Roanoke CPA Michael D. Morris hiked the mountains of the Roanoke and New River valleys to get ready to climb the rooftop of Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro.
it took only a few minutes for Michael D. Morris to make the decision. He was going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.
“I work on a computer all day,” says Morris, a certified public accountant who owns a firm in Roanoke, “and all of a sudden … it’s like, Kilimanjaro!”
It was a bit of a crazy idea, particularly since Morris did not have a lot of experience hiking, but he knew he could do it.
He started hiking the smaller ridges in Roanoke and then more strenuous paths along the Appalachian Trail to prepare for the journey halfway around the world. And the mountains here in his backyard were the perfect training ground.
Morris is no stranger to travel. The 62-year-old is an accomplished athlete. In September 2012, he completed a triathlon in Oklahoma City to cap a years-long goal of competing in all 50 states.
Morris also competed in triathlons all over the world for a couple of decades.
He loved the travel and camaraderie of the sport. Once he decided to retire from triathlons, another active adventure was almost imminent. That’s what led him to this adventure.
“It was a natural evolution between an active lifestyle and travel,” Morris said. “It’s all about the travel.”
Once the decision was made in June, Morris and a friend from his triathlon days started planning the trip. Morris started training; he approached the bucket-list hike as an event.
“Just go walk,” Morris says.
And walk Morris did.
He started gradually and increased his mileage on treks up Poor Mountain and to McAfee Knob and to Bottom Creek Gorge. He started carrying a pack and slowly added more and more weight to get the feel for changes to his center of gravity.
In the months before the December climb in Africa, Morris spent 15 to 20 hours a week on the trails.
He hiked three times a week, with his pack weighing as much as 25 to 35 pounds, a set of poles and a small speaker (to let wildlife know where he was) before the first light of day.
“I needed to practice in the dark because much of the climb would be in the dark,” Morris says.
Morris packed his bag in a way that would help him get a feel for what the actual hike would be like. “An under layer, hiking pants, rain gear, winter coat with 800 down, pants, sleeping bag rated to zero degrees, three pairs of gloves, a buff; and that’s just that you wear.”
The hikes were more than a walk in the woods; it was part of a training plan. Even though Morris is a seasoned athlete, hiking is quite different on the body from biking or swimming or running. He paid attention to how the uphill climbs felt and how he would maintain balance and footing using the hiking poles (it’s like having two extra legs); he noted how the downhills were slower and rougher.
He walked through heat and cold and rain so he’d be ready for dramatic climate changes on the way up Mount Kilimanjaro. Indeed, the weather during his December climb varied from temperatures in the 80s with plenty of sun to walking along a snow-capped mountain with below-freezing conditions. “My water bottle was like a Slurpee at the top,” he says.
“You train for it,” Morris said. “You do have to walk for 6, 7, 8 hours a day.”
Morris started the African journey with seven other hikers and a group of guides and porters (who carry supplies up the mountain). Two hikers in the group had to descend and did not reach the summit.
For six days and nights the group walked up and around and down the mountain and camped. The up-and-down nature of the climb is to help hikers acclimate to the changing conditions and elevation, which can cause sickness.
Morris sings bits of the Swahili songs that helped pace hikers as he talks about the hike. Porters and guides carried a rhythmic tune during the ascent with a call-and-return song that mimicked the slow, steady beat of each footstep. In fact, this singing and some banter with the porters in Swahili is one of the fondest memories of the trip for Morris.
Morris said he got off to a quick start on the first day of the climb and soon left the group behind, walking ahead with a guide as the mountain came more into view. The porters and guides were surprised by Morris’ age and pace, earning him the nickname “Crazy Forever.”
All that Appalachian Trail training was paying off.
Morris was inspired by the nature of the crew of porters along the trek, watching them climb the mountain ahead of the group and prepare camp.
“You would come over the hill and see dots of colors [from the packs] and it would pump me up,” he says.
The journey started with the mountain viewable at a distance—when it wasn’t covered by fog most of the day. It grew larger each day as the walk turned from green to brown to white and from lush forest to lava bed along the Machame route.
The final ascent started at 11 p.m. and Morris watched the sun rise from the tallest point on the African continent. The view spanned miles across glaciers, other mountain ridges and the plains of Tanzania and East Africa.
Morris was the first among his group to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at 19,344 feet, six days after starting the climb up the mountain.
“It’s fun to say you’ve been at the roof of Africa.”
But it’s just as much fun to see that kind of accomplishment at home.
“The cool thing is riding along and looking at all the ridges and saying ‘I’ve done that,’” Morris says of his home area.
He earned a Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club patch for hiking all 120 miles of the trail in the Roanoke area. Just 38 people (and one dog) have earned the 113- Mile Club designation since 1986. The designation is named for the original mileage of trail maintained in the section, which has grown over the years.
The club recognizes RATC members who hike each segment of the trail. There’s no time limit to complete the 14 hikes, which can be done solo or as part of a group.
He doesn’t plan to stop now either.
Morris plans to hike every mile of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. That’s 544 miles and includes more than a quarter of the entire trail from Georgia to Maine.
He’s planning his next international hike as well, a trip to Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains in Peru this summer.
“If you had told me a year ago I was going to do this,” Morris said, “I would have said you were insane.
“If it’s crazy, think about it again. It might be a good idea.”
And that’s why his new nickname “Me Me Kichaa Milele,” Swahili for Crazy Forever, is the perfect fit.