Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

imageLocated in present-day Tanzania and south of Kenya on the Indian Ocean, Mount Kilimanjaro, the “Roof of Africa,” rose up from the sea eons ago as a volcano. At 19,340 feet, the mountain’s summit, Uhuru Peak, is the highest point on the entire continent. The length of nearly fifty-four football fields placed vertically one on top of another, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world. The name is likely a condensed version of the Swahili words kilma and njaro, meaning “mountain of greatness” or “mountain of whiteness.”

Reaching the summit necessitates nearly fifty miles of mostly steep, uphill climbing on uneven, dusty and barren terrain in very high altitudes, where at the mountain top the oxygen level is roughly half that found at sea level. During the day, unfiltered sunlight must be reckoned with. At night, subfreezing temperatures and the risk of altitude sickness plague hikers. Symptoms of the illness include nausea, vomiting, light-headedness, hallucinations, headache and loss of appetite.

So why would three Orthodox Jews leave the comfort of their suburban New Jersey homes in exchange for seven days and six nights of arduous hiking in a hostile environment?

The three of us—me, a fifty-eight-year-old dentist; my brother, Seth, a forty-five-year-old anesthesiologist and my good friend, Josef Beer, a fifty-four-year-old businessman—shared similar motivations. Kilimanjaro is possibly the tallest peak in the world that one can scale without requiring technical mountain climbing skills or equipment. Reaching the peak does, however, entail weeks of extensive training and preparation, and we knew the hike would test our physical limits as well as our will to succeed.

Mount Kilimanjaro is also one of the few places in the world where one can trek from a lush tropical rain forest through an alpine desert to the frozen arctic zone in just a few days. In Psalms (100), we read “Ivdu et Hashem besimchah, Serve Hashem with gladness.” Rabbi Shimon Schwab explains that the word simchah doesn’t just mean joy but appreciation. We must serve God by appreciating His wonders, the beauty of His natural world. How better to attain such an appreciation than through our own grueling efforts! After trekking up this mountain for days on end and becoming one with nature, we would surely gain a deeper, richer appreciation for Hashem’s world.

Finally, we were intrigued by the spiritual challenge. From the outset, we realized we would have to face a variety of halachic questions, including several we had little familiarity with. This would require extensive preparation, study and consultation with rabbanim. We would have the opportunity to perform mitzvot in the most remote environment imaginable; the climb would transform a journey of the body into one of the mind and spirit as well.

Our wives were understandably concerned about the safety of such a trip. For two months, we received numerous calls from family members and friends expressing their concern. We assured our loved ones that thousands of people make this trek each year (although only about one third make it to the top), and that with proper conditioning, precautions and planning, the risks were negligible. After much cajoling, our wives gave us their blessings.

Getting Ready
To begin planning, we needed a reliable group to take us to the summit. We chose Good Earth, a group which was willing and, in fact, eager to accommodate our needs regarding kashrut and Shabbat. From the Chagga tribe in Tanzania, our group consisted of ten men, including porters, guides and a cook, all of whom had never seen a Jew before, let alone one who was Orthodox. Normally the tour operator supplies the food, but in our case we only allowed him to bring fresh fruits and vegetables. We tried our best to duplicate the high-calorie, high-carbohydrate menu designed to replace the thousands of calories we would burn each day. Our provisions needed to be lightweight, easy to store, and, of course, certified kosher. We brought powdered milk, cocoa, juices, soups, pasta, couscous, porridge and pancake mix. For protein, we had packaged tuna and salmon steaks, and to complete our menu, we brought along power bars. For Shabbat, we packed boxes of grape juice, challah rolls and our most prized delicacy—vacuum-packed salami. We also bought new pots and pans and toiveled (ritually immersed) them; our guides provided disposable dishes and plastic ware.

Most people who climb Mount Kilimanjaro make the hike in five or six days. We chose a longer route—seven days and six nights—and designated Shabbat as a day of physiological acclimation. That Shabbat would literally be the highest Shabbat of our lives, spent at 14,400 feet, giving us an opportunity to rest and adjust to the altitude before our final push up the summit.

Weeks prior to the climb, we prepared our bodies for the challenge by running on the treadmill, biking, using the Stairmaster and hiking. We got vaccinated against yellow fever, typhoid, polio, hepatitis A and B and took prophylactic malaria pills. We also familiarized ourselves with the symptoms of altitude sickness. We had to take special gear with us including wicking shirts; waterproof pants; fleece jackets; hiking boots; wind and cold resistant gloves; heavy wool socks; ski caps; a balaclava to cover our nose, mouth, cheeks and ears; thermal underwear and a Gortex winter coat, which is wind and moisture resistant. We also needed a sleeping bag that was suitable for sub-freezing temperatures as well as a headlamp for use at night. We packed our trekking poles and were ready to go!

That Shabbat would literally be the highest Shabbat of our lives, spent at 14,400 feet, giving us an opportunity to rest and adjust to the altitude before our final push up the summit.

The Hike
On August 14, 2006, we arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport where a tour company representative met us and brought us to our hotel. We quickly fell asleep under the protective mosquito netting surrounding our beds. The next morning our guide, Amani, stopped by to give us some tips. He explained that one of the principles of successful hiking is “pole pole,” Swahili for very slowly; hiking at a deliberate pace and with frequent breaks gives the body an opportunity to physiologically adapt to the thin air. He also emphasized the importance of hydration, encouraging us to drink three to four liters of water per day. We then explained to him the rules of kashrut and Shabbat.

We left with our porters and guides, only three of whom spoke a little English, for a six-hour bus ride through rural Tanzania to the trailhead. From the bus window, we witnessed the simple agricultural lifestyle and abject poverty of the inhabitants. The last three hours of the ride were on unpaved dirt roads, and we got a taste, literally, of the dust and filth that would become part of our bodies for the next week. The trail began near a crowded, impoverished wooden shantytown called Loitokitok. Despite their poor living conditions, the locals were friendly and frequently greeted us with shouts of “Jambo” (hello in Swahili).

After reaching the trailhead, we spent the next five hours hiking through cornfields and a rainforest, where we photographed an elusive troop of colobus monkeys. As the altitude increased, the trees shrunk to smaller, less robust varieties. We davened Minchah along the trail and pitched camp at a small clearing. To avoid the concern of bishul akum, the prohibition against eating food cooked solely by a non-Jew, we helped our cook, Freddie, prepare dinner by stirring each course on the fire. All our water came from natural sources on the mountain and had to be boiled to prevent parasitic or bacterial contamination. Freddie prepared drinking water as well as extra water for ritual purposes such as netilat yadayim.

The next morning we davened k’vasikin (with the sunrise). We caught our first glimpse of the spectacular peak of Kilimanjaro behind us, illuminated by the bright orange sun blazing between layers of clouds. Against this awe-inspiring setting, our tefillot were imbued with tremendous kavanah.

The next two days of hiking were physically the hardest we had ever experienced, as twelve hours of hiking brought us to an altitude of over 14,000 feet. The “path” seemed to grow boulders, dust and dirt. The relentless sun, thin atmosphere and steep incline took their toll on our bodies, and despite the medications we had taken to prevent altitude sickness, we began to feel some of the symptoms, especially headaches and diminished appetite. We each carried between ten and twenty pounds in our backpacks. (Amazingly, our porters carried between forty- and sixty-pound bags balanced on their heads throughout the journey!)

A Special Shabbat
On Friday, the third day of our journey, we informed Amani that we needed to reach our next campsite early enough to prepare for Shabbat. We camped at yet another scenic setting at the base of the smaller of Kilimanjaro’s two peaks, called Mawenzi. We were above a sea of clouds, looking down on small African villages.

Shabbat presented our greatest halachic challenges. Firstly, we needed to build an eruv so that we would be able to carry in the small area around our tents. At first glance, our campsite appeared to be surrounded by a natural eruv–a combination of natural wall formations, embankments and Mawenzi Peak. However, we could not be certain that all these borders qualified as a halachic partition. Instead, we positioned our three tents to form a semi-circle and set up a tzurat hapesach, or doorframe, using a fishing line and poles. Thus, we created a small, enclosed “courtyard,” enabling us to carry between the tents and to daven, eat and learn outside. We tied clothing onto the fishing line so it would be visible at night to the porters and made sure that it didn’t sag more than three tefachim, which would disqualify it as an eruv.

The most complicated and unfamiliar halachot we dealt with related to the eruv techumin, which enables one to walk further than the 2,000 amot (approximately 0.6 mile) that Chazal permit one to walk from his place of residence on Shabbat. Before Shabbat, we placed two meals’ worth of challah and granola at a distance from our tents, recited a berachah and declared a new dwelling place at that spot, from where we could then walk an additional 2,000 amot on Shabbat. Although Chazal generally only permit the eruv for the purpose of doing a mitzvah (e.g., visiting the sick), the Rema permits such an eruv in order to “walk in an orchard for pleasure”1—which was essentially the point of our scenic strolls. During Shabbat, we discovered that a bird had eaten the challah we had placed away from our tents. We were unsure when this had happened, but as long as the challah had been there at bein hashmashot (twilight) on Friday, halachically the eruv had taken effect. Furthermore, since safek d’rabbannan lehakel—in cases of doubt we are lenient with rabbinic law—we safely relied on our eruv techumin.

To figure out when Shabbat on Mount Kilimanjaro would begin, we used the web site prior to departing for our trip. The web site helped us calculate sunrise and sunset times and included an adjustment for altitude. Elevation above sea level delays the arrival of sunset because the sun remains visible above the horizon for a longer time (Shabbat 119). This is why in Jerusalem (elevation 2,575 feet above sea level), halachic sunset is delayed several minutes. At Mawenzi Peak, with an elevation of 16, 890 feet, shekiah, we calculated, would be eight minutes later than at the base of the mountain.

Shabbat preparations occupied us until right before candle lighting. We designated our dining tent as our shul and dubbed it the Young Israel of Mawenzi, sign and all. After Kabbalat Shabbat, we made Kiddush on boxed grape juice, ate our food, shared divrei Torah and sang zemirot as the temperature dropped.

To avoid any chance of violating amirah le’akum (asking a non-Jew to do a melachah on Shabbat), we told Amani and his crew that we wouldn’t need them on Saturday. They were thrilled to spend the day relaxing and playing cards.

Shabbat also raised other halachic issues. Opening and closing the door to our latrine, which consisted of four walls surrounding a hole in the ground, entailed sliding the door over the ground. Although this could create a furrow in the earth, a violation of choresh (plowing), it was also a davar she’aino mitkavein, or unintentional action, which would be permitted.

In addition, given the strength of the sun at high altitudes, one could get severe sunburn in roughly six minutes of exposure. Would applying sunscreen be a violation of the prohibition of mimareach (smearing)? Fortunately, our dilemma was easily solved, as our sunscreen was of such a thin, watery consistency that this prohibition did not apply.

After three days of exertion, Shabbat gave us a chance to regain our physical and mental strength. With none of the usual distractions we face at home—newspapers, lunch invitations, bickering or bored children in need of entertainment—we were able to focus solely on the more spiritual aspects of Shabbat. We davened at a relaxed pace, reviewed the parashah, enjoyed our Shabbat seudah, marveled at the majestic views and rested our aching bodies. It is no wonder that Hashem chose to give Bnei Yisrael the Torah in a barren environment—the solitude of the wilderness allows for contemplation and meditation, and fosters a sense of both closeness to and dependence on Hashem.

At the conclusion of Shabbat, we made Havdalah. When we stepped out of the tent, we were treated to the largest and clearest star-filled sky we had ever seen. The anticipation began for the next night when we would attempt to reach the summit of the tallest mountain in Africa.

Reaching the Top
On Sunday we hiked for six grueling hours and reached the base of Kilimanjaro’s highest peak. We looked at the frighteningly steep path leading to the top of the mountain and wondered if we would make it. We had no appetite and sleep was hard to come by, depriving us of two essential elements for a successful climb.

At 11:30 p.m., we prepared ourselves for the long, frigid hike to the peak. We donned multiple layers of clothing—two pairs of wool socks with chemical toe warmers; two pairs of pants; three shirts; a fleece pullover; our winter coats; two pairs of gloves with hand warmers and a ski cap. The only light source illuminating the path would be from our headlamps; on Shabbat, we had recited the blessing for the new month, so we knew there would be no moonlight to guide us. At midnight we took our hiking poles and, together with our three guides, began the longest night of our lives—seven and a half hours of hiking that took us from 15,000 to 19,000 feet, testing our physical and mental resolve. The slope, at times as steep as forty-five degrees, consisted of slippery volcanic gravel; the temperature was in the teens and the air was so thin we had to stop every ten minutes or so to catch our breath. As we hiked, we saw people from different countries climbing the mountain, some of them collapsing from fatigue, others gasping for air, many turning around and giving up. We walked in silence, struggling to keep our minds occupied during the seemingly endless night. Peering over my shoulder toward Mawenzi, I witnessed the molad, the long, slim crescent moon signaling the coming of the new month. Looking up, it was impossible to tell where the top of the mountain was; the headlamps of hikers above us were indistinguishable from the stars. Throughout the night, whenever I asked Amani how much farther we had to go, his answer was the same—“about an hour.” Eventually I stopped asking.

Finally, at 6:30 a.m., after some difficult rock scrambling, we reached Gilman’s Point. From our campsite below, we had gained a vertical equivalent of three Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other. We sat for a while and watched the sunrise beneath our feet. To get to Uhuru Peak, we had to follow ten-foot-wide ledges along the crater’s edge for the next ninety minutes. Alongside us were giant glaciers, which have been steadily evaporating and, as victims of global warming, may completely disappear within the next twenty-five years.

At last we reached our goal. Similar to marathon runners at the finish line, it was hard for the three of us to hold back the tears. We embraced. I then made two berachot—Shehechiyanu, thanking Hashem for allowing us to live to see this day and Oseh ma’aseh Bereishit, acknowledging the Creator of the natural wonders we had experienced. We had brought along copies of the Daf Yomi, the page of Talmud that Jews were learning throughout the world, and we learned at Uhuru Peak. We unfurled the Israeli flag and proudly took photos.

Although we could not stay at that altitude for long because of oxygen depletion, I had one more thing to do. I searched for a clear signal and called my wife, Marlene, to tell her we had made it. I could hear the relief in her voice, and she said she would call the other wives to pass on the exciting news. Thankfully, descending the mountain was much quicker, and after congratulatory hugs from our porters, Shacharit, a small lunch and some rest, it was back on the trail for a five-hour hike to our next stop. Despite our fatigue, the plentiful oxygen at the lower altitude felt so sweet that it energized us. The hike that had started Sunday night at midnight in freezing conditions and took us to the top of this relentless, unforgiving peak ended almost seventeen hours later at our final campsite.

After one last night in a tent, we hiked for ten hours downhill through beautiful forests alongside waterfalls and mountain streams, at last reaching the trailhead and the bus back to our hotel. Thanks to our lack of appetite, there was plenty of leftover food, which we donated to our grateful porters.

Throughout our journey we marveled at the splendor of Hashem’s creation. Seth recalled reading Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s explanation of the statement in Proverbs (3:6) “In all thy ways know him.” The Rav defines the commandment “to know” Hashem as being aware of His existence at all times. One aspect of this awareness is through recognizing that the beauty of nature and the laws that govern natural phenomena are all a “reflection of the glory of G-d.”2 As we hiked through five different climatic zones, witnessing spectacular sunrises, sunsets and star-filled skies, all the while under the watchful eye of a magnificent glacier-capped peak, it was indeed easy to be aware of the Creator.

Rabbi Dr. Saul Landa, a graduate of Yeshiva University, recently received semichah from Pirchai Shoshanim in Israel. He is a founding member and past president of the Young Israel of East Brunswick.

Rabbi Dr. Seth Landa, a graduate of Yeshiva University, also recently received semichah from Pirchai Shoshanim in Israel. He is a member of Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, New Jersey.

All three hikers want to express their immeasurable thanks to their wives—Marlene, Riki and Sheila—for their understanding and support.

1. Shulchan Aruch, OC 415:1
2. Peli, Pinchas, On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (New Jersey, 2000), 131.

This article was featured in the Summer 2007 issue of Jewish Action.
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