In seventh grade, the dream took shape. A geography teacher painted Africa’s tallest mountain, and the surrounding lands, in such tantalizing hues that young Nick Follger was entranced. He devoured books about the place. Years marched past. Adulthood, military service, family, career. And still, the mountain called.
One day on the Oregon Coast, Follger and his wife talked about their lives. They talked about closing their South Hill photography studio, moving the photography business into their home and defining goals for the years ahead.
She brought up his Kilimanjaro dream and encouraged him to fulfill it. But he would need to find some climbing partners, she told him, because – as he explained recently with a laugh – “she wasn’t going.”
And so it was that Nick Follger stood at the highest point in Africa last February. The thin air, containing half the oxygen found at sea level, left Follger so weak that this veteran professional photographer could barely work his camera. What he found at the summit was not a picture.
What he found was friendship.
To get there, just as his wife had anticipated, he needed companions.
He found them, in two 50-something pals who likewise have a taste for overseas adventure: Kim Erickson, an ocularist who makes artificial eyes for clients all around the world. And Mark Iverson, an adoption attorney who comes to the aid of children from faraway lands. The three men, now empty nesters, got to know each other while serving as parent volunteers in the APPLE program at Spokane’s Franklin Elementary.
When Follger told Iverson of his boyhood dream to climb Kilimanjaro, and asked if Iverson might be interested, “I immediately said yes. And then I regretted it for months,” Iverson said, laughing.
After the two of them recruited Erickson, the trio launched into a rigorous nine-month training regimen.
Although Follger declined to disclose his age, he did acknowledge with a grin that the older you are, the longer it takes to get in condition for a high-elevation climb.
So for the better part of a year, they lifted weights. They rode bikes. They hiked up Mount Kit Carson and climbed to Chimney Rock overlooking Priest Lake. And, lugging heavy packs, they hit the stairwells of downtown Spokane’s Paulsen Building. Sixteen flights, up and down, up and down, over and over, 100 flights at a time.
“That was the best preparation we did,” Iverson said.
At 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro stands a mile higher than Mount Rainier and more than two miles higher than Mount Spokane. But it’s not a technical climb; no ropes, no pitons, no crampons are required.
The challenge lies in the volcano’s massive size. Trekkers begin in a damp forest, to the sound of chattering monkeys. They ascend through four climatic zones, passing exotic forms of life including the senecio kilimanjari – a twisty, spiky-flowered tree that looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book and occurs nowhere else on earth.
At the trail’s end, alpine desert awaits. There, climbers walk past walls of glacial ice under a burning sun whose warmth vanishes at night, giving way to high-altitude cold that brings hypothermia to the unwary – if the lack of oxygen does not get them first.
The day before the three friends reached the summit, another climber died on Kilimanjaro, a victim of cerebral edema. Alongside the trail at regular intervals, wheeled stretchers wait at the ready, placed there by climbing guides who regularly must use them when trekkers pass their bodies’ limits and collapse.
The climb may not be technical, but it is no cakewalk, Follger said. He spent months researching the trek, looking into the routes and the professional guides.
Not all guiding companies are the same, he said. Some bring oxygen; some don’t. Some closely monitor climbers’ medical condition and set a gradual pace so their clients have time to acclimate to the elevation; others take a faster pace that Follger does not recommend.
On faster trips, he said, 40 percent don’t make it. During his trek he saw athletic-looking younger people who had gone too far, too fast, being wheeled down the mountain on stretchers. He saw his guides loan oxygen to save climbers from other groups who had ascended without it, only to be felled by edema.
To guide his trip, Follger chose Tusker Trail, a firm offering trained chefs to prepare the meals as well as the level of medical attention Follger preferred. Tusker supplied 43 porters to support Follger, his two friends and six others with whom they climbed the peak.
The porters carried tents and other supplies.
“Twice a day,” Erickson said, “they checked on us physically. They would check our pulse. They would ask: ‘Are you peeing, have you had a good poo, how is your diarrhea today?’ They’d take a stethoscope to check our lungs.”
The trek began at 7,000 feet. It took six days to reach the final camp, Barafu, at 14,950 feet.
“It’s nine days camping out in Africa. How do you beat that! I’ve never seen so many stars,” said Erickson.
“It’s nine days with no shower,” Iverson said. “You’d sit up each morning with these baby wipes to try to take a sponge bath.”
“It’s charming,” Erickson said.
“We were unbelievable athletes,” Iverson declared. “Especially the unbelievable part.”
“One of the most memorable times,” Follger said, “were those hours in the morning on that summit day. Starting out before sunrise. When the sun comes up, it is something that will stick with you for a lifetime. You are above the clouds.”
On the last day of the ascent, climbers walk only four or five miles, but gain 4,000 feet in elevation. According to the Tusker Trail handbook for climbers, “This day will likely be the toughest thing that you have ever done in your life.”
Halfway to the summit on that day, around 18,000 feet, Erickson had to sit down. “I’d take three steps and get so dizzy I’d almost fall down. The guides gave me ‘Kilimanjaro cocaine’ – glucose powder. They slowed me down. You take a step, and rest, then another step, and rest. That rest step was the difference between making it up and not making it up.”
By the time they reached the summit, “I was too out of it to do much photography,” Follger said. “Just moving 50 feet off the trail to take a picture, you don’t want to do it.”
At that elevation, Erickson said, “You tie your shoes and you’re winded. Seriously.”
Looking back now at the fulfillment of his boyhood dream, Follger said he is “thrilled that I was able to do it, that my wife prompted me to do it, and that I found two fantastic friends that made it possible. Without these guys it wouldn’t have happened.”
“My trip,” Iverson said, “was about supporting Nick, it really was. After that trip, we’ll be bonded for life.”
Seeing Africa, Erickson said, “was truly beautiful and different. It’s a different way to live. What struck me was the physical beauty of the place. And the experience of being outside in it, away from civilization … I don’t know how to explain that. Being outside for extended periods feels right, at almost a cellular level.”
It took two days to descend from the summit. In a village at the trail’s end, the three companions stopped for a drink, recording the moment in a photo.
“That,” Erickson said, “was a very good beer.”