No, the trip wasn’t fun. It wasn’t one of those sappy Lifetime Channel dramas about a dad bonding with his two boys on an awesome adventure. It wasn’t a case where we yucked it up from morning to night and then cried around the campfire to stories of past mistakes and misunderstandings. It was more.
First of all, for a father to be blessed with a skill and a job that provides the resources to take his sons on a 10 day excursion to the other side of the world is incredibly awesome. But to put a challenge at the other end whereby each of us would have to dig daily into our bag of life experiences to pull out solutions and renewed sources of motivation – was quite another thing.
My own experience with climbing mountains was scant at best; a couple of 14,000 footers in California – Whitney and Shasta back when I was in my mid 40’s. Add a couple of weeklong camping trips in Maine’s Allagash wilderness and in their eyes I became the expert. I refrained from telling them I wasn’t the expert that was going to get them through this adventure. I would help, but really – they were on their own.
My two sons were brought up as suburban boys cum urban men where roughing it meant Holiday Inn and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Most of their equipment was borrowed, antiquated, or totally inadequate for what they were to encounter. They didn’t know it until they faced Kilimanjaro for the first time and took stock of its magnitude and the fact that turning back wasn’t an option. Who ever heard of freezing weather at the equator?
I think the first night was the toughest for one of my sons, realizing that he was so far out of his element and had not taken the challenge as seriously as he should. His story of success is probably the more compelling one as the other son seized each day with wild eyed excitement of experiencing something new. At the end of the day, both adapted completely. While trekking with a group that came outfitted out of the pages of Patagonia and North Face, my sons took on the harsh climate of Kilimanjaro in urban chic; they were the Goodwill Industries climbers. Our young Tanzanian porters saw a kinship and made them part of their family immediately.
Throughout the ascending trek all of us were overcome with the normal physical issues that accompany mountain climbing; sore joints, blisters, lack of sleep, decreasing appetite, altitude sickness of varying degrees from headache to nasty intestinal malaise. The silent, overriding presence however was the unanswerable question: How will I perform on summit day? We talked only once about the public failure of world-class athlete Martina Navratilova’s unsuccessful attempt and unceremonious rescue off the mountain.
There is a source of motivation that has guided me throughout my life whenever I found myself in a tough situation of my own making; fear of failure. I’m not sure where this came from however a psychiatrist would likely say I have deeper issues from my childhood. My recurring thought has always been – do my sons have the same predisposition of their own fear of failure? I think of this because, quite frankly I haven’t seen much evidence of a fear of anything within their generation at large.
They answered my question, in full. On summit day (actually beginning at 0100) they attacked the mountain. They met the driving snow, the heavy winds, the never ending switchbacks, and the cold temps in their refugee inspired climbing attire. They summited Stella Point and continued across the volcanoe’s rim to Uhuru Peak in the darkness and weather neither of them imagined. After all, every picture they had seen of Kilimanjaro’s Peak was of a beautiful sunrise on a crystal clear morning. There was none of that.
With our previously unanswered question now answered, we became the victors. My sons had proven themselves and I wanted them to celebrate that fact. How much prouder could a father be than to put a test before his sons that would take them completely away from their own life experience and comfort zone, challenge them to make it work, and then see them succeed on such a grand scale.
As our group paid respect to the incredible cadre of porters and guides in a traditional Kilimanjaro ceremony, we received in return a genuine confirmation of their acceptance. My youngest son offered simple words of thanks to a long list of specific porters by name. My oldest son, a linguist by nature had developed a native vocabulary of probably 50-60 characters whereby he gave his own flawless salutation in Swahili. Group hugs, singing, and dancing ensued as we bid our Tanzanian friends goodbye.
I consider myself incredibly lucky in that this was a life event whereby a father got an indication there was a degree of success as a parent – in spite of all those times when I thought I had failed. The exhilaration of ascending to the peak of the highest free-standing mountain in the world became secondary to seeing my own kids as adults successfully confronting difficult challenges.
I took two things of ethereal importance to me to the summit; two pictures.
One was of my wife’s best friend from Georgetown University who recently passed away quite suddenly. Jan Quigley McGinn became a friend of mine as well. We shared fantastic conversations while espousing distinctly different political and social perspectives. She had depth, compassion, temperance, intellect, and a great sense of humor. I am a better person having known her.
The other picture was of my 8 year old friend, Daisy Merrick of Carpinteria, California. After following her short journey through life, Daisy passed away peacefully in her sleep last night (2/17/ 13) with her parents and brother present. She had finally lost her 3 year battle with cancer.
I was honored to have these two girls with me.