By Barbara Trainin Blank
If not now, when? That’s what Phil Lehman figured when he decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. At 71, with two knee-replacements behind him, the Silver Spring resident didn’t think he’d be able to make the climb in, say, five or 10 more years. So now was the time.
At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world and the tallest on the African continent. (Everest is 10,000 feet higher.)
Lehman’s home study is full of photos from “Davy Crockett,” the 1950s television show, and of cowboys. Clearly, he has a boy’s adventurous spirit.
But he had another requirement before he could tackle Kilimanjaro: a group that would provide kosher food, Shabbat observance and a daily minyan for prayer.
He found one through Koshertreks, an Israel-based company that offers trips for observant Jews. What’s more, Koshertreks has sent groups up Kilimanjaro four times before.
After an 18-hour flight, Lehman joined the other 23 group members at Moshi, Tanzania, on Aug. 22.
They drove to the base the next morning and hiked for five hours that day.
The trek up Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano, crosses five climate zones: rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and arctic. The temperatures can range from 90 degrees to 20 below. It rains frequently.
The weather gets colder as you climb.
But the biggest challenge is the altitude. The air is one-third thinner near the summit.
“You have to get acclimated,” said Lehman, who was 17 years older than the next- oldest person in the group. “We had to take pills for altitude sickness. But it’s an individual thing. You never know who’ll get sick. “
Although Kilimanjaro is steep, climbers don’t need oxygen and ropes because they go up a path.
“But they have to climb slowly because it’s treacherous,” said Lehman. “Ninety percent is rock, and you never know if the rock is embedded or will move. A lot of people fell — though, fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.”
He figures he stumbled 15 or 20 times. Ironically, “my bionic knees never gave me any problems,” Lehman said.
There were other challenges: the climbers were unable to bathe for a week — only “wash up a little bit.”
There were toilets only at the campsites, and sickness was always a possibility. One person in the group had to leave because of illness. Lehman, already trim, suffered from gastrointestinal distress and lost 12 pounds in five days.
But the group had ample support: Accompanying the climbers were 90 porters and 10 guides.
In addition to a daypack each climber took — holding extra clothes, water and snacks — the porters carried 33-pound duffel bags, which contained food to be cooked on burners; portable toilets; tents to go around the toilets; sleeping tents; dishes and utensils. There were no paper goods so that there wouldn’t be litter.
Many would-be climbers need fitness training. Not Lehman, who spends three hours at the gym every day — except on Shabbat and holidays. He swims, does weights, spinning and hot yoga — in an intentionally heated room.
In contrast to the days of climbing, Shabbat on Kilimanjaro was a blessing. The group slept late and rested before the final trek to the summit. They had erected an eruv, a ritual enclosure that allows observant Jews to carry on Shabbat in public spaces.
“It was made up of our hiking poles and string,” Lehman said. “We even baked challah.”
After dark, the group divided into three, with each group starting toward the summit at a different time.
“My group walked five hours in the dark with only a head lamp and guides,” Lehman said. “The sun rose at 7.a.m., and we got to the summit, Uhuru Peak, at 8:30. Stamina and adrenaline got me up there. When I finally did, I was in shock.”
As they reached the summit, the climbers were rewarded with breathtaking views.
“The clouds are below you, almost like when you’re flying. You pass glaciers, and there are so many stars it’s amazing,” he said.
At the same time, Lehman admitted, “You’re so cold and tired. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life — and the most rewarding. I said a prayer for God’s majestic presence on earth in a place very few people get to experience,” he said.
After descending from the mountain on Aug. 29, Lehman and his wiped-out fellow climbers might have been expected to rush home. Instead, he and several others went on a two-day safari.
“The best thing,” he said, “is we rode in vehicle and didn’t have to walk.”
Barbara Trainin Blank is a Washington-area writer.
See also: The Jews of Everest