Spring 2018

High Point

They’d never been higher than the hills of Massachusetts. Yet they made it to the ‘Roof of Africa.’

By Richard Catrambone, D85, DG89, D19P

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Photo: Courtesy of Richard Catrambone

Since reading the Hemingway short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” nearly twenty-five years ago, Richard Catrambone, D85,DG89, dreamed of conquering Africa’s highest peak. In September 2017, he went and did it, with daughter Karina, D19, and son Christopher. “I will always see this trip as an education and a blessing,” Catrambone said. Here is his story.

The Climb of a Lifetime

Since reading the Hemmingway short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” almost twenty-five years ago, I would intermittently think and fantasize about conquering the highest peak on the African continent. Raising children and working long hours as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon got in the way of taking family trips for many years. As I reached my mid-fifties, I began to realize that life isn’t just about work.

When I was fifty-seven years old, I floated the idea of climbing Kilimanjaro to my wife and two children. None of us had ever been to Africa, nor had we ever climbed anything higher than Big Blue in Canton, Massachusetts which towers all of 635 feet above sea level. Kibo, the highest point in Africa is just under twenty thousand feet, or three-and-a-half miles above sea level. It seemed like an exciting and adventurous way to be introduced to a new continent.

Sophia, my wife of thirty-three years whom I met on the seventh-floor of the dental school in 1982, wanted no part of it. “You’re crazy. You can’t do that. It’s too dangerous,” she would say. Although my wife is in excellent physical condition, the lack of a Four Seasons Hotel on Kilimanjaro and the need for sleeping in a tent in sub-zero, temperatures for seven straight nights just didn’t work for this city girl. On the other hand, my son, Christopher, an estate planning attorney in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and my daughter, Karina, a third-year Tufts dental student, jumped right on the band wagon and were all in.

You need about a year in advance to plan a trip like this. There are required immunizations, entry visas, clothing, and equipment to purchase, not to mention getting yourself in the best shape possible. I picked a very reputable travel agency that got its start in the early 1960s booking African safaris for Americans. I also bought several guide books and found abundant materials online, including blogs.

Thanks to Sophia, the kids and I have always been in pretty good shape. She is very strict about what we eat. In the winter months preceding our climb, we put our time in the gym to increase our strength and stamina and scaled up and down twenty flights of stairs with a knapsack full of water. I will admit that I often left the knapsack behind. In the late spring and summer, on Sunday afternoons, the kids and I, along with anyone else who would like to come along, would climb up and down Big Blue at least three times. It is very important to practice going downhill because you use completely different muscle groups on decent and it can take a significant toll on the knees, so utilizing and getting used to trekking poles was very important.

There was one very important thing that we could not train for, however, and that was the one thing that I feared the most: high altitude. My kids and I have been living at sea level our whole lives. Christopher trained with an O2 depriving mask that was adjustable.

It was finally time to head to Logan Airport and take the long trip to Tanzania. There are no direct flights from Boston so, with layovers, it took over twenty-four hours to get there. The next day we met our guide, Godfrey, a strapping Tanzanian who stopped counting his Kili summits after two-hundred. We knew we were in the best of hands. He turned out to be more than just a guide. He was a drill sergeant, botanist, arborist, geologist, nutritionist, survivalist, gastroenterologist, psychiatrist, and confidant.

We really got to know Godfrey well because he was the only one of the crew of twenty-two who would eat with us. He was also the one who checked our vital signs, including heart rate and oxygen saturation, at each camp. He would always ask us the same questions: Any headache? Dizzy? How much water did you drink today? Any nausea? Godfrey had a little bag of tricks for just about every ailment you could imagine. Once you told him your problem, he had either a pill, some food, an herb or an elixir for you to take. He would also tell you what you could and could not eat when you weren’t feeling well.

Godfrey walked tall in more ways than one. He is living the dream of many of the hundreds of porters who aspire to be a head guide someday. He wheeled tremendous power and celebrity on the mountain. He is the one who decides who will be part of the crew and he decides which porter will be personal porter to the clients—a very coveted position. Like all head guides, Godfrey started out as a porter himself. Once you pass through the gate to begin your climb, you never see a motorized vehicle because there aren’t any. All equipment, clothing, food and water is carried on the heads of the porters. They work incredibly hard in extreme weather conditions.

People often ask us if we used oxygen during the climb. Although the oxygen canister, carried by the assistant guide, was always very close to us, it was a written rule that if you needed oxygen, you had to descend. The climb would be over. At base camp, just before the final push for the summit—which began at midnight for a projected 6 a.m. arrival—my oxygen saturation was 80 percent. I believe it was probably in the seventies at the summit. At that point, we were naturally breathing very fast and very deep. The kids and I never felt like we were out of breath because we were acclimatizing gradually each day. The key to avoiding altitude sickness is very simple. Drink a lot of water and “pole pole”—Swahili for “go slow.”

Additionally, the “climb high and sleep low” strategy is very important. We always slept at a lower altitude than we achieved during that day. We did take lots of Motrin to control the headaches and we took Diamox as prescribed by the physician we consulted at the MGH travel clinic prior to the trip.

The other question I often get is ,”What was my favorite part of the trip?” Before the climb, I would have to admit that I thought it would be making it to the summit. I could never fully shake the fear I had of not making it to the top.

In the end, the best part of this trip was meeting and interacting with the many wonderful, kind, and helpful Tanzanian people who took my children and me to the “Roof of Africa”: the eighteen porters, the cook, the camp manager, the assistant guide, and our head guide. All of these people were very good to us. Each evening, when we returned from a long day’s trek , they would sing songs to us in Swahili to congratulate and encourage us. I will never forget these people.

On the last day when we received our official certificates, there was a ceremony we had with our crew. Godfrey spread a large blanket down on the ground and asked us to go through our bags and leave behind whatever we could. Then Godfrey, in some random way, called the names of each of the crew and they would take whatever item they wanted. It was very emotional and very important for us to have this experience.

I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity to visit this country, meet these people, and make this climb with my children. I will always see this trip as an education and a blessing.

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