9/11 Remembered: Atop Kilimanjaro

9/11 Remembered: Atop Kilimanjaro

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(On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Tales Told From The Road ran stories from its readers and other sources about their experiences traveling in the days surrounding 9/11. Over the coming days we will re-run many of those stories to commemorate a day in the history of the United States and the world that will long be remembered.)

“9/11 Remembered: Atop Kilimanjaro” By Joan Steidinger

Climbing through the barren and rocky terrain, we spotted the pristine, ivory snow- capped glacier. At 18,000 feet, its vastness was breathtaking.  The sheath of ice rose thirty feet above our heads.

(Wikipedia Commons Photo)

The glacier was next to our camping area for the night. With muscles aching and deep slow breaths, each of the eight climbers slowly crawled into domed army-green tents.  They settled down to an afternoon siesta before dinner was served.

One climber, Terry, was celebrating his 60th birthday. An African porter had run down and back up the mountain to bring fresh fish and a birthday cake for the celebration.

The next morning was summit day on Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Tensions were running high and our hearts were pounding hard.  Little did we know what terrifying events were taking place thousands of miles from our remote locale.

We arose early with bleary eyes, short breaths, and weary bodies to make the final ascent.  Slowly making our way up the sandy and rocky single-track trail at daybreak, each climber broke into a wide grin as they reached the plateau at the top.

We met over seventy other climbers who had come from the opposite direction to arrive at the summit.  We felt a rush of gratitude that only our group had followed our six-day climbing route.

As we ascended, dawn arrived. The sky was clear while sporting an indigo tint.  Before us lay, the wide expanse of the Serengeti and the neighboring Mt. Kenya.

The light revealed a dark wooden sign at the top announcing the official summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro at 5,895 meters (19,341 feet).  Of course, photos were shot next to the sign for “proof” that we had made it to the top of the mountain.

(SnapyGoat.com Photo)

This was the official honeymoon trip for JP and me, and our spirits were high. The mood was elated and euphoric.  We experienced a short-lived time of celebration at the summit. After twenty minutes, our guides pushed us to descend.

Shortly after starting down, we encountered a mass of scree—knee-deep piles of tiny pieces of worn rock.  Hiking poles served their purpose here where the going was much like skiing down a snow-covered hill.  The best strategy is to pay careful attention to where your legs and feet are located and using the poles for balance.  Otherwise, you’re in danger of hurting your knees or falling down.

Upon arriving at our lunch spot at 15,000 feet, all the climbers were called together for an emergency briefing.  We couldn’t imagine what was wrong and I remember a feeling of apprehension.   Ben, the head guide, told us, with a sense of anguish in his voice, about the hijacked planes, the collapse of the towers, chaos in New York City, the destruction of the entire Pentagon, and the crashed plane in Pennsylvania.

Fear and silence reverberated throughout the group. Not a soul knew what to say.  Although our location was probably one of the safest in the world, everyone’s mind was racing. Questions flew through the air.  Most of which, Ben was unable to answer.

We soon packed up and headed down the trail with the silence following us. We were all in shock.  Knowing this awful truth, far above the world and removed from all its trappings, helped prepare me for the return to civilization and what awaited us there.

The final night on the mountain, anxiety ran rampant amongst our group.  We were in our busiest and largest camp situation to date.  Our campground included all those other hikers from a vast array of countries, including Germans, Japanese, French, and Dutch plus their guides and porters. They greeted us with warmth, not knowing about the tragedy in America.

Our group kept quietly to itself.  A few of our climbers bought coke and beer at the camp’s wooden-shingled cabin-like shack.  There were quiet discussions at dinner that unified us as Americans sharing the tragedy.

The final day descending Mount Kilimanjaro was a long 17-mile downhill slog.  The barren fauna turned to light scrub.

(Wikipedia Commons Photo)

At this point I checked in with JP.  He gave me the go ahead so I decided to run down.  My lungs were operating at maximum capacity.  Running felt great and helped alleviate my anxiety.  The fauna changed to light trees and then heavy thick verdant growth.

Part of the group of climbers had started down an hour earlier. One member of this group was scheduled to leave that night.  It didn’t take long for me to pass these limping and suffering souls.  These were the climbers in the group who had decided to race down the scree.

Next, I caught up to the porters’ carrying our gear.  My porter emerged with his mouth opened and eyes bugging out. His face showed disbelief.   Evidently, it was dishonorable for him to be passed.  We developed a system.  He ran for twenty minutes then stopped to see if I was still there. When I was, he walked another five minutes then ran again.  We kept this pattern up all the way down the mountain in this manner, finishing in just over three hours.  I sat down for the long wait ahead for the others, hoping to hear more news about the situation in the states.

Meanwhile, the rest of the guides and porters arrived.  They gathered in a knot and conferred. They approached me with a simple offer—could they buy me a beer?  It was a heartfelt gesture.  “No, thanks,” I smiled back, “but a coke would be great.”

Everyone else returned and we were loaded up in safari vehicles.  Then the climbing company drove us to our night’s lodging.

The “Coffee Plantation” was full of American climbers.  As soon as we entered the lobby, we could hear the blaring television news reports and constant replaying of the towers collapse. All eyes were on the television.  We quickly learned the Pentagon was not destroyed, but that there had been extensive damage in New York City.  I felt a mounting, generalized anxiety. Our hearts went out to the many victims as we watched.

The headquarters of JP’s company was down the street from the towers.  He remained concerned about the employees and wondered if he still had a job.

The other six climbers in our group were at the end of their trip and were now figuring out how to get back home as soon as possible. We all wondered if more violence would happen or if World War III had arrived.

JP and I were negotiating to join a safari to Ngorogoro Crater and the Serengeti Desert, and our final destination was scheduled to be a scuba diving trip on Mafia Island, a small island south of Zanzibar.  In Zanzibar, they were rumored to be celebrating the attacks. The coast of Tanzania and Kenya are full of spots considered to be among the most holy in Islam.  In light of this, we decided to abort our trip to Mafia due to the questionable safety of being there in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

While waiting to go on safari, we attempted to go to a local market in the area, but crowds mobbed the van.  Our driver told us to make sure all the windows were closed. He inched the small van through the crowds then drove away quickly when he got an opening.

He gave us the option of driving to another market, which we took him up on.  We experienced no mobs; however at least half of the merchants frowned, acted hostile, and begrudging when we purchased items. They would barely speak to us and even ignored us all together.  Our driver had to speak to them regarding our few purchases.

As we left this market, a tall, skinny Muslim man wearing a white taqiyah ran straight across the parking lot and grabbed JP’s arm. He clawed viciously at his plastic sports watch, leaving deep bloody scratches on my husband.  He yelled and cursed. We were not sure – was this hostility in solidarity with the U.S. attacks or was it simply poverty?

Our safari experience demonstrated to us the level of the often-unseen hostility toward Americans from other travelers.  There was an odd juxtaposition of experiences for JP and me.

On the one hand, the days overflowed with viewing hundreds of African animals, including hyenas, cheetahs, rhinos, zebras, baboons, Cape buffalo, lions, gazelles, urdus, spring bok, wildebeests, and numerous others.  The land was teeming with life.  Our black African guide and driver’s instinct for spotting unusual animals was uncanny.

At night in the European lodges, friendly Europeans at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro changed into ignoring, slightly hostile fellow travelers. Even a German man whom I spoke extensively to at the base of Kilimanjaro turned his head and walked away after my attempt to strike up a conversation with him.  We felt a sense of isolation. Surprisingly, the only travelers watching ongoing newscasts were the black African guides and the few fellow Americans amongst us.

While the low-level hostility made us uneasy, the scariest part of the trip involved our flight back from the Serengeti. Mohammed, our pilot, arrived in his bush plane.  He immediately denied access to Ben, our trusted African guide, claiming Ben was not on the manifest.  Our response:  no Ben, no Joan or JP.  A standoff occurred. Ultimately, the deal we had originally struck prevailed.

With a disturbing frown on his face and an unmistakable tone of anger in his voice, our pilot loaded all three of us in his single-engine four-seat bush plane. We lifted off, our lives entrusted to this agitated pilot at a time when hostility towards Americans seemed contagious.

Tension filled the plane.  Next to me, JP made ruffling noises.  When asked what he was doing, I received a curt one-word response: “Nothing.”  There was no further conversation as we bumped and swooped through the air over mountaintops and stretches of African tundra.

JP seemed oddly still with his thigh pressed up against the fuselage.  I noticed Ben, sitting next to the pilot, appeared to be sitting in a similar position.  The pilot spoke very little, but did begin to give us snippets of information about the vast expanses of land we were flying over.

(Rboed Photo)

Arriving in Arusha, we all felt the tension release.  Walking side-by-side as we traversed the tarmac, JP and Ben conferred.  What was JP actually doing when I heard ruffling noises as he sat against the fuselage?  What had Ben been up to as he sat in front of me?  The answer:  Each had taken out the concealed knives they carried, holding them unsheathed and out of view against their legs throughout the flight.

Back on the ground, we were ready to return to the safety of ‘The Coffee Plantation” so that we could begin working on plans to return home as soon as possible and face the repercussions of 9/11.

Dr. Joan Steidinger is an AASP Certified sports psychologist, writer, and ardent traveler.

Her 9/11 story was originally published in three parts by Tales Told From The Road in October of 2011.

She is the author of Stand Up and Shout Out: Women’s Fight for Equal Pay, Equal Rights, and Equal Opportunities in Sports.

(Tales Told From The Road will receive a small commission for purchases of Stand Up and Shout Out made through the link on this page.)


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