We Met as Freshmen—and Climbed Kilimanjaro Together at Age 70

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After careers in conservation, a classmate and I marked a milestone birthday by braving the elements to reach the ‘Roof of Africa’

By Bill Konstant ’74

Our wake-up call came at 11 p.m. That’s right: late at night, not the next morning. Rick Barongi ’74 and I had barely cat-napped, buried in our sleeping bags inside a tiny, wind-whipped tent.

We tried our best to stay warm, a thin sheet of nylon providing little insulation against the sub-freezing air that surrounded us at 15,800 feet above sea level.

The tent’s small size and our combined caloric output provided some thermal advantage—but the fact that we hadn’t showered in a week counterbalanced the added body heat.

Bill Konstant

It took us perhaps 20 minutes to don fleeces, beanies, gloves, and boots, and to strap on our headlamps and begin a midnight march uphill in total darkness. Our destination was Uhuru Peak—the “Roof of Africa”—at 19,340 feet atop Mount Kilimanjaro.

Neither Rick nor I could have imagined, more than 50 years ago as Cornell undergraduates, that we would celebrate our 70th birthdays by climbing Africa’s highest mountain. As freshmen we lived a floor apart in what was then the Class of 1917 Hall, and we knew one another just well enough to nod or wave hello when our paths crossed on campus.

Yet there we were in 2022, freezing our butts off and breathing a bit heavily—oxygen levels at the summit are about half that at sea level—as we watched the sun rise over the receding glaciers of Kilimanjaro. Somewhere between 50 and 100 other adventurers summitted on the morning of October 21, Rick and I perhaps the oldest.

Somewhere between 50 and 100 other adventurers summitted on the morning of October 21, Rick and I perhaps the oldest.

Our original plan was to attempt the climb 10 years ago at age 60, but something came up and we postponed the challenge to 65. Again, other commitments intervened. Reaching 70, we decided that if we didn’t do it now, we never would.

After graduating from CALS back in 1974 with degrees in biology, both Rick and I pursued careers in the zoo and wildlife fields. He worked for years at the San Diego Zoo, helped design and direct Disney’s Animal Kingdom, recently retired after 15 years as director of the Houston Zoo, and now owns and operates Longneck Manor, a nonprofit conservation park for giraffes and rhinos just outside Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country.

My career path includes stints with organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, and Re:wild. I also spent five years working closely with Rick at the Houston Zoo, helping him build a world-class international wildlife conservation program.

A glacier with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background
A Mount Kilimanjaro glacier—which, like many around the world, is receding due to climate change.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano located in Tanzania about 210 miles south of the equator, was more his idea than it was mine.

Rick has been to Africa more than 50 times—climbing Mount Kenya when he was 20, seeing the Big Five (lions, elephants, rhinos, Cape buffalo, and leopards) on nearly every safari he’s led, and witnessing the Great Migration of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles several times. Climbing Kili was the obvious next item on his bucket list that needed to be checked off.

Two of Mount Kilimanjaro’s volcanic cones, Mawenzi and Shira, are extinct. The third and highest cone, Kibo, is considered dormant. Volcanologists estimate that it last erupted more than 300,000 years ago, but don’t discount the possibility of a repeat performance.

A group at the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro
The Cornellian friends and their guides at the summit.

There are multiple routes to the summit. We chose the Lemosho Route, approaching from the west and guided by two staff from an established tour company. The trek began in lush tropical forest inhabited by troops of colobus monkeys sporting luxurious black-and-white coats.

We proceeded pole-pole (Swahili for “slowly-slowly”) and stopped occasionally for a high-energy snack and a few sips of water. Two liters a day are recommended to help ward off altitude sickness.

Daylong treks to the Shira 1 and Shira 2 camps brought us to a rocky savanna dominated by spectacular succulent plants.

Giant groundsels towered above us, bringing to mind the Truffula Trees in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.

Another two days of hiking in high desert led to the Barranco and Barafu Camps. Over four days we climbed less than 3,000 feet, acclimating to the altitude. Our next step—just under 4,000 feet in a single day—would take us to the summit.

We had big plans for the occasion, including taking numerous photos with multiple hats and t-shirts featuring different logos.

In the end, however, we succumbed to the bitter cold and wicked winds, posed for just a few images, gazed upon this equatorial mountain’s last glacial remnants—and savored the achievement of a lifetime.

Bill Konstant ’74 was born in Oceanside, NY, and grew up in what was then the “sticks” of Long Island’s south shore. His four years in Ithaca set him on the path to a 40-year career in wildlife conservation and travels to dozens of countries. His memoir, Wrestles With Wolves: Saving the World One Species at a Time, will be published in 2023. 

(All images provided)

Published January 23, 2023


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