By Daniel Rodriguez
When my dad was 59 years old, he and I went on a camping and kayaking trip to Canada. We paddled up to seven hours a day between islands in the Inlet Sound, between the Canadian mainland and Victoria Island. We saw bears swimming in the ocean and bald eagles soaring in the wind, caught salmon with only a string and a hook; and best of all, we kayaked among killer whales. They were so close and massive that we could reach out and touch them.
At the end of our trip, our guides told me that my dad was the oldest person who had ever finished one of the physically demanding trips. My dad talked about our trip for the rest of his life, until he passed away about 20 years later at the age of 79.
To this day, I can still see my dad sitting in front of me in our two-man kayak, bobbing in the ocean. I yearned to share a similar experience with my two sons. I promised myself that I would take such a trip before I turned 59, the same age as my dad when we took our trip.
The stars finally aligned in August. At 58, I took my two sons — Marcos, 25, and Tomas, 24 — to Africa. We decided we would take a stab at climbing the tallest mountain in Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro, which stands at 19,340 feet.
Though you don’t need technical climbing skills to scale this mountain, the sheer height makes it a daunting task. With such height comes altitude sickness. It’s not enough to be in good physical condition — I run marathons and work out nearly every day — the altitude can do you in. Besides being affected by nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, you have to contend with fluid building in your brain and lungs. Headaches and flu-like symptoms are indicators of sickness.
To avoid those things, you must do the following three things: Climb the mountain slowly to allow your body to make more red blood cells to carry oxygen, walk with very deliberate steps and take deep breaths with every step.
We started with 10 people in our group from all walks of life and various parts of the country. We were all in good physical condition, but we lost the first person before we even started, and the second person the following day.
Only five of the 10 people who originally signed up for the trip made it to the top of the mountain. The first day was hot and sweltering as we trekked through the jungle. But all that suddenly changed when we reached the first base camp — the night turned to freezing. We all slept in zero-degree rated sleeping bags, along with a liner and at least a few layers of clothes.
On the last night, we started our ascent to the summit at 11 p.m., hoping to reach the summit at sunrise. The cold bit through my five layers of clothing. My insulated water tube froze after an hour. Our headlamps could only pierce through the pitch darkness a few feet in front of us. We all took deep breaths trying to draw in the few molecules of oxygen floating about in the thin air. We were warned about the possibility of hallucinating. By 3 a.m., one of my sons said he started seeing people vanish before his very eyes.
But, at 6:45 a.m., just as the sun was starting to peak over the horizon, we reached the summit.
I looked up to the sky and said, “Dad, we made it! We couldn’t have made it without your help!”
Above the sunrise, I saw my dad smiling down upon us. I heard him say, “Bien hecho, mijos,” (Well done, my sons)!