Jeff Belanger’s latest book, The Call of Kilimanjaro, chronicles the author’s journey to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, a mid-life adventure that honored the memory of his late brother-in-law and allowed him to test his grit and step outside the routine of everyday life.
Belanger, who is the author of 16 books and has written for The Boston Globe and USA Today, sat down with The Millions talk about his trek to the top of Kilimanjaro, how the journey changed his life, and his next adventure.
The Millions: After the death of your brother-in-law, you set out to climb Kilimanjaro as a way to honor him. How did that decision come about and why did a trip to the top of Kilimanjaro seem like the perfect tribute?
Jeff Belanger: Kilimanjaro had been steeping in my teacup since childhood when I heard Toto’s song “Africa” as a kid. In college I started hiking. I loved getting to the tops of New England mountains. The views, the workouts, and getting away from civilization for a short while became a hobby. The more mountains I conquered, the desire for more altitude only increased. Also in college, I flunked French. I barely passed Spanish (because I often confused the two languages). I was lamenting to a friend that I still had to fulfill my language requirement, but needed a language different from French and Spanish. She suggested Swahili because the professor was amazing. She was right. I took Swahili I and II—the language of east Africa. Kilimanjaro has bobbed up to the surface of my psyche again and again throughout my life.
About seven months after I lost my brother-in-law Chris to cancer, I found myself hosting a fundraiser event at a local historic home when I ran into my friend Amy who worked for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). A year earlier, my family raised some money for them participating in their “Light the Night” walk. Amy told me LLS had a new fundraising program coming up. Just as I started making excuses about how busy I was, and how I’ll help if I can, she said, “We’re climbing Kilimanjaro.” I stopped in my tracks.
I’m in my mid-life, just a few years younger than Chris was. I felt my own mid-life rut all around me. I’d already been reminded of my own mortality when he passed, so when the universe sets a bucket list item out for you on a platter, there’s nothing to do but accept. I get the opportunity to go to Mt. Kilimanjaro and raise money to fight cancer in memory of Chris? I looked at Amy and said, “I’m in.”
TM: The trip was also about your pursuit of clarity about your own life and goals. What was unclear at the time? Did the climb bring clarity? What did you come to realize and how has it changed your life?
JB: The “pursuit of clarity” is something my publisher put in the press release. I’m not sure anyone does anything in “pursuit of clarity,” but if you’re lucky enough, you just might trip over clarity on your journey someplace. As a 42-year-old dad, husband, and employee, my life was in a rut. I recognize it’s a rut of my own design, but still a treadmill of waking up, getting my daughter off to school, working, taking care of my home, getting maybe an hour to myself at night, and then repeat the next day.
Hiking anywhere is a break from that treadmill. A moment of clearing one’s head. We took the Lemosho Route up Kili. It’s six days to the top, and two days to get back down over 42 miles. The first day on the mountain, my mind was scattered worrying about the work I was missing, emails, phone calls, wondering how my family was doing. Sometime around the third day, that endless buzzing of wonder in my brain started to fade. I was finally unplugging and just doing what humans do: walking, eating, sleeping, and adventuring on to the next camp.
The experience changed my life because I know I’m a person capable of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. I get to keep that forever. When it was summit night, three o’clock in the morning, 18,000 feet in elevation, subzero temperatures, and I’m fighting for every molecule of oxygen, I had the temptation to give up and turn back, but I didn’t. I love knowing here in my mid-life, I still have that grit when I need it.
TM: At what point did you know the trip to the top of Kilimanjaro was going to be a book?
JB: Throughout my training I was taking pictures and keeping a journal. That continued on Kilimanjaro. As the pages filled, and I felt myself changing, I knew this was a story worth telling. The question was: what medium? I had given several talks on my experience, and the audiences showed a lot of interest in wanting more. So I started combining the words with some of the hundreds of photos I took in Tanzania. Pretty soon, a book began to take shape.
TM: What was harder: climbing the mountain or writing the book?
JB: Writing the book! Kilimanjaro only took eight days. Writing this book took me a year and a half and many drafts.
TM: The subtitle of the book is Finding Hope Above the Clouds. Can you talk a little about the hope you found—and how the book might give readers a similar sense of hope?
JB: I can do better than tell you about the hope I found. I can show you. On summit night we started around midnight from Barafu Base camp at 15,000 feet to head 3.1 miles to the summit at 19,341 feet. It will take about 8 hours. It was about 3 a.m., and I was the coldest and most exhausted I’ve ever been in my life. I could hardly breathe no matter how slowly I moved my body, and I was almost out of hope. But just as we reached the volcanic rim of Kili, at a place called Stella Point, I turned around to see the sunrise. The world had warmed significantly with the sun now shining, and in that singular moment I felt judged and deemed worthy by God, the spirit of the mountain, the universe, or whatever term you wish to use. I felt the presence of Chris by my side. I raised my camera and clicked this picture. I call it “Hope.” Something as simple as a sunrise changed everything.
TM: From when you were making the climb, what is the most enduring memory and why? Also: did you feel like your brother-in-law was with you as you made the trip?
JB: The sunrise at the rim of the volcano was the most enduring memory. Though we still had another 500 vertical feet to go and half-a-mile of distance to the summit, I knew in that moment that I would make it. Any doubts I had been carrying for days and weeks, vanished. Chris was with me every step of my journey. I carried photos of him in my backpack, I thought about him each day, and I felt him there at Stella Point.
TM: There are a good number of books about trips to the tops of great mountains. What sets yours apart from the rest?
JB: I’m no one special. I’m not a mountaineer, not a star athlete, not some guru. I’m just a dad, a husband, and a guy from New England who wanted to do something story-worthy in the middle of my life. When you travel well, you let it change your very DNA. My goal with telling this story is to sing the praises of a mountain that gave me so much and changed me for the better, and maybe inspire others who want to face their own Kilimanjaro.
TM: The act of climbing the mountain brought with it realizations, fresh perspectives, insights, lessons, and spiritual transformation. Did the writing of the book also deliver those things in a different way?
JB: When I was on the summit, I feel like the entire moment was like a black-and-white line drawing. An event like Kilimanjaro takes weeks and months to fully sink in, for that line drawing to fill in with colors and textures.
Writing down every detail of my journey was part of filling in that picture for me. On paper, I can analyze the experience from multiple angles. I’ve written books about other people’s experiences, but this is the first time where I was the subject. Part of the reason the writing process took me so long was that I needed to walk away from the drafts for a while to gain some objectivity. Writing a memoir means you have to strip naked and stand in front of an audience showing all of your own flaws and shortcomings. You learn a lot about yourself when you can step outside of your body and study yourself from a distance.
TM: What’s next for you? In terms of new books and new adventures?
JB: There are still mountains to climb. Thankfully, I’ll never run out of those. Covid-19 sidetracked a lot of my planned adventures this past year, but I’m optimistic that the world will open up again in the coming year and we get back to doing what humans do: explore, wonder, and share stories. I have no doubt I’ll find the next great adventure (or it will find me). Until then, I’m still producing my weekly New England Legends podcast and giving many virtual programs about my experience for libraries and other organizations until I can get back in front of live audiences.
How’s that for a non-committal answer?