A Syracuse lawyer celebrates his 50th birthday by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
I awoke in my tent with a ferocious headache, as I had the three previous nights. It was all part of acclimating to the altitude, they had told me. Looking at my watch, it was just after midnight, the beginning of day seven on the mountain. I tried to take a sip from the water bottle next to me. It was frozen solid.
Shivering in my sleeping bag at 19,000 feet above sea level, I started to have second thoughts about how I had chosen to celebrate my 50th birthday. Although I had lived in Syracuse for most of the past 25 winters, I had never slept on the ground outdoors in such bone-chilling cold. At that moment, it was hard to believe I was in tropical Africa, just south of the equator.
I had been planning the trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for almost two years. I decided if I had to turn 50 in Syracuse in the middle of winter, I would celebrate in a big way. I had always liked mountains, and the idea of being in a really high place, yet still being on the ground.
At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world, and the highest mountain in Africa. It is also one of the highest mountains you can climb without ropes, oxygen and technical climbing gear.
This would be my birthday present to myself, I decided. My wife’s gift to me was allowing me to go. Many thought I was crazy to want to do this, but I man aged
to talk my buddy Pete into going with me. After researching many trekking companies on the Internet, by a “small world” coincidence my sister-in-law put me in touch with a group she knows from New Hampshire that was going in January, just a few days after my birthday. We decided to go with them.
This was my first true “adventure travel” trip. I had never been to Africa before, and had only been to a handful of foreign countries. Getting to Tanzania, as you might expect, was an adventure in itself. As most of the group was flying out of Boston’s Logan Airport, I decided to meet them there so we could start the trip together. I chose to drive to Boston, rather than attempt to fly there from Syracuse, particularly given the snowy winter we were having so far.
It turned out to be a good choice, as it was snowing heavily when I left Syracuse on the morning of Jan. 10. Once I was 20 miles down the Thruway, the snow stopped and the sun came out for the rest of the drive. After the usual airport hassles, I finally got through all the lines and met up with the five people from the New Hampshire area, just in time to board the plane for the overnight flight to Amsterdam, Netherlands.
We arrived in Amsterdam around 8:30 a.m., and ate breakfast together in the airport lounge. After that eight-hour flight, we then boarded another plane for a nine-hour flight to Arusha airport in Tanzania. We arrived in Arusha about 10 p.m. local time. We then had an hourlong drive to our lodge for the night, along some of the bumpiest dirt roads I had ever been on.
Although my internal clock was now totally confused by the eight-hour time difference and I was exhausted, it was impossible to sleep in the lurching vehicle. We arrived at our lodge at 11 p.m., and were treated to a midnight dinner by our hosts. Then, finally, we were off to our rooms for a good night’s sleep. That plan was shattered at 5 a.m. by the incessant shrieking of an ibis in the trees outside our window, at the first light of dawn. Welcome to Tanzania.
Star Light, Star Bright
After a day in Arusha to get our bearings and recover from jet lag, we drove to the gate at the base of the mountain. Following six days of hiking up steep trails with the aid of trekking poles, we settled for the night in the frigid crater beneath the summit.
Our guide said the best way to get rid of an altitude headache was to get active, move around and breathe deeply. With that thought, and the call of nature, I got out of my sleeping bag, put on my parka and shoes, and left the tent. It was zero degrees, according to the small thermometer I had hung outside the tent.
Looking up, I realized I didn’t need a flashlight—the full moon was bigger and brighter than I had ever seen it, and lit up my surroundings quite well. The stars, too, were brighter and much more numerous than I had ever seen. The white haziness of the Milky Way stretched across the sky to the horizon.
And the horizon itself was like nothing I had ever seen. There we were, sleeping in tents on the floor of Kilimanjaro’s volcanic crater, after spending the most physically and mentally challenging day of my life climbing 3,000 feet up the side of the volcano cone to a crack in the crater rim. This had been by far the toughest day of the climb.
At times, the thin air and dizzying heights made me unsure if I was going to make it. The previous night, camping at the base of this massive headwall, and looking up and up and up to the top was quite intimidating. Now here we were, all 10 of us, sleeping on the flat crater floor, nestled in the shadow of the summit ridge less than 500 feet above us.
Looking around, the crater floor looked like pictures I had seen from the Mars Rover—lots of gray sand with some rocks strewn about. The only difference was that, 100 yards away, there was a large glacier covering the ground. Looking past the edge of the crater rim, you could see for miles out and miles down to the lights of villages far across the plains. Further in the distance there was heat lightning crackling across the Serengeti. Sure could have used some of that up here!
But now, that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I knew in a few hours we would be getting up to make our final ascent. Looking up, after recalling what we had climbed the previous day, I now knew I was going to reach the summit. The headache had subsided, and the second thoughts vanished. I realized this was the best birthday celebration ever.
At 8 on the morning of Jan. 19, after a 90-minute climb, our group at last reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The sun had just risen and begun to warm the crystal clear sky. The air was crisp and the sky was bluer than I had ever seen it. Standing on the “roof of Africa” was an awesome experience, even though we were only on the summit for a brief time.
views were outstanding. It seemed like you could see all of Tanzania
from up there. We posed for pictures, took in the great vistas, and then
it was time to head down. We had a long descent ahead of us, which
would take another day and a half. Plenty of time to ponder and reflect
on what we had just accomplished, and time to think about what to do to
celebrate the next milestone birthday. It will be hard to top this one.
When he’s not hiking or running, Tom Roerden can usually be found in his Liverpool law office. He focuses his law practice on representing injured workers in Social Security Disability and workers’ compensation cases. He is a graduate of Cornell University and Syracuse University College of Law. Ironically, he ended up sitting next to a law school classmate whom he hadn’t seen in 25 years on the flight to Amsterdam. Tom lives with his wife and daughter in the Strathmore neighborhood of Syracuse, where he is active in the Strathmore Men’s Athletic Club (SMAC). When not sidelined by injuries, he tries to keep pace with New Times editor Molly English-Bowers in local running races.