Reach the top | Richmond Free Press
Richmonder Robert Dortch Jr. is a man of faith. He was therefore delighted to learn that his guide on Mount Kilimanjaro was called Emmanuel. In the Bible, Immanuel means “God with us”.
At 11 a.m. on August 22, Mr. Dortch, accompanied by Tanzanian guide Emmanuel Kimaro, reached the summit. Uhuru Peak rises to 19,341 feet. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa.
“I am touched and honored by this moment and what this experience can mean for me, for my sons, my family and hopefully black people. That we can dream a different kind of dreams,” he wrote in his diary the next day.
And with that, Mr. Dortch joined a small but growing number of black American explorers who have ever scaled the world’s highest peaks. In May 2022, a group of seven African-American climbers summited Mount Everest in Nepal, becoming the first group of their size to do so. Their achievement doubled the
number of black people who had ever summited Everest. “Very few African Americans come here for a trip like this,” Kimaro, 40, said by email. “We run about 30 Kilimanjaro groups a year, but only one or two groups will be made up of an African American or a black person of any other nationality.”
Mr. Dortch is even rarer. Of Mr. Kimaro’s typical clientele, only about 10% come solo, and he has been a mountain guide for more than 15 years.
The first day of Mr. Dortch’s eight-day journey began at Lemosho Gate, the start of one of the longest routes to Kilimanjaro. It was there that one of the inhabitants welcomed him, saying: “You are at home, my brother. Are you home.”
Mr Dortch said it made him cry then, and it nearly started all over again when his voice cracked with emotion as he recounted the experience recently. That day would bring a four hour hike before camping that night. It was one of his toughest days that week.
Kilimanjaro is considered a “walking” mountain because hikers do not need equipment like ropes, harnesses or ice axes. But it’s no less treacherous because of the risk of altitude sickness, which can be deadly. According to the Kilimanjaro National Park Authority, Mr Kimaro says about 60% of those who attempt to reach the summit are successful.
Mr. Dortch began training for the expedition last May. He trained regularly about five days a week for 45 to 60 minutes at a time, he explains, focusing on cardio to build stamina and stamina, free weights for strength and yoga. and stretching to maintain flexibility.
Still, his first day on the mountain was tough. Mr. Kimaro told him “pole pole” (pronounced poh-leh poh-leh in Swahili): “Slow down, you are going too fast!
That first night at Big Tree Camp, “I hear the sounds, the monkeys. It’s below freezing,” recalls Mr. Dortch. “I’m awake all night.”
He hadn’t taken Mr. Kimaro’s advice to camp outdoors in “the United States” before taking on this challenge – and regretted it in hindsight. A crew of seven, including guides, a cook and porters, was not far off.
Feeling more and more isolated, he needed to establish “some kind of connection”. “I cannot receive information. I cannot give information. I’m in this tent away from home. What am I doing here?” he remembers wondering. He grabbed a smartphone that he had been using as a camera. To his surprise, he was able to listen to music from his Pandora subscription offline: Lauryn Hill, Donald Lawrence, Anthony Hamilton.
“It spoke to my spirit. It was familiar, and it was comforting to me and affirming,” he explains, particularly the gospel music of Mr. Lawrence. It helped to refocus on his goal.
Mr. Dortch, 56, is a bit of a renaissance man. He is a philanthropist, certified executive coach, father of two adult sons, and photographer/artist. He served as senior minister at Shiloh Baptist Church in Chesterfield County for a decade and served as acting pastor at another church in the county.
His son, Malcolm, 25, is not surprised by his father’s sense of adventure. He cycled down Pike’s Peak in Colorado with his father. But one night on the mountain, Mr. Dortch was able to reach his eldest son by cellphone. They talked for about 10 minutes.
“I was surprised to hear his voice,” said Malcolm Dortch. “To be honest, I was excited, but I was also a little alarmed. He was a little emotional, and he said it was the hardest thing he had ever done. He was crying a little bit.”
It was not unusual. “My sons have seen me cry,” Mr. Dortch says, noting that those tears imply joy or sorrow. They had never seen him cry about “something difficult and difficult”.
A few days later, his last night of hiking started around 2:30 a.m. “All you could see in the dark were the headlamps of everyone coming up the mountain,” he recalls.
His guides, Emmanuel and John, began to sing. “And even though they were singing in Swahili, I knew they were singing spirituals and that made me smile,” Mr Dortch said. Around 6:30 a.m., he turned around and saw the “most beautiful” sunrise. “I took a picture in my head and kept moving.”
Soon he began to see people turning back, unable to reach the top. “I was sad for them because I knew it must have hurt,” he says. Tissues stained with blood from nosebleeds littered the floor.
“Breathing was difficult. Emmanuel kept saying ‘breathe and pole pole’.
As Mr. Dortch approached the summit, others who had gone before him still lingered. “Then the crowd started leaving, and the (African) guides hugged me and said, ‘We’re proud of you bro!’ These words brought more tears to flow, and yet they encouraged me.
Andrew Alexander King, a California-based black explorer and CEO of The Between Two Worlds Project, has climbed Kilimanjaro twice. “You rarely see a person of color or a marginalized community standing on a peak and getting the publicity or the notoriety or the accolades with it,” he says.
Costs can be a barrier to such excursions, he adds, noting that often climbers – like some who have summited Kilimanjaro and Everest – have sought sponsorship for their expeditions.
And what is the cost? Mr Dortch isn’t specific about Kilimanjaro, but admits a trip like his – which also included a three-day safari in Serengeti National Park – can range from $6,000 to $10,000.
Eight days on Kilimanjaro can forge strong bonds – the trust involved, complete surrender to virtual strangers. Since Mr. Dortch’s expedition, he and Mr. Kimaro have stayed in touch via Messenger, WhatsApp and email, the guide explains. They have become friends.
“Robert was curious to learn more, including the social and economic outlook, and he had time to talk to the crews,” Mr Kimaro said. “His attitude towards others is something I will never forget.”
Rather than going through a faceless business, it was important for Mr. Dortch to connect directly with an African entrepreneur like Mr. Kimaro, whose African Golden Expeditions is one of a handful of black-run businesses providing such services. He remembers telling Mr. Kimaro, “I’m not here to make a deal. Although I want to do this, it is important to be able to support what you are doing.
Meanwhile, he passes on those same values to his sons, Malcolm, and Solomon, 22.
“I will always support you to live and achieve your dreams,” Mr. Dortch says of the lesson he imparts. “The dreams that are inside of you, whatever they are. Everyone has a mountain.
Mr. Dortch will discuss his trip to Mount Kilimanjaro on Dec. 8 at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. To register, visit
Charles Taylor is a freelance writer formerly based in Richmond.