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The Taming of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Frank Solomon

11/05/2018 07:02:48 PM

Nov5

Frank Solomon

Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain on the African continent and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. It contains almost every kind of ecological system on earth: cultivated land, rain forest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and an arctic summit. At a colossal 19,341 feet, Mt. Kilimanjaro is one of the largest volcanoes to ever break through the earth’s crust. Hemingway made the mountain a legend in his book “The Snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro.” In Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro is known as the House of God.

On Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, ten people from various parts of the world, under the auspices of Shalva, the Center for Disabled Children in Jerusalem, attempted to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. The group comprised four Americans; four Israelis (Two women had made aliyah from New York; one woman made aliyah from Toronto; and one man made aliyah from South Africa); one Briton, and one Australian.

Among the four Americans was Kemp Mill resident Frank Solomon, the first member to sign up for Shalva’s third Mt. Kilimanjaro climb in 15 years.

Accompanied by a British physician, the lead guide and more than 50 porters and sherpas, the group began at midnight, climbing the steep slopes to Stella Point at 18,975 feet. The climb turned out to be more tumultuous and dangerous than all the climbs the veteran Tanzanian tour guide, nicknamed A.J., could recall. The previous evening, A.J. had predicted snow and strong wind. By the time the group started, a blizzard descended, with gale-force wind whipping up to 75 miles per hour. The climbers found it difficult to balance themselves, let alone stand straight.

The climbers inched their way up on the rocky slope. They were battered by icy sleet and thunderous wind and tripping over frozen rocks. The muddy trail became solid, intractable ice blocks. Temperature was 10 degrees below zero Celsius. The wind-chill factor plunged to minus 25 degrees. At that attitude, the oxygen level was half the amount at sea level. Exhaustion hit fast with each step. Still, no one decided to pull out. Not yet.

*****

The summit challenge was the accumulation of 10 days of trekking and climbing put together by London-based Charity Challenge, whose motto is “Never a Backward Step.” Charity Challenge runs charitable outdoor events all over the world. It typically lists these events as extreme in the sports world. The Mt. Kilimanjaro challenge is at the top of the “extreme” in physical endurance and climbing difficulty.

Shalva, which has offices in London and New York, had conducted two climbs before, the first drawing more than 50 climbers, and the second more than 25. Solomon was the first one to sign up for the third climb challenge, in 2017, months before Shalva had finalized its plans on the climb.

Solomon had visited Shalva in Jerusalem in early 2017. He was impressed by the scope and depth of Shalva’s work with disabled children in Israel regardless of their national, ethnic and religious background. He decided to raise the awareness of the need to bring disabled children and their families into the normal functioning society. 

Meanwhile, he had heard about the story of Dr. Amram Cohen, a pediatric surgeon from the D.C. area who had made aliyah and founded the Save a Child’s Heart in Israel. Save a Child’s Heart is a humanitarian organization with a mission to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and who cannot get adequate medical care in their home countries. Dr. Cohen grew up at Har Tzeon Agudath Achim in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Dr. Cohen died on August 16, 2001, while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He was 47. He still has family living in the Kemp Mill area. In April 2018, the UN Population Fund presented its 2018 Population Award to Save a Child’s Heart. To date, SACH has saved the lives of more than 4,500 children with congenital heart defects.

Solomon decided to finish Dr. Cohen’s climb while helping Shalva.

The Kilimanjaro summit challenge at first also drew a British rabbi, his wife, an American woman who had made aliyah, and another British physician. The first three had to withdraw due to personal reasons. The physician did not make the climb after he raised the minimum donation of the equivalent of $10,000. The group eventually mushroomed 12 members. One, a man from New York who had raised the equivalent of $23,000—the most raised by anyone within the group—did not get clearance from his physician at the last minute to join the climb. His college-age daughter, however, went ahead with the group. With the absence of the British physician and the New Yorker, the actual number of climbers stood at 10 the day of the climb, plus the Charity Challenge-sent British physician as a staff member.

Shalva hired Charity Challenge to take on the climb’s planning and logistics because Charity Challenge had done the previous two summit challenges for the Israeli charity. Due to the Jewish nature of the group membership, Shalva sought out the challenge operator that is knowledgeable about kashrut diet law and Shabbat requirements. Charity Challenge had managed the previous two climbs, and used local operator Tanzanian Travel Company under the tour guide of A.J. 

Both of the two previous challenges ran daily minyans and had certified kosher food and cooking utensils. Both groups rested on Shabbat, complete with an eruv on the mountain. This time the third group had the same vegetarian food and Shabbat regimen. Because there were only six men and four women, there was no daily minyan. Instead, individual members davened on their own each day.

The climbers flew into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Monday morning, Oct. 15, from various parts of the world and then onto into Arusha, Tanzania, a 3-hour drive from Arusha, the town closest to Mt. Kilimanjaro. They spent the first night at the Arusha Planet Lodge, another 2.5-hour drive from the gate to Mt. Kilimanjaro, meeting one another and A.J. and checking their equipment.

Supported by a company of 56 drivers, chef, porters and assistants and accompanied by the Charity Challenge physician, Dr. Ross, the group began its journey on Tuesday morning, Oct. 16, trekking 7 to 12 hours a day uphill to reach the next base camp. The group climbed to higher ground each day before descending to lower altitude to camp to acclimatize to the thinning oxygen supply. The scene changed from rainforest or Moorland to Alpine as they moved along. The temperature plunged as the group ascended. Each night the group arrived at a designated camp site, where many other groups from around the world had already camped out, all with the same goal of taking on the summit. Most of the climbers shared a tent with another. The days were hot. The nights were frigid. The climbers woke up each morning to find their tents' ground cover sheets soaking wet and their tents covered with ice.

Throughout the trek, Solomon couldn’t help noticing the discrepancy between the all-white climbing group of 11 and the all-black support crew of nearly 60. As each of these guides and sherpas raced past the climbers with 33 pounds of supply, tents, chairs, cooking utensils, food and water, he noticed that most of the support staff lacked basic equipment, warm clothing, and hiking shoes. The picture of porters without gloves and proper hiking boots trudging up the mountain against the backdrop of a nation and a continent that seemed forgotten by the modern world reminded him of E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India.”

Before sunset on Friday, Oct. 19, the group arrived at the mountain’s most spectacular spot, the Barranco Wall, a cliff dropping hundreds of feet to that day’s base camp with views over Mount Meru and the expansive valleys below. Shabbat began at this mountain camp site. Porters set up an eruv around the group’s tents before the climbers arrived. Lights were mounted outside the two make-shift toilets so that none of the climbers had to switch on electricity to use the facilities. That evening the group had a kabbalat Shabbat service at 12,870 feet. They spent the next day resting within the eruv. The group sang Havadallah and danced outside under a clear sky above the clouds. The porters and sherpas joined the dance.

The next day, the group summed up all its energy and scaled up the steep Barranco Wall, a surge of more than 600 feet. They continued their ascent for two more days, ending at 15,180 feet at Barafu Ridge toward the ice fields before the summit night.

******

The group ascended amid the 75-mile gale-force wind, pitch darkness, minus 25 degree Celsius temperature, and half of the amount of oxygen available at sea level. Ice hardened their clothes. Sleet battered them with blinding whiteness. The decreasing oxygen supply made it impossible to move fast without great exhaustion. One misstep could plunge a climber to death nearly 20,000 feet down the cliff. Two women talked about halting their climb and being carried downhill. Along the way, no fewer than 12 climbers—11 women and one man—were escorted down by a guide each because they could not continue to climb.

The ascent to Stella Point, one of the three summit points, at 18,975 feet was supposed to take 6 to 7 hours. It took 8 hours for the group to reach that point. Each time someone lost balance or was falling backward, a porter behind would pop him or her up. After several hours and midway toward the summit, the group split into several different sections, each scaling for the best spot to land the next step so as not to fall into the dark abyss below. Icicles and sleet covered their clothing, effectively turning each person into a moving ice bar in slow motion. 

Blinded by the snow and caked in icicles, Solomon counted his average speed: one step for 12 seconds. Each breath became harder. Each step pushed the edge of his physical and psychological limits. In contrast, he noticed the strength and quiet resilience of the porters and sherpas in front and behind him. The contrast between the climbers' modern, layered winter clothes and the tattered grab of their porters did not escape him. Many of them did not use headlamp or gloves. They relied on the moonlight to see. The moon was nowhere to be seen.

After about two hours, Solomon became so exhausted that he could not stand up. For about 20 minutes, he crawled uphill on his frozen gloves and boots like a giant lizard moving at a snail’s pace. His sweat froze underneath his thermal underwear.  The blinding whiteness and howling wind could have blown a 2-ton boulder down his path. Sleet hit his face like bullets. His face and eyelashes turned into ice.

The chill and wind storm continued without a break. The expected breath-taking sunrise didn’t arrive at 5:30 a.m. Eventually, the climbers arrived at the summit in groups of two or three at Stella Point at different times. It took another hour to reach Uhuru Point at 19,453 feet, a mere 400 feet higher than Stella Point. Solomon was the last one to reach Stella Point. He took 1.5 hours to reach Uhuru. 

The summit was too cold for anyone to stay for more than a few minutes. By the time Solomon reached Uhuru Point, the rest of the group had already begun their 3-hour descent to the Barafu Ridge base camp. For some unknown reason, Solomon was among the first ones to get back to the base camp even though he had a 2-hour delay in reaching the summit. 

After a quick lunch, the group took three hours to descend to Millennium camp, at 12,375 feet, to gain more oxygen for the night. Altogether, the summit day took 15 hours to go up and down. The next day, the group trekked downhill for 8 hours to the Mweka Gate.  Two men from the group had to be evacuated by ambulance at the last stretch of the 8-hour descent, where the ambulance raced up the one-lane, muddy path toward Kweka Gate. After lunch at a village shop, drivers picked up the climbers and took them back to the lodge in Arusha to spend the night. All the climbers, with the exception of the physician, went on a safari in the morning before flying back home.

As of Oct. 28, the 12 members (10 went on the climb) of the group had raised $139,220 for Shalva.  Solomon was grateful for the amount of $10,000-plus he raised from the Kemp Mill community—KMS, Maayan Chaddash, Silver Spring Chabbad, Young Israel Emunah, Har Tzeon Agudath Achim, Tifereth Israel and Tikvat Israel, neighbors and friends. If you wish to sponsor Kemp Mill resident Frank Solomon, please click on this link: http://climb4shalva.org/profile.php?id=122

Captions: 
Climb 1: Frank Solomon, far right. Dr. Ross, the Charity Challenge physician, is the third on the left in the blue T shirt.
Climb 2: at the Starting Gate before the climb. Solomon is on the far left.
Climb 3: Members of the group and porters caked in ice before the Uhuru point at the summit
Climb 4: Summit night, half way up the hill in pitch darkness, below freezing temperature and gale-force wind. All clothes and sweat froze.
Climb 5: At Karanka Camp, one of the camps along the trek. Solomon is on the far right.
Climb 6: Solomon scaling the Baranco Wall, a cliff-like dropping 600 feet.
Climb 7: Slow climb up the summit. Solomon with green day pack and second from the last.
Unamed picture DSCF4556: Solomon prays for the late Dr. Amram Cohen, founder of Save a Child's Heart, against the backdrop of the snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Wed, March 20 2019 13 Adar II 5779