This spotlight is a longer one, but it details an amazing accomplishment that I think you will really enjoy reading about, plus some amazing pictures from Howard. Howard
Howard Roever has been coming to GetFitNH for over three years. This past November he decided to take an adventure outside of Concord and New Hampshire when he traveled to Tanzania to explore the country and also climb to the roof of Africa, up the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The idea was born via a group text among childhood friends. One of these friends knew of a small Florida based non-profit called Project Change that had organized a charity climb to raise money for the organization. Howard was immediately drawn to the idea and even after all of his friends decided not to go, he still had the bug. Although an avid hiker throughout New England, he had never climbed higher than Mount Washington. In contrast, the entry gates to the Machame Trail leading up to the summit of Kilimanjaro was just shy of six thousand feet.
To train for his effort Howard climbed throughout 2017. As the calendar pages turned Howard and his yellow lab, Phin, logged many miles while bagging peaks across New Hampshire and Vermont. They also did quite a bit of trail walking on Concord’s trail network. Oftentimes Howard would hike with a thirty pound plate in his backpack to get used to carrying weight on and up trails. He was also at GetFitNH nearly every day possible. “When I decided that I was going to do Kilimanjaro last spring, my workouts took on added importance. I tried to keep up a solid effort each morning and limit slacking. Slacking wasn’t going to help me get to 19,341 feet. My workouts at GetFit definitely helped keep me at a good fitness level. Then I just had to put in the time on the trails.”
According to Howard, early November and his time to fly over to Tanzania came around fast. “When I first committed around Easter, it felt like I had nothing but time on my hands. The next thing I knew October was here.” On November 3, 2017 Howard flew from JFK in New York to Doha and then on to Kilimanjaro. At the same time he began his regimen of malaria and altitude sickness prevention. While Howard felt that he was ready for the climb itself, the one wild card was the altitude and what effect it would have on his body. The last thing he wanted was to have to turn back due to acute altitude sickness. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, Howard had a day to acclimate to the area before beginning the climb on Monday. He met his fellow climbers who were all from Florida and explored the town of Moshi with them. While in Moshi for dinner early Sunday evening, Howard got his first glimpse of the mountain which had previously been shrouded in the clouds. He was impressed but its prominence on the landscape and still couldn’t believe that the next day he would begin the long trek to the summit. After dinner the group met with two of their guides back at the hotel. There they went over the route they would take and what challenge each day would bring. There was truly nervous anticipation among the group of six climbers.
Monday morning they took a small bus to the Machame Gate where they met with their team of porters. There were twenty porters to carry the camp essentials up the mountain; the various tents and food stuffs and other materials needed for a successful climb. This group of men were mainly in their twenties and thirties and would strap on a backpack full of gear in addition to balancing another parcel on their shoulders or head. Howard said that he marveled at not only the ability of the porters to carry this gear up the trails, but also their pleasant demeanor throughout. A cheerful “Jambo” (hello) would constantly be heard on the trail with porters passing on their way up or down the mountain. Due to a computer glitch at the gate the first day began later than planned which caused the first day to go into the night, and the rain. The trek through the rain forest was supposed to begin in the late morning and end at around 5 pm. However the group was hours behind the scheduled start and as a result the last few hours of the day were headlamp assisted and wet from the rain. Howard recalls getting to the first camp and thinking, ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ “That first day took a lot out of me. I was happy when we finally got to camp and was hoping that a night of sleep would ready me for what Day 2 would bring.” The group was at approximately ten thousand feet elevation after Day 1.
Howard did wake up refreshed (“I slept like a rock!”) and sipping his fresh cup of instant coffee (“that’s what the locals drink – and it’s quite good!”), he got a great view of Kilimanjaro in the distance. They had not been able to see it the night before due to darkness. But from the campsite clearing he took it all in. “I began to look at the mountain each morning as my Moby Dick. There it would be with its glacier and snow-topped summit each morning. And I wondered if we would ever get there.” But with each passing day the group did get closer. As they made their way they would pass through changing terrains and climates. From the rain forest, to the plateau, and the alpine desert, before finally the summit. On Day 2 it rained nearly the entire time. At least six of the eight hour trek were wet. And it was a cold rain. After several thousand feet of elevation gain they were finally at the second campsite. Howard remembers it being a rugged day. “The rain was killer. Not only wet, but cold. It zaps the strength right out of you.” One of the other climbers quit after this day saying that it was too much for her and she was escorted down the mountain.
From Day 3 on, the group made their way through the alpine desert. Howard recalls it being a landscape so very foreign to him. “There were all of these exotic looking trees and shrubs in some areas and then just nothing but rock. Piles and piles of volcanic rock. He also recalls the pace of the climb oftentimes being excruciatingly slow. The locals have a term they use; “Pole, Pole.” Translated to English it simply means “Slowly, slowly.” Howard will tell you that (even for an old guy) he is not the most patient hiker on the mountain and will often keep a brisk pace while hiking in the White Mountains. He said that the “pole, pole” thing drove him crazy during the first few days of the climb and he had to be reminded more than once by the guides to be patient. “You will need this pace above 15,000 feet” he was told. Howard discovered that they were right.
The group first hit 15,000 feet on Day 3 and then after going down in elevation for a day, camped at above 15,000 feet on Day 5. This would be their base camp. During these days Howard did notice the elevation taking its toll on his breathing. Doing the pole, pole pace he was just fine. But on occasions where he would stop to take in a view and a photo, he would notice that the not so pole, pole walk to get to the back of the still moving line would leave him breathing as if he had just sprinted forty yards and would take about a minute or more before his breathing was again normalized. By Day 6, summit day, Howard was happy for Pole, Pole.
Wakeup call was 2 am on Day 6 morning. Howard didn’t need a wakeup call however as he was up with anticipation of what lie ahead. “We had gone to our tent and had light’s out by about 8pm. I fell asleep pretty quickly but recall being woken up by the wind and snow on the outside of the tent at about 1 in the morning. I just lay there after that thinking about finally getting a close up view of Kili.” After breakfast (“the hot porridge hit the spot!”), backpacks and headlamps were readied and the group was off into the snowy shadows. It was windy and cold, requiring all of the layers Howard had packed. Howard recalled that he was glad he was from New Hampshire as his Floridian climbing partners complained about the temperature, wind and snow. Meanwhile he thought, just another winter day in New Hampshire. The wind would leave it’s mark however as he suffered from a pretty severe wind burn for days after the climb.
Howard recalls the seemingly endless switchbacks as they made their way toward Stella Point and finally Uruhu Peak. How many more he wondered? A hundred? More? Definitely more. “Your mind has lots of time to just go places during a climb like this. Or go nowhere at all. I did think about a lot of different things. It was actually very therapeutic in many ways.” Not wearing a watch and having no other way to tell how long they were climbing, Howard remembers thinking that he would know when it was around six in the morning (or so) when the sun would come up above the clouds behind him. The stars in the southern hemisphere are magnificent and on clear nights there was quite a show. Thousands and thousands of stars twinkling above. This night (morning) was one of those times. In a darkest before the dawn moment Howard recalls one of the guides at the back of the line pointing out the “Southern Cross” constellation as he looked back in awe. Then the moment finally came; the light of the sun coming up somewhere over the Indian Ocean appeared to the East. Then the sun itself appeared above the clouds. Morning had broken, somewhere around 17,000 feet (Howard thought). Simply glorious, he thought at the time.
The climb continued but the altitude began to take hold of the small group. Two of the remaining climbers, a woman and a man, had to rest as the exertion in the thin air became more demanding. The head guide, Alex, had planned for this contingency by having seven guides with the climbers on this day, rather than the usual three. Four of the guides stayed behind with the two overwhelmed climbers and the group of now three continued on. “At this point it was a hard trek. I just tried to focus on other things rather than how much further we had to go. It was hard to leave our two friends behind. We had all become very close. I remember the rocks having faces and looking like famous people and seeing what I thought looked like hieroglyphics on the rocky landscape. All the while putting one foot in front of the other.”
Switchback after switchback the journey continued. As they got closer to the top things became clearer; like the size of part of the glacier that can be seen from miles away. At about 10 am (or so) the group made it to Stella Point. This was the first piece of the summit of Kilimanjaro. Here there was a minor celebration but as Howard looked to his right he was anytyhing but celebratory. He could see the rocky terrain where they still needed to go to get to the top of Kilimanjaro, Uruhu Peak. It was about an hour of so trek away. It may as well have been ten hours. “Everything became so difficult at that point. We were right about 19,000 feet and even the flat areas took effort. Inclines no matter how slight, even more so.” One of the three remaining climbers was wiped at this point and began saying she couldn’t go any further. Having already seemingly lost two of our partners this day Howard recalls not wanting to hear any of this talk. “From the back of the line I let out a loud ‘Woooooooo!’ which scared the crap out of her. I’m not sure where it came from, but I’d like to think it got her attention and helped her press on.”
At this point they were close. Nearly eight hours into their summit day, they were almost to the sign that marks the highest point in Africa. As they approached ever closer, they got a view of just how massive the glacier was; (at least) several hundred yards long and what looked like hundreds of feet thick. Howard recalls it being awe inspiring. The snow from earlier in the morning had all but melted as the sun heated up. The layers of clothes that kept him warm earlier were now causing Howard to sweat. Finally coming around a bend they saw it – the sign. They were there. Just another hundred yards of so to go. They had made it! At the sign there were celebrations and hugs, and lots of photos. They got to look down into the massive crater from which Kilimanjaro was born and view the other glaciers along the rim and into the crater itself. It was a crystal clear sunny day which allowed them to linger and enjoy the moment before heading back down to base camp and beyond. Oftentimes this is not the case and the weather sends climbers hurriedly back down. They were able to bask in their achievement and Howard recalls sheading a few tears in a quiet moment alone. About forty-five minutes after their summiting they were overjoyed when one of their lost partners labored up the trail towards them. He was walking ‘pole, pole’ with a guide on each side of him. They were told later that he refused to quit. “That was a pretty inspirational moment even after our own summit. Nick showed such a strong will.”
After about twenty minutes more the guides gathered the group together and prepared for their decent. After already putting in over eight hours to get to Uhuru they now had about five plus hours of down-mountain trekking to do. Howard’s quads would soon ache like never before in his life. “When we finally got to camp for our last night, I don’t think I have ever been so tired in my life. Emotionally and physically. Just eating our last supper was a chore. After dinner I slept from 8 pm straight through until 6 the next morning.” Remarkably, upon awakening the next morning Howard found that his body had recovered quite well (some thanks to Alleve). After breakfast the group of remaining climbers gathered with the guides and porters for some photos with Kilimanjaro as a distant backdrop. With Moby Dick now in the rearview mirror the photo op turned into a spontaneous Swahili singing and dance session with the porters. “Hakuna Matata, Hakuna Matata.” Rough translation – “No worries, there are no problems here.”
Congratulations Howard, I can only imagine after reading this how much of an awe-inspiring moment it must have been at the top.