By LANCE GRIFFIN
DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) _ As a child, Mike Schmitz read Ernest Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a short story about a dying man named Harry who reflects on his life while on safari in Africa.
Near the end, Harry has a dream in which a plane comes to take him to the top of the mountain.
“One day,” a young Mike Schmitz thought after finishing the tale. Life got in the way. Although Schmitz has tested his physical limits in ways few humans would, his childhood goal remained elusive.
Schmitz, Dothan’s mayor, and his son Michael scaled the monster mountain over the holidays, reaching the rarefied air of the Uhuru Peak (Swahili for “freedom”) on New Year’s Eve, 19,342 feet above sea level.
The eight-day climb not only tested the men’s physical endurance, but mental toughness as well. Less than half who attempt the climb make it to the top; altitude sickness or lack of fitness claim the majority.
Mayor Schmitz and Michael were the only ones to make it out of their party of five who began the trek.
Schmitz said the climb was far more grueling than he imagined. And, he imagined an extremely difficult experience.
“I was always thinking `I will never, ever do this again,”’ Schmitz said.
The Schmitzes endured almost constant rain during the first six days of the climb.
“Everything we had was wet and cold,” he said.
A guide team of around 30 accompanied the initial group of five, making sure everyone had the necessary resources to make the climb. Schmitz said one member of the group became ill and disoriented and had to be taken down the mountain on a stretcher. The altitude was too high and treacherous for medical helicopters. Two others in the group bowed out soon thereafter.
That left Schmitz the elder and Schmitz the younger, pushing each other up the mountain, neither wanting to let the other down.
“The best part of the trip for me was doing it with my 22-year-old son. It was an incredible experience,” Schmitz said.
The guides told Schmitz the last 3,000 feet of the climb were made in temperatures around minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
So what would possess a person _ quite successful at sea level thank you very much _ to climb what some believe is translated the “Mountain of Greatness” or “Mountain of Caravans?”
“I think you need to challenge yourself from time to time,” Schmitz said. “I have always believed in trying to see what I could do.”
Schmitz has bicycled across the United States in 25 days to raise money for the Wiregrass Children’s Home. He once swam from Alcatraz Island to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco just to see if he could do it. He has competed in several triathlons, including the rugged Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.
But Kilimanjaro had always been the elusive test he did not know he could pass.
“It was absolutely worth it,” he said. “It was one of the greatest father-son adventures I could ever imagine.”