By Ann Needle
The Independent recently received a picture for the back page’s “vacation photo” feature of a man atop Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro. The subject, Robert Bell, was peeping at the newspaper through his sub-zero jacket hood. He wrote, “I’m hoping to get credit for the highest-ever altitude Stow Independent reading and vacation photo!” So, having taken the paper to such lofty heights, it seemed only right to find out more about this towering trek.
Later, Bell likened the week-long trek up Kilimanjaro’s 19,341 ft. last month to “being on a Stairmaster for six days.” Yet, one touring company’s marketing claimed, “It does not require technical climbing — only walking.” Bell’s real-time interpretation of that description: “This is stuff not in the brochure.”
For a “mid-life crisis” move Bell said he made to mark his 50th birthday last year (“my wife said you’re more likely to die in a red sports car”), the journey already is a remarkable memory.
The 1-hour visit to the Kilimanjaro summit on July 10 officially began with Bell, nurse in medical software sales by day, arriving in Tanzania with wife Allyson and son Troy, along with lifelong friend Paul. Allyson and Troy made themselves at home on Tanzania’s beautiful beaches, later re-joining Bell for a safari after the climb. Meanwhile, Bell and Paul headed off for adventure.
Bell said he felt prepared for the climb, given his many years of hiking the mountains of Colorado and Arizona, along with a climb to Machu Picchu during a trip to Peru a few years ago. But, looking back, Bell reflected of Africa’s highest mountain, “Colorado didn’t have anything that high.”
Of Guide Teams and Spiders
Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park requires any climbers to contract with one of its guide teams, and Bell praised the skill and experience he saw at play with his team of porters. Along with himself and Paul, Bell noted his team totaled six climbers and 20 guides (3 per climber), who shouldered most of the food, gear— and yes, a toilet — clothing, and oxygen tanks. And, unlike with some of the world’s other Seven Summits (tallest mountains on each continent), the climbers do not use oxygen routinely during the Kilimanjaro trek unless it is an emergency, he said.
Bell agreed Kilimanjaro is, literally, not a technical climb, with no ropes needed to traverse the cliffs and the terrain considered less severe along the way than on some of the Seven Summits. But there still was the scaling of cliffs and hands-propelled, vertical climbs over rocky slopes, he said.
The trek from base camp began in the dry heat of 80-degree weather, continuing through rainforests and glaciers and layering of clothing before arriving at the below-zero conditions at Kilimanjaro’s peak.
“We saw four stretchers going up the mountain” to bring down climbers with altitude sickness, Bell noted. And he was not immune, experiencing the wooziness of oxygen deprivation, including a few hallucinations Bell described as featuring spiders and blue streaks flowing from rocks. “In places, I looked down and thought, there’s no way out. The only way out was with a stretcher with wheels bumping over the rocks.” Given Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano, approaching the top Bell described the climb over ancient ashes as “one two, slide, one two, slide — and you can’t see sometimes, you can’t breath.”
The work paid off. At the summit, along with an unforgettable feeling of accomplishment came breathtaking views that included a look at where the Earth actually curves, Bell recalled. Naturally, the cold kept the group from hanging around very long. Bell’s phone and its camera stopped working in the freeze, and it took some quick work to get it back in business (“I warmed up my phone — don’t ask me where.”)
The entire experience may have given Bell a new outlook on his physical accomplishment at mid-life. Noting that he and friend Paul were only a handful of over-50 climbers registered at each station going up the mountain, Bell also recollected one very early morning, when the sole item he could pick out of the darkness was the light-up “I AM 21 TODAY” button on a trekker in a nearby hiking group. Later, passing the young woman briefly on the trail, according to Bell, she sighed to him, “Just kill me now!”
For the future, Bell said he may consider a climb up Mount Fiji. Maybe.
Editor’s Note: Not to detract from Bell’s accomplishment, the Independent has actually visited the top of Kilimanjaro once before, in 2014, in the hands of traveler Frank Smith.