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On the top

Teaneckers climb Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro looms behind climbers Jonathan Gellis, Micky Goldschmidt, Bruce Badner, and David Ruditzky.
Kilimanjaro looms behind climbers Jonathan Gellis, Micky Goldschmidt, Bruce Badner, and David Ruditzky.

The midrash says that Mount Sinai was the humblest of mountains.

No one ever said that about Kilimanjaro.

At 19,341 feet above sea level, it’s the highest mountain in Africa, taller than any peak in Europe, and according to Jonathan Gellis, “the largest mountain range where you can do non-technical climbing.” That means you don’t need ropes and pinions.

“It’s not like Everest,” he said; you cannot climb that mountain without equipment. When it comes to Kilimanjaro, though, “with proper training and preparation for the altitude it can be done.”

Mr. Gellis reached that summit, along with three friends — Bruce Badner, Micky Goldschmidt, and David Ruditzky — on May 30.

All of them live in Teaneck.

“Three out of the four of us are turning 45 this year,” Mr. Gellis said. “We decided that instead of just doing another trip to wherever we would something considered healthy and challenging.”

They spent six months training, hiking in the Palisades and Harriman State Park a few times a week.

“The terrain in Harriman State Park really mimics the terrain of the mountain,” he said. Up to the tree line at 13,000 feet, on Kilimanjaro “you’re on trails, but you have to worry about roots and rocks and loose dirt” — just as at Harriman. The group supplemented their hikes with intense treadmill practice.

The  climbers smile in victory after reaching Kilimanjaro’s summit.
The climbers smile in victory after reaching Kilimanjaro’s summit.

Their mountain excursion lasted eight days. Normally it takes seven, but on Shabbat they rested, camped out, and played cards in their tents.

They logged 50 miles of hiking along Kilimanjaro, hiking between four and nine hours a day. At the summit, the air pressure is only half of what it is at sea level, more than 3 1/2 miles below. To help them adjust, at first their climb was gentle. Every day, they descended from the highest point they’d reach; they didn’t want to sleep in an atmosphere to which they were not yet acclimated.

The four Teaneck travelers were accompanied by a staff of 21: Two guides, two cooks, and 17 porters.

On Sunday, May 29, at midnight, they began their final ascent, after two hours of sleep at 15,300 feet.

It took them seven hours to climb up the winding trail’s last 4,000 feet.

“You walk super slow in order to not to let the thin air get to you,” Mr. Gellis said. “It’s the pace of a very old man. And you have to focus on the rhythm of your breathing.” If you forget to pay attention, even drinking a glass of water can leave you gasping for breath.

At this stage, the two other peaks that make up Kilimanjaro were below them. “We got to 17,000 feet and the guide said, you’re now higher than the highest mountain in all of Europe,” Mr. Gellis said.

“Then we just kept going.”

A view from the mountain.
A view from the mountain.

The final 300 feet are on top of a sheet of ice. From the top, “one part of your view is a huge glacier to one side,” he said. Kilimanjaro’s glacier has shrunk by 85 percent in the last century.

“The other side has a crater, where there was no snow,” Mr. Gellis said. Kilimanjaro’s volcano hasn’t erupted in a hundred thousand years, but it’s warm. “Maybe it’s getting ready to erupt again,” he said.

The four friends spent most of an hour at the top, taking pictures, taking in the view, and taking a rest.

“Getting down was the hardest part. You’ve used all your adrenaline to get up,” Mr. Gellis said.

The descent took two hours longer than the climb up.

“No one wants to get hurt on the way down. It’s extra stress on different muscles,” he said.

They camped for the night more than halfway down, at 10,000 feet, after hiking for 16 hours.

The group was lucky with the weather: eight days without rain, even though the rainy season hadn’t ended.

And their preparation had paid off.

Not everyone is successful. “The night before our group went up, four of the eight who attempted the summit did not make it,” Mr. Gellis said.

The group used the trek to raise money for a fund at the Frisch School in memory of Avram Ruditzky, David’s father, who died when David was a freshman at the school. The fund will help needy students with athletics-related expenses. The group exceeded its goal of a dollar for every foot up and every foot down, raising more than $40,000.

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