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home : opinion : perspectives

11/3/2011 10:16:00 AM
Meeting God at the top of the world

On June 21, after seven days and 12,000 vertical feet of climbing, our expedition stood at 19,340 feet on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak and the largest free-standing mountain in the world.

The expedition consisted of 17 climbers, nine guides and about 110 porters. Many of the climbers were members of the Philmont Staff Association. I first hiked with some of them 40 years ago!

Five of us were from the Albany area: John Privitera, Reed Ference, Pete and Adam Nye and me. We trained for 18 months for this once-in-a-lifetime trek.

I lived in Africa for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer; this was my first trip back in 30 years. I loved everything about Africa: the chaotic cities, the vibrant landscape, the people. Even the quality of light seems more vivid. It was good to be back.

Kilimanjaro National Park is a huge wilderness. Our climb began at the rarely-visited western edge of Kilimanjaro and traversed the unspoiled Shira Plateau to reach the Barafu approach to the crater rim.

We typically climbed 2,000 to 3,000 feet per day, but there was a lot of climbing up, followed by climbing down, only to climb higher. Mostly we were simply trekking uphill, but we did have to scramble up the 800 vertical feet of the Barranco Wall.

Summit day was the most difficult. We left camp at 17,000 feet and started the 3,000-foot ascent. With only half the available oxygen as at sea level, the climb was grueling.

We made the summit at 3:30 p.m. The weather was perfect: sunshine, light breeze, 28 degrees. After celebrations and photos, we descended into the crater and camped at 18,700 feet, with a backdrop of glacial walls of ice.

It was a tough night. I was breathless and cold. The next morning, we descended 10,000 feet. From our last camp, it was a short hike down to the park entrance - and a long trip home.

At altitude, life seems exaggerated. Often, we were above the clouds, in brilliant, clear skies. At night, the sky was black, the stars brighter and more numerous than I've ever seen. It was cold and clear, and sunrises and sunsets were breathtaking.

Lack of oxygen makes you aware of every movement: You must make a decision to stand up, take a step, even raise your arm for a drink of water.

But my feeling of closeness to God was also magnified. Many see God in the majesty of His creation - but to me, the awe is inspired by the fact that in the midst of such incredible beauty, God knows and loves me. In fact, God has counted the hairs on my head!

I may never return to Kilimanjaro, but I'll always remember the difficulty of the climb and the satisfaction of the summit, the people and landscapes of Africa, and friends trekking together.

(Mr. Touchette is director of the Albany diocesan Cemeteries Office.)

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