“Any athlete who has ever gone through two-a-day practices gets a glimpse of the effort that goes into something like this and the unspoken bond it forms between team members. We found that testing ourselves to the limit was both liberating and soulful."

 

Photo by Bruce Polizotto

 


Magazine
Winter/Spring 2002

A tale of two mountains



Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro subjects trekkers to one of the most arduous hikes on the planet. From the 5,000 ft. elevation base camp to 19,340 ft. Uhura Point at the crater’s rim, you trudge more than 70 miles—the first 40 at a constant 30 grade through rainforest, savannah, and high desert before you even reach the base of the dormant volcano you’ve seen in photos. Then you scramble over endless fields of boulders momentarily frozen in ice at oxygen-starved elevations and pray you don’t get a cerebral edema. The final 900 feet are nearly vertical above the crater floor, an ascent that takes nearly three hours and offers a view of the Great Rift Valley, the possible birthplace of mankind and site of the Leakey’s anthropological research.

On average, 10 climbers die on Kilimanjaro each year. The tallest free-standing mountain in the world is one of the “Seven Summits”—the pantheon of mountaineer lore. But many technical mountaineers avoid “the mountain of the gods.” The adrenalin-driven find ascending Africa’s highest mountain not worth those risks or the grueling, six-to-eight-day effort required.

That effort is singed into the lungs and memory of Wabash Trustee Bruce Polizotto ’63. In October of 1999, he joined nine men, aged 45 to 60, for what the trip’s organizer advertised as “a grand adventure.” Before the trek ended, two men would be carried off the mountain, most would become painfully ill at high altitude, and all faced obstacles, physical and emotional, they had never imagined.

Spending a restless final night on the crater floor as a fellow team member howled in pain with what was later diagnosed as a pulmonary edema, Polizotto gave up on sleep and stepped out of his two-man tent to find that anabatic breezes had swept the early evening clouds. A star-strewn sky was within reach, as if you could climb a few feet higher and touch the Southern Cross.

“With no background light, and such clear air at this elevation, there were so many stars, and the light so sharp and clear. It really was wondrous—no camera could capture it.”

But when friends ask Polizotto to recall his most memorable image from those ten days, he answers: “the back of the boot of the guy in front of me.” That’s not just a glib response.

His comrades on the trail were “a blessing;” their conversation or steady footfalls kept his mind on the task at hand and the person moving ahead of him. That attention to one another would save a life on the group’s next adventure.

For although they left Kilimanjaro pledging they’d “never do that again,” a year and a half later the friends gathered at another trail, this one in the Andes. The three-day trek up the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate at Machu Pichu in Peru was shorter, at lower elevation, (14,000 ft.), warmer, and rich in flora, fauna, and history, with Spanish culture literally layered atop the Inca foundation. Polizotto was amazed to see Andean condors—with their 12-foot wingspans, the largest flying land bird on earth—riding thermals over the mountains.

But the trail itself was more harrowing than Kilimanjaro

“It’s like being on a Stairmaster for eight hours a day, and the drop-off made it like walking along the ledge of a skyscraper without a rope.”

For those unaccustomed to the trail and the altitude, every step brought risk. The odds caught up with the group during their descent.

“There was no reference point to follow—you just looked into the air, or down at the pack in front of you. When we were hiking down from the Sun Gate at Machu Pichu, one of our hikers lost his footing. He was teetering over the edge when another on our team grabbed his pack and pulled him back in. He probably wouldn’t have survived that fall.”

“Any athlete who has ever gone through two-a-day practices gets a glimpse of the effort that goes into something like this and the unspoken bond it forms between team members,” Polizotto says. "We found that testing ourselves to the limit was both liberating and soulful."

Return to INCENSE

Return to the table of contents