The Taming of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Frank Solomon

Written by Kol HaBirah Staff on . Posted in Travel

Blinded by the snow and caked in icicles, Frank Solomon of Silver Spring, Maryland, counted his average speed: one step for every 12 seconds. Each breath became harder. Each step pushed the edge of his physical and psychological limits.

It was Oct. 23, 2018, and Solomon was one of 10 people attempting to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro under the auspices of Shalva, the Center for Disabled Children in Jerusalem. The group comprised four Americans, counting Solomon, as well as a Brit, an Australian, and four Israeli olim (two were originally from New York, one from Toronto, and one from South Africa). They inched their way up the rocky slope, battered by icy sleet and thunderous wind. The muddy trail became solid, intractable ice blocks. The temperature was 10 degrees below zero Celsius. The wind-chill factor plunged it to minus 25 degrees.

At that altitude, the oxygen level was half the amount at sea level. Exhaustion hit fast with each step. Still, no one decided to pull out. Not yet.

* * * *

This summit challenge was the culmination of 10 days of trekking and climbing put together by London-based Charity Challenge, which runs charitable outdoor events all over the world. It typically lists these events as extreme in the sports world, with the Mt. Kilimanjaro challenge at the top of the “extreme” categorization in physical endurance and climbing difficulty. Mt. Kilimanjaro contains almost every kind of ecological system on earth: cultivated land, rain forest, heath, moorland, alpine desert, and an arctic summit. At a colossal 19,341 feet, it is one of the largest volcanoes to ever break through the earth’s crust.

Knowledgeable about kashrut dietary laws and Shabbat requirements, Charity Challenge had managed the previous two climbs and used local operator Tanzanian Travel Company. Both of the two previous challenges ran daily minyans and had certified kosher food and cooking utensils. They also rested on Shabbat, complete with an eruv on the mountain.

This third group had the same vegetarian food and Shabbat regimen. Because there were only six men and four women, there was no daily minyan. Instead, individual members davened on their own each day.

The climbers flew into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from various parts of the world on Monday morning, Oct. 15. They proceeded by car to Arusha, Tanzania, the town closest to Mt. Kilimanjaro. They spent the first night at the Arushua Planet Lodge, getting to know one another and their Tanzanian tour guide, A.J., and checking their equipment.

Supported by a company of 56 drivers, chef, porters, and assistants, as well as the Charity Challenge physician, the group began its journey on Tuesday morning, Oct. 16, trekking seven to 12 hours a day uphill to reach the next base camp. The group climbed to higher ground each day before descending to a lower altitude to camp to acclimate to the thinning oxygen supply. The scene changed from rainforest or moorland to alpine as they moved along. The temperature plunged as the group ascended. Each night the group arrived at a designated camp site, where many other groups from around the world had already camped out, all with the same goal of taking on the summit. Most of the climbers shared a tent with another. The days were hot. The nights were frigid. The climbers woke up each morning to find their tents’ ground cover sheets soaking wet and their tents covered in ice.

Before sunset on Friday, Oct. 19, the group arrived at the mountain’s most spectacular spot, the Barranco Wall, a cliff dropping hundreds of feet to that day’s base camp with views over Mount Meru and the expansive valleys below. Shabbat began at this mountain camp site. Porters set up an eruv around the group’s tents before the climbers arrived. Lights were mounted outside the two makeshift toilets so that none of the climbers had to switch on electricity to use the facilities. That evening the group had a Kabbalat Shabbat service at 12,870 feet. They spent the next day resting within the eruv. The group sang Havdalah and danced outside under a clear sky above the clouds. The porters and Sherpas joined the dance.

The next day, the group summoned up all its energy and scaled up the steep Barranco Wall, a climb of more than 600 feet. They continued their ascent for two more days, ending at 15,180 feet at Barafu Ridge toward the ice fields before the summit night.

* * * *

Solomon had visited Shalva in Jerusalem in early 2017, and was impressed by the scope and depth of the institution’s work with disabled children in Israel regardless of their national, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. He decided to raise awareness of the need to include disabled children and their families in mainstream activities, and he was the first person to enlist in Shalva’s third-ever charity climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain on the African continent and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

Solomon also knew the story of Dr. Amram Cohen, a pediatric surgeon who grew up attending Solomon’s own Congregation Har Tzeon Agudath Achim in Silver Spring. As an adult, Cohen made aliyah and founded the humanitarian organization Save a Child’s Heart, with its mission of improving the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and who cannot get adequate medical care in their home countries. To date, Save a Child’s Heart has saved the lives of more than 4,500 children with congenital heart defects.

Cohen died on August 16, 2001, while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. He was 47. He still has family living in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring. When Solomon signed up to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for an Israeli institution close to his own heart, it was with the intention to finish Cohen’s climb.

* * * *

The group ascended the summit amid gale-force wind, pitch darkness, minus 25-degree Celsius temperature, and half of the amount of oxygen available at sea level. Ice hardened their clothes. Sleet battered them with blinding whiteness. One misstep could plunge a climber to death nearly 20,000 feet down the cliff.

The ascent to Stella Point, one of the three summit points, at 18,975 feet was supposed to take six to seven hours, but ultimately took eight. After several hours carefully searching for the best spot to land the next step so as not to fall into the dark abyss below. Icicles and sleet covered their clothing, effectively turning each person into a moving ice bar in slow motion.

Along the way, no fewer than 12 climbers — 11 women and one man — were escorted down by a guide because they could not continue to climb.

After about two hours, Solomon became so exhausted that he could not stand up. For about 20 minutes, he crawled uphill on his frozen gloves and boots like a giant lizard moving at a snail’s pace. His sweat froze underneath his thermal underwear. The blinding whiteness and howling wind could have blown a two-ton boulder down his path. Sleet hit his face like bullets. His face and eyelashes turned into ice.

The chill and wind storm continued without a break. The expected breathtaking sunrise didn’t arrive at 5:30 a.m. Eventually, the climbers arrived at the summit in groups of two or three at Stella Point at different times. It took another hour to reach Uhuru Peak at 19,453 feet, a mere 400 feet higher than Stella Point. Solomon was the last one to reach Stella Point. He took 1.5 hours to reach Uhuru.

The summit was too cold for anyone to stay for more than a few minutes. By the time Solomon reached Uhuru Peak, the rest of the group had already begun their three-hour descent to the Barafu Ridge base camp.

The members of the 2018 climbing group (two ultimately had to pull out before the event) raised $139,220 for Shalva. Solomon expressed his gratitude for the over $10,000 contributed by the Kemp Mill community: Kemp Mill Synagogue (KMS), Maayan Chadash, Chabad of Silver Spring, Young Israel Shomrai Emunah, Har Tzeon Agudath Achim, Tifereth Israel, and Tikvat Israel, as well as individual neighbors and friends. To learn more about Shalva, visit http://www.shalva.org/new/.