Missouri hikers sing and eat cake atop Mount Kilimanjaro

Guide carried birthday cake for days to summit
Friday, September 25, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:39 p.m. CDT, Sunday, September 27, 2009

INDEPENDENCE — A big poster of Mount Kilimanjaro has hung in Johnny Stabno's Independence home for more than two decades, a constant reminder of a dream to fulfill.

Johnny and his son, Andreas Stabno, celebrated a combined 100 years of life together by hiking to the top of the highest peak in Africa in early September, an effort that took them seven days to complete.

With six support group members and two guides, the Stabno men started on Sept. 1 in Moshi, Tanzania, following the seven-day Machame Route to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

They reached the 19,341-foot summit at 7 a.m. on Sept. 6, Johnny's 64th birthday. Immersed in clouds, they watched the sun rise.

Several climbing groups had reached the summit when the Stabno group did, so they joined together in an oxygen-deprived singalong of "Happy Birthday."

That afternoon at camp, the group cut Johnny's birthday cake. The guide had carefully carried it — by hand — for three days.

They completed the descent on Sept. 7, putting Johnny's 23-year-old dream to rest.

The dream surfaced in 1986 while Johnny first visited Africa and viewed Mount Kilimanjaro from its Kenyan side. Then in his early 40s, Johnny had worked with the Independence-based Community of Christ denomination in a little village and had seen the mountain then stretched above him.

"At that time, I was a long-distance runner," said Johnny, who has completed 13 marathons in his lifetime, clocking a personal best of 3 hours, 5 minutes, "and I thought I might just easily go there and run up the mountain, but that couldn't be done, and times have changed."

Originally from Germany, Johnny moved to the United States 20 years ago and has lived in Independence since 2003. Dressed in a white Jamaica T-shirt, navy blue windbreaker pants and hiking boots, Johnny smiles about his past life as a runner.

"I'm not as good as I used to be," he said, adding that he now mostly walks and hikes.

About a year ago, the Community of Christ assigned Johnny, a retired minister, to assist in leadership development in Africa. The dream materialized, Johnny said, six months ago as Andreas started researching different trek plans online. After contacting several companies, Andreas selected Ahsante Tours. (Ahsante translates to "thank you" in Swahili.)

Andreas, 36, might not have held the dream on the same realm as his father, but like other young boys, he enjoyed climbing on rocks and trees as a child, he said. In recent years, he's also taken a liking to vacationing in Colorado's mountains.

"I think it was probably just good fortune that I both wanted to spend some time with my father in the place where he's been active in his ministry and then realizing that there's this nice little hill to climb at the same time," Andreas said.

No technical climbing equipment is required in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Johnny said, which distinguishes it from other climbs like the Rocky Mountains. Because Mount Kilimanjaro's climate ranges from rain forest (about 85 degrees) to glacial climates (11 degrees) above the clouds, weather-related equipment and gear are most crucial, Johnny said.

"We didn't see anything else except clouds when we were on top," said Johnny of the trek's final two days.

Neither men experienced any altitude sickness, owing the credit to their guides who proclaimed "pole, pole" (translating to "slowly, slowly") over and over to help with acclimatization to the altitude.

Johnny and Andreas both said the effects of altitude sickness might be more psychological than physical, especially during the final hours of climbing toward the summit.

"My mind kept playing tricks on me during that time, saying: 'All you need to do is sit down for a short time and take a nap. That would be really good right now,' " Andreas said. "Certainly, we took time to rest, but I think sleeping would have been a bad option."

About a week prior to their journey, the two men stood on a different side of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The view, Andreas said, was imposing, the mountain magnificent in its size.

Lesson learned: A goal is most achievable in smaller, more manageable pieces, Andreas said.

Finding God and the world's beauty, said Andreas, a pastor at Ridgewood Community of Christ in Kansas City, isn't always just about climbing more than 19,000 feet on another continent.

"I think some people go off in the distance to find faith, but that certainly was not the case — at least for me — for this experience," Andreas said. "I think you find faith and God in the commonness, and some of that was simply the aspects of community and working together."

Acquaintances have asked Andreas what has been on his mind in the weeks since he and his father returned, and his response is straightforward: Just be thankful. He's not sure if it's a direct result of the Mount Kilimanjaro, but in retrospect, he remembers feeling thankful during their entire stay in Africa.

"I'm just reminded of how thankful I am of so many different things," Andreas said, "and I think that certainly is an aspect of my faith, to give thanks to God for the simple act of creation for being here."

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