Photo: Kilimanjaro summit

Kilimanjaro summit photo courtesy Tim Ward

By Tim Ward, author of Zombies on Kilimanjaro (May 2012, Changemakers Books)

What are zombies doing in a non-fiction book about a father and son climbing the world’s highest freestanding mountain? As you near the frozen summit in the dead of night, sucking in air that seems too thin to breathe, you stagger toward the top looking something like a shuffling, brain-dead zombie. It seems a strange transformation, like something out of the Thriller video. But in fact, the real change hits after you reach the peak.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a transformational experience for many people. Paradoxically, the things that make the mountain hard are the very things that make it so powerful. While Kilimanjaro is technically a straightforward trek requiring no ropes or mountaineering skills, it does take courage, determination, and luck to succeed. Altitude sickness hits most people to some degree or other. It can cause nausea, headaches, confusion, delirium, and trouble breathing. In rare cases it can be fatal.

This element of hardship and risk can make climbing Kilimanjaro a rite of passage. On my climb, I met a young German couple, Marita and Bastian, who had just become engaged. They said, “When we stood together on Uhuru Peak, we knew having done this amazing thing we could make it through any problem together.” Another woman told me she climbed the mountain after retiring as a school teacher. Rather than marking the end of her career, the climb helped her see this change as the beginning of a new life, where she could accomplish anything.

In the case of my son Josh and I, the trek up Kilimanjaro proved a powerful symbol of his transition into manhood, and a profound shift in our relationship.
Tribal societies have always had powerful rites to initiate boys into manhood. But our modern society has lost the rituals that mark this transition. We see only remnants in military and fraternity hazings, and in the violent initiations of street gangs. For the rites to have meaning, there must be danger, there must be risk–and the initiate must complete the task through his or her own force of will. Absent these rituals, is it any wonder so many young adults suffer a “failure to launch” in their 20s? I was as guilty as any modern parent in making life easy–perhaps too easy–for my son.

Day three on the mountain, Josh was hit with massive headaches. Acclimatizing was painful for him–even with diamox, a prescription drug which is supposed to relieve symptoms of AMS. I watched him walk up and down steep ridges. He told me every step felt like a nail driving into his head.

And then, on the night we climbed the crater rim, less than 40 minutes from the summit, Josh fell. I was walking ahead, and did not even see it. Luckily, he only tripped and fell flat in the snow. A few steps further to his right and he could have tumbled over the edge of the crater. But he was so close to being a zombie, so exhausted, he could not get up. He just wanted to lie still, sleep for a bit. He recalls our Tanzanian guides standing over him, debating whether or not they should take him straight down. Josh snapped out of it. He forced himself to his feet, shook the guides off. He set his face towards the peak and just kept marching. Near the summit he caught up with me–oblivious in my own cocoon of altitude-induced delirium–and we reached the peak together.

“I’ve never been in so much pain and so happy at the same time,” he croaked, as we sat side by side on the frozen rock and looked down over Africa.

Day seven on the way down the mountain, the nail-pounding in his head at last subsided. Josh turned to me and said, “You know, in the past when we’d go on camping and rafting trips, you were always like, ‘Now paddle, paddle, paddle! Now put up the tent.’ You guided and took care of me through it all. But–and this is sounding metaphorical as hell-on Kilimanjaro it was different. From the bottom up, I climbed it. I never felt like a kid, even when I was in pain. You never acted like a parent.”

“That’s not quite true,” I replied. “When you told me that on the summit you fell–and I did not even notice, my first thought was, ‘Oh my God! I’m such a lousy parent!’ But then it hit me, ‘He got himself up. He walked to the peak on his own. He didn’t need me to help.’ ”

I realized as I spoke that two zombies had died that night on Kilimanjaro. A child and a parent. It was just two friends who walked down the mountain together.

Tim Ward is the author of Zombies on Kilimanjaro, now in sale on line and in stores worldwide.

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