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When I open my eyes, I see pale light filtering into the tent, and I know it is morning. My tent mate is already up and packing his gear. He hears me stirring in my sleeping bag and turns toward me. “Good morning, Brian,” he says. One of our Tanzanian guides raps softly on our tent, unzips the door, and offers two steaming cups. We sip our coffee, warming us against the chill, and talk about the day ahead, climbing farther up Africa’s highest mountain, still three days from the summit.
I crawl from the tent and gaze down on a deep, cottony blanket of clouds hundreds of feet below that stretches to the horizon, the billows tinted yellow and pink by the rising sun just cresting a jagged ridgeline. Behind me, Mount Kilimanjaro looms, its summit a mix of rock slab, shattered volcanic rock, and massive glacier. My tent mate crawls out and stands beside me. He can see none of this. Steve Baskis has seen nothing at all for the past three years.
I tie his bootlaces, since his atrophied left hand doesn’t work well enough for the intricate manipulation of knots, and we move to the mess tent for breakfast, with me in the lead and his hand resting easy on my shoulder. After porridge, toast, and eggs, we’re on the trail. I ring a small bell usually carried by hikers to ward off bears, and Baskis follows the jangle with his left ear, the good one. He uses two trekking poles like insect antennae to scout obstacles, his lithe six-foot frame hunched at the shoulders.
We spend hours in conversation on the trail. We talk about Iraq, where we both served at different times as infantrymen in the U.S. Army, and I describe the river valleys, scrub brush, and wildflowers around us. But for the technicalities of hiking, we use a simple shorthand to keep him from smashing his knee into a rock or stepping into a void: Drop off left. Big step up. Narrow chute. Tree branch to your right.
Walking around his neighborhood in Glen Ellyn or in downtown Chicago challenges Baskis, with whizzing traffic and crowded sidewalks. But mountain climbing is mentally exhausting for him, and physically he’s expending far more energy than I am. With each step, his foot hovers for a fraction of a second before he fully commits, always ready to pull back or readjust his weight. Still, he frequently rolls an ankle or hyperextends a knee. “When you can see, at least you can compensate,” he says. “You can place your feet exactly where you want them to go.”
He has incredibly fast reflexes, from years of sports and martial arts, and an inherent athleticism, but that only lessens the beating on his body. As we hike, he tells me about how he used to move with grace and fluidity, how he climbed trees as a boy growing up in southern Illinois, how he was the fastest soldier on the obstacle course.
We climb uphill for hours, from 12,500 feet to a ridge just under 15,000 feet, on a mix of smooth dirt trails and staircases of boulders and loose rock, then we start down into a valley, headed for our camp 2,000 feet below. I can see a cluster of tents, still a few miles off, that seems no closer each time I look. Baskis holds on to my backpack with his left hand, which allows us to move faster, but he still stumbles on the rocks, and his frustration swells. He rolls an ankle and bangs his shin.
At times like this, miserable and exhausted, he reminds himself that these moments are a gift, even the pain. He thinks about Victor, whose wife now has no husband, and Victor’s two children with no father, and figures he owes this to Victor, because he’s alive and Victor is dead.
But sometimes he wonders if Victor was the lucky one.