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Two climbers, five climates, one summit
Seth Gibree said seeing Mount Kilimanjaro from his hotel window was a daunting experience. - photo by Submitted
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Seth Gibree recently learned not to sweat the small stuff. And the small stuff, well, that includes just about everything.

That’s easy to say if you’ve seen the world from a peak more than 19,000 feet high, the last nearly 13,000 of which you climbed.

Gibree and Jonathan Meister, both Forsyth County residents, spent a week this summer hiking to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest point in Africa.

The tent mates had never met until their ride to the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, but they shared a journey few will ever take.

The real experience began in their hotel in Tanzania, where Gibree said they could see Kilimanjaro towering over them.

“To see it, my stomach dropped,” he said. “It caught me by surprise how big it looked.”

Meister was filled mostly with excitement since he had climbed some large mountains more than 10 years ago.

Eight climbers, most from America, and several porters, local guides and chefs hiked anywhere from six to 14 hours per day on the seven-day ascent and descent.

They drove to about 6,500 feet and started the climb from there.

From top to bottom, Kilimanjaro hikers traverse five climates, beginning with rainforest at the base and arctic at the top.

Meister said the first day resembled a hike through the movie set of “Jurassic Park,” while Gibree said all his layers of clothing couldn’t keep him warm at the summit.

“Every day there was an entirely different visual landscape,” Meister said. “That’s the one thing that is most unique about that mountain.”

The scenery on the mountain kept the walks fresh each day, Gibree said, but the surroundings didn’t compare to the views below them.

He closed his eyes to remember other sights: a beautiful sunset, other mountains in the distance and clouds surrounding him.

“The views were unbelievable,” he said. “This is when I really started to see the big picture.”

With little communication from the outside world and only each other as entertainment, Gibree said he began to reflect on what’s most
important: his family, friends and faith.

On the fourth day, Father’s Day, Gibree received a sign. A rainbow filled the clear sky after a night of rain and missing his wife and sons.

“I felt like it was God’s way of saying, ‘This is my Father’s Day gift to you,’” he said.

But when Gibree awoke at midnight in the summit camp, he knew that it was time for the most difficult day.

After little sleep and breakfast, the campers began the final climb to the top of the mountain’s highest peak at 1 a.m.

The climbers needed to start early to ensure there would be enough time to get down in case anything went awry, Gibree said.

That’s the day he learned the meaning of the local saying “pole pole,” which he said basically means to go slowly and just concentrate on one step at a time.

People who attempt to reach a mountain’s summit often experience symptoms of acute mountain sickness due to the high altitudes, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Above 14,000 feet, most will experience at least mild symptoms.

Gibree said he felt his head pounding, breathing became difficult and nausea crept up on him.

“Up until that point, I felt great,” he said. “Altitude is the great equalizer.”

In the dark and only able to see what your head lamp illuminates, Meister said, moving isn’t the only challenge.

“It’s physical, but it’s equally mental,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to get inside your own head.”

Setting small goals, he said, kept him going.

Gibree pushed himself through the challenge by thinking of others with difficult lives, such as the children in the charities for which he raised money through the climb.

He collected more than $7,000 for the Food Allergy and Anaphalaxis Network and CURE Childhood Cancer, a charity for children’s cancer research and financial assistance.

“If they can deal with chemo a couple times a week,” he told himself, “I can put one foot in front of the other.”

Several hours of internal drive later, most of the group reached the summit on a beautiful, clear day.

“Once you get there, it’s just a massive feeling of accomplishment,” Meister said.

Traveling back down took only two days, versus the five to the top, since the group didn’t have to account for altitude sickness.

The gravel on the walk also made it possible to cautiously slide along, Gibree said.

After seven days of hard work, the group spent two days having a more traditional look at Africa through a safari.

Gibree thought he got a video of a lion chasing a zebra, but later realized he had forgotten to hit the record button.

For Meister, the safari made the perfect trip complete.

“If you’re going to go that far, you might want to do something other than climb a mountain,” he said. “It was just a great way to wrap up that trip.”

The two landed the opportunity through what Meister considered “luck and happenstance.”

Gibree, a dentist in south Forsyth, learned about the trip from one of his patients, whose son leads mountain expeditions.

He had never climbed a major mountain before and felt ready to take on the challenge.

Meister joined the excursion after his wife, a client of Gibree’s, told the dentist her husband “used to do all that crazy stuff.”

Looking forward to reliving a passion, Meister didn’t give much thought to the African excursion. He heard about the trip on a Monday and signed up on Wednesday.

Post-trip, both men plan to reach new heights.

Gibree, already a marathon and triathlon enthusiast, decided to take a leap and sign up for a full ironman after “realizing that you can push yourself harder than you think.”

After rekindling his hobby, Meister plans to take on some other major mountains of the world, hopefully with some of the same friends he made on his recent climb.

“It was one of those interventions of fate where you’re reintroduced to things that you really enjoyed doing,” he said.

At this point, anything on the East Coast just won’t cut it.

“Until something gets close to 13,000 feet,” Meister said, “we call it a hill.”