Standing alone atop Mount Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped Uhuru Peak, his typically clean-shaven face covered in seven-day growth, Jean Mongeau took in the sweep of the African Savanna stretching for miles across Tanzania to the south. He had just accomplished one of his life’s ambitions, yet his elation was tinged by profound sadness.
He had set out for the summit from the Barafu Camp shortly after midnight on March 2, reaching Kilimanjaro’s peak via the Lemosho Trail—widely regarded as the most scenic of the seven routes to the top.
Approaching from the west, the route climbs inexorably upward through rain forest, heath and then desert plain before climbers finally encounter arctic conditions on their final push to the top. Conditions on the last part of the ascent can be relatively benign, but on this day, unrelenting winds caused temperatures on the world’s tallest freestanding mountain to plunge to around minus-30 Celsius.
Even for a Montreal native like Mongeau, the final leg of the seven-day climb was much harder than he’d expected. “I’ve gotta say, it was pretty damn cold,” he says. “I can’t remember the last time I used Hot Paws in my gloves, but I did this time.”
The darkness in the early hours of his push to the summit had been absolute. The world simply ceased to exist beyond the beam of his headlamp, which revealed nothing beyond the African guide leading the way and his hiking boots as they crunched over the small rocks in his path.
At Stella Point, 18,900 feet above sea level, Mongeau witnessed the greatest sunrise he’d ever seen, the sun climbing over the Mawenzi Peak and casting the world in an orange glow.
He reached the summit shortly after 6 a.m., achieving not only a goal he had set for himself as a young man, but also completing a “memory project” in honour of his daughter Rebecca, who took her own life in 2015.
“I totally lost it when I got to that magnificent sign at 5,895 metres,” says Mongeau. “I thought of my daughter, of all the work that went into my climb, the people who supported and encouraged me and shared their own experience with mental illness.”
The joy—and the sadness—was fleeting. Within 30 minutes of reaching the top of the Mother Continent, Mongeau embarked on the equally treacherous day-and-a-half descent back to Mweka Gate and his regular life as general manager and chief revenue officer for CBC/Radio-Canada’s Media Solutions unit.
There are 576 steps at Radio-Canada’s 32-story office tower in Montreal. Mongeau knows because he’s counted each one. Starting in the summer, in preparation for his attempt on Kilimanjaro, he would arrive at the building at 6 a.m. and spend two hours climbing and descending the stairs wearing hiking boots and a 20-lb backpack .
When his job with Canada’s public broadcaster took him to Toronto, Mongeau would spend two hours each morning climbing up and down the stairs at the Intercontinental Hotel. Later, he climbed several North American mountains —including Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, New York’s Algonquin Peak, and New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain.
Climbing Kilimanjaro had been a goal (or obsession) of Mongeau’s ever since he was a young man. “My wife would tell you that I’ve been speaking about it for 25 years,” he says.
But the mountain would come to take on an almost totemic significance in the wake of his daughter’s shocking death at just 25 years old. She was free-spirited and willful, never one to shy away from a challenge, says Mongeau. The youngest of his three daughters, Rebecca was the type of person who would climb a mountain for no other reason than because it was there.
That was the reason Mongeau and his family created “A Big Step for Rebecca,” a fundraiser that would benefit the Fondation Jeunes en Tête’s “Partners for Life” program, which was established in the 1990s in the wake of a rash of teen suicides in the province. The initial goal was to raise $58,950—$10 for every metre of the mountain—but they ended up raising more than $81,000.
“My daughter was very adventurous. It was never fast enough or high enough for her, so all of that came together to transform the mountain into the attraction I was drawn to,” says Mongeau. “There were many things we could have done to raise money, but to me there was a spiritual element to it. Getting to the summit made me feel in some ways like I was getting closer to her.”
One of the so-called Seven Summits (the highest mountain on each continent), Kilimanjaro appealed to Mongeau because of both its astounding beauty and the fact it doesn’t require any technical expertise, beyond being physically and mentally equipped to handle the rigours of an eight-day climb and a willingness to face the (very real) threat of serious illness or death.
While not as technically challenging as a mountain like Everest, Kilimanjaro is most assuredly not for the faint of heart. An estimated 1,000 people are evacuated from the mountain each year according to the guide service Ultimate Kilimanjaro, and there are a reported 10 deaths a year (Ultimate Kilimanjaro believes the real number to be two to three times higher).
Most of those deaths are a result of altitude sickness, which can range in severity from acute mountain sickness that manifests itself in hangover-like symptoms (headache, nausea and fatigue) to the far more serious high altitude cerebral oedema—fluid on the brain that leads to unsteadiness, confusion, drowsiness and finally coma. It can kill within a few hours.
While Mongeau himself experienced nothing more than mild headaches on his trek, he did encounter hikers who were disoriented and unable to walk a straight line without assistance.
“I was physically ready and mentally aware of what I would be confronted with,” he says. “Until you’re on the mountain you never know how bad it’s going to be, but my physical preparation was excellent. I didn’t have any issues with trekking and hiking the mountain.”
Mongeau would end up making the ascent alone after the group he was supposed to climb with fell apart at the last minute, an unplanned development that worked out for the best. “It allowed me to really reflect on the journey, the experience and life itself,” he says. “In that sense it ended up being a better scenario.”
Thoughts about what’s next have been swirling through Mongeau’s mind since arriving back home in Montreal. He’s not sure if he will attempt another climb, but he’s adamant that he and his family will carry on the memory project for his late daughter. “For now my mind is full of images that I’m carrying with me,” he says. “I’ll allow those to settle before making other plans.”
And with that, Mongeau indicates that it’s time for him to get back to his office on the 12th floor of the CBC/Radio-Canada building. And no, he’s not taking the stairs.