Hearing the Dead at Eighteen-Five

The summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro from Barafu Camp, Tanzania, Africa

4 years ago, I spent half of my February on Kilimanjaro.  My friend Meredith was just there, on the same route that I took, so I’ve been thinking about Kili a lot lately.  I’ll write a trip report someday soon – some of the best experiences I’ve ever had were there – but right now I want to write about one thing in particular.

Around 3am on February 18, at about 18,500 feet, freezing, and exhausted from 4 days without sleep, I had one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  It’s an experience I’ve hoped to relive every time I’ve gone higher than Kili – its one of the reasons I went and will go higher and higher.  I clearly heard the voice of one of the most important people in my life, and he had died years ago.

My Godfather, Norman Quint, was one of the most important people in my life.  I still don’t even know all of the things he did for me, and I never will.  He was my father’s best friend – a friendship earned and built through a job he gave my dad at his pharmacy and all the time they spent together because of it.  I grew up in Norman’s parents’ house – probably a nicer and better located home than I would have known if not for that relationship.  That’s just one example of the level of the things he did for my family and me.

When you’re a kid, you can’t appreciate your parents the way you can when you’re an adult, no matter who they are and no matter who you are.  So, while my father thanklessly kept me from becoming a complete degenerate, Norman got to be that “only the good stuff” male figure for me.  He definitely taught me some lessons… but you know what I mean.  He meant so much to me.

On the night of our start toward the summit, we were camped at 15,331 feet.  While others were sleeping, I was staring at the inside of my eyelids.  I knew by now that sleep wouldn’t come, so I was listening to my iPod, trying to get pumped up.  There were already enough reasons I might not make the summit, now I was also worrying that I’d fall asleep on my feet and collapse.

Because of my blaring music, I didn’t hear our guide Bruce try to wake me up.  When I wandered into the group tent a while later, I was surprised to see everyone sitting there ready to go – waiting for me.  I was just looking for some food, figuring the weather was bad and we weren’t going.

The point I’m trying to make is that I was in bad shape before I started.

My headlamp died an hour in, and it’s no fun to follow someone’s headlamp, especially when they don’t know that you’re following them.  Now I was walking at someone else’s pace.

I started to stagger every once in a while. A few uncontrolled steps to the right, a few uncontrolled steps to the left.

The staggering became more frequent, and a few times I noticed a healthy drop just a step or two from where I corrected myself.  They do say that the journey to the summit of Kili starts at night so people can’t see what they’re hiking on.

More tired than I’ve ever been, cold, weak, and losing control of my body, I was thinking about giving up.  Now that I’ve done this a few times, I know that that means I was going to give up.  And just as I was getting to that point, I heard Norman’s voice.  I hadn’t heard it since the last time I visited him before he died.  I couldn’t have remembered for sure what it sounded like.  But I heard it, and it was his voice.

“Keep going, kid.  One foot in front of the other.  Don’t stop.  Keep going, kid.”

I always did and always would do what he told me, so I kept going.

It was more than that, though.  I wasn’t just listening and following orders.  I was so happy to hear him, to know that he was there with me… It brought me the strength to continue.  It wasn’t that he wanted me to keep going, it was that he was there.

I tried to have a conversation, but it wasn’t like that.  And it didn’t last long.  I kept hoping he’d start talking again, but he didn’t.  I tried to push myself to the point where I thought I couldn’t go on again just to hear him, but it didn’t work.  He had given me what I needed to go all the way.  And I did go all the way.  I made it.

Michael Henry on summit of Kilimanjaro

Norman Quint

I’m not religious, at all.  I find it a little funny that Norman was my Godfather, and I think he did, too.  We didn’t have a religious relationship.  I’m glad.  It was something more.

I’ve thought about that experience so many times since it happened.  I would have loved to have left it at what it was that night – someone I loved so much for my entire life, proving that he had been watching over me since he left, showing up when I was at a point in my life that would shape so much of the rest of it… but I can’t do that.  Norman always told me to think.

I believe that my brain and body had reached a low point that it had never come close to before.  It realized it was safe to continue up, but that I wasn’t going to do it without a boost unlike anything I had ever known, something that it wouldn’t pull out for anything that didn’t really matter.

Did Kilimanjaro matter?  No, not on its own.  But in the big picture it did, it kept me on the path that my life has been on for years and years, a much healthier, challenging, more thankful, and beautiful path than I’d be on if I had found that my altitude limit was 15,000 feet and a night without sleep wasn’t worth the next day.

So, my brain, being that unbelievably amazing thing that all brains are, pulled out all the stops.  I needed everything it could give me, so it gave the absolute best thing that it could have.  Do I even know for sure that what I heard was what Norman’s voice sounded like?  I wish I did, but I don’t.  But does it matter?  It wasn’t what my thoughts sound like… my voice.  It was Norman.

I have trouble writing past this point and it’s part of the reason it’s been a while since I posted.  I think about Normal every single day of my life.

I wish the two pictures above were one – me holding a picture of Norman in front of the summit sign.  My inexperience and my thought process told me when we left for the summit to leave his picture, which I had carried with me on the trip and which I’ve carried on so many other adventures, because I didn’t want anything to happen to it.

It doesn’t matter.  He was there.  He lives on in my mind, he lives on in my father’s mind, he lives on in the mind of someone who’s child he helped in the middle of the night.  Mine is only one.  He was there.

I have no desire to try to climb Everest right now, or probably ever.  The only reason I know someday I might make an attempt is because if going higher is what it takes to hear Norman again, then that’s what I’ll do if I ever need to.  And if I need to… fuck the bullshit.  I’m going as high as I can go.



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