When I was young, which seems barely a nanosecond ago, I didn’t think about what life might be like at 50 or 60. In my youth, 60 wasn’t the new 40. It wasn’t the “new” anything. It was 60.
You looked old, you felt old, you made it clear why Roosevelt had Social Security kick in at 65 — you didn’t look like you would last too much beyond that. My parents barely drove near a gym, much less went inside.
If at 25 or 30 I thought about getting older at all, it was with the assumption that I would have achieved a great deal, not have to worry about much, and certainly not money (ha!)
Whatever Grand Plan I had went — and stayed — off course by my early 40s. The way life has worked out thus far has in many, many ways been much better, and infinitely more interesting, than what I had envisioned. But it isn’t remotely close to what I had thought it would be. Career plans gave way to raising my kids on my own — the best thing I have ever done — and summer houses on the beach gave way to worries about paying everyday bills. This happens to a lot of people. Just didn’t think I would be among them.
While I have always an energetic sort, I didn’t see climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as a goal until the early 2000s when my brother Mike and I bandied the idea around as part of one of those “wouldn’t it be cool” conversations.
This conversation didn’t imagine climbing Kilimanjaro with both of us sporting artificial hips or artificial anythings, or having the trip paid for by the hip manufacturer. We had the Kilimanjaro talk another couple of times over the years, and then went on our ways living our lives.
My brother and I have always pretty much gotten along well, at least in adulthood. When we were growing up, we traveled very different stylistic paths. He was the rebel, always trying to do something more outrageous than the last stunt. I was the good son, desperately trying to fit in and be popular and make mom and dad proud.
We had moved to Princeton in 1963 from north Jersey because my father, a cosmetic chemist, and mother, an assistant dean at Rutgers, thought — correctly — that the school system here was preferable to where we had been.
I took an instant liking to Princeton, but at age 11, fitting in was important to me, and Princeton was in fact then very much a town of wide wale corduroys on men and circle pins and Fair Isle sweaters on women, neither of which matched my family profile. The diverse and colorful — and better — Princeton that we now know was far beyond the horizon when I was growing up here.
By the late 1960s, in the “prime” on my teen years, Princeton was still a preppie haven and a wealthy enclave. My brother said, the hell with that. I said, great, where do I sign up?
We both got good grades, went to good schools (him Rutgers and Princeton, me Yale and Columbia). At Columbia, in the heyday of radicalism of the early 1970s, I was a more of a moderate. I studied English and psychology when I studied at all and played a little bad football (trivia: a teammate and close friend freshman year was Ed Harris, who dropped out and became a pretty fair actor).
I then went to Columbia’s storied graduate School of Journalism, where I really thrived, studying — this time for real — under the tutelage of Fred Friendly, who had been Ed Murrow’s producer, and a legendary figure at CBS News.
From there I moved to Denver to work for the newspaper, earn a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and meet my wife-to-be who became the mother of my children and then my ex-wife.
After six years as a journalist, I decided to move on, to the Yale School of Management, looking for challenges I didn’t see waiting for me in the news business.
Yale is a great school, but business school wasn’t very enjoyable, and wasn’t a good fit for my “talents,” which were much more creative than business-like. All my classmates ended up at places like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. I would return after a day of interviews at those places with a pounding headache — not because the work was so hard, but because they couldn’t pay me enough to trade bonds or analyze productivity at a power plant. And besides, they didn’t offer me those jobs anyway.
So I worked at Columbia Pictures as assistant to the president for two years, quickly realizing I needed to learn the creative side and be in California. I landed (the story’s too long) in Burbank as creative executive to a young up-and-coming actor named Tom Hanks, who had a deal at Walt Disney Studios.
Yes, Tom is a genuinely terrific, down to earth guy. I should have stayed with him, a personality flaw that made me want to experience many different things prompted me to move around, first starting a news division at the country’s largest cable TV company (and commuting between LA and Denver), and then working in various entertainment and media ventures, large and small.
And then divorce. Not just your normal unpleasant, how-could-these-people-have-married-each-other divorce. A brutal one, complete with a soap opera custody battle, two custody trials, and more. I received sole custody of my then young son and daughter in 1995, and we moved back to Princeton in 1996.
I reconnected with an old college pal, who hired me at his small investment bank — another bad match and a daily commute between Princeton and Greenwich while raising two kids on my own.
But along the way, he and I developed a treatment and were producers on a movie that became something called “61*” — the successful HBO film about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, directed by Billy Crystal.
That led to other movie and television opportunities — a movie still in development at Paramount after nine years about the adventures of Robert Ripley, founder of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and other projects with some Princeton partners, as well as one currently in development about the famous 1968 Harvard-Yale football game. Who cares about the 45-year-old memories of an Ivy League football game, you would ask? It was both an iconic game between two undefeated teams that ended with an amazing comeback by Harvard, but more importantly, it was set against the backdrop of a chaotic, exciting time in our history — Vietnam War, the women’s movement, civil rights struggles, the emergence of the hippie counterculture. And some of the players were famous then — Brian Dowling, Calvin Hill — or became famous later — Tommy Lee Jones. It’s a pretty cool story.
Nowadays, I am trying to develop movie and TV projects, but also moving with deliberate speed to do communications consulting, writing, and speaking. are all needed. I got shots: Yellow fever, typhoid, polio booster, meningitis, and Hepatitis A and B. And you have to take malaria pills before, during and after the trip.
We trained at the New York Sports Club at the Princeton Shopping Center and climbed the steps at Princeton Stadium. I thought I was in good shape until I did that training. I ached like I used to after high school football practice.
In the end, it is all worth it. I got to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, something my brother and I only wistfully talked about 10 years ago.
I had an “old man’s operation.” But I do not in any way feel like an old man.
To the Summit: June 6, 2013
After six days of climbing over rain forest vegetation and rock ledge outcroppings, not shaving or bathing (I did manage to brush my teeth often), the peak of Kilimanjaro still seemed frustratingly far away. We spent every night in tents — small ones. It got dark by 6:45 p.m. and there is no electricity or power at all on the mountain, so between the early darkness and lack of power and incredible cold, between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. was a pretty grim and lonely time. I slept with four layers of shirts and a heavy coat, gloves, scarf, balaclava and wool hat. And still was shivering.
The night before summiting (as they call it) was at Barafu camp. Barafu is Swahili for “ice.” The name fit. Barafu is at 15,200 feet, and the summit is 19,341 — a long way to go. At night I would guess it was a little below zero. And it would get colder every step up the mountain. Winds typically swirled at 20 to 30 miles per hour, often higher.
But Day Seven was finally here. As promised, they “awoke” us (though we had not slept) at 11 p.m. for the 1,230 meter (4,000-plus feet) nearly straight up hike to the summit. There’s some debate about why the summit trek is done at night. It’s easy to imagine that it’s done to scare the crap out of trekkers so they tip better since the guides have our lives in their hands as we slowly move along the rocky switchbacks. But I think it probably has more to do with the fact that you do have to summit and then go down the mountain a considerable way in the same day, and there’s only so many daylight hours to do all that.
By 12:30 a.m., we had eaten, strapped on our gear, attached our tiny head torches that lit up about five feet in front of us, and began what would be the nine-hour trek over the high Kilimanjaro moonscape in the pitch black of a frigid East African night.
Thus far, we had gone about 9,000 feet in six days. We were now going to do almost half of that in one long day. Neither my brother nor I had any altitude sickness at all — a blessing (nor any stomach issues — an even bigger blessing.) But this would still test two old men’s ability to navigate in the thinnest of thin air.
We moved forward and up, slowly, our assistant guide Alex in the lead, head guide Thomas trailing us in case anyone started sliding off the mountain.
When I say it was pitch black, trust me. Alex moved gingerly and at several points I asked myself, “Does he know where the hell he is going?” I turned to my brother a few times and said, “When is the damn sun going to come up?”
At about 6:45 a.m., it did come up.
Too bad. I went from the fear of not seeing where was I going to the fear of seeing what still remained: a vertical, ice, snow and scree-filled ascent that would take another three hours. Scree, by the way, is a combination of small, loose rocks and deep, dry dirt that produces an impenetrable ski-slope that is difficult to climb and leaves you utterly covered in dust.
After another two hours, interrupted by frequent stops, we reached Stella Point, the beginning of Kilimanjaro’s volcanic crater, and about 700 feet shy of the summit. It was here that I turned to my brother and said, “We’re going to make it.” He nodded in agreement.
An hour later (it’s supposed to take 45 minutes, but hey) we did it. At 9:30 a.m. Tanzania time, we reach Uhuru Peak, 19,341 feet. We stopped to read the sign, “Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5,895 m. AMSL [above mean sea level]. Africa’s Highest Point. World’s Highest Free-Standing Mountain.”
We hugged, shook hands, took photos and videos, and marveled — while shivering — at the accomplishment. On one side was the crater, on the other, a gigantic glacier. Cold as we were, it was impossible not to be moved by the views.
Our rough estimate was that the temperature, with wind chill (it was always windy on the mountain) was about 20 below zero. I can honestly say I have never been more tired, colder or filthier in my life. And I’ve been tired, cold and filthy.
We had hardly done this alone. Two guides, a cook, and 13 porters made our task simple. A word about the porters: they are amazing — they carry 50 pounds of stuff on their heads and climb with total confidence places it took me five minutes just to decide if I wanted to try to climb.
But still, two guys in their 60s with fake hips had done a climb that nearly half of those who try fail. Living in a tent, forsaking hygiene, and walking straight uphill for hours and hours each day — not to mention climbing over rocks and navigating ledges where one misstep will send you off a cliff — changes your definition of adventure. At least it did mine.
I’m pretty sure I won’t climb Kilimanjaro again. Like going to business school, it was an experience I’m glad I got through, proud I can tell people I did it, but it wasn’t all that much fun at the time.
But it did prime me for other adventures. And it reinforced in me the belief that, even after a very unconventional life for the past 20 years, life doesn’t have to be ordinary.