Father Joe Coffey has a unique relationship to Mt. Kilimanjaro. He was a participant in the pilot trip for Climb for Sight in 2000. They set the precedent; they were an 18 person coalition to reach the peak with the mission of providing sight-saving surgeries to indigent children. And as if one time wasn't enough, he did it again, several years later. But Fr. Joe did not make it to the top of “Kili” the second time around. I had the chance to talk with him about his trips, and he expressed in an honest and emotion-filled tone how his two ascents differed, and he offers some valuable advice to future climbers that might save them from making some of the same mistakes he did.
About his first climb with Climb for Sight, Fr. Coffey recollects:
We had a terrific trip, from the moment we all met in the airport in Detroit. We arrived in Africa and we're driving from the airport and I see, silhouetted in the moonlight on a mountaintop a Masai warrior. And I just turned to Doug and I said, 'Doug, we are not in Kansas anymore.'
On that first trip was Lucky Patton, one of the founders of Climb for Sight. Lucky was the first to propose climbing the mountain to raise money for Vision for the Poor (then VOSH/PA). Lucky sadly passed away from lung cancer several years later, and the trip is named in his honor. You can read more about Lucky's story on the Climb for Sight website.
Father Joe highlights the dramatic landscape changes and the nighttime trek to the summit of the freestanding volcano where he delighted in the panoramic view at sunrise of Tanzania and Kenya below, and in singing the Lord's Prayer shoulder to shoulder with his fellow climbers; a deeply spiritual and emotional moment in connection with his close friends.
But there was a special part of the trip that stood out for Fr. Joe. It happened on the hike down the mountain, where he spent the majority of the 10 hour descent in conversation with his close friend, Doug Villella. They talked about life and beyond, solved many of the world's problems, and bonded in a way that two friends can do only after having summited the tallest mountain in Africa. Those hours for Fr. Joe were some of the most precious of his trip.
Father Joe's second ascent of Kilimanjaro was not as successful as his first. Along with his hiking gear, trail snacks and two good friends, he brought with him warm feelings brought on by fond memories of his time on the mountain, as well as what he considers a surplus of confidence after having been successful in reaching the summit on his previous trip.
Father Joe feels that a series of mistakes on his part turned his trip into a disaster. What were the blunders that made the second time around such a challenge and ultimately prevented him from summiting?
I didn't have a very good appetite so I wasn't eating properly. Then, the night of the summit, I made it to the first camp, so I thought I was going to make it. But I hadn't slept well the night before. The final night was particularly warm, which is unusual, so I was sweating profusely, and I wasn't drinking enough water. So I got dehydrated, which added to the problem.
But Fr. Joe considers the main problem to be the result of his plan to take part in a custom where climbers, as they come down the mountain peel off layers of sweaters, jackets, hats and footwear as the air gets thicker and warmer, and give them to the guides.
They wear these incredible arrays of clothing. You'll see these African guides wearing a ladies purple sweater with a green hat and orange mittens. They love getting these gifts.
Fr. Joe had an old pair of hiking boots he wanted to donate to the guides as he was hiking down. Unfortunately, Fr. Joe did not thoroughly assess the condition of his boots, which would have been a better fit for a soft hike on level ground and not for the final push on the 19,400ft. mountain he was up against that final night.
They just didn't have good tread. So I started slipping and sliding on the switchbacks. Plus I was exhausted and dehydrated, so I was a little bit disoriented. I slipped a couple times and my guide, who knew me from my last climb and who was a very experienced guide, said to me, 'Father, you're done.'
It was that clear, not up for discussion. I was absolutely stunned, and I insisted on trying again. So he let me get up and I started slipping and sliding again, becoming just overwhelmed by my foolishness for having brought the wrong boots.
Finally he said to me, 'Father, this mountain is not worth your life.' So I sat down, totally and completely dejected, knowing that I was done, and knowing how close I was. I was only a couple of hours from the summit. So I just said, 'OK.' There was nothing I could do, nothing I could say. It was a brutal hike down the mountain. It was just very disheartening for me.
One important takeaway from Father Joe's story of his two experiences on Mt. Kilimanjaro is an awareness of the acute sensitivity that the body has to such extreme climate changes. Eating enough food (even when you don't have an appetite and don't feel like eating), drinking plenty of water, and getting plenty of sleep are all essential factors that will contribute to a successful climb. Don't skimp on footwear. You will need sturdy boots with plenty of tread for your final ascent.
Fr. Joe does not feel he can walk away from the mountain after his last attempt and says he will hike Kili one more time. He knows the sense of accomplishment one feels, and the bonds of camaraderie shaped by the shared experience. We hope to see Fr. Joe on the mountain once again, and with a spankin' new pair of hiking boots strapped to his feet!