Joshua Peterson and Cameron Niemi took a giant leap into the new year with the climb of their life.
Peterson and Niemi, both Coon Rapids residents, spent a week hiking up some rugged terrain, scaling the world’s highest freestanding mountain, and reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on New Year’s Day 2014.
“It was amazing to be able to sit there and look down at the world,” said Peterson, a senior at St. Cloud State University, as he told the tale of the climb to the mountain peak 19,341 feet above sea level.
His climbing partner, a 2013 graduate of St. Cloud State and long time friend of Peterson’s, said climbing the mountain was “a nice little push into the rest of our lives.”
To get into position for that “nice little push” Peterson and Niemi had some work to do …
Together the childhood friends had already visited Niagara Falls, snowboarded the mountains of Montana and Colorado, and did some sky diving in Wisconsin.
However, they’d never been out of the country before and they were looking for their next great adventure when a 70-year-old acquaintance casually mentioned that he had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, that’s what Cam and I should do,’” Peterson said.
Preparing to reach the peak
And so, back in May he and his buddy purchased their mountain passes, claimed their spots on the climbing calendar, booked their transcontinental flight, bought some good hiking boots and trekking poles, did some research and started to train for the climb.
Finally, day one of the seven-day climb arrived Dec. 26, 2013 when Peterson and Niemi met the rest of their 12-person climbing group at the base of the mountain, and a 40-man support crew described the ascent and told them what to expect.
“These guys climb all the time,” Peterson said. “Our lead guide, Bruce, said the climb with us marked the 466th time he would reach the summit. This was nothing to them.”
And to make the ascent a pleasant experience for the climbers, Bruce and five assistant guides led the way, 30 porters carried gear (tables and chairs, a toilet, tents and sleeping bags, emergency medical equipment, etc.), and cooks brought food and beverage up the mountain and prepared and served it to the hungry climbers.
And so, a dozen amateur climbers and the 40-man support crew made the ascent.
Similar groups had taken their first steps on the climb the day before and more groups would begin their climb the following day and the day after that and the day after that.
“There are all kinds of people climbing Kilimanjaro. And now we can say we’ve done it. We’ve reached the peak,” said Niemi.
Scaling the world’s highest mountain
Fueling the climb were plates and bowls of food prepared by cooks climbing with them.
“They made porridge and coffee or tea for breakfast. Lunch was soup and pasta and there was always some random meat for supper,” Peterson said, not quite sure the identity of the bird or animal that provided the meat they ate.
Guides dictated climbing hours between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. in order to escape the heat and burning sun of the daytime hours.
“We’d climb all night, then set up camp and they’d tell us to go to sleep at 2:30,” said Peterson.
Due to the elevation and the terrain, climbing took place at a very slow pace, as Niemi described.
“We were trekking … just step, step, stepping … it’s endless walking and all you see is headlamps. It’s pitch dark so you can’t see anything but the headlamps on other climbers’ heads,” he said.
“It was always a boost when you saw the sun coming up,” Peterson said, but admitted that the first one or two hours of each day’s climb seemed to go quite easily.
“Those first couple hours are okay. It’s pitch dark but everyone’s amped up to climb. But then the cold, the exhaustion, the dark really gets to you. It’s really a mind game,” he said.
And that mind game is tough to play, Niemi said.
“On summit night … I just didn’t know if I could do it,” he said, recalling his exhaustion and the impossibility he felt of taking another step.
But guides and porters and cooks and fellow climbers urged him on, convincing him to keep on trekking.
Finally, Peterson and Niemi and their climbing companions reached Uhuru Peak – the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro – on New Year’s Day.
After climbing for seven days, the group spent just 20 minutes at the peak, then turned and began a quick one-day descent.
Lessons learned along the way
The Tanzanian mountain’s Swahili name is said to mean “mountain of greatness.” Well, that great mountain proved to be a valuable teacher of life lessons along the way – lessons Peterson and Niemi learned with every step they took.
“It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going as long as you continue taking steps, fighting and working to reach your goal, any goal – you can do it,” said Peterson.
“Yes, just keep going, keep working, keep trying … you can do it and maybe you’ll inspire someone to reach their goals, too,” Niemi said.
For now, the two local climbing companions have no desire to climb another mountain, but “We’ve always been up for new challenges, so we’ll see what’s next,” said Niemi.
Sue Austreng is at [email protected]