As he sat in the bouncing Landrover taking him and his Dad away from Mount Kilimanjaro, Jonathan Mason couldn’t help but turn around and try to get a last “ perfect photo.”
There it was proudly rising all of its 19,341 feet above sea level, its ice capped majesty surrounded by low lying clouds. But a photo would never do justice to Kili’s beauty, Jonathan mused, nor of their trek all the way to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the ridge of the Kibo crater on the mountain composed of three volcanoes that date back millions of years.
Jonathan had gotten a call during the 2015 school year from his Dad, Ron, asking him if he would like to join him in climbing to the summit of Africa‘s highest mountain.
Ron Mason told Global Atlanta that he has a “Walter Mitty” streak and wanted to celebrate his retirement from 40 years at Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc.
That streak had surfaced earlier in 2001when Jonathan earned his doctorate in physics from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Ron pridefully asked his 30-year-old son if he would join him on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in Peru in celebration of his accomplishment.
But now it was 14 years later. Ron knew that at age 67 it wasn’t going to get any easier to complete in what he envisioned as an eight day journey at oxygen deprived elevations.
“He likes doing this kind of thing,” Jonathan told Global Atlanta. “I thought it was an awesome idea. Not something I would have thought of…but what an amazing experience and I jumped at it.”
Jonathan obviously also has a sense of adventure and had taught and done biomed research for two years at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, following his graduation from Tech. Currently he is teaching physics at a high school in Virginia.
“Dad did all of the heavy lifting for the planning and research,” Jonathan recalled. The planning included a rigorous workout regime with many trips up Stone Mountain and even up the many flights of stairs at his daughter Carrie‘s high-rise apartment building in Atlanta.
Ron also researched the internet and came across Henry Stedman‘s “Kilimanjaro – The Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain,” which encouraged him with its seductive promise “that even non-climbers can experience the thrill of climbing one of the world’s greatest peaks.”
It was Ron’s choice to take the eight-day trek on the mountain’s Lemosho trail because it would combine time for acclimatization as well as the experience of the scenic forest approach at its base.
Aside from getting the plane tickets to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, and onto Arusha, the largest town in Tanzania near the mountain, the two had to decide what to take and what to leave behind. They took their boots and warm clothes, yet left behind tents, sleeping bags, hiking gaiters, and other paraphernalia which they planned to rent or purchase in Arusha. Jonathan, however, did buy a new camera and a GoPro camera before taking off.
From the perspectives of the father and son — while all in for the adventure and having prepared physically and psychologically as best they could — they knew that there were certain risks involved.
Jonathan counted among the “X factors” the personalities of the other members of their group whom they didn’t know, the weather and the food.
The biggest surprise of all turned out to be their porters. For a group of nine, there were 30 porters led by “Goodluck.” Ron was immediately nicknamed “Babu” – granddad in Swahili – since he was 15 to 20 years older than any of the others in the group including a newlywed couple, a family of four and an elementary school principal from Canada.
The porters became an important part of the experience, according to both Ron and Jonathan, for their good humor and their attitudes. James, who kept a close eye on Ron, had climbed the mountain at least 300 times and by doing so had paid for three children to attend the University of Tanzania. Jonathan said that James went up the trail “like a gazelle” as the Americans followed more slowly acclimatizing to the altitude.
Many of the porters carried the goods including food, stoves, tents and clothing on their heads. Although not every American climbing the mountain might agree, “The porters belong to a noble profession,” Jonathan said. “This is how they make a living. They were a lot of fun. And they took a liking to Dad, whom they all enjoyed calling ‘Babu’.”
“You start the climb at about 7,000 feet,” Jonathan added, saying that both he and his Dad carried backpacks with extra clothes. “For a day and a half we walked through light rain, but we didn’t really mind.”
Once they cleared the forested area, the could see across the plains surrounding Kilimanjaro and experienced a variety of mountainous landscapes including “the heath ecosystem,” which was full of wildflowers.
The early morning of day #4, the team climbed the “Baranco Wall,” which although about 840 feet high does not require experienced mountaineering, even though Ron recalls that it was “very steep.” From there, the trekkers passed by the receding remains of former glaciers, which are expected to be extinct by 2020.
As they made their way to the summit, Jonathan recalled that his Dad would look over and say, “Hey, we’re in Africa,” acknowledging how special was their adventure.
While all the X factors worked out OK with even the food of pasta, porridge, meat and vegetables being “better than hoped for,” Jonathan said. “Maybe it was because we were so hungry, but the food was amazing.”
As he trekked, Ron couldn’t forget some of the research he conducted during the planning phase back home in Stone Mountain. For instance, 40,000 people climb up Kilimanjaro’s various trails to the top every year. The oldest known to make it to the summit was 87 years old at the time of his ascent and the youngest, seven years old.
Only 70 percent of those who try make it to the top succeed, according to his research, while 30 percent don’t. An average of 10 people die every year trying.
By the end of the climb, Ron and Jonathan both decided that they had better leave two hours earlier than the rest of their group. So while the others rested until midnight preceding their final day, the father and son team along with James started at 10 p.m.
The night sky was inky black despite the firmament of the Southern Hemisphere, reminding Jonathan of the view he would have of the Southern Cross when he lived in New Zealand.
But thinking back to their climb along the path, they remembered their shivering and how cold it was.”You could only see 20 feet in front of you and you have to climb slowly with one foot in front of the other.”
Ron, who despite his diligent training in preparation of the climb, began to feel pain in his joints and began to seriously tire. Nevertheless, with the prodding of Jonathan and James he made it to the top not too long after daybreak and took in the amazing sight of the panorama circling the mountain.
Unbeknownst to him, however, his day had just begun, and for the rest of the day he had to go to the bottom. That’s right. Seven days to go up, and one to go down.
Much of the trip down is through skree, the refuse of volcanic landslides that require trekkers to lock their knees as they descend.
“Coming down was hard because you slide,” Jonathan recalled. “Almost like skiing.”
“My knees had turned to jelly,” Ron remembered, adding that he never recalled being so tired in his life. “I didn’t remember reading anything saying I was going to be this tired. If I knew it was going to be so hard, I’m not sure I would have done it.”
As they drove away, aside from wanting to take that final photo, Jonathan could only recall how good it was to be sitting down. But they decided to reward themselves for making it to the top and surviving their latest adventure.
As their reward they visited the Serengeti game park and Ngorogoro Crater where they witnessed the array of elephants, zebras, lions, leopards and the many varieties of antelopes.
“Hey, we’re in Africa,” Ron would tell Jonathan as they looked across the plains. “We knew it was something special,” Jonathan added. “Something about it gets under your skin.”
Ready to go home, Jonathan nevertheless implored not only his Dad but the others who had joined them after their climb to go to Olduvai Gorge, where fossils have been discovered providing a record of human evolution over the past 2 million years.
“We did this trip in the right order,” Jonathan said. “This is where people came from millions of years ago. What a feeling.”
To reach Ron Mason, send an email to gatoron70