CHATHAM – With the exception of hikes in New Hampshire's White Mountains, Curtis Collias has spent most of his life at sea level. But when the piney peaks of New England's north country weren't quite enough of a challenge, Collias set his sights eastward. Far east, all the way to Africa and the stunning Mount Kilimanjaro for a journey he won't soon forget.
The idea to climb Africa's highest point and the world's highest freestanding mountain took root during a conversation with Collias's hiking buddies.
“I do a lot of hiking in the White Mountains with friends,” Collias said. “I really enjoy it. It's sort of like a walking meditation. On one trip a couple of years ago, a guy says, 'Hey, you guys been hiking?' We were like, 'Yeah.'”
Collias said someone mentioned climbing Kilimanjaro.
“One of my friends was like, 'Wow. I really want to do that,'” Collias said. “I started looking into it and thought, 'That looks like something.'”
For Collias, who has attention deficit disorder and is dyslexic, hiking is a means of quieting his busy mind. It also offers him the opportunity to decompress from his work life.
“I like the challenge and the simplification,” he said. “I'm in kind of a complicated business and I like having a simple goal – get to the top, get down, and don't die.”
Collias is the owner-operator of Breakwater Fish and Lobster, which hits a slowdown this time of year before business gets booming again come fairer weather. The downtime offered perfect timing for Collias to consider an adventure to Tanzania. After researching all that was necessary for such a sojourn, Collias, with the support of his wife Maura, son Ronin, and daughter Theone, booked the trip and began preparing himself for his biggest climb yet.
“[I started] doing a lot of the dunes in Ptown, a lot of Stairmaster, a lot of deep breathing exercises,” he said, adding that the latter was to help with altitude as the mountain is 19,341 feet high. “The altitude does get some people. I've never been that high. The highest I've ever been is Mount Washington, which is 6,000 and change, and Kilimanjaro is almost three times that.”
After an almost 15-hour flight from JFK Airport in New York, Collias landed in Africa, ready to tackle Kilimanjaro, a feat that sounded much easier than it actually was.
“Early January was supposed to be the start of a dry season. It wasn't,” Collias said, but with the encouragement of his fellow travelers, as well as his guides and porters, Collias made the trek, which was anything but easy, and differed greatly from Collias's previous New Hampshire hikes.
“There were some days I was like, 'I paid for this? I came all the way to Africa to freeze my ass off?'” he said, noting that the climb came with a fair share of challenges. “The real unknown is how you're going to react to altitude. We heard the rescue chopper at least twice a day.”
Collias said that along the route were signs urging climbers to be aware of any unusual physical symptoms, such as nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, a rapid heartbeat, or difficulty walking, all indications of altitude sickness.
“I was very glad that I took the conditioning seriously,” Collias said. “I really went crazy with the cardio. Our guides have oxygen on them, but if you have to take it that's it. They take you down.”
But the biggest challenge, Collias said, was one's own inner determination.
“I think the biggest challenge was mental,” he said. “We did some hikes where we got rained on all day long. It was eight days on the mountain, mostly dealing with...very little sleep. You see every climate zone on earth, from the jungle to the arctic. The weather can change fast. I had burns on my hands just from being at the higher altitudes and I had SPF 50 on.”
Collias encountered another unique challenge while approaching the summit.
“Probably the biggest challenge for me, which they don't tell you about, is that at the lower pressures you get very gassy. Apparently, according to the head guide, I ate the wrong thing. We started to summit at 11 at night. I got really bad gas pain on the left side. I was breathing deeply, but every time I took a deep breath it felt like I was being stabbed. I just dealt with it. I told myself, 'I didn't come all the way here to not summit.'”
Collias reached the top, but the pain in his side was enough to make him appear miserable in photos commemorating the moment.
“It looks like somebody shot my dog, the look on my face,” he said.
But on the way back down the mountain, Collias's pain was mercifully eased, he said, by the “nicest breaking wind of my entire life.”
Collias was mightily impressed by the porters and guides on the trip, some of whom were of the Masai Tribe.
“They were great,” he said. “Compared to what we did, what the porters did was 10 times more difficult. They're carrying 50-pound bags on their heads and 50-pound packs, and outpacing us. I had a Masai guide who was with me on the way down. He was interesting because he kind of lives between both worlds, the modern and the traditional.”
The opportunity to learn about the Masai people was welcome, and at one point during the trip, Collias was made chief for a day among the local group.
“It was a really interesting cultural experience, getting to meet people from the other side of the planet,” Collias said. “I found out that there's quite a mix of Muslim and Christian people and they get along fine. In fact, they intermarry. I had a Muslim guide who was great. I met some really, really nice people. [There is] definitely a better sense of community over there than here. You kind of have to know your neighbors.”
Reflecting on his trip now that he's back at sea level has Collias inspired.
“I felt really good that I accomplished the goal I set out to do,” he said. “It was beautiful. I got pictures of glaciers. We lucked out that it was a clear day. I felt like I did what I'd come there to do.”
Now he's planning his next adventure, climbing the Orizaba Volcano in Mexico, which involves ice climbing.
“What I learned about myself is that I can handle altitude, and I need to take it to the next level,” he said. “Ice climbing just looks like fun.”
Collias said his motivation to keep climbing is simple.
“I'm 51 and figure I can do this stuff at this high level for another 10 or 15 years,” he said. “So I better get it in. I want to be sitting around thinking of all the stuff I did do, not the stuff I didn't do.”