Published in the May 11, 2016 edition
By GAIL LOWE
YORK, Maine — When the mountain called, Bob Hand answered.
This was no ordinary mountain. This was Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest on the African continent and the largest free-standing mountain in the world. It was on Hand’s bucket list to make the ascent.
The 58-year-old retired financial services marketing executive, formerly of Lynnfield and now a resident of York, Maine, has always been attracted to adventure, and the Mt. Kilimanjaro climb was impossible for him to resist. What began as a seed in his mind quickly blossomed into a full-blown desire to complete the trek.
Hand said he took on the challenge of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro not only for the adventure but for the accompanying mental and physical challenges involved. Over his lifetime, he has run nine marathons and has climbed mountains in New England, including those in New Hampshire and Maine, but he enjoys pushing himself to new heights, even if he has to go it alone.
“I’ve always been into physical challenges, including running marathons,” he said. “When you push your body, it’s very much a mental challenge, as well. But the adventure of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was highly motivating and that also included the thrill of traveling to Africa.” Though the mountain stands 19,341 feet in height, Hand had no second thoughts. He knew he could meet the challenge.
He began by researching all of the trekking companies before deciding to travel with Thomson Safari, which offered a head guide and two assistant guides.
“The company has headquarters in Watertown and they have an office in Tanzania,” Hand said. “They are very involved in the Tanzanian community and they have excellent reviews on the treatment of their employees. The company also demonstrated that they were very well prepared for any unexpected medical emergency.”
Since Tanzania requires an entry visa to visit the country, Hand had to correspond with the Tanzanian office in Washington, D.C. to get his visa at least 90 days before entering the country. He also was required to visit a health facility for immunization and travel medical services.
“I was lucky because York Hospital in Maine had the services,” he said. “I needed a polio booster and hepatitis A and typhoid vaccine shots. Also, I got a prescription for Diamox, a medication you can take to help relieve altitude sickness.”
Once the preliminaries were taken care of, Hand went on a shopping trip to purchase a detailed list of items needed for the climb. He said the greatest challenge was packing his duffel bag, which would be carried by a porter. He was limited to not one ounce over 33 pounds.
“Basically, I needed to purchase a very good shell jacket and a new pair of hiking boots. Otherwise, I either already owned or borrowed everything else,” he said.
On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 11, he was ready and raring to go. With all good wishes and prayers from his wife Suzanne, Hand boarded a Delta jet at Logan Airport in Boston and flew first to Amsterdam and then to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania the following day. When the plane touched down in Tanzania, he was joined by five other trekkers — Ann, Laurel, Maria, Christina and Nomi — who also would make the climb.
“They were all from the U.S., and we bonded very quickly,” he said. As he continued to meet people in Tanzania, Hand was impressed that everyone was “very friendly and helpful.”
His initial observations of Mt. Kilimanjaro were awe-inspiring, he said. “You can stand miles away on the plains of Tanzania and see the mountain standing there by itself with the large cover of snow on the peak and the clouds sailing with the wind below the peak.
“It’s very dramatic, particularly as the clouds move over the mountain, sometimes covering it totally and then as it exposes itself during the day. The Tanzanians call the Mountain ‘The Queen.’ When clouds cover the mountain The Queen is asleep. When the clouds move off and you see the mountain, she’s awake. When the sun shines on the mountain with no clouds, she is The Queen in all of her glory.”
As they began traveling to get to Mt. Kilimanjaro, it became obvious that the people who live there are extremely poor.
“But the people are very proud in terms of character and what they have for possessions,” said Hand. “They work hard and are interested in meeting new people. Anyone who has traveled to Africa knows that commerce, transportation, housing and basic access to simple health care, water, food and other commodities are very different from anything you would see in the West.”
As his group climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, Hand and the other trekkers noticed the lack of wildlife. Other than birds at the higher levels and monkeys in the rain forest, there is little wildlife due to the altitude. But the day before starting the trek, Hand and his friends stayed in a wildlife resort called Kampa Ya Tembo.
“It’s one of the best features of the Thomson Safari agenda for the Kilimanjaro trek,” said Hand. “We spent that afternoon in the Enduimet Wildlife Preserve where we traveled in our Land Rover looking at and getting close to elephants, giraffes, baboons, zebras, antelopes and various bird species.”
The group traveled through five different climate zones over the nine-day trek, starting with forested land, continuing over moorlands and then desert near the summit. Hand explained that there are several different routes to get to the top of Kilimanjaro. He chose the Western Approach, which he now recommends to others contemplating the climb. The most common reason for people who do not make it to the summit, he said, is the number of days it takes them to acclimate to the higher altitude. Between 45 and 55 percent of people who attempt the trek never make it.
“The more days you have, the easier it is to acclimate,” he said.
Hand kept in touch with Suzanne, a pre-school teacher and the “best wife and mother ever,” through text messages via one of the advanced cell phones, but for the most part they were out of touch. The trekking company, however, had radio contact with their Tanzania office, and the ranger stations along the way had contact in case of emergency.
Now that the adventure to Africa is but a memory, Hand reflects on his “trek of a lifetime.”
“My fellow trekkers and I are now great friends, even though we live in different parts of the country. Three of my fellow trekkers knew each other through business but other than that we didn’t know each other when we started out. We now stay in touch by e-mail and Facebook. On the trek we talked, we laughed, we encouraged each other and we always waited to make sure each of us was getting through the challenge. We had each other’s back and it made a huge difference knowing we were all going to make it to the summit together.”
As for the guides and crew, Hand can’t say enough about them. “They made the trip special and a true life experience. The Tanzanian porters, guides, cook, waiters and medic were all the best people you would ever want to meet. They were friendly, inquisitive, helpful but, most importantly, very skilled at what they had to do, which was get us to the top of Kilimanjaro through encouragement, nutrition, friendship and keeping us focused on achieving our goal.”
Hand said he and the others have been starting to make plans to go on another significant trek within the next year. This time, he would not go by himself because he’s “been there and done that,” but if someone in his family wanted to go, he would welcome the opportunity.
“I would encourage everyone who is physically and mentally fit to give it a shot,” he said. “The group I trekked with for Kilimanjaro wants to go for the Everest Base Camp in Nepal and I’m ready to sign up. The whole trip was an adventure. The only danger was not knowing how my body would react to the high altitude but as it turned out I was just fine.”
During his research for the adventure, Hand always saw pictures of people standing at the summit in front of the famous Uhuru Peak sign at 19,341 feet and he wondered if he would be there someday.
“I made it and the thrill of standing in front of the sign with my new friends looking out at the beautiful glacier and seeing the clouds float below you is an experience I will never forget,” he said.