Flying home after visiting Tanzania in 2006, John Truchard glanced out his airplane window at Mount Kilimanjaro.
He had reached the peaks of Mount Rainier and Mount Shasta, but the co-owner of John Anthony Vineyards was no hard-bitten mountaineer. Still, the majesty of the peak known as the “roof of Africa” led Truchard to immediately make a promise to a friend sitting next to him.
“I turned to Payam (Zamani, his classmate at UC Davis) and said to him, ‘Next time we come here, we’re going to climb Kilimanjaro,’” he recalled. “And eight months ago he called and said, ‘I’m going to climb it; you in?’”
Last month, the 40-year-old Napan followed through on that promise, ascending the 19,341-foot volcanic peak towering over Tanzania and the African continent. Among the three friends who reached the peak with him was a longtime friend from St. Helena, James Barrett, who also had ascended Rainier with him in 2002 and Shasta two years later.
Some 15,000 people reportedly scale Africa’s highest mountain annually. But back home in Napa, Truchard still appeared bemused about the success by four friends who all were newcomers to any peak of Kilimanjaro’s height.
“It was mostly four friends calling each other’s bluffs,” an apparently unmarked Truchard recalled with laughter on Tuesday, adding the trek up Kilimanjaro was the first climb of any kind for the other two climbers, brothers Payam and Frank Zamani. “It was like, ‘I’m gonna do it, are you gonna do it?’”
After Truchard and his group set off on their trek on the morning of Jan. 27, what the men expected to be a somewhat less rigorous climb than other famous mountains — more of a rock-strewn multi-day hike than the pick-and-crampon scaling of Himalayan peaks — soon began wearing on the hikers, especially as they realized the route they had chosen of the half-dozen marked paths was the quickest but also steepest.
“We were reading mountaineering journals, not average-person journals,” he recalled wryly of writers’ description of Kilimanjaro’s relative ease. “It looked like the Truckee River with no water.”
The hikers’ lungs increasingly clawed for oxygen as the party steadily rose from their 8,500-foot starting point toward the altitude where the ground becomes bare of trees and plants, and an afternoon hailstorm slowed their progress on the second day. But despite the rigors of mountain and altitude, Barrett, Truchard and their friends chose to speed up their schedule by nearly a full day, reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro at about 7 a.m.
“I’m not an overly religious person, but it was like a spiritual experience to be on the highest point of Africa,” said Truchard. “It was the combination of an overwhelming sense of achievement, semi-exhaustion, the endorphins flowing, and the joy of being there with friends.
“The clouds were maybe 2,000 feet below us, and it was a sense of, ‘Wow, we’re in the heavens.’ It was morning and you could see the sun rays flying off in all directions.”
Throughout the group’s four days scaling the mountain, according to Barrett, their admiration for the two porters and guides assisting them — one of whom has ascended Kilimanjaro about 780 times in a quarter-century — became boundless as they saw their mountain goat-like resilience under heavy burdens and thin air.
“It was a beautiful place, and also a challenge,” said Barrett, 42, a vice president for Union Bank in St. Helena. “But what blew me away was how incredibly strong those porters are. They’re carrying 100-plus pounds each — their stuff along with most of your stuff, food and water. They were like 5-foot-6, maybe 150 pounds, and they literally run up that mountain. Some of them were just wearing old sneakers; one guy went up there in flip-flops! And then they run back down that mountain.”
Barrett admitted a similar challenge might not emerge for a long while.
“I’m sated for a while,” he said. “We have very active families, and it’s hard to leave them for very long. I’m probably good for a few more years, but in five years ...” He turned to his friend and added: “I don’t know, John, what do you think?”
“It’s like going to the French Laundry; I’ll have no desire to go back the next night,” Truchard answered. “But after a while you go, ‘Hey, let’s do it again.’”