On Top: USACE Middle East District Employee Climbs Kilimanjaro
By Kristin Hoelen
Middle East District
WINCHESTER, Va. — Ernest Hemingway, in 1938, wrote " … there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going."
It is today, as it was then, that Mount Kilimanjaro is revered, even romanticized, in the minds of men and women who believe reaching the top is to reach some ultimate destination.
Jay Wallace, an assistant counsel for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District, reached that destination earlier this year, climbing 19,341 feet above sea level and fulfilling his dream of summiting the highest mountain in Africa.
"I just wanted to try it … to see if I could do it," said Wallace. "At the time I got to the summit, I was pretty excited."
Wallace prepared for the trip with his guide Eliaowony, who was the oldest guide working for the tour company.
"He was excellent and was full of good advice. He made sure I had the right equipment when I would need it and that I had enough food and water for the climb," said Wallace. "He had actually trained several other guides we encountered on the trail."
"The trip is a multi-day trek up and back from the gate of Kilimanjaro National Park," said Wallace. "The first day is relatively short, only hiking for four hours or so through the low-mountain country, which is pretty lush jungle. It was great for spotting wildlife.
"The second, third and fourth days are spent trekking through the heath land, described as moorland and alpine desert. The vegetation goes from large jungle trees to small shrubs," he said. "Altitude sickness does become a concern after a few days. I could feel my heart pumping pretty hard without much exertion once the altitude reached about four kilometers.
"The main event is the summit on day four," Wallace continued. "After a few hours rest from the day's hike, I woke at 11 p.m. and started the final assent by midnight. The idea was to hit Uhuru Peak, the highest point of Kilimanjaro, by sunrise. Unfortunately, my guide and I were moving too fast, and we reached the peak around 5:30 a.m. We didn't stick around at the peak very long -- it's about minus 15 degrees Celsius and there is no shelter at the top. I was lucky to get some great views on the return trip once the sun came up. Summit day is tough because you go up about one kilometer to hit the peak and are hiking about 12-13 hours that day.
"The glacier at the top of Kilimanjaro is pretty spectacular," he said. "It's actually hard to tell where the glacier stops and the cloud line begins. I actually think I passed through the cloud-line at about 3,700 meters -- the location of Hurombo Hut."
Wallace gained previous experience hiking other attractions, such as The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah, and Shenandoah National Park, Va. He has also attempted to climb Mt. Rainier, Wash., and Mt. Katahdin, Maine. Even with prior climbing knowledge, he knew Mt. Kilimanjaro would be a new and difficult undertaking.
People who choose to trek to the summit of the mountain are warned to do the appropriate research before attempting it, he said. Kilimanjaro is frequently misjudged because it is not a technical climb requiring ropes and harnesses. Instead, it can be walked, but it can still be very physically demanding if not prepared.
When Wallace finished his hike, he visited Kilimanjaro Centre, an orphanage in Moshi, Tanzania. Wallace said this portion of the trip was the most memorable because of the time he spent with the children there.
According to the Centre's website, it is registered as a non-governmental organization that provides protection and development services to orphans and street children. It houses 38 children ranging in age from 3 to 14, and provides them with an education. The Centre is supported through donations, grants, contributions and sponsorships from individuals and companies. Wallace said his tour group was also associated with the Centre.
While at the Centre, Wallace toured the classrooms and the grounds. He said the children were learning English and were willing to teach the tourists Swahili, their native language. Wallace said the children enjoy meeting the tourists and even sang and put on a short play for them.
"I was glad to have the chance to visit and they were very happy to have visitors," said Wallace. "It really puts things in perspective on how good we have it here in the U.S. Many of the basic necessities of life are a challenge to provide in Tanzania."
"I met plenty of interesting people in Tanzania," said Wallace of his fellow travelers. One in particular was a seasoned explorer named Werner Berger. "I came to find out that Werner is the oldest man in the Western Hemisphere to summit Mount Everest. Next year, he plans to return to summit Everest again to be the oldest man on the planet to summit Everest; he'll be 76 years old. He was on his way to climbing Aconcagua in Argentina in late July when I left."
Wallace also enjoyed meeting Berger's wife, who spends her time supporting the orphanage and served as a tour guide for Wallace while in Moshi.
When asked about his next adventure, Wallace said, "I could see myself doing this again -- not Kilimanjaro, but one of the other major peaks."
"It's good to know I can do this."