The Tallest Men on Earth: A Father and Two Sons Take on Mt. Kilimanjaro—and Try Not to Die

Some do better than others.

The author as a young adventurer! (This also explains his current posture problems.)

The author as a young adventurer. (This picture also explains his current posture problems.)

Throughout my life, I have often looked at my father and wondered if we were related. We share the same hair color and
bone structure, but our interests rarely overlap. He enjoys camping, canoeing and having a moustache, while I prefer Netflix, delivery food and rationalizing cab rides even though the app says to take the subway. Every year for my birthday, my dad gifts me some book about exploring the wilderness, which he then immediately borrows and spends the rest of the day reading. He has also been dragging my brother and me with him on various adventures out into the elements ever since we were old enough to, well, die from exposure. Though we may have lacked the enthusiasm or survival skills for these adventures, we understood our presence brought him happiness. Also, he’s the one who paid our cell phone bills, so we pretty much had to do what he said.

It was because of this crippling need for cellular service that, on Dec. 24, 2007, I left New York City (tsetse fly count: zero) and came to be standing at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro (tsetse fly count: plenty). Mount Kilimanjaro is an excessively tall mount—one of the tallest on Earth. It takes six days total to get up and down it, and you need at least two guides to help you along the way. These guides, to my father’s disappointment, are required by law. If he’d had his way, we’d have gone up the mountain alone, without a map, and then figured out some way to canoe down it.

Our main guide was a short man named Samson, and our secondary guide was a not-as-short man named something I completely forgot. Rather than saying “hello,” they served us a bowl of soup and warned us that if we didn’t drink enough fluids, the mountain would “crush” us. We waved a final good-bye to electricity and were off.

***

Mount Kilimanjaro has always been my father’s Everest. His dream was that the three Kocher men would one day conquer it. Every time he suggested the trip, which was often, he would add in the fun fact that, at the time of year we’d go, no one would be climbing Everest. So if we made it to the top, for a brief moment, we’d be the tallest men on Earth. My brother and I would respond to this utterly unenticing bait with, were we characters in a multicamera sitcom, what could certainly have been our catchphrase: “Daaaaaaaad, you’re being annoying.”

We thought about climbing Kilimanjaro in the same way we thought about getting pushed out of an airplane by Nicole Kidman. Yeah, I suppose that could happen, but probably not to us, or anyone we know.

Day one was pleasant enough. The climbing wasn’t too difficult, the weather was nice, and early on I realized I was able to respond to most questions people asked me by quoting lyrics from the Toto song “Africa.” It’s not often I have the opportunity to do this, so I might’ve taken too much advantage. By 2 p.m., the four other people in our group had stopped making eye contact with me altogether, hoping to prevent me from reiterating what I planned to “bless the rains of.”

Before breakfast on day two, we met another person climbing up the mountain, a middle-aged Dutch woman with an aggressively furrowed brow. I asked her how she was faring on her quest up “the cliffs of Mordor.” Her brow remained furrowed. Our guides served us a breakfast of soup and said, “Today, we will be walking through the clouds.” Though I heard every word of this sentence, I chose not to wear any rain gear, because apparently I was operating under the belief that clouds are made of cotton candy and wishes. On the wetness scale, day two ranked somewhere between “Christ, I’m soaking wet!” and “Seriously, I’m worried we may have inadvertently angered an old rain god.” An hour in, just after hypothermia had finished its introductory small talk with my circulatory system, I had to use a knife to cut the soaking clothes off my trembling body and replace them with my father’s spare waterproof thermals. Right as I was starting to regain my sense of touch, right in the middle of saying out loud, “Ahh, now that’s better,” was when the diarrhea started. Every 20 minutes or so, I’d excuse myself as nonchalantly as possible, go find a nearby rock, squat down behind it and, in the pouring rain, endure something more accurately described as an exorcism than a bowel movement. That was day two. That was Christmas Day.

My father, meanwhile, was loving every second of the trip. At random intervals, he’d approach my brother and me and give us his classic dad neck squeeze.

“What do you think, guys? It’s great, right?!”

I resisted the urge to say, “Dad, I’ve known you for two decades now, and that neck squeeze has never felt good,” instead saying the much more tactful, “Daaaaaaaad, you’re being annoying.”

***

Seriously, Kilimanjaro is a really tall mount.

Seriously, Kilimanjaro is a very tall mount.

From the moment the trip to Kilimanjaro became a reality, my father had been warning me about the effects that high altitude can have on the body. As you ascend higher up the mountain, it becomes more difficult for your body to get oxygen to your brain. This can lead to many different symptoms, including lightheadedness, insomnia, shortness of breath and a dramatic heightening of your emotions. I was fairly familiar with this, having spent several years in a sixth-floor walk-up in Williamsburg. However, I completely forgot about it on day three, when I awoke filled with absolute certainty that my father was having an affair with the terrible Dutch woman.

“You’re not half the woman my mother is,” I thought while angrily sipping soup. I couldn’t believe how casually she was filling up her water bottle, 15 feet away, while my parents’ marriage disintegrated. I vowed to end this affair in any way I could. I spent the rest of the day inserting myself into conversations between the Dutch woman and my father, then loudly and abruptly changing the subject to my mom. “Wow, great point. My mom makes good points too. She’s a nice lady, and we all live together in a house. Right, Dad?” This type of effortless segue was usually greeted with confused looks, followed by the suggestion that I drink more fluids.

***

Day four was the summit day. Here’s how it works: First, you wake up and slurp down your morning soup. Next, you do a thorough inspection of your father’s tent to make sure dirty Dutch sex didn’t happen there the night before. After that, it’s a short three-hour hike to the base of the summit. Another bowl of soup is waiting for you there, which you must eat no matter how loudly you protest that said soup is beginning to taste like ground-up armpits. At midnight, in pitch-black darkness, the summit climb begins. It’s necessary to go at night, because that’s when the gravel freezes, making it easier to climb. The summit is the hardest part of the mountain, and a good percentage of people end up having to turn back. We had been warned about its hazards so much throughout the climb, though, that when we actually began and realized we didn’t have to wrestle angels on the way up, my brother and I didn’t find it too difficult.

My dad was a different story.

About halfway up the slope, he started to slow down. The slowing down soon became stopping completely, and when asked if he was O.K., he would respond with 20 seconds of silence followed by a labored “I … think so.” (A tip to all parents out there: If you ever want to terrify your children, answer in this manner to any question.) Eventually, he fell far behind us, and the secondary guide—not named Samson—hung back with him.

When you’re 3 billion feet above sea level, it tends to be pretty quiet, and despite the growing distance between us, I could still distinctly hear my father’s breathing. It was loud, labored and raspy, and it quickly drowned out every single thought in my head except for one: My dad is going to die. Now, I’ve had different versions of this fear many times since I was 3: when my parents were late getting home from a dinner party, when I called their cell phones and it went straight to voicemail and pretty much any time I couldn’t find them in a Walmart. This was different, though. This time, there was actual evidence to support my paranoia. Suddenly, there were questions that needed answers.

How is my little brother going to react?

How will I tell my mom?

How do we get his body down the mountain?

What if he dies and I don’t cry?

What am I going to say at his funeral?

The author and his father, very far from indoor plumbing.

The author and his father, very far from indoor plumbing.

Deciding not to waste any time, I began outlining his eulogy. I figured I’d open with a joke—nothing tasteless, just something light and quick to break the tension. I’d transition from that into a charming anecdote, one painting him as a heroic yet caring soul. After the story, I’d find a way to mention various achievements of my own, so as to impress the pretty girl with brown wavy hair that I imagined would be sitting close to the podium. (I wasn’t sure who she was—the daughter of the undertaker, I suppose. Hopefully not any kind of distant blood relative.) Perhaps halfway through, I’d tear up my prepared speech, hop off the stage and extemporize while wading through the crowd of thousands, their hands outstretched in an effort to touch the hem of my robes. I’d be wearing robes.

Just when I had settled on the most efficient way of igniting his floating funeral pyre, we reached the top of the mountain. Well, most of us had. There was no sign of my father. We waited in the darkness for him. A frigid 15 minutes passed. Samson suggested that we leave; it wasn’t safe to remain at this altitude for very long.

***

Ever since my father first dragged us out into the wilderness, each adventure had always ended the same way: with a photo of the three of us, arm in arm, smiling and standing triumphant over some hiking trail or camping ground. No matter how reluctantly my brother and I had attended these outdoor excursions, we were always happy to pose for the photo. Because otherwise, what was the point? How was my dad supposed to make other families jealous without daguerreotypical proof? Suddenly, we were in danger of returning home with nothing but our memories.

“I’ll go get him,” I said and quickly started back down the mountain before Samson could protest. I found my dad 10 minutes later looking older than I’d ever seen him. His teeth were tightly clenched, and each step seemed to require Herculean effort. I saw him see me. I saw him swallow all of the pain and smile. “You’re taking your sweet time,” I joked. He offered a weak chuckle and started to speak but seemed to decide his energy would be better spent keeping his feet moving. We walked side by side in silence. Finally, we saw the flag planted at the highest point on the mountain and my brother sitting just below it. My dad stopped to rest for a moment. He reached out, weakly squeezing my neck. “I want you guys to know that I’m very”—his voice started to crack—“proud of you.” He sniffed and began quietly weeping. My throat started to hurt. Bad. I knew that if I tried to say something, it would come out sounding like John Boehner talking about the Fourth of July. So I remained silent.

The sun began to rise—perfect lighting for a photograph. A picture of the three tallest men on Earth, each of them trying their hardest not to cry.

***

This Kodak moment was immediately followed by Samson and Not-Samson screaming that we absolutely must get to a lower altitude. We quickly made our way down, but just as we were entering the summit camp, my dad collapsed and began clutching his chest in pain. The guides took about five minutes to do essentially nothing but offer him soup. Drowning in a sea of panic, I began frantically looking for the nearest possible life preserver. That’s when I saw him.

The author and his brother having an absolutely thrilling time in a canoe.

The author and his brother having an absolutely thrilling time in a canoe.

Going up the mountain at the same time as us was a tall, broad-shouldered, silver-haired British man. He used not one but two walking sticks and looked like the word “imperialism.” Periodically, he would gaze out from the mountain cliff, inhale deeply and exclaim “Ahhh, life! Isn’t it fantastic?” From what I’d overheard, this was his sixth time going up Kilimanjaro. I approached him trembling with fear.

“Hi. Listen, you don’t know me. I’ve just … my dad is in pain. His chest hurts or something, and the people don’t know what it is, and I’m trying to figure out exactly how scared I should be, and I don’t know if you really know anything about anything, but can you help?” His brow furrowed, his eyes squinted. He nodded at something far off in the distance and then said, “Bring me to him.” Jackpot.

After a few minutes alone with my father, this walking clipper ship of a man approached me. “I believe he’s developed a case of what’s called cartilage some-fancy-word pulmonary some-other-fancy-word-ilism,” he said. “He needs to get to a lower altitude as soon as is possible.”  Within five minutes, my dad and Not-Samson had set out down the mountain. My brother and I were told we could follow after we had a bowl of soup. Twenty terrible minutes later, we were anxiously on our way.

***

An hour passed, and there had been no sign of my father. I was worried. At this point, we should have caught up with him. A scene flashed in my head. He had collapsed abruptly, and the guide had thrown him over his shoulders and begun running down the trail. He had moved quickly, but my father was heavy, and we were still two days away from any legitimate medical assistance. Suddenly, I broke into a sprint. This probably came as a shock to my brother and Samson. I hadn’t said a word in the past 30 minutes, let alone given any kind of indication that I was about to take off running at top speed. They followed me, confused. I ran as fast I could, hoping I would reach my father in time to … say good-bye. To squeeze his hand. To thank him. Thank him for encouraging me to follow my interests even though they were wildly different from his. Thank him for passing down a sense of adventure and the courage to conquer my own mountains, even if only the metaphorical kind. Thank him for teaching me how to climb.

I was trying to figure out the best way to squeeze all these thank-you’s into a single concise sentence, when I reached the top of a hill and there he was. Very much alive, sitting on a rock and eating a bowl of soup. “Hey! I’m feeling a lot better,” he said cheerfully. I casually nodded, swallowed hard and said, “Daaaaaaaad, you’re being annoying.”

Comments

  1. Mila Shah says:

    Reblogged this on fuzzy tree and commented:
    nick kocher is funny.