By Frank Solomon
Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain on the African continent and the highest free-standing
mountain in the world. It contains almost every kind of ecological system on earth: cultivated land,
rain forest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and an arctic summit. At a colossal 19,341 feet, Mt.
Kilimanjaro is one of the largest volcanoes to ever break through the earth’s crust. Hemingway made
the mountain a legend in his book “The Snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro.” In Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro is
known as the House of God.
On Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, ten people from various parts of the world, under the auspices of Shalva,
the Center for Disabled Children in Jerusalem, attempted to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. The
group comprised four Americans; four Israelis (Two women had made aliyah from New York; one
woman made aliyah from Toronto; and one man made aliyah from South Africa); one Briton, and
I was among the four Americans and the first member to sign up for Shalva’s third Mt. Kilimanjaro climb in 15 years.
After seven days of trekking, accompanied by a British physician and more than 50 porters and sherpas, the group began at our final ascent around midnight, climbing the steep slopes from base camp to Stella Point at 18,975 feet. The climb turned out to be more tumultuous and dangerous than all the climbs the veteran Tanzanian tour guide, nicknamed A.J., could recall. The previous evening, A.J. had predicted snow and strong wind. By the time the group started, a blizzard descended, with gale-force wind whipping up to 75 miles per hour. The climbers found it difficult to balance themselves, let alone stand walk straight.
We inched our way up on the rocky slope. We tripped over frozen rocks, battered by icy
sleet and thunderous wind. The muddy trail turned into solid, intractable ice blocks. Temperature
was 10 degrees below zero Celsius. The wind-chill factor plunged to minus 25 degrees. At that
attitude, the oxygen level was half the amount at sea level. Exhaustion hit fast with each step. Still,
no one decided to pull out. Not yet.
The summit challenge was the culmination of 10 days of trekking and climbing put
together by London-based Charity Challenge, whose motto is “Never a Backward Step.” Charity
Challenge runs charitable outdoor events all over the world. It typically lists these events according
to the physical requirements in the sports world. Mt. Kilimanjaro is at the top of the “extreme” in
physical endurance and climbing difficulty.
Shalva, which has offices in London and New York, had conducted two climbs before, the first
drawing more than 50 climbers, and the second more than 25. I was the first one to sign up
for the third climb challenge, in 2017, months before Shalva had finalized its plans on the climb.
I had visited Shalva in Jerusalem in early 2017. I was impressed by the scope and depth of
Shalva’s work with disabled children in Israel regardless of their national, ethnic and religious
background. I decided to raise the awareness of the need to bring disabled children and their
families into the normal functioning society.
Meanwhile, I had heard about the story of Dr. Amram Cohen, a pediatric surgeon from the D.C.
area who had made aliyah and founded the Save a Child’s Heart in Israel. Save a Child’s Heart is a
humanitarian organization with a mission to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for
children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and who cannot get adequate
medical care in their home countries. Dr. Cohen grew up at Har Tzeon Agudath Achim in Silver
Dr. Cohen died on August 16, 2001 while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He was 47. He still
has family living in Kemp Mill. In April 2018, the UN Population Fund presented its 2018 Population
Award to Save a Child’s Heart. To date, SACH has saved the lives of more than 4,500 children with
congenital heart defects.
I decided to finish Dr. Cohen’s climb while helping Shalva.
The Kilimanjaro summit challenge initially also drew a British rabbi, his Australian-born wife, an American woman who had made aliyah, and another British physician. The first three had to withdraw due to personal reasons. The physician did not make the climb after he raised the minimum donation of the equivalent of $10,000. The group eventually ballooned to 12 members. One, a New Yorker who had raised the equivalent of $23,000—the most raised by anyone within the group—did not get clearance from his physician at the last minute to join the climb. His college-age daughter, however, went ahead with the group. With the absence of the British physician and the New Yorker, the number of climbers stood at 10 the day of the climb, plus the Charity Challenge-sent British physician as a staff member.
Shalva hired Charity Challenge to take on the climb’s planning and logistics because Charity
Challenge had done the previous two summit challenges for the Israeli charity. Due to the Jewish
nature of the group, Shalva uses the challenge operator that is knowledgeable
about kashrut and Shabbat requirements. Charity Challenge had managed the previous two
climbs, and used local operator Tanzanian Travel Company for on-site logistics.
The two previous challenges ran daily minyans and had certified kosher vegetarian food and cooking
utensils. Both groups rested on Shabbat, complete with an eruv on the mountain. This time the
third group had the same kosher food and Shabbat regimen. Because there were only six
men and four women, there was no daily minyan. Members davened individually each day.
The climbers flew into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Monday morning, Oct. 15, from various parts of the
world and then onto Arusha, Tanzania, the town closest to Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is a 3-hour drive
from the Arusha airport. We spent the first night at the Arusha Planet Lodge, a 2.5-hour drive from
the gate to Mt. Kilimanjaro, meeting one another and checking their equipment. Everything–food,
water, tents, sleeping bags, chairs, tables– had to be hauled up the mountain, as there are no
electrical, kitchen or sleeping facilities along the way.
Supported by a company of 56 drivers, chef, porters and assistants and accompanied by the Charity
Challenge physician, Dr. Ross, the group began its journey on Tuesday morning, Oct. 16, trekking 7 to
12 hours a day uphill to reach the next base camp. The group climbed to higher ground each day
before descending to lower altitude to camp to acclimatize to the thinning oxygen supply. The
scene changed from rainforest to Moorland to Alpine as they moved along. The temperature
plunged as we ascended. Each night the group arrived at a designated camp site, where other
groups from around the world had already camped out, all with the same goal of taking on the
summit. Most of the climbers shared a tent with another. The days were hot. The nights were frigid.
The climbers awoke each morning to find their tents’ ground cover sheets soaking wet and their
tents covered with ice.
Throughout the trek, I couldn’t help noticing the discrepancy between the all-white climbing
group of 11 and the all-black support crew of nearly 60. As the porters raced past the climbers with
33 pounds (the maximum weight each was allowed to carry under state law) of supply, tents, chairs,
cooking utensils, food and water, I noticed that most of them lacked basic equipment, warm
clothing, and hiking shoes. The picture of porters without gloves and proper shoes trudging up the
mountain against the backdrop of a nation and a continent that seemed forgotten by the modern
world reminded me of E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India.”
Before sunset on Friday, Oct. 19, we arrived at the mountain’s most spectacular spot, the
Barranco Wall, a cliff dropping hundreds of feet to that day’s base camp with views over Mount
Meru and the expansive valleys below. Shabbat began at this mountain camp site. Porters set up
an eruv around the group’s tents before the climbers arrived. Lights were mounted outside the two
make-shift toilets so that none of the climbers had to switch on electricity to use the facilities. That
evening the group had a kabbalat Shabbat service at 12,870 feet. We spent the next day resting
within the eruv. The group sang Havadalah and danced outside under a clear night sky above the
clouds. The porters and sherpas joined the dance.
The next day, the group summed up all its energy and scaled up the steep Barranco Wall, a surge of
more than 600 feet. We continued our ascent for two more days, ending at 15,180 feet at Barafu
Ridge toward the ice fields before the summit night.
The group ascended amid the 75-mile-per-hour gale-force wind, pitch darkness, minus 25 degree
Celsius temperature, and half of the amount of oxygen available at sea level. Ice hardened our
clothes. Sleet battered us with blinding whiteness. The decreasing oxygen supply made it
impossible to move fast without great exhaustion. One misstep could plunge a climber to death
nearly 20,000 feet down the cliff. Two women talked about halting their climb and being carried
downhill. Along the way, no fewer than 12 climbers from other groups—11 women and one
man—were escorted down by a guide each because they could not continue to climb.
The ascent to Stella Point, one of the three summit points, at 18,975 feet was supposed to take 6 to
7 hours. It took 8 hours for the group to reach that point. Each time someone lost balance or was
falling backward, a porter behind would prop him or her up. After several hours and midway toward
the summit, the group split into several sections, each scaling for the best spot to land the next step
so as not to fall into the dark abyss below. Icicles and sleet covered our clothing, turning each
person into a moving ice bar in slow motion.
Blinded by the snow and caked in icicles, I counted my average speed: one step for every 12
seconds. Each breath became harder. Each step pushed the edge of my physical and psychological
limits. In contrast, I noticed the strength and resilience of the porters and sherpas in front and
behind me. The contrast between the climbers’ modern, layered clothing the tattered
grab of their porters did not escape me. Many of them did not use headlamps or gloves. They
relied on the moonlight to see, though the moon was nowhere to be seen.
After about two hours, I became so exhausted that I could not stand up. For about 20
minutes, I crawled uphill on his frozen gloves and boots like a giant lizard moving at a snail’s pace.
My sweat froze underneath my thermal underwear. I saw nothing beyond the blinding whiteness.
The gale-force wind could have blown a 2-ton boulder down my path any moment. Sleet hit me like
bullets. My face and eyelashes turned into ice.
The chill and wind storm continued without a break. The expected breath-taking sunrise didn’t arrive
at 5:30 a.m. Eventually, the climbers arrived at the summit in groups of two or three at Stella Point
at different times. It took another hour to reach Uhuru Point at 19,453 feet, a mere 400 feet higher
than Stella Point. I was the last one to reach Stella Point. It took me 1.5 hours to reach Uhuru.
The summit was too cold for anyone to stay for more than a few minutes. By the time I reached Uhuru Point, the rest of the group had already begun their 3-hour descent to the Barafu Ridge base camp. For some unknown reason, I was among the first to get back to the base camp even though I had a 2-hour delay in reaching the summit.
After a quick lunch, the group took three hours to descend to Millennium camp, at 12,375 feet, to
gain more oxygen for the night. Altogether, the summit day took 15 hours to go up and down. The
next day, the group trekked downhill for 8 hours to the Mweka Gate. Two men from the group had
to be evacuated by ambulance at the last stretch of the 8-hour descent, where the ambulance raced
up the one-lane, muddy path toward Mweka Gate. After lunch at a village shop, drivers picked up
the climbers and took them back to the lodge in Arusha to spend the night and for their first shower
in nine days. The climbers, with the exception of the physician, went on a safari the next morning
before flying back home.
As of Oct. 28, the 12 members (10 went on the climb) of the group had raised $139,220 for Shalva.
I was grateful for the amount of $10,000-plus I raised from the Kemp Mill
community—KMS, Maayan Chaddash, Silver Spring Chabad, Young Israel Emunah, Har Tzeon
Agudath Achim, Tifereth Israel and Tikvat Israel, neighbors and friends. If you wish to sponsor me,
please click on this link: http://climb4shalva.org/profile.php?id=122
Frank Solomon lives in Silver Spring.