At 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak is the highest point on the African continent. Located in northern Tanzania, just south of the Kenyan border, this dormant volcano is the tallest free-standing mountain (not part of a mountain range) in the world. Due to the flatness of the surrounding region, a single view from the summit sees a greater area of the earth’s surface than anywhere else on earth.
Kilimanjaro is almost always cloaked in clouds, usually clearing only in the late evening, when the darkness of the night sky reveals an incredible view of both the northern and southern hemispheres’ constellations. Before six o’clock in the morning, dawn breaks with a magnificent sunrise – but within a few short hours, clouds are already gathering again.
Although summiting Kilimanjaro doesn’t require any special equipment, it is particularly challenging because of the high altitude and low temperatures. Many well-prepared climbers are forced to turn back due to altitude sickness. Fortunately, I was not among them. I spent five days climbing Kilimanjaro with Patrick Murphy, a friend from my college years at Notre Dame. We were guided by Temba Gabriel, the father of one of my students at Holy Cross Lake View and the brother of Fr. Temba Leopold, C.S.C. A native of the place, he had learned the mountain from his father as a young boy.
We packed light, but we should have packed lighter – shortly before reaching the peak, we were still giving away extra food! We had just enough clothes though. We carried gear for every kind of weather – waterproof jackets and pants for the soggy weather of the rainforest; hats, sunglasses, t-shirts and shorts for intense sunshine of the moorland; and hats, gloves and winter parkas for the bitterly cold blizzard that we would find as we hiked through the night to the reach the summit at sunrise.
As we made our way up the mountain, we met fellow climbers from around the world. Graham and Kent came from Australia, Chris and Herbin are Dutch, and Hella is from Denmark. Helping each other, all of us made it to the top!
In a rapidly developing world, mountains remain secluded, mysterious places. Severe weather makes their majestic peaks uninhabitable, yet we still have a desire to climb them. Something draws us there! Reaching toward the heavens yet covered in clouds, our tradition of faith portrays mountains as the dwelling place of God.
When the Israelites marched out of Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai, Moses encountered the thundering, fiery presence of God on the mountain as he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19). When Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life, he fled to Mount Horeb – and there he found the presence of the Lord in a tiny whispering sound as he hid his face in his cloak at the entrance of the cave (1 Kings 19). And when Peter, James and John climbed a high mountain with Jesus, they witnessed him conversing with these two great prophets, and heard the voice of God announce their master as His beloved Son and command them to listen to Him (Matthew 17).
Halfway through my time in East Africa, climbing Kilimanjaro was a very spiritual experience. Brilliant sunrises, spectacular views and stars hung carefully in the night sky revealed God’s creative energy in the world. The physical challenge of the climb made me very aware of my humanness. The deep silence of the night gave way to God’s voice, and conversations on the trail helped me to process the ways God’s active in my life. I was drawn beyond myself, drawn into prayer, and drawn deeply into God’s presence. Indeed, this mountain is the dwelling place of God. And so am I – God’s beloved son, with whom he is well pleased.
Mr. Mark DeMott, C.S.C., is a temporarily professed seminarian spending a ministry year in East Africa teaching at Holy Cross Lake View Senior Secondary School in Jinja, Uganda. He is a monthly contributor to the Spes Unica blog reflecting on seminary life in Holy Cross. Learn more about seminary formation for priesthood and religious life in the Congregation. Also learn more about the work of Holy Cross in mission in East Africa.