Recently my 16 year old son and I went on an adventure to Tanzania to experience two things together: To join a team to work a few days in an orphanage and school for blind and albino children, and to climb Kilimanjaro, the largest free-standing mountain in the world.
We did this under the leadership of K2 Adventures, an organization who for the last five years has helped these children by providing health care, dental care, educational facilities, clothing and hope through part of the dollars spent on taking expeditions to the summit of Kilimanjaro.
The two days of work with the children was gut wrenching, heart-warming and life changing. Many of these children are kids that their society has given up on, persecuted against or are kids who are simply born into complete poverty. My son and I walked away from that experience touched and committed to giving whatever we can to continue supporting them.
During the work day at the school, the peak of Kilimanjaro emerged from the clouds to come into view for the first time. It took our breath away. Talk about intimidating!!!! But our expedition leaders who have done the trek many times assured us… We would just take it very slowly, one step at a time, one day at a time.
Certainly this was going to be the largest physical and psychological challenge of my life so far. I was nervous, but knew that my physical and mental conditioning would get me through. Little did I know that the mountain would issue me a challenge that I had never anticipated.
On day one of the climb, our team hiked from about 6300 feet to about 10,000 feet. As we reached our first campsite, spirits were high, we were feeling strong and the sharp snow-capped peak of Kili looming over us somehow did not seem as intimidating.
The porters had set up camp and prepared dinner as darkness settled over the giant mountain. The white glacier at the peak glistened like a huge white diamond in the near full moonlight. I swear I could touch the Milky Way.
We snuggled into our sleeping bags and quickly fell asleep. Sometime around 1 AM, I heard Ben get up, struggling to get out of the tent. Before I knew what was happening, he got outrageously sick, vomiting for all he was worth. With help, we cleaned up the tent, got him settled down and he fell back to sleep.
However the next morning, he was not better. Still sick and now cold, we warmed him up, gave him medication to ease his system, but as we attempted to continue our climb, he was very weak. Not willing to give up, he went slow with one of our guides, but still getting weaker. We had climbed another 3-400 feet and I was toward the front of our team when the radio call came that the team leader and myself should come back to assist Ben. We hiked down a hundred feet or so to where he was sitting. We urged him to keep going and assured him if he could get through this day of climbing, whatever bug he had contracted would be out of his system and he would be fine.
He climbed for about 5 minutes and got sick again. After another rest, he climbed again and got sick again, vomiting only the water he had just drunk. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and shook his head. He said, “Dad… I can’t do it. I just want to go home!” I had to stand behind him to keep him from falling down the mountain.
It was at this point that I got one of the biggest lessons of my life. It was not the lesson I thought Kili was going to throw at me, but one even more powerful. Clearly he had to go back down the mountain. His physical state was so depleted that I was worried about him. A guide would take him down and to a clinic where he could get checked out and then to a hotel to wait for the rest of us to complete the climb and descend in six more days.
I was now faced with a decision. Continue the climb without him and summit this monster and achieve the obvious goal of summiting Kili, or descend with him. I have to admit, in the moment it was a tough decision. Yet the thought of leaving my son in this state, in a strange country, seemed equally as unacceptable as not summiting the mountain.
I kicked the dirt. I remember looking out over the clouds that were now below us. I will never forget the moment when I looked deep inside, looked into the eyes of my weakening son and remembered our mission: To conquer this mountain together. Mission first and individual needs third. My personal desire to summit would have to be secondary to the mission and to he and I as a team. I also immediately recalled my Code of Honor that says, “Never abandon a team-mate in need.” He was clearly in need.
You see, I teach about mission, team, Code and Little Voice. I never thought that Kili would put me to the test in a way that was 180 degrees to the way I normally operate.
The decision was now clear. I looked into his bleary eyes and said, “We started this together, we finish this together.” I turned to our team leader and said, “I will go down with him and make sure he is okay.”
What happened after that was something that I did not expect. You see, I am a person who is always ‘taking the challenge,’ conquering odds, pushing boundaries. I hate to fail and I hate to not be in control of my own fate. Sound familiar? Summiting that mountain would have been one of the most difficult things I have ever done… but I would get it done somehow. However to turn back… to consciously decide NOT to push my boundaries again, was a whole new experience for me. It was a very new and different boundary.
While part of me was tormented by taking myself out of the game, simultaneously a very strange peace came over me. A peace of having followed my own rules, surrendered to a Code that was designed to bring my family and team closer.
In the four and a half hours it took to get down from there, I supported, encouraged and just loved my son each step of the way. Once in the van, he passed out for the one hour ride to the small, third world, neighborhood, four bed clinic. That night I lay in a bed next to him as he lay unconscious (passed out) for nearly 16 hours. I lay there watching my precious son and the needed fluids dripping back into his body.
Somehow I drifted off to sleep and was awakened at day break by a local rooster somewhere close by. As I opened my eyes, I looked over in time to see him open his. He smiled weakly and passed off to sleep again.
It’s one thing to say that you will always be there for someone or to say you really love them or to extoll the virtues of a relationship. But somehow, somewhere just below the snows of Kilimanjaro, I connected with my son at a level that not only gave me great peace, but that put my priorities, my life’s work and my spirit to the test.
That mountain will always be there. But the window to really connect with someone near and dear to you can be evasive. I thank K2 Adventures, I thank the incredible porters and leaders of our team, I thank my teachers and I thank the great lessons that I have learned that led me to that incredible decision on the side of the mountain. I thank Kili for its majesty and for giving me one of the greatest gifts of my life.
Most important, I thank God and the Universe for a thing called love that conquers any mountain.