Climbing Kilimanjaro with Worldwalker Steven Newman

A Man and a Mountain

By Tor Torkildson

“The only disadvantage in surviving a dangerous encounter, lies in the fact that your story of it tends to be anticlimactic.” ~ Beryl Markham

Our first glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro came at sunrise while traveling on the road to Moshi. With a crescent moon still dangling in the night sky it was as if a curtain was being pulled back to reveal a long-forgotten dream. These things tend to happen only when the landscape is grand and immeasurable, where there is history and myth, when the scene you are faced with stirs something deep within. Imagine your first view of a Tibetan monastery in the Himalaya, Incan ruin in Peru, or the Great Pyramids in Egypt and you will understand how I felt when I looked out our taxi’s window and saw Mount Kilimanjaro for the first time.

I had traveled half way around the world to Tanzania to meet Steven Newman, the first person to walk solo around the world, and a man imbedded in my imagination. My desire to meet the author of, Worldwalk, was so strong that I would have made a similar journey to Timbuktu or Kashgar had Steven willed it. I was on a pilgrimage to meet the man who had fueled my dream to walk around the world for over twenty-five years.

Steven and his friend Julian have invited Siffy and I to join them on a climb up Kilimanjaro. Initially, I am not very excited about the idea of climbing Kilimanjaro, as I’d heard stories of shit trails and crowds. I like to consider myself a mountain purest. Julian assured us that we would climb a new route that would take us 8 days and cover terrain that ranged from the Amazon to the Antarctic, with a climb of nearly 20,000 feet to top it off. In the end, we would get all that and more.

In Moshi, our group connects in a plush hotel with a swimming pool over cold bottles of Kilimanjaro beer. The snow-capped mountain looms above us and beckons. I smell paper fires and distant drum beats that remind me I am back in Africa. Unlike the others in our group, I have spent years working around Africa, and there is no novelty left for me. Only moments and encounters randomly move across my thoughts.

Like the road block on the way from the airport; I grow tense as we wait in the dark while our driver disappears with several older and gruff looking men. I prepare for a carjacking and begin to perspire. No, not again, not now, I tell myself.

“You must be Tor? Steven Newman, a pleasure to finally meet you.” I turn around and embrace the large hand of the man that I have wanted to meet for so long. Yes, it is him, that endearing smile, mischievous eyes, reddish blond hair, tall and confident. I have waited so long for this encounter.

“Been traveling and awake for over 50 hours. Great to be here.” Soon his friend Julian joins us and we get acquainted over a few beers. Our guide Mohamed will brief us shortly in whispered tones.

We will climb the Lemosho Route over an 8-day period. My insides stir with excitement which brings to mind a quote by the explorer Richard Burton:

“One of the gladdest moments in life, methinks is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of routine, the cloak of many cares and the slavery of home, man feels once more happy…The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood…afresh dawns the morn of life.”

In our mini-van we climb from the town of Moshi to the start of our trek at the Londorosi Gate. Along the route, we pass small coffee producing villages and fields of potatoes. At the gate our gear is weighed for the porters and we sign into the official logbook for the climb. We are in a rain forest and there is a density of smells that ignites my senses. Everything seems thicker and moist here, even the air I breath. After several hours of hiking we set up camp at the Big tree, or Mti MKubwa in Swahili. Monkeys screech and the cooks begin boiling the night’s dinner. There will be soup with each meal.

“You must go slowly, pole-pole, eat a lot of food, drink 5 to 10 liters of water per day.” We are constantly told by our four guides. I am sure it is wise advice to avoid altitude sickness, but I will only drink 3 liters per day. I contemplate the 3,645 meters that I will need to climb in the next 6 days; my weight bothers me and it has been quite some time since I climbed a serious mountain.

Sleep does not come easy the first night in a tent and I lie awake listening to the sounds of the rain forest. I wander back to the Amazon in my mind. Monkeys screech and frogs croak endlessly. Just before sunrise there is an explosion of bird chatter. I would like to think the birds are singing a mantra for our safety on the mountain.

“Look, there is an elephant! Harumph!” Steven is up and blowing his nose. I laugh uncontrollably and intuitively know that I will like him. A bowl of hot water is set in front of our tent to wash our weary morning faces, that must look like dried up creek beds. There is porridge, fried bread, and eggs for breakfast. I drink two cups of Puerh tea from Yunnan and simply observe the surreal scene around me. Several groups begin to pack up and head to the next camp. On the trail, I size up our team. We have 4 guides, 2 cooks, and 26 porters.

We are a group of 8 climbers. Surprisingly, I am not the only one out of shape, or on the heavy side, and this brings a sense of relief. Siffy seems absolutely energized by this fact and I can see her confidence levels rise accordingly. I think she has been fretting over the climb all summer, as it is her first big mountain challenge. For month’s she has been running up and down the hill near our house in the dark while I drink wine and immerse myself in social media.

In the early morning light, our team slogs through the cloud forest to Camp Shira 1. The trail is rolling and slick. It is humid and musty smelling. I look for orchids and watch my step. The light seems soft and healing. There are black and white colobus monkeys playing in the camphorwood trees. Every so often someone yells: “Porters on your left.” I marvel at the huge loads the Tanzanian porters balance on their heads. I am fascinated by the variety of clothes they wear and their rag-tag footwear. We pass through the Lemosho Glades and I watch the cloud play in the sky. The weather is fickle and changes quickly.

“Rafael, what is the largest size of shoe you can buy in Moshi?” I ask one of our guides. I believe I have seen tennis shoes that are size 16 or larger on a few of the thin porters. I am in awe of their strength and balance, while trekkers continue to slip and fall. Many of my teammates have mud stained asses. I think about the porters in Nepal, who also carry heavy loads, and use a neck strap with a doko basket to carry.

I read that the neck is the strongest muscle in the human body and it makes sense that porters around the world utilize their necks in one way or another.

In the afternoon, we climb over Elephant Ridge and off in the distance is the large Shira plateau, we can see our camp for the night. It reminds me of the Great Basin in the United States. We are now in the moorland zone. I walk beside Steven and we have a nice talk.

“Normally, I would have caught my second wind by now, like when I used to run marathons.” Steven laments. I think about this for a bit.

“For me it seems to be a shedding of the world below, the daily routine and boredom, which energizes me.” After just one day of hiking I feel a loosening up of my spirit and newfound reserves of energy.

“Tor I would really like to talk to you about your time with those Japanese climbing monks, it sounds so mysterious. I am not all that religious, however, I did hike the entire Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan and never saw another foreigner. At one temple a monk told me I was a Holy man.” I tell Steven that he does seem to possess certain Zen-like qualities.

“What I did learn on my walk around the world Tor was patience, nothing really upsets me anymore. I just go with the flow of things.” I am glad that we are beginning to talk on a deeper level and about the inner journey.

In camp I retreat to be alone and ponder this surreal landscape and the endeavor we are embarked upon. I cannot help but think of the German, Hans Meyer, who was the first person to summit Kilimanjaro on, 06 October 1889.

Meyer would survive many difficulties that I will not have to suffer and would bring a rock from the summit back to the Kaiser Wilhelm and the German Empire (the peak was initially called Kaiser Wilhelm Peak). I remind myself to read Meyer’s book, Across East African Glaciers, when I return home to Bavaria.

His words seem fitting today:

“the wondrous purples of the summit deepening as in the Alpine afterglow; the dull greens of the forest and the sepia shadows in the ravines and hollows, growing ever darker as the evening steats on apace; and last the gradual, the gradual fading away of all, as the sun sets, and over everything spreads the grey cloud-curtain of the night. It is not a picture but a pageant.”

I catch my first glimpse of Mount Meru before crawling into our dome tent for the night. Our surroundings have become majestic and we seem to be on the cusp of something magical. The horizon grows as we gain height. It is all about horizon I was once told by an old Swiss mountain guide. In the morning when I drag myself out of the tent I hear Steven groaning. I cheerfully ask how he is doing. He grunts and he seems to have aged overnight.

“I feel nauseous and grumpy.” He scowls.

I decide to leave him alone and go about the business of getting my own act together. Frankly, I am a little shocked that Steven seems so out of it. I ponder the fact that one of my hero’s is struggling to get up the mountain. Could it really be that hard for the man who walked around the world solo? I am reminded of the other people that I know who became legends because of their feats. What I have learned is that most of them are ordinary people who pushed themselves to do extraordinary things. I have also learned that to do something ‘out of the box’ requires a certain amount of bravery. Soon I will have to be brave, step away from the world I have known for fifty-four years, if I indeed hope to walk around the world like Steven. Inside I know there is no other option for me. I must be brave.

The camp reminds me of a smaller and less complicated Everest base camp. Porters and cooks are busy boiling water and preparing breakfast. Splashing warm water on my face feels good. I notice my upper foot feels sore, or is it my ankle? I figure I just need to walk out the initial kinks from moving across uneven terrain. Annie, the oldest in our group, seems inordinately cheerful and ready to hit the trail. I have heard bits and pieces of her story, of coming back to life, after a cardiac arrest in the Himalaya and her recent return to the same region. She looks much younger than her age and quite fit. I look forward to hearing her story firsthand. It looks like rain today.

We experience intermittent rain cycles in Shira 2 camp, which seems crowded. There are huge white necked ravens hopping around camp looking for food. Their eyes are penetrating and filled with curious intelligence. They are the size of a small turkey. There will be no sleep as the porters chatter deep into the night and a young German girl repeatedly vomits next to our tent.

In the darkness of the tent I feel sorry for her and recall the brain crushing feeling of altitude sickness that I suffered through on Mount Whitney a few years ago, it was like being sea sick with a sledge hammer bashing your skull. Everyone seems sluggish in the morning and Steven refuses to eat. We break camp in a veil of mist. The climbing is slow and methodical and I feel talkative. Annie bops along the trail with headphones on and in her own musical world. Porters pass with greetings, “jambo”, and their work seems effortless to them. I wonder how one could possibly smile with a heavy load atop your head.

All day long I hear the laughter of the Australian woman Mel. It warms my heart to hear her laughter, so few people seem to laugh freely anymore, in such a natural way. I make a mental note to myself to talk to her husband Chris, a film-maker later on, as I have been stewing with the idea of going back into the field. Julian and I smoke tobacco and muse. The porters smoke ganja and I can smell the sweet aroma wafting through camp after they haul water up from the stream and their chores are finished. Having a smoke must be their version of happy hour.

As we approach the Lava Tower the landscape opens up and we cross a large wash-like flow region. A sleet storm engulfs us and we become wet and cold. I exchange greetings with a passing group of Austrians.

Their faces remind me of chiseled granite, like the landscape they come from, and there is a determination to their gait. They are hard mountain men and this weather doesn’t faze them in the least. I wiggle my fingers to keep them warm and the sleet turns to large wet snowflakes. When we reach the Lava Tower at 4,637m we are battling a full-on blizzard. The guides stop us and hand us each a plastic bag with a banana, piece of dried out chicken, and a chocolate bar. I am in no mood for food and seek shelter in one of the small caves.

I have read that porters and even the German, Hans Meyer, slept in these caves. I quickly become very wet and chilled to the core. Anger flashes through my brain and I feel like screaming at someone.

The path down from the Tower is awash with runoff and tricky to navigate. Our group helps each other and I sense a real team is developing. Julian is in the front and I marvel at his determination despite the obvious suffering. He wants this badly I determine. When we reach Baranca Camp the porters are frantically digging trenches around our tents. I am afraid it is too late and our tent has a stream running through it. My sleeping bag and pad are wet. My down jacket, critical for the summit bid, is also wet and this upsets me. I work hard to stay calm and retreat to the dining tent to eat popcorn and wait out the storm. Before sunset the clouds part and unveil, The Great Barranca Breach Wall. The wall looms above us and seems draconian. Great waterfalls gush down the jagged face and I begin to feel unsettled thinking about our climb up it the next day.

“Were going to climb that? You must be joking, there is no way?” Steven looks up at the wall wide eyed. Julian remains silent and deep in thought. It is hard not to ponder the wall and its severe aspect. We are served heaping plates of potatoes for dinner with boiled chicken. I force myself to eat knowing the going is going to get harder in the next few days. Mohammed kindly lends me his sleeping pad for the night, a gesture that I will not forget. The guides check our pulse and ask us how we feel. My pulse is 92 according to the finger monitor. I pass around a box of German chocolates to celebrate New Year’s Eve. No one is interested in the King Ludwig schnapps that I offer, so I drink the small 3 bottles myself knowing full well they will lead to a headache. “Happy New Year’s self.”

In the middle of the night I crawl out of the tent to take a piss. The sky is clear and the stars dangle like ornaments above. The wall is black and ominous looking. I think I see glaciers above a great cascading waterfall. I hear frog-like sounds and realize it is wide spread snoring across the camp. My head throbs. When I crawl back inside the tent it smells like stale farts and unwashed feet. For three hours, I listen to the night and wait for the first stirrings of camp life. I feel content, despite my headache, and look forward to the challenge ahead.

With each day, I seem to shed my life below and approach the life that I am meant to live, wild and free.

In the morning, I chat with Jeff. I like the fact that he is prepared for the climb and pursuing the Seven Summits. He is a large man like myself and competent in the ways of the mountain. We have much to talk about.

“Look, there is a group going up the mountain, so it is possible.” Julian chimes in.

Yes, there is a line of color moving up the wall from left to right. It must be a series of switchbacks that weave up and over the wall. When we hit the trail I feel like I am on a genuine expedition with our line of porters, the challenge ahead, the peak of Kilimanjaro above in the mist.

The climb up the wall involves handholds, scrambling up rock barriers, and some moments of exposure to the valley below. One spot in particular, dubbed, ‘Kiss the Wall” offers the opportunity to fall over a thousand feet if you slip off. Recently, a porter did just that, and fell to his death. I enjoy the climb and the challenge. We are all exhilarated when we reach the top and there seems to be a collective sigh of relief. We take a much-needed break and wolf down power bars. I plop a lemon drop in my mouth for a sugar fix when we set out for Karanga Camp. On the way, we move through a very interesting area dotted with Groundsel trees and cascading waterfalls. The world around us becomes a Salvador Dali pallet. Rafael is in the lead and pushes us harder than usual to avoid the approaching rain showers. When we reach camp, the sky explodes with torrential rains. I pose for a photo with a porter whose name is Cobra. When he smiles, I see that he only has two teeth, the canines, which make him look like a dangerous snake. There is much laughter amongst the porters.

Around dinner time the clouds part and great vistas open around us. Off in the distance in Mount Meru and above us the snows of Kilimanjaro. Hemingway’s classic short story comes to mind, The Snows of Kilimanjaro:

“Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called Masai ‘Nga`je Ng`ai’, the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

“This is fantastic Tor.” Steven looks in great shape and his appetite has returned. We take photographs of each other with Kili in the background and swap a few stories from our adventures around the world. He shares his experience of hiking along the Great Wall in China and completing the Buddhist pilgrimage in Shikoku, Japan. I really enjoy Steven’s company and the way he intently listens to others. In a former life, he was a reporter in Wyoming and developed the ability to encourage people to open up with their story, while listening with genuine interest, all the while recording what has been said. I ask him how he is feeling.

“I feel great Tor, back to normal in-fact.” He flashes his classic smile that reminds me of the cover of his book.

Unfortunately, Annie and Jeff have come down with nasty head colds, and quietly retreat to their tents to suffer through the night. Chris is dealing with a serious headache and I notice our group is beginning to show genuine concern for each other. We share drugs, and encourage each other, as each of us works through issues. I am growing more concerned about my ankle and decide to take strong pain pills on summit night. There is no turning back now.

The next day we climb to our base camp at Barafu Hut, we are in the high country now at 4662m. We are in a cold, unforgiving, and barren landscape. There is only rock, the sky, and the mountain.

“Ok guys, take a short rest, we will have an early dinner and start up the mountain at ten thirty tonight. It is going to be very cold so dress in layers and use your hand and foot warmers. Who needs water boiled?” Hicham calmly asks. He seems to be a very gentle soul and I wonder what his life is like off the mountain. There are great gusts of wind and snow whirling through our camp. Climbers from around the world shuffle around as if they are drugged. I just want to get the climb over with and toss and turn in my tent listening to Steven and Jeff snore. The summit is calling me.

We are the first group to leave for the summit climb. Our headlamps light the way and initially there is a rock field to cross before getting on the switchback trail to the top. I am tired of hearing the guides constantly saying, “Pole, pole, drink lots of water.” I am in my climbing mode now, focused, and uncomfortable moving so slow. But, I do want to stay with the group, to celebrate on the summit together.

Chris is having a terrible time and is on his hands and knee’s puking. Poor guy, I don’t think he has a chance to make it now. His wife Mel continues on upward and I wonder what I will do if Siffy becomes sick, we never discussed it. We leave Chris behind with Willy and continue on. I am overdressed and starting to sweat, not a good sign I tell myself. Suddenly, I notice Steven down on one knee and throwing up. Not Steven, no way, he seemed so healthy the last two days. I watch him get back up and begin to climb. Yes, he is a mentally strong man, I know this from his book.

“I don’t feel right, I need to go down.” Annie has stopped. The guides try to encourage her to keep going.

“Listen, I told you what happened to me in Nepal, I am not going to die another death ok, I know myself and need to go down.” Several of us give her a hug and I am glad she is brave enough to listen to her body. The winds are howling madly and ice crystals pelt us ruthlessly. The climb seems to have truly begun in earnest.

Julian is moving very slowly and at times seems a little incoherent. I move in close to him and whisper encouragement in his ear. I know he is a tough son of a bitch and just needs a little push.

“Just think how proud your children will be that their father climbed the highest mountain in Africa.” I encourage, while giving him a nudge forward.

“One, two, three.” He mumbles as he shuffles along the steep path. “One, two, three.” After the climb, he would confess that for several hours he was in a blackout. “One, two, three.”

Siffy is shivering and I worry that her core temperature is too low. I hug her and give her hot tea from my thermos. I am growing concerned about our group, things seem to be falling apart, and the temperature has dropped significantly. My fingers and feet are starting to freeze and I flashback to the blizzard I suffered through near Annapurna. Will I lose a few toes on this journey I wonder. Suddenly, I am furiously mad, and begin to scream at the guides.

“We need to get shelter and warm up dammit, we are going too slowly, we will freeze to death.” I immediately know I am overreacting and getting emotional. Embarrassed, I re-focus on the path and breathing. At one point I feel my vision is narrowing and I realize I am close to passing out. I straighten up and take multiple deep breaths. I remember the explorer, Sir Ranulph’s words:

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”

“Look, there is the zodiacal light!” Siffy seems re-energized and is gawking at the sky and distant horizon. The sky is clear, dark, and a celestial wonder. Below we can see the lights of Moshi. I yearn for the warmth of sunrise. Mel and Steven are close by when we crest the crater rim at Stella Point. The first beams of sunrise arch across the landscape and I feel my spirit lift in-turn. I grow euphoric and I am no longer tired or cold. We plop down in the snow and drink tea. Rafael tells us it is forty-five minutes along the ridge to the Uhuru summit, the highest point on the mountain.

“Do we need to go up there to exchange our books Tor?” Steven smiles my way.

“Yes, to the summit we go! It is within reach, we just have to keep climbing.” I start moving along the upward trail and when I see the towering white glaciers, which I have hankered to witness for many years, I experience a moment of genuine bliss and begin to cry. It has been years since I cried with pure joy and I am a bit taken aback by my emotions. Imagine glaciers on the highest mountain in Africa and along the earth’s equator. I wait for Siffy who is cold and nauseous.

“I think I need to throw up.” Her face is pale and weary. A Japanese women moves past us at a snail’s pace, she looks horrible, her face like a porcelain bowl with painted eyes. “Ganbatte Kudasai-Do you’re very best” I tell her in Japanese. There is no recognition in her face. The summit sign comes into view. A small group is posing for photos as the winds roar. I am in awe of my situation and surroundings. Steven approaches and I shake his hand before hugging Siffy with all my might. “We made it Darling, we made it.”

In front of the summit sign I hand Steven, The Walkabout Chronicles:Epic Journeys by Foot, the book he inspired us to publish. Steven, in-turn hands me a copy of his book, Worldwalk, which had captivated me for so many years after my first encounter with it as a teenager. I feel like Sir Edmund Hillary on the summit of Mount Everest with Tenzin Norgay. What a strange long journey life is, I think to myself. The great plains of Tanzania and Kenya spread out before us.

“Look, here comes Chris!” As if in a dream I run to Chris, who is being helped along by the porter Willy, and embrace him.

“This is unbelievable, you’re here at the summit, your here, oh my God! Now, you can do anything in life, anything!”

My emotions have overtaken me. Chris smiles, “that’s right mate.” His wife Mel rushes up, with Jeff, and we all gather for a photograph. T.S. Eliot had it right when he wrote:

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”

Meeting Steven Newman and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro had truly been one of the great Encounters of my life.