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The Third Branch

Clerk takes on Mt. Kilimanjaro at 50

By Carlo Esqueda, Dane County Clerk of Circuit Court/Register in Probate

Dane County Clerk of Circuit Court Carlo Esqueda describes himself in this photo, taken in September, as “the barely conscious one on the left.” He is pictured with guides who took him to the summit of Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.

Dane County Clerk of Circuit Court Carlo Esqueda describes himself in this photo, taken in September, as "the barely conscious one on the left." He is pictured with guides who took him to the summit of Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.

Most people, upon turning 50, start looking at convertibles or considering Botox. I decided to climb a mountain. On Saturday, Sept. 14, I joined eight fellow climbers (all of whom I had only just met) at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa to begin an assault on the summit at Uhuru Peak. Uhuru (Swahili for "freedom") is 19,341 feet above sea level and would be reached after a five-day non-technical trek up the north side of the mountain, along what is known as the Rongai Route. Success was by no means certain, given that about 30 percent of climbers fail in the attempt, usually due to the onset of Acute Mountain Sickness, which plagues 80 percent of all "Kili" climbers to varying degrees and which, in its most severe forms, can be fatal. Thankfully, over the course of those days, I discovered that I was firmly in the 20-percent category. Still, given that the level of oxygen in the atmosphere near the summit is only 50 percent that of sea level, this was no cakewalk.

After four days spent slowly gaining altitude on the mountain to achieve acclimatization, the final push to Uhuru started at 11 p.m. on the night of Wednesday, Sept. 18, staged from the Kibo Hut base camp (elev. 15,480 feet), under a brilliant full moon. Already, two of our party had decided they could go no further (and one more would ultimately get no further than Gilman's Point, elev. 18,638 feet). What followed was nine hours of painfully slow trudging up a switchback trail of rocks and scree, in the dark and freezing cold, struggling for every breath. I found myself, at times, crawling on hands and knees, thinking how easy it would be to just turn around and head back to where there was warmth and oxygen. It was a brutal experience, but the eventual sunrise over the mountain provided inspiration, along with stunning views of the legendary glaciers looming on either side of the trail as well as the sea of clouds beneath me. Every few minutes I simply told myself I could do this for just a few minutes more. Plus, I had a mission. I carried with me a small container of some of my late father's ashes that I was determined to scatter at the summit to honor his memory and his desire in life to be an adventurer himself, even if he never actually had the opportunity and resources to fully realize that dream. So, at 7:50 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 19, I reached Uhuru with two members of my climbing party (the remaining three were a bit further behind and would summit within the hour). The effort had taken a toll, as is evident in the accompanying photo; just standing upright at that point was a physical challenge. And I remember being filled with dread then, realizing that another four hour hike back down to base camp was imminent. I confess I remember very little of that return hike, except that I'm certain I did it under my own power, unlike many other hikers I saw who had to be stretchered down from the summit by their mountain guides.

It was a transcendent experience, yet one I would never intend to repeat. Nor am I sure I would actually recommend it to anyone. Future milestone birthdays will likely feature not much more than sandy beaches and umbrella drinks. And maybe that convertible…

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