CRANFORD, NJ — From the summit, James Anderson watched the sun ascend through the clouds and begin to warm the side of Mount Kilimanjaro.
What the world looks like from 19,000 feet above sea level — and 7,500 miles from home — is something the 17-year-old Anderson struggles to put into words. Though it was surely a stunning view, his perspective on the world had already changed earlier in the journey.
Anderson was transformed by the connections he made with the guides who offered encouragement and the native people who welcomed him into their homes in the shadow of the East African mountain immortalized by Ernest Hemingway and Miles Davis.
“We traveled halfway across the world,” Anderson said. “Even there, the people there weren’t so different from us, aside from the food they ate, the way they dressed, everything like that. Their goals in life were to be happy and try to provide for their family. That’s what I learned.”
Anderson and James McGann are Cranford residents, friends and classmates at St. Peter’s Prep who embarked on their journey to scale Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania on July 10, through Rustic Pathways, a tour company that specializes in taking teens to far-flung locales to learn more about other cultures and themselves. Last year, Anderson and McGann went to Fiji.
Anderson and McGann, alongside teens from Texas, California, Chicago, Spain and Luxembourg, began their journey by helping to work the fields. Before setting foot on the mountain, they harvested corn with machetes and also visited a school.
Moved by the kindness of those they met along the way, the teens took those experiences with them as they began their six-day ascent up the mountain. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro does not require technical skills. However, it is an often-grueling hike that takes climbers through four climates: rainforest, moorlands, arctic desert and arctic tundra, Anderson said.
“Every day we’d get farther up,” McGann said. “We’d look out and the clouds were just thicker. We spent a lot of time talking about it and it was like we were looking off the edge of the Earth. There would be a drop off and there would be clouds. Not having phone service, it didn’t really matter because we were appreciating the amazing opportunity to be on Mount Kilimanjaro.”
On the final day, with the peak in sight, the group woke up in the morning and hiked for a few hours, arrived at a base camp and were instructed to try to go back to sleep because they would begin climbing again at midnight.
Guided by the light of the moon and a sky filled with stars — and even some shooting stars — they began to inch closer to the peak. Three hours into the final stage, McGann had to stop. Early in the trip, he’d had an allergic reaction to the medication everyone was prescribed to help combat symptoms of altitude sickness, such as dizziness, nausea and severe headaches. Without the benefit of the medication, he pushed himself to go as far as he could. In the end, the altitude was too much, and as McGann put it, “I passed out and they took me back.”
McGann has made peace with it. He realized the trip wasn’t about the destination, but about the journey.
“I was proud of the accomplishment. I was able to be the only person not on the medication and making it that far,” he said. “Even though I wasn’t able to make it to the summit, the six days were so amazing. From Day Two, we were above the clouds. The views were insane. It’s a beautiful mountain. I would say the experience of doing the climb is great and the summit is the icing on the cake.”
Anderson and the others pressed on. As they neared the peek, the temperatures plummeted and the ground beneath them was icy. He was wearing three pairs of socks and still couldn’t feel his feet.
During the final few miles the group reached the lower crater — Kilimanjaro is a volcano — but the upper crater was just ahead and in full view. Running on little more than granola bars, some tea and a desire to finish the journey, they arrived just in time to see the sunrise.
“Finally, getting to that point, where there’s a sign that says, ‘Congratulations you’ve reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro,’ we were like, ‘Finally!’ Anderson said. “We got to rest and sit down and take our photo. But also, we couldn’t believe we had made it after the last six days of hiking and stress and everything like that. We were just so excited. They gave out little juice boxes of pineapple juice that we kind of said a toast with.”
When Anderson and McGann were reunited a few days later, Anderson shared the experience of reaching the summit through words and pictures.
The two friends have since returned to Cranford, back to comfortable beds, internet service and other modern conveniences. They said they are forever changed by their journey.
“I think throughout the climb you learn a lot about yourself,” McGann said. “You learn to trust yourself because you’re going through this experience. It’s obviously very difficult. You’re hurting. There’s a voice inside your head saying, ‘Stop.’ You learn about your own physical abilities which is something that’s really amazing.