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Wolfe on Kilimanjaro

Article Published: Mar. 18, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Wolfe on Kilimanjaro

Area vintner Dick Wolfe stands atop the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Wolfe celebrated his 70th birthday on the slopes of the tallest mountain in Africa.

Photo submitted

Like most adventures, Dick Wolfe's started in a cinema.

A noted chemist, Wolfe is known locally as the vintner and co-owner of the award-winning Banner Elk Winery. But 53 years ago, he was running a movie projector in Sophia, W.Va.

The film was The Snows of Kilimanjaro, starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, based on Ernest Hemingway's short story.

"That was my eyes to the world," Wolfe said of the cinema, "and the first time I'd heard of Kilimanjaro. You have a quest sometimes, when you think, 'I can do this, and I can do that.' Mt. Kilimanjaro has always been mine since I was a teenager."

Decades later, Wolfe celebrated his 70th birthday in Tanzania, specifically Uhuru Peak, the highest summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, at 19,341 feet above sea level - the tallest mountain in Africa, and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.

"Like so many things, growing up in these (Appalachian) mountains gave me the chance to get to know these mountains," said Wolfe, who, as a child, would race 4 to 5 miles up and down the slopes. "I guess I've been preparing myself all my life."

The more intensive preparation came this past year, namely by hiking weekly to the summits of area slopes in Banner Elk and Beech Mountain, what Wolfe called "one of the better training grounds" for mountain ascensions.

Meanwhile, Wolfe's nephew, landscaper and Virginia Tech graduate Dean Yates, 36, who would accompany him on the expedition, trained in Abingdon, Va. Though nearly overwhelmed by Kilimanjaro's harsh climate, both were fully prepared, as were the 14 others in their 24-person expedition, divided into two groups, who achieved the summit.

Wolfe and Yates were the only two Americans in the group, others hailing from the United Kingdom, Australia and relatively flat locales.

"They'd hiked, but there's a difference between hiking and climbing," Wolfe said. "It turns out I'm a better climber than a hiker."

The journey to the top was 50 miles, 25 up and 25 back to the gate of Kilimanjaro National Park. Wolfe said it takes four days to just reach the base camp, though it was anything but an uneventful trip. They started on Jan. 11, Wolfe's birthday, encountering numbers of Tanzanian locals, a colorful variety of wildlife, including monkeys, buffalo and elephants, and remarkable changes in climate.

"You start out in the rainforest - and boy, did it rain - and get higher to the heather, and then the moorland, with mostly volcanic rock and very little vegetation," Wolfe said.

Employing the services of African Walking Company, Wolfe, Yates and company were backed by a 36-person support team of sherpas and auxiliary staff. One of the guides, Atilio Hemedi, took an instant liking to Wolfe, affectionately nicknaming him "Babu," meaning "Grandpa."

"I got to know Atilio really well," Wolfe said. "He told me the same thing my dad told me: I want to give my children a good education, so they don't have to work in these mountains."

Wolfe said his father worked hard in the coal mines of West Virginia, so he wouldn't have to. He and Atilio became fast friends, and he was truly touched when several talented cooks prepared him a birthday cake one evening.
"I was 17 years older than anybody in these two groups," Wolfe said. "Fifty-three was the second oldest age, a doctor from Australia."

The next morning, Wolfe saw Kilimanjaro - in person - for the first time, looming about 18 to 20 miles away. The expedition was told to always follow four golden rules: "Poly-poly," positive attitude, hydration, and climb high, sleep low.

"(The guides) call it 'poly-poly,' which means 'slowly slowly,'" Wolfe said. "Going slow helps you climatize, but it was at a slower pace than I'd practiced."

Before turning in for the night, the group would climb 1,000 feet, and then come back down - climb high, sleep low, thus growing accustomed to the ever-increasing elevation. Upon reaching the Kilimanjaro valley, the altitude was an approximate 12,000 feet. Eight miles later, they reached Kibo Hut, base camp. They ate early that night, around 5, so they could catch several hours' sleep before starting their ascension at 11 p.m.

"We'd already hiked 8 miles through the valley, so we were pretty tired," Wolfe said. "But trying to go to sleep, knowing the quest would start at 11, was difficult. I got the feeling like someone going to battle. It's really hard not to have your adrenaline pumping. I knew it was going to be the most difficult part of the trip."

In this case, difficult equals a 6,500-foot ascent up an increasingly steep grade. The 11 p.m. starting time was set, so the climbers could witness sunrise on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. Wolfe suspects an untold reason is so climbers won't notice the steep slopes quite so much.

"I'd look up and see the stars, what I thought were stars, but they were moving," Wolfe said. "They were the other climbers' lights."

Wolfe reached Gilman's Point, 18,638 feet above sea level, in the early hours of Jan. 15, still quite dark, but just in time to watch the sun rise over the crest, an image he'll not soon forget.

He and his nephew enjoyed a brief reprieve with a cup of hot coffee, before setting out toward Stella Point, only about 300 feet higher, but a grueling 300 feet.

"By now, we're at 20 degrees below zero, and oxygen's about half of what it is here," Wolfe said.
"I was really being honest with myself. I didn't want to die on that mountain. When I got to Gilman's Point, I tried to assess my thoughts. When you don't get as much oxygen to the brain, you get wobbly and can't think straight. I didn't get like that. I could feel my breath shortening, but my guide said, 'You've got to keep going. If you stop, your legs get lazy and you'll freeze up here.'"

Attributing this resilience to his High Country training, Wolfe didn't have much trouble taking Atilio's advice. From Stella Point, the final stop was Uhuru Peak, about 400 vertical feet away, and the uppermost summit on Kilimanjaro's Kibo crater rim, the highest of the mountain's three volcanic cones. Yates had reached the top, with Wolfe about 30 minutes behind. "I was ahead of some, but my guide was right there with me at the end," he said.

Upon reaching the summit's thin air, climbers are urged to spend no more than 15 minutes there for health and safety. Yates stayed 30, waiting for his uncle to arrive.

What Wolfe encountered there brought tears to his eyes.

Along with Yates, his fellow climbers were waiting, clapping as he arrived. Wolfe achieved the summit at 8 a.m. on Jan. 15, an eight-hour journey.

"It was quiet, other than the clapping," he said. "I looked around, had a moment to myself. The air was cold, but crystal clear, and I could see the curvature of the Earth. I got tears in my eyes."

It was 20 below, but the sun was shining, and Wolfe couldn't resist the opportunity to tout his winery, unzipping his jacket to reveal a Banner Elk Winery T-shirt and pose for a photograph.
Wolfe spent the recommended 15 minutes there, before starting the equally, if not more, tricky descent. Upon reaching Gilman's Point the second time, Atilio, of Masai heritage, gave Wolfe his tribal cloth, "So, I was truly his Babu," he said.

The downhill trip past base camp and beyond took a total of 18 hours, and Wolfe slept hard that night, forgoing supper for slumber.

Wolfe still attributes his success on Kilimanjaro to his persistent training on Beech Mountain, claiming the High Country is an ideal training ground for such feats. But Wolfe already had an advantage: Resolve.

"Here I set this goal for myself," he said. "It showed what perseverance could do in anything. I'm not the kind of person to give up."

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