By Margie Wuebker
Richard "Rick" Ramsey stands atop the majestic peak of Mount Kilimanjaro like a king surveying his kingdom in a series of photographs.
He touches the rustic wood sign reverently in another, grinning from ear to ear at the word "Welcome" spelled out in bright yellow letters. He calls the scene captured by tour guides as the highlight of the nine-day journey..
From Mount Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak -- Africa's highest point and the world's highest freestanding mountain -- he recalls seeing nothing above him but the blazing sun in an azure blue sky. At his feet lay nearly 19,340 feet of rugged slope punctuated with boulders, gravel and lava dust.
"You feel so small compared to everything around you," he says. "It's a humbling experience,"
The ascent began Aug. 28 near Arushu, Tanzania. In addition to the 60-year-old Celina man, the tour group included a Slovakian couple in their 30s, a 65-year-old father and his adult son from Toronto and a teenage girl from Los Angeles. Completing the party were 30 African porters and guides. The initial three-mile hike on day one brought the party to Forest Camp appropriately named since it sets in the midst of a dense forest. Monkeys chattered in the tree tops either heralding their arrival or expressing dislike at the overnight interruption.
Porters had gone ahead as they did each day to erect individual tents, roll out sleeping bags, deliver each climber's duffel bag, perform a ritual greeting complete with song and dance, and prepare for mealtime.
The crew, accustomed to frequent trips up and down the mountain, remained behind as climbers and four guides set out on the next day's itinerary in order to tear down camp and move on to the next location.
"Our guidelines for success were to eat lots of food, drink lots of water, hike slowly without rushing and maintain a positive attitude," Ramsey says. "No one complained during the seven days up and the two days down."
Climbers, toting backpacks filled with water, energy bars, rain gear, camera equipment and jackets, encountered no other groups during the journey. They later learned each tour company preferred its own route.
Ramsey recalled a different climb in 2003 up Japan's Mount Fuji had almost a party like quality. First aid stations along the way offered miso soup, hot tea, bottled water and other treats for sale. The Fujisan Hotel, carved into the hillside, boasted wooden beds separated by curtains in the spartan quarters.
"Climbing Mount Fuji is the thing to do in Japan because you can do it in a day," he says. "It stands approximately 13,000 feet and you leave from a tourist village 6,000 feet up."
Kurt Ramsey, a 1991 Celina High School graduate stationed several hours away at a government facility, accompanied his father on that climb. Kurt's wife, Kathy, also went along.
"There is less oxygen at higher altitudes so you walk 25 yards and then stop to catch your breath," he says. "The last hour was grueling as the weather turned nasty and rainy. It was like a never-ending staircase."
The experience only whetted his appetite for more.
"I wanted to try something bigger so I set my sights on Kilimanjaro -- a much higher mountain that also can be scaled without special equipment," he explains.
Ramsey encountered a wider range of temperatures on the Kilimanjaro climb. Short sleeves gave way to windbreakers and then heavier clothing as temperatures plunged from the mid-60s to below freezing. Thermal lining and heavy-duty sleeping bags protected the climbers as they slept, although their bottled water froze the last three nights. Porters brought steaming cups of coffee or chocolate each morning as part of a daily ritual that included pulse and oxygen readings.
The majestic peak as well as the volcano rim were wreathed in clouds initially. Incredible beauty awaited further up the trail.
"Everything changed once we got above the clouds," he says. "The sky was incredibly blue and the stars were unbelievably brilliant. I never knew stars could shine so bright."
Nightfall came before 7 p.m. -- much too early to climb into a sleeping bag. He read with the aid of a head lamp, wrote in his diary and prayed a rosary. Sleep came easily after the rigors of the day.
Ramsey, who spent two months training for the trip, did not regret the time he invested running up the Monroe Road hill to West Bank Road or hiking the bike path linking Coldwater and Celina. His feet became accustomed to hiking boots without sprouting blisters.
"We had to plant one foot in front of the other," he explains. "Climbing around boulders was a pain but the dirty gravel was more treacherous. I think everybody slipped at one time or another, but no one got hurt."
The two-day descent was even more challenging. Strained leg muscles painfully objected to the quicker trip caused by holding back to prevent unexpected tumbles. Ramsey's legs were weak and shaky by the time he reached the bottom Sept. 5.
He said a phrase from the biography of Olympic champion Bob Mathias sustained him throughout the grueling trip. "Winners never quit and quitters never win" became a litany as each day's success paved the way for the next leg.
"I set out to conquer Kilimanjaro and I did," he says. "Is there another mountain in my future? I've set 65 as the ultimate age limit (for climbing mountains) so I have five years to decide."