'To the roof of Africa': Five family members celebrate New Year's Day by summiting the world's highest freestanding mountain

January 12, 2014 1:40:56 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


" ... As wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun ... " 


Ernest Hemingway, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" 




Raising a champagne toast with tuxedoed friends at midnight is one way to usher in a new year. As is dazzling the neighborhood kids with fireworks before retiring to a cozy sofa with hot chocolate. But gulping for breath in thin, frigid air? Inching upward on leaden legs through shifting volcanic scree and then snow? In the dark?  


Who does that? 


Brothers Randy Gray of Columbus and Billy Gray of Starkville, and their sister, Melinda Gray Lucas of Hattiesburg, did that. Along with Randy's daughter, Carrie Gray of Montgomery, Ala., and Melinda's daughter, Meredith Lucas, a senior at the University of Southern Mississippi. The five family members were determined to finish on Jan. 1 what they had started five and a half days earlier, when the peak of Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro was a distant, snow-covered goal on the horizon. 


The idea of hiking up the world's highest freestanding mountain had been percolating for a long time in the Gray family. It was inspired, in part, by a trip to Kenya Randy, Billy and Melinda's parents -- Stanley and Margaret Gray of Brooksville -- took about two decades ago.  


"This is something I've wanted to do for years and years," said Billy, a dentist in private practice in Starkville. That the glaciers atop Kilimanjaro are shrinking added a note of urgency. Despite the mountain's location in the tropics, the dry, cold air at the top has sustained large quantities of ice for more than 10,000 years. But between 1912, when aerial photographers documented the glaciers, and 2001 the ice fields had shrunk about 85 percent in area say researchers with NASA's Earth Observatory. Later studies indicate the pace is accelerating.  




Prepping for the trip of a lifetime 


Once the family got serious about going, the work began: research into travel, trekking companies (they chose Climb Kili), gear, climb routes (theirs took seven days), the three-day African safari they wanted to take after the hike. And, of course, the physical preparation. 


"It consumed all of our time for several months before the trip," said Melinda, who, like her brothers, is a native of Brooksville. She is now a dentist in Hattiesburg. "It became a real thing when we bought airfare and paid the trekking company." As the group's scheduled departure from the Atlanta airport on Christmas Day drew nearer, emotions ran the gamut.  


"I was so excited in the beginning, and then reality kicked in," admitted Melinda. "I think I called the climbing company about two months before and I was just panicked, very anxious about altitude and not physically being able to do it."  


All of the Gray family hikers, who range in age from 22 to 55, respected the challenge ahead. Because "Kili" can be hiked and is not a technical climb requiring mountaineering skills and specialized equipment, some underestimate it. But high elevation, low temperatures and occasional high winds make it a difficult and often dangerous trek. Most of the family took the medication Diamox, to reduce altitude sickness. 


Online information varies, but it is a fact that people die every year on the mountain; numbers indicate six to 10 annually, out of about 25,000 to 30,000 attempts, cites mtkilimanjarologue.com and other sources. The main causes are heart attacks and Acute Mountain Sickness. Some are lost to hypothermia, falls or rock slides. The Kilimanjaro National Park shows that about 41 percent of trekkers actually reach the Uhuru summit, the highest point, at 19,340 feet above sea level. The Gray expedition did. 


"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," said Randy Gray, a Control Systems engineer with Weyerhaeuser. He is a cyclist, a snow skier, pilot, flight instructor and former marathoner. He climbed Pike's Peak in Colorado in November in preparation for Kilimanjaro, with his daughter, Carrie. And he had tears in his eyes when he stood on top of Africa's "shining mountain." 




Into the clouds 


Kilimanjaro has enormous biodiversity. Trekkers encounter several major ecological zones on the way up: cultivated areas, rain forest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and arctic glaciers. Each has its own climate, terrain and wonders. As the route climbed, the family found themselves walking into the clouds, and then above them. 


At the outset, temperatures were "like Mississippi in May," said Randy. By the summit, the hikers were in layer upon layer of clothing. 


The group of five was led by experienced Tanzanian guides and numerous porters, including cooks. Porters astounded the family by carrying bulky bundles of tents, sleeping bags, food and cooking equipment on their heads, often hands-free. 


"They have to be the hardest working people in the world," said Randy. "They would run up ahead to try to pick the best site (at the camps) and set up everything ... and they never complained or asked for anything." 


Food was good and plentiful, served in a chow tent. Porters and guides treated them like family, Randy said. Even singing in Swahili along the hike to encourage the weary to stay awake and keep working hard to make the top, weaving each person's name into the uplifting songs.  


The overall strategy was to "hike high, sleep low." Wherever the expedition camped for the night, guides took everyone 500 to 1,000 feet higher, so bodies could adjust to elevation. They then descended back to camp, for a more comfortable rest and recovery in arctic sleeping bags on mats in small, two-man tents. 


"And every day, the mountain got bigger and bigger," the engineer said. 


Team Gray certainly wasn't the only group hiking up. Adventurers from all over world hoped to reach the gleaming summit on New Year's Day. Americans were by far in the minority, noted Randy. 


Which led to an interesting phenomenon on New Year's Eve. 




Summit climb 


At about 11 p.m. Dec. 31, the Gray family members awoke to prepare for the final ascent, the most challenging part of the journey. At the stroke of midnight, they rang in the new year in a portable mess tent about 15,000 cold feet above the African savanna, before strapping on headlamps to hike to the top of a giant stratovolcano in the dark.  


"We gathered outside the mess tent in a circle, and Dad led us in a prayer before we started the hike," said Carrie, a deputy district attorney in Montgomery, Ala.  


The departure at 12:18 a.m. Jan. 1 had an almost surreal quality and anticipation. The going was hard, treacherous in places.  


Hiking parties on switchbacks above and below the family formed an unearthly series of bobbing lights on the mountain. "Happy New Year" echoed in a dozen languages from time to time in the dark. 


"Pole, pole" (po-leh) -- "slowly, slowly" -- the guides would caution often in Swahili, as the group advanced by baby steps. 


"It was very, very hard," said Melinda. "The head guide was literally lifting me up." 


As dawn broke at the "rooftop of Africa," the family edged closer to the first volcanic peak (there are three, each higher than the last). They reached it about 6 a.m. It's where many fatigued hikers turn back. It took another two hours to persevere to Uhuru Peak, the highest point.  


There, the Celsius temperature translated to something near four degrees Fahrenheit, said Carrie. 


Reaching that summit made the preparation, the usurped Christmas, the long flights, the cost and the demanding miles on foot that tested spirit and stamina worth it.  


"The gasping for air is gone, the tiredness, the cold ... I only remember the goods parts," said Randy, the day after his return to Columbus. The only thing he can compare the challenge to, he added, is his POW training in the Air Force in the 1980s. 


"It's not like we're some kind of extra heroic, physically fit people," remarked his brother, Billy. "A lot of people do this every year, but it's not for everybody. ... It was physically the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. And there's a lot of mental stress; you can't give up -- and there will be times you'll want to." 


Every family member values the bonds that strengthened on the quest, as they lived almost in each other's pockets, swapped family tales, supported each other and shared a rare accomplishment. They "fell in love," Melinda said, with the people of Tanzania, especially their guides and porters, and the beautiful country.  


And the adventures may have just begun. 


"Yes," said Billy. "I'm trying to convince them to do the Inca trail and go to Machu Picchu next year."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.