high school I was impressed enough with Hemingway to read A Farewell to Arms and several of his short stories. I then read a popular biography of Hemingway (Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir by A.E. Hotchner), which I used to present a report on Hemingway in my sophomore English class. I later used much of that report in my senior research paper and then in my first-year composition class at Ricks College.

But by 1970, the Vietnam War was raging. The colleges and streets erupted in protests and violence. The war, Civil Rights, Women's Rights, Gay Rights, poverty, education – all were issues and movements that gripped the nation and caused all of us to re-examine our community and personal values. Hemingway, perhaps as much because of his lifestyle as his themes and characters, became out of fashion in English departments on college campuses. It was at Idaho State University after a two-year mission for the Mormon Church that I read The Sun Also Rises, but the professor had little sympathy for the major protagonist, Jake. The professor questioned Hemingway's depiction of gays and Jews, and she disparaged Hemingway's sparse style. She laughed at Hemingway's famous quote: “A man is not made for defeat. A man may be destroyed but not defeated.” She called upon us to reflect upon what effect this masculine mantra could have upon us. Courage and pride can propel us to complete unimaginable feats...but at what cost? She reminded us that William Faulkner reportedly said Hemingway was afraid to use any word with more than two syllables. But both were Nobel Prize in Literature winners.

Years later at Valley High School in Las Vegas I taught The Old Man and the Sea in two classes: the International Baccalaureate class and the American Literature class. It is the perfect novel for high school students: short, simple, identifiable tropes, elementary vocabulary. I remember we discussed our view of Santiago at the end of the novel. Was he a noble figure, destroyed but not defeated? Or did we pity him? Later at Viterbo University I occasionally taught a few of Hemingway's short stories. Big Two-Hearted River (Part 1 and 2) spoke to me as I matured, facing my own challenges as a professor, husband, and father.

In Big Two-Hearted River, Nick Adams has returned from World War I, and he seeks meaning in a world that he fears has changed irrevocably. Today we would recognize that he suffers from PTSD, but a Hemingway hero would never publicly admit weakness nor display wounds – especially if those wounds were psychological. Instead, Nick finds meaning and order in those things that before had defined his life. He camps in an area that has been burned by a forest fire, desolation symbolic of what he left behind in Europe.

To begin to reclaim his life, Nick meticulously completes those tasks that define a Hemingway hero: He does everything properly, according to a man's code of conduct. He is not sloppy. He smokes a cigarette. He examines a black grasshopper, noting that it wasn't always black. The forest fire caused the grasshopper to change – just as the war had caused Nick to change. Nick does what any veteran fisherman knows – that he must wet his hand before he releases a fish to prevent disease on the fish. Slowly, Nick reminds himself of the unwritten rules. His psyche might have been scarred in Europe, but his spirit is undefeated. Nick demonstrates how men address change – they return to the familiar, the universal, the natural (the river) to heal and restore meaning.

I have less empathy for Harry, the protagonist in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, even though both he and Nick are representative of what Gertrude Stein called the “Lost Generation,” those expatriates of WWI who witnessed the destruction of Western values and who then questioned the reality of the American Dream. The “Lost Generation” of writers included Hemingway whose heroes attempted to reclaim lost dignity, lost order, and manhood. Harry decidedly is not a Hemingway hero. Harry moans as he lies dying of gangrene in his leg of lost opportunities, discarded potential, misplaced values. He laments not achieving anything of lasting worth. Unlike the mythological leopard who is frozen in immortality in the snows of Kilimanjaro because it dared to enter the mountain of the gods, Harry dies on a cot in the shadow of the mountain waiting for a rescue plane.

Again, I did not plan on including The Snows of Kilimanjaro in this booklet. But on July 30, 2019, I began to hike Kilimanjaro, and then everything changed. I am not certain yet how that mountain changed me, but I know that the seven days of hiking were a transformative life experience for me that I continue to process.

After our group completed our hike, we went on a five-day safari. On the first evening of the safari, I re-read The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I wrote the following to my hiking mates the day after I left Africa in an attempt to express what I had learned from them, the people of Tanzania, our guides, and the mountain itself. The experience in Tanzania will always be a part of my reading of The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Grant Smith

Aug. 11, 2019

First of all, I am not sure about the spelling of names. Please forgive me if I have certain names incorrect. The faces, voices, and smells of each of you is vivid and forever seared in my memory – but names, not so much.


I am soooooo on Tanzania time. I woke up at 4 a.m., and I wondered where my pee bottle was and why I had not slid in my sleeping bag to the bottom of my mattress bed. Then I realized I was not in the “bush” any longer and that there was a porcelain urinal only a few feet away in the Chicago DoubleTree hotel room bath.

But, of course, I could not go back to sleep, and so I did what a retired English professor does when he awakens with a million thoughts bouncing like a pinball machine through his head…I went to the hotel business lobby and began to write.

I believe it was Justin who said that it might take days, weeks, months, maybe years for us to process what we experienced on Kilimanjaro, what we learned from the mountain about ourselves and about others. I think that is true. We will have to give the trip time to “breathe,” to become a part of our new existential identity, to accept all of the nuances of living represented by every rock, every slippery root, every vista, every song, every blackened toenail. And so, what I write this morning might be different from what I might write in a year, but I want to record a few memories while they are still vivid in my mind.

Unlike Dan (and perhaps others), I did not keep a journal. Certainly I did not draw daily journal entries as Dr. Luke did! I have never kept a journal of any of my many hikes. And you noticed I took very few photos. I decided early in my hiking career that I did not want the process of writing or adjusting a camera to interrupt being “in the moment.” Plus I noted that Luke was taking photos with a huge camera every 15 minutes (especially of Stacy) and I prayed he would share a few with me. (He already has.)

Henry David Thoreau is famous for his journal Walden. But Walden is much more than a journal. Thoreau actually stayed in his cabin by the pond for two years. Then, upon the suggestion of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, he condensed the two years to one year as he meditated upon why he went to the woods and what he learned there. Walden is a polished piece of writing that demonstrates Yankee wit, sophisticated wisdom, environmental observations and notations, and practical advice on how to live. Thoreau was no dummy, he graduated from Harvard. But he realized that Harvard had prepared him to be a lawyer, a preacher, or a teacher. It had not prepared him to live independently and authentically. It had not prepared him to chart the migration of geese, to measure the depth of the ice on Walden Pond, to study the life of his neighbors.  He has the famous lines, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Katebu and Grant Smith
Grant Smith is pictured with one of his Tanzanian guides, Katebu.

A couple of you know that around 3 a.m. on summit night I was struggling. My fingers were so numb I could no longer grip my poles. My glasses fogged up with every breath because the ski mask covered my lips. I had to decide: Do I want to have cold lips and nose, or do I want to see! I directed my headlamp to my guide’s feet ahead of me. The rest of my body was fine. My legs were still strong. My feet were warm. My shoulders did not ache (of course, by that time Katebu had taken my backpack). I was not dizzy nor nauseated. My head was clear. But I had put new meaning to the words, “Pole, pole” (slowly slowly). I found that I simply had to rest more often than I expected, and more than the others in my group, who by this time were some distance ahead of me. But I did not waver in my determination to continue.

However, others saw things I could not see, things I did not want to admit. Theo and Sean came to me. Sean allowed me to warm my hands on his belly. Someone took the glove liners out of my mittens and put in new hand warmers. I sat on the rock Katebu guided me to. Then Theo, the Swahili head guide, a mountain of a man who led the singing and the chanting that night, came over and he said, “Babu (Swahili for Grandpa), I do not think you should go on. I think you should turn around. I know this mountain well. It shows no mercy. Because you are older and because you have some history of poor health, I think you should turn back.”

I was conflicted. I felt I could continue, but I knew that I was holding back you and the guides. We were supposed to reach the summit by 6 a.m.; at my pace I would get there at least an hour later. I was willing to accept Theo’s judgment even though I dreaded descending in the dark. I think that the thought of going downhill in darkness dismayed me more than the thought of not reaching the top. I said to Theo and Sean, “Hey, I feel OK. My body is good. I am just tired and I need to stop more often to rest and drink. I can do this.”

Theo looked me directly in the eye. “Babu, we know you are strong. but you need to go back.” And then I began to sob. I think this scared both of them! A babu crying, pleading, “I want to make it to the top. Please, so many people trust me and depend upon me. So many believe in me. I want to go on.” It was not for myself. As Sean reminded us, if you go for yourself you will not make it. I wanted to complete the task for my university friends who had committed to my cause, the volleyball team who had confidence in me. I wanted to show my son, who battles meth and heroin addiction every day, that if I could reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, he could conquer the demons that had controlled his life for 15 years.

Sean and Theo went off to the side and left me crying on the rock, wiping my nose with my mittens. Then they returned. Theo said, “Okay, Babu, let’s go.” Then he said something in Swahili and two guides stepped forward. One guide stood on my left, and Katebu stood now on my right. They took my arms, and the three of us, as a team hiked four more hours to the top.

We all know the strength and power of song. My goodness, you youngsters sang halfway up the mountain those first few days – songs that were foreign to me, but you seemed to know every word. I would have joined in on “Sweet Caroline,” but I saved my breath for BREATHING. With age comes wisdom. And I often enjoy hiking in solitude—attending to the natural sounds around me and allowing thoughts to flow from my feet to my head. On Kilimanjaro I did not resent my friends’ singing. (By the way, on summit night my friends were not singing!) All of us were lifted by the chants and songs of the guides. I did not know what they were singing, but I felt their energy, their tribal pride, their commitment to help us accomplish our goal. Their music that dark night will forever be a part of the legacy of Kilimanjaro for me, a legacy of service, strength, cooperation, sacrifice, and determination.

However, I was singing to myself two hymns that helped me keep the pole pole pace my guide set. At my wife’s funeral, two good friends (music professors) sang, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” But on the mountain, the lyrics took on a new meaning on the mountain, something entirely different from what I internalized at Julia’s funeral. “Precious Lord, take my hand/ Lead me on, let me stand/ I am tired. I am weak. I am lone.” I felt tired. I felt weak. I felt alone. But it was not the Lord who took my hand on Kilimanjaro. The Lord’s hand was a Swahili hand, weathered by countless trips scaling the mountain, helping many others before me. I will not debate “God’s miracles.” But I do know that if miracles do occur, they happen through the acts of others who open their heart to heal, to love, to protect, to save, and to lift. And so I focused on the words: “Through the storm, through the night/ Lead me on to the light/ Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” Katebu held my arm. We finished together.

The second hymn that coursed through my head was “Be Still My Soul,” also sung by a friend (theology professor who has since died of cancer) at my wife’s service. “Be still my soul the Lord is on thy side/ Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain/ Leave to thy God to order and provide/ In every change He faithful will remain.”

I believe I confessed to you that the last several years have been challenging for me. My challenges are not any greater than those you have experienced, only different, unique, unexpected. I thought I would grow old with my wife. She was 54 when she died of melanoma. We were married 23 years. We never raised our voice in argument. My older son at that time was already addicted to heroin and meth. My younger son was only 7, and I faced the daunting task of raising an African-American boy by myself. My daughter was (and remains) in an extremely abusive marriage that I could not change. A brother and a grandson died on the same day! Both parents passed away. My wife’s parents passed away – severing the last link I had with her heritage. A childhood friend committed suicide. I gave the eulogy at his service. I continued to teach and research, juggling new assignments at Viterbo with new parenting responsibilities, visits to prison, and countless hours on the phone with a sobbing daughter who could see what was happening to herself but seemed powerless to change.

I accepted counseling from a wonderful therapist—the fellow who told me, “Grant, you need to learn how to have fun.” And then he was killed by a drunk driver who crossed the lane into his path. I doubted a faith that had previously sustained and defined me. I accepted medical attention for clinical depression. But through it all I maintained a façade, “I am strong enough to handle this. I don’t need help.” My resolve was to keep my pain, confusion, doubts, fears, and frustrations hidden from my family and friends. I reasoned, “They too have crosses to bear. Why should I burden them with my cares? What could they do for me? How could they understand meth addiction?” It was only last year that I revealed to my siblings that my older son was an addict, that he had spent years in jail or prison or rehab facilities, that I had seen him holding a sign begging for money at a street corner, that I had cut him down from a tree when he tried to kill himself. No one knew my daughter’s trials. They assumed her marriage was smooth, absent from major difficulties. I am sorry to confess I rebuffed consoling words from others, especially from members in my congregation. I interpreted their words as shallow empty rhetoric instead of genuine attempts to help me heal. In my own need for acts of kindness, I should have been more kind.

I turned to hiking for a healing balm. Let me make it clear that I was not an outdoorsman, certainly not a mountaineer. I don’t like sleeping on the ground in tents, and campfire food is not my favorite cuisine. The first peak I climbed was Katahdin in Maine. I learned that it was something I could do—just put one foot ahead of the other. Feel the weight of work, family, and relationships release from my shoulders even as I got higher and higher on the peak. Would you believe that on Katahdin I did not even have poles or a daypack! I was truly a novice. I decided on Katahdin that I would hike to the highest point of every state. This would focus me, deflect my attention away from pain and failures, give me an identity aside from father and professor, perhaps prove that I could do something right. But I was not a complete idiot. I did not plan to kill myself, and so from the beginning I admitted, “You can go to Denali and Ranier, but you do not have to summit them.” But I did all of the others including the highest point in the lower 48, Mount Whitney, and very challenging peaks in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Nevada. I finished with Mauna Kea in Hawaii several years ago.

The Greek word for pride is hubris, which means assuming that you have the power of the gods. Oedipus is the best example of how pride can destroy a person. I was guilty of hubris. I truly believed that I did not need anyone’s help to get to the top of Borah or Boundary Peak. I could handle alone my younger son’s conflict of being black in a privileged white suburb. But on Kilimanjaro I was literally brought sobbing to my knees. I learned I had never really done anything by myself. I had always had someone at my side at every challenge. I could not solve alone my son’s addiction or my daughter’s domestic stress. I realized I had deceived myself into believing that there was nothing I could not do ALONE!

For some reason, Theo and Sean let me continue up the trail. Maybe I shocked them with my tears. Maybe they saw something in me that gave them a glimmer of hope. However, when I commenced, I had a guide on each side supporting me, encouraging me, leading me. When I needed water, Katebu put the tube to my lips. He adjusted my ski cap so I could breathe. He repeated: “Super duper, Babu. Good job. Relax. Slowly slowly.” I said to myself the words to the hymn: “Be still my soul thy best, thy heavenly friend/ Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.”

Grant Smith
Grant Smith is pictured at Stella Point on Mount Kilimanjaro.

The guides were my heavenly friends. Sean was my heavenly friend. Dr. Luke with his camera and his meds was my heavenly friend. The ambulance was my heavenly friend. Hell yes! All of you were my heavenly friends as you greeted me at the top. I learned that we all need heavenly assistance to navigate our way through cancer, through loss, through despair, through fear, through a terrifying phone call the night before we departed Tanzania. That heavenly assistance is all around us: singing, sharing a diet ginger ale and beef jerky, distributing hand sanitizer. Yes, we trained hard to prepare for Kilimanjaro. Yes, we vomited into bushes, and defecated off the side of mountains. Each of us was vulnerable at one time or another. Yet, we demonstrated our strength, resolve, commitment to others, and sacrifice. We were not guilty of hubris. Even Sean admitted he was exhausted. I saw pain in his eyes later in the hike that was not there when he did his Jimi Hendrix impression earlier. I especially learned that we were interconnected, strangers from North Carolina, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Colorado who came together to form a cohesive family. Real strength comes from a unity of accepting difference, realizing our own inabilities but allowing others to provide when we have nothing left to give.

I shall be forever grateful for Kilimanjaro and what it now represents to me. Not the fact that I have been to the top of Africa, but that I bonded with fellow travelers who exemplified in real ways the parable of the Good Samaritan. When I was hungry you gave me salt and vinegar Pringles. When I was thirsty, you offered me a Stoney. I was a stranger to you, but you accepted me as a friend—an “elderly” friend who called you names because you couldn’t quote Whitman, but nevertheless a friend. When I needed clothes, you found hand warmers. When my knees ached, you reached into your contraband and gave me cortisone. When my mind was in a prison of doubt, you sang and danced and did a poor job of air guitar.

Thank you, my new friends. I hope we do indeed reunite in Colorado. I shall introduce you to my friend Susan. Megan, I am sorry to say this, but Susan is a 20-cow woman.

Take care of yourselves. Dan, attend to your wife. Josh, come back to Kilimanjaro if you desire, but please know that you also completed a journey. Nick, enjoy every aspect of college. Devin, get a Ph.D. and take students to study rocks and people. Kelly, ice the knees. Karis and Justin, go ahead and spoil that daughter. Megan, remain kind and honest. Stacy and Luke, keep the passion you showed for each other and extend it to your patients. Sean and Julissa, hike the bluffs in La Crosse with Maribel and Julio and me.

Stay well. Oh, and one last Emily Dickinson quote:

“My only sketch, profile, of Heaven is a large blue sky, and larger than the biggest I have seen in June – and in it are my friends – every one of them.”


PS: I apologize for the length of this note. However, I have another note I want to write about the safari and what I learned from it. When I return to Wisconsin, I shall write it. If you would like to read it, I shall share it with you. But there is no reason for you to feel obligated to peruse my reflections.

Grant Smith

Sean and I exchanged thoughts on my Kilimanjaro experience. I shall share some of Sean's emails, and my responses. I am including these emails instead of writing a narrative in an attempt to add a different recollection and perspective on the events on Kilimanjaro. Sean provides an authentic voice. I hope you can make sense of the exchanges. I suspect (hope) the dialogue is not finished.

Email to Sean – 9/20/2019


In my attempt to process what I learned from Kilimanjaro, I’m eager to know why you and Theo felt I should return to the camp before I reached the summit.

Did I look as if I were struggling?
Were you concerned about my health?
Was I just too slow?
Were you genuinely worried that I was going to be sick?

When Theo said he thought I should turn back, my first thought was to do what he felt was best. In other words, I would have gone back if he had pressed the issue. I trusted him completely.

But I felt okay. I wasn’t nauseated. I wasn’t cramping. I wasn’t thinking, “I’ll never make it.” My body felt okay (but my hands were cold). I was focused on one step at a time. And so that is why I pleaded with you to let me continue. I really thought I could do it!

What were you guys thinking? Had you experienced this before with hikers on that last night?

I’m just curious to know: Did I look that bad? Did the sight of a 68-year-old man crying uncontrollably on the mountain at 3 a.m. scare you?

Now, may I say again how grateful I am to you and Theo for allowing me to get to the top of Kilimanjaro. Thank you for trusting me, thank you for helping me, encouraging me, tolerating me. I learned such great lessons about humility, cooperation, selflessness, resolve, acts of charity, limits. Thank you so much for giving to others your talents, time, belief, wisdom, strength. I’m a better person today than I was before I arrived in Moshi.

Best to you and Julissa. I still haven’t made it to Denver to see my daughter. It takes a long time to catch up after six weeks away from home. My poor dog never leaves my side. But when I come out, I’ll contact you, and if you guys are free, I’ll treat you to that dinner in Castle Rock.

I’m hiking next week the Lake Superior Trail in northern Minnesota. Hoping to see fall colors. I’ve spoken to two groups about Kilimanjaro. I don’t pretend to be an expert—I just share my experiences. I learned that an individual can accomplish much when surrounded by friends.


Email from Sean – 9/20/2019

Hey Grant!!

Always great hearing from you, and thanks for the questions too. Processing a lot of things from the trip (mainly the mountain) is a difficult thing to do, and I'm glad you actually are. So many people come home and revert back to their old ways, and don't really think about what happened, except for enjoying the trip. Knowing why you were turned around is a great question, and one that probably will keep festering until you know the answers, right? That's simple... you made that decision. Not us. Most people don't remember making that decision themselves because of the altitude and the hypoxia, but that's the truth. Earlier in the night when I came back and you warmed your hands on my stomach, Theo was worried about your speed as a secondary issue, but the main one was your brain wasn't getting enough oxygen. Looking at you and asking you if you were ok, there's a distinct look people get when their brain is deprived of the oxygen, and you had that. Safety is numero uno on the trip, and he was looking out for your best interest. I've been on the mountain where I asked someone if they were ok, he genuinely looked through me and said, "I'm fine, why?" After he was stumbling left and right, walking like someone who had eight too many drinks, and I jumped up to save him from falling over the edge. While he was answering me, he looked through me, meaning his focus was on a spot 20 feet behind me. Ha ha. It's an odd look for sure, and the thing is, people who have it have zero idea it's happening to them.

So after you rested a while, your "look" came back, and I convinced Theo that you'd be ok to continue up. Once we got to the crater rim (Stella Point), we both approached you again, but you were the one who made the decision to return. In fact, you said to me, "Sean, I think I'm done. I've hit my limit and I want to return." Now please don't be shocked, because when people become hypoxic, they usually don't remember things like this. In fact, I've been on the summit with a number of people who only remember being there because they have photographic evidence!! In fact, when I was with the group in June, I was walking toward the top, looked up, down, and then I don't remember about 30 seconds of moving from one spot to the other. It scared the shit out of me, because I have never had that happen before. I looked back and thought, "How did I get here?" When our brains don't get enough oxygen, that's when things get incredibly dangerous, and people can die. People die on the mountain every year, and it's Theo's job (and the others as well as mine) to put safety first. I've always worked with everyone on the mountain to get them to a point where THEY decide to turn around, which is what you were wanting to do.

My apologies if this doesn't sound familiar, but that's usually how hypoxia treats people in altitude... they simply don't remember. It's like pieces of a night being blacked out from alcohol. It's a very very odd phenomenon.


I hope this helps with your processing? If you have any more questions about anything, please do let me know...

Email to Sean – 9/20/2019

Thanks for the speedy response. If you had been an English professor, your students would have loved your quick responses to their essays!

It is amazing how our recollections of that night and morning differ. Here is what I remember:

I remember getting up and dressed that morning thinking, "Okay, let's do this." I felt confident that I could get to the top because I had managed to get to this point without major issues. I was not frightened or worried at all. I never considered saying, "Sean, I have gone far enough. I distinctly remember your advice: "Imagine yourself at the top."

I remember difficulty with breathing very early (not because I was out of breath) but because my glasses kept fogging up. I had the ski mask over my lips and whenever I breathed out, my glasses fogged up which made hiking "problematic." I decided just to put my feet wherever Katebu put his. Occasionally I would pull down the mask so that I could see and breathe easily.

I know that my hands got very cold because of the glove liners in the mittens. But after I took out the liners, and after I warmed my hands up on your belly, and after I got the hand warmers, then I could grip the poles again. I think by that time Katebu had taken my day pack. This was helpful in one way (less weight) but a problem in another because I wanted to drink often, and I hated to keep asking Katebu to stop so I could drink.

After I warmed my hands on your belly, I don't remember much. I do remember sitting down and Theo telling me that he felt I needed to go back. But I have no idea how long I had hiked since the last "hand warming" break, nor did I have any idea of how much of the mountain was before me. Was the rest of the group there? But I do remember thinking that I would go back if Theo really believed I should. I guess it was at that moment that I started to cry, and plead to go on. I have no recall of how long it took me to get to the top of Kilimanjaro after that moment. I do remember turning around once to see the sunrise, but that wasn't at the top. It was daylight when I got to the summit. How long had the group been at the top before I arrived?

At the top of Kilimanjaro I remember sitting down to rest. I have no idea how long the others had been there, but I recall that Dan told me that I had made it to the top. For some reason, it did not register in my brain that there was another summit an hour away! But you are correct, at that point I was ready to return. I wonder what you and Theo would have done if I had said I wanted to go on with the rest of the group. Would you have been insistent? "No, Babu, this time you really have to go down." I also recall getting my Viterbo banner out of my backpack so that I could get a picture of it at the top. Now that must have been true because I have the photographic evidence.

Sean--The crazy thing for me is that I remember very little of the hike up Kilimanjaro. Maybe it was because it was dark and so there wasn't much to see. But I don't even recall that awful scree and volcanic sand that made the descent challenging. I do remember the guides chanting and singing, and that was inspiring.

I remember vividly the hike down to the camp. It was tough. Again, my body felt okay, but I just had to go very slowly so that I didn't fall every fifteen feet! We had been hiking only a bit when Katebu said, “There's Kelly.” We saw Kelly and another guide perhaps 100 yards away. I then realized that Kelly also was descending. I thought, “Even Kelly is faster than I am!”  Many times on the way down, literally skiing through the scree, I thought to myself, "You came up this way? Everything looks new."

I am not disappointed that I didn't get to the highest point in Africa. Perhaps if I had rested for 30 minutes, eaten something, and drunk something I could have gone on...but I don't lose any sleep on my decision to go back.

If you can remember, would you answer the following questions:

  1. It was supposed to take us six hours to get from the camp to the top of Kilimanjaro. Then another hour to Uhuru. Is that correct? Did the group make it to Kilimanjaro in six hours? How long were they there before I got there?
  2. Did you and Theo both agree that I could continue after my "crying fit," or did you have to convince him? How far (how many hours) was I from the top of Kilimanjaro when you and Theo talked to me?

In the prologue to Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Hemingway relates the myth of a leopard that had frozen near the top. Hemingway says: "No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." Hemingway scholars have interpreted that frozen leopard as the antithesis of the protagonist of the short story, Harry, who falls short of his potential and ambitions. Hemingway's mantra was "Man can be destroyed but not defeated." (Or is it the reverse: Man can be defeated but not destroyed.} The leopard died on the mountain, but it died heroically — challenging nature's forces. It became immortal on the mountain. But now that I have gotten to the same place as that frozen leopard, I ask myself, "What was I seeking at that altitude?"

The short answer is that I was completing a pledge to my college volleyball program. But I could have donated $20,000 to the scholarship program without spending seven days on a mountain! And so why did I feel compelled to go to Tanzania?

After my wife died, I struggled immensely with being a single parent...especially because my children experienced incredible challenges. I began hiking as a means of escaping from the weight of drug abuse, divorce, school suspensions, jail visits, rehab conferences, suicide attempts. When I was on a trail, I could literally feel the pressure ease on my shoulders with each step I took. And after a hike, on the drive home, I could feel that pressure return as I realized that nothing had changed during my time away. Success at hiking the highest points gave me an identity that others could see and appreciate. The failed father, despondent widower, disillusioned professor was hidden behind the great adventurer who was challenging himself to go far outside of his comfort level. I was doing a challenge that no one else even thought of doing, and that seemed to impress my friends and colleagues. Once I finished the 50 high points (Ranier and Denali from afar) I fortunately became re-acquainted with a woman who filled a void. I really did not need to go to Tanzania, and so I wonder why I did. Yes, there was a higher purpose (the scholarship son's recovery) but like the leopard, I wonder now if I was pursuing something that would define me now that the 50 high points were in the past. I suspect the leopard was pursuing a goat or something like that to nourish him physically. Was I pursuing something that would nourish me mentally? Psychologically? I'll have to figure that out.

No need to respond to this lengthy missive. I plan to write something more formal later and share it with the group. I guess it would be helpful if you answered the few questions I posed. The answers would give me a better sense of the timeline of that night and day! It truly is a blur from midnight to daybreak!

Email from Sean – 9/30/2019

I couldn’t help but laugh when you said our recollections of that night differ. There was one trip a woman didn’t even remember being at the summit, even when we showed her photos. Altitude really does mess with your brain, and most people don’t know there’s something wrong until it’s too late.

It’s funny what people remember, and what sticks out in their minds. For you it’s the emotional experience of leaving camp and then the difficulties breathing b/c of your ski mask. While you were warming your hands up, the rest of the group was there…. Yes. After that, they took off, I stayed back a little, kept an eye on you, and Theo led the group higher. We still had at least four more hours to go before the sun came up, I’d guess. We did our best to keep the group together, and the time between the group and your arrival wasn’t TOO long.

In all honesty, a lot of people “black out” during the summit night. It’s a funny trick altitude does to your brain when it’s starved for oxygen. It’s borderline dangerous, which is why sometimes we encourage people to return. If it gets worse, death is a possibility. It’s happened before, where people continue on when the guides say, “No, you have to return.” But because they’re so intent on making the summit, sometimes they don’t return alive. My number one goal is to get everyone up and down the mountain safely while having fun. Hypoxic hikers/climbers don’t even know they’re hypoxic until it’s too late, but others can see it in their eyes, and in their actions, which is why I trust Theo and the other guys. They’ve done the mountain 100s of times and know what to look for.

To answer your two questions:

The guides tell everyone it takes about six hours from Barafu to Stella Point. It usually takes eight or so depending on the speed of the group. I’ve been on the crater rim in as early as 6.5 hours, and as late as 8.5 hours. From the crater rim to Uhuru peak, it can take anywhere from 45 min (if you’re moving quickly) to 1.5 hours. I remember being near Stella Point when the sun was coming up, which means we probably got up there around 7:30 am or so? That would be my best guess, but I could be completely wrong. I forget what time we made the summit to be honest. I thought it was nine am? So 7:30ish would make sense….. Sorry, just talking/thinking out loud. I’d say the group was there about 20 min before you arrived? And I say that b/c I know we only rest for no more than that before heading up…. Otherwise people get too cold, and lose interest in any desire to make Uhuru.

Theo and I talked about your “crying fit” (which wasn’t bad ha ha), and he suggested you go down. I talked to you and you kept going after mentioning why you were on the mountain, and how much it meant to you. When you turned around at Kilimanjaro you were probably a good two hours or more from the summit, assuming your brain didn’t get worse, which it probably would have, so it could have been three hours, and potentially life-threatening.

Looking at what Hemingway was talking about, and how you mentioned it, I’d like to offer another piece of advice/insight: The summit is never worth a life. The leopard was seeking something he could have found anywhere, just by looking internally, and without losing his life. There’s nothing to be found at the summit that you can’t find anywhere else. If you don’t make it back from the top of a mountain, you’re both destroyed AND defeated. The summit isn’t the goal….The top isn’t a successful trip. When you are safely off the mountain, then it’s a successful expedition. Regardless of whether he died heroically or not, he still died.

What were you seeking at that altitude? Many many many people ask that same question, but the answers are the same whether you’re at home looking at yourself in a mirror, or at the top of a mountain with an oxygen-starved brain. You just need to know you may never find all the answers, but within you lies all the best questions to help guide you where you want to go.

We could go on and on with this, and I’m sure many other unanswered questions, and maybe one day we should hop on the phone and schedule out nine hours of conversation? Ha ha.

Talk soon my friend, and by all means, I’m here to help answer any questions you might have.

Email to Sean – 10/1/2019

I'll give your thoughts on "looking internally" to find answers to my questions some consideration and reflection. As a professor of literature, I think I understand the symbolic significance of mountains (any high places) in a person's search for meaning. Mount Olympus is a real mountain in Greece (the highest point, maybe I should hike it) but in Greek mythology it is also the residence of the gods, shrouded from human view. Humans were forbidden to come near Olympus, and anyone who did attempt to summit the mountain met a sad fate. Did Moses have to climb Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments? Jesus had two "enlightening" experiences on mountains: (1) Satan's temptation, and (2) the Mount of Transfiguration. Black Elk had his visions on a peak in South Dakota that now carries his name (the highest point in South Dakota). The Egyptians and Mayans built pyramids (mountains) for reasons beyond vain monuments to kings and pharaohs. Mount Fuji is the highest point in Japan, but it is more than a site of inspiration for artists; it is also a source for spiritual renewal and it is so sacred that initially common persons (and women) were forbidden to hike to the top. The same is true of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the highest point in the islands. Only the high priests were allowed to summit Mauna Kea to pray and make sacrifices. Mountains are important. Getting to the top literally brings you closer to God. Getting to the top signifies your resolve to endure whatever pain is necessary to gain insight to the soul. 

I have taught two pieces of literature with "mountain" in the title: "Brokeback Mountain," a short story by Annie Proulx, and Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. In both works the mountain is central to the story as a Platonic "ideal." On Brokeback Mountain, Ennis and Jack are free to live freely a same-sex relationship that is forbidden elsewhere. It is their elusive dream to return to the mountain, a symbol of innocence, uncorrupted natural beauty untouched by man. Cold Mountain is the same symbol in Frazier's book. It represents a refuge from the ravages of war, a place of union and love. Now ironically, in both the short story and novel, the protagonists fail to get to the mountain. I argue that they do not get to the summit because if they got to the top, then the reality of life would interfere with their dream. In other words, the idea is more important than the realization of the idea. If Ennis and Jack had established a domestic relationship on Brokeback Mountain, they would have begun arguing about who left the dishes in the sink! If Inman and Ada had married and started a life on Cold Mountain, they would have faced the harsh realities of failed crops, sick babies, and erectile dysfunction! None of those realities enter Inman's mind as he makes his way back to the mountain; it is only the dream that keeps him alive. Inman has to die on Cold Mountain so that he can remain the unblemished hero in Ada's mind.

What I am trying to say is that mountains in our myths can represent many things. To some, the mountains are obstacles that must be overcome to prove one's worth. To others mountains symbolize the realization of a spiritual quest — one gains wisdom and knowledge in the mountains of Tibet! If you are on top of a peak you can see things that you cannot see below. To Hemingway, Kilimanjaro was a symbol of permanence and immortality. To the French explorers, the Grand Tetons reminded them of women (Great Tits) and feminists argue that this illustrates man's obsession with conquering nature and woman! The first time I looked at Mount Ranier and Mount Hood I was almost overwhelmed by their "stand alone" strength. I suspect I would have had the same impression of Kilimanjaro if we had ever had a clear day to see it from a distance.

You don't have to read any further because I am now writing primarily to myself as I reflect upon mountains as an archetype and what Kilimanjaro meant to me personally as a symbol. I don't know if I agree entirely with your argument that there is nothing to be found at the summit that a person can't find anywhere else. Just as there are lessons that only can be learned from the depths of hell, so are there lessons learned only from mountain peaks. We cannot admit our depravity if we have never felt the flames of an inferno. We cannot recognize our capacity for good if we have never sensed the exhilaration of doing the seemingly impossible. I do not doubt for a minute that Josh made the correct decision to take care of himself at Barafu Hut. Certainly he learned something about himself, his body, his decision-making skills that could not have been learned if he attempted the final climb. But he will also learn something equally important when he returns to Kilimanjaro and looks out from Uhuru.

There were specific reasons why the members in our group decided to hike Kilimanjaro. Some of those reasons are easily identified: to raise money for a charity, to accompany a friend, a final adventure before entering college. But along the way, those reasons fell away and were replaced by a greater reason for continuing to endure, as you said, a higher purpose. After all, my college was going to get the $20,000 from me regardless of how far up the mountain I got. I cannot speak for the others in the group, but for me, after the first day, the hike became more of a pilgrimage than an adventure. Yes, I smiled when the group sang songs and danced on the trail, but more often I focused on my surroundings: the immensity of space, the unfamiliar and even exotic terrain, the changing weather, the unique plants, the demands on my legs and shoulders, the natural obstacles confronting us. I reflected as I hiked on the mental challenges I had faced in the previous years. I asked myself, "Why did you not abandon a heroin addict son when every family member, every counselor, every friend said, 'You need to cut him loose.'" I wondered what motivated me to stay with him on his destructive journey, after he stole from me, lied to me, cursed me, assaulted and defiled everything I believed in? Perhaps it was love for a son, although there came a time when I felt no love for him. Perhaps it was vanity — embarrassment to admit my failure as a father. Perhaps it was hope — maybe this time he will stay sober. Perhaps it was determination not to fail. Maybe it was just fear of the alternative — receiving the coroner's call to identify his body.

At some point on the hike, the physical trail morphed into a spiritual trail for me. It was a living metaphor for the anguish, the doubt, the fear that I had experienced for more than ten years as I journeyed with my son. I sensed that I had to complete the journey — reach to the top of Kilimanjaro — to demonstrate to myself and to my son that trials have meaning, that trials can be overcome, and that the summit (now 12 months of sobriety for my son) can be achieved.

In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell asserts that each of us longs to live heroically, to engage life with a passion, to drink deeply from the cup of human experience. But the messiness of contemporary life too often extinguishes that inner burning — the quest seems too difficult, too far away. Campbell divides the quest into different stages: Crisis, Journey, Obstacles, Wounds, Mentor, Epiphany. While hiking the seven-day journey on Kilimanjaro, I noted how my trek mirrored what Campbell claims each hero experiences. Machame Route was the journey. Kiss the Rock was one of the obstacles. I was “wounded” with tired legs and tight lungs. Sean, Theo, and Katebu mentored me. My “crisis” and my “epiphany” are complex and ongoing. 

I wonder now how I would feel if I had indeed turned back when you and Theo urged me to. Again, I am so grateful that you were there. I am grateful that you saw in my eyes that I was struggling. I appreciate your concern and your expertise. You are absolutely correct, I had no idea of the seriousness of my condition. When I told you I felt fine, I really believed it! Indeed, I was surprised when Theo said I needed to go back! And you are also correct — no summit is worth the loss of life. I would have turned back if you and Theo had continued to press me because I respected both of you. I am certain that at that moment I couldn't fully comprehend why I needed to continue. Certainly in my sobbing, I couldn't articulate it. But there was something internal within my soul that demanded that I move on. I can say this because there have been occasions on other hikes when I have said to myself and to my hiking companion, "I've gone far enough. You can go ahead without me and I'll wait for you here." I was satisfied then with what I had done, how far I had hiked. I felt no need to continue. But that wasn't the case on Kilimanjaro. Something needed to be finished.

I am not sure I would have learned what I needed to learn, felt what I needed to feel, demonstrate to myself and to my son what I needed to show if I had returned early.  A pilgrimage ends with a "place:" Jerusalem, Mecca, Kilimanjaro. There are reasons we feel a need to kneel before holy places, to stand with an unobstructed view of our world, to plant a flag on the moon. Yes, that place can be figurative. Yes, the journey is sometimes more meaningful than the triumph. But from that "sacred place" your heart burns with things that cannot be felt on the plains of the Serengeti; your eyes see things that cannot be seen elsewhere: a beautiful planet that needs to be protected, opportunities that lie before you, a temple that represents the divine within you. And so what would I be writing today if I had not gotten that photo of me holding my banner at Kilimanjaro. (I do remember desperately rummaging through my day pack to get it!) My narrative would have changed greatly. Would I even feel a need to process the experience if I had not made it as far as I did? What would have replaced that feeling of satisfaction/pride/fulfillment from completing the task? Could I have replaced those feelings, or would there always be a sense of being unfulfilled?" Those are hard questions to answer.

In Hemingway's story, the protagonist, Harry, to me is a pathetic character. He doesn't die heroically fighting for a cause. He dies of gangrene from a plane wreck, symbolic of the pollution in his soul. He bemoans lost opportunities in life because he focused on material gain rather than spiritual insight to himself and fulfillment of his potential. He whines. He lies. He dies on a cot in his tent on the plains waiting for a rescue plane instead of on the snows of Kilimanjaro. You are correct to observe that the leopard did not need to pursue his prey on Kilimanjaro. Hemingway makes it clear that there is plenty of wild game on the plains. But the leopard is a metaphor. The leopard is curiosity that drives us to explore the unknown. The leopard is righteous ambition that causes us to find cures for diseases and methods of conserving resources. The leopard is a vision of what potential lies beyond the unseen. The leopard is eternal beauty in the struggle to achieve the impossible. The leopard dies in his pursuit, but that does not mean that the pursuit was not worthwhile in what it represents to the reader.  It may remain a mystery to observers who see the frozen cat, but the reader senses the leopard signifies a higher purpose.

Enough of this. But I will add two things: I always ask my students to give me the name of Daniel Boone's wife. No one can ever answer it. Now, women did indeed climb mountains. They did explore trails, fight Indians, and settle the West. But their stories were not told. Their names are not known. My students are also surprised to learn that two of Boone's children were killed by Natives and that one daughter was kidnapped by Natives. I ask my students, "Boone is known as a national hero, but at what cost to his family?" By the way, his wife was named Rebecca.

The other incident that gives me pause is the recent tragedy on Mount Everest. Perhaps you knew Donald Cash. He caught my attention because he is a Mormon, and his family lives south of Salt Lake City. He died after scaling Everest which was the last of the highest peaks on the seven continents to summit successfully. At his funeral in Utah, Cash was praised by his family and friends as being "larger than life." Friends said he "lived boldly." He wore a T-shirt that said, "Do Epic Shit." His family said they were happy he died doing what he loved...rather than to die in a hospital bed. But I wonder what the family says now that the shock has worn off and the grief has set in. Are they still proud of him? Or are they angry? The reality is that he is dead. He was only 54. He will not see his children grow up, attend their weddings, play with his grandchildren. His wife will be without a partner for many years. Was that last attempt on Everest worth it? Could he, as you say, have learned what he had to learn in Lehi, Utah.

Sean, you say that no life is worth the summit. Hemingway would disagree. For Hemingway, being defeated by not continuing to climb is worse than being destroyed in the attempt. This is a tough and complex dilemma that we face in many arenas: Do I continue to pursue the idea (of a clean son) even at the risk of jeopardizing my own health? Or do I accept the limitations of what any father can do for a child? What is the distance between hubris and humility?

Best to you as always. It is cold and raining here. I fear we will have an early winter.