Ten years ago, when John and I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for the first time, we decided that someday we’d bring his kids. Last week, we returned from that family trip to Tanzania. It was a trip of a lifetime.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is no easy feat. At 19,341 feet, Kili is the tallest mountain on the African continent. We took the Machame Route, also known as the Whiskey Route because it’s hard, and spent six nights and seven days on the mountain. The climb is really more of a trek at altitude. The entire route is on a trail. Most days the trail is steep, but the views are stunning.
When we first envisioned it a decade ago, John’s daughter, Evelyn, was three years old. Instagram wasn’t even invented yet. But today in the summer of 2015 both Evelyn, and to a lesser degree her older brother Andrew, suck in wifi bandwidth like we used to draw breath.
Before we left, my concern for the kids focused more on fitness level and blister-proofing their new hiking boots than on how often they’d need to update their social media sites. Between dance classes and end-of-school-year sleepovers Evelyn couldn’t find the time to break in her new hiking boots. Even while I imagined blisters and bloody toes, I had to admit that her new boots didn’t even seem that difficult to break in. Andrew, on the other hand, is a college ski racer. Toughness runs in his blood, and I knew that his biggest challenge would be waiting for the rest of us to catch up with him.
What I didn’t think much of before we left was what happens to kids without a constant Internet connection. Do they shrivel and die, like a raisin in the sun? Or would they revel in the beauty of mountains, humming the Sound of Music soundtrack to themselves while sipping tea in their tents?
The climb was a challenge. It was also beautiful and amazing and inspiring. Evelyn told me the day before the summit that if she didn’t make it to the top, she’d be disappointed at herself. When we were just steps from the top, and she wanted to turn back, I reminded her of her promise to herself. She continued on. Andrew made it to the crater rim while his lung were filling with fluid. The guides turned him around at Stella Point, but he’d done the hard part. He didn’t let on to any of us the depth of his struggle, and it turned out to be the most herculean physical effort I’ve ever witnessed. I will forever be in awe of him, even while I wish he would have turned around earlier for his own sake.
Climbing a mountain is simple. You just put one foot in front of the other until there’s no where further to go. When John, Evelyn and I stepped onto Uhuru Peak, the highest peak on Kilimanjaro together, I felt something new. The air is so thin, it feels like floating a inside a helium balloon. But attached to your feet are lead weights. There’s a strange disconnect between your head and your heavy boots, and it cracked open something inside me.
All of the challenges of the past few years came streaming out of that crack. The worries, the anxiety, the loss and pain just leaked out.
A few days later we camped in Serengeti National Park. We stayed in luxurious wall tents complete with running water (real toilets!) and big beds. At night we could hear lions. They exhale in a low rumble, then call out to the other cats in a long hooooooo sound. It’s strange and eery and totally amazing to listen to amidst the myriad of other African sounds.
Evelyn isn’t the kind of kid that’s going to raise her hands and proclaim the “hills are alive.” She’s subtler and a whole lot wiser than that. The first morning after sleeping with the lions, she said something even better. She claimed this as the best trip she’d ever been on. “And you know what?” She went on. “Lions are better than wifi.”
Coming from a 13-year-old that’s about as high of praise as you can get. Trip of a lifetime indeed.