BELLINGHAM — As he settled into middle age, Jeff Belanger reached a sort of comfortable truce with the everyday routines of work and family.
Then his brother-in-law died from cancer at 46, and he couldn’t help but wonder how much time he had left to reach for something extraordinary.
So when the hiking enthusiast was invited to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for leukemia research not long after Chris Quick’s death in 2016, Belanger knew the answer instantly.
“The universe doesn’t put something on a golden platter for you like this that often,” says Belanger. “When that opportunity came up, I said, ‘That’s it. This is happening.’”
Now Belanger has turned his life-affirming trek to the top of Kilimanjaro into a book, “The Call of Kilimanjaro: Finding Hope above the Clouds” – published just two weeks ago.
Anyone who follows New England ghost lore has probably heard of Belanger – he’s already penned a small library of books about ghosts and is host of TV’s Emmy-nominated “New England Legends” on PBS. But “The Call of Kilimanjaro” is his first memoir – and the only thing harder than climbing the mountain, he says, was writing such a personal and introspective book about it.
But it’s already getting high marks from adventurists and reviewers.
“My own journey to the summit of Kilimanjaro opened me to a life of adventure, and this book brought me right back to the slopes of that magical mountain,” wrote Josh Gates, explorer, author, and host of “Expedition Unknown” on Discovery. “This is an honest and affirming tale of embracing the unknown and of the transformative power of nature.”
A longtime resident of Bellingham, Belanger, 46, never considered himself a particularly experienced climber. But he’s been scaling Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and some of the lesser-known peaks in the region since he was in his 20s.
Not long after Quirk died, a friend from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, an organization that raises money for research, asked him to join a fundraising team for a journey to the summit of Kilimanjaro. She didn’t know about Quirk or that Belanger had long harbored a dream of scaling the inactive volcano – 19,341 feet high, straddling the border of Kenya and Tanzania in eastern part of African.
She didn’t even know he learned Swahili in college – the native tongue in the Kilimanjaro region – or that traveling to Africa would give him a tantalizing opportunity to tell his mother, “I told you so,” as she always teased him about studying a language that seemed to offer few opportunities to apply.
Belanger didn’t need any unusual enticements to climb the mountain. At his age, it was a chance to prove something to himself – that he wasn’t just a middle-aged desk jockey; he still had the physical oomph to scale one of the world’s legendary Seven Summits. But it was Quirk’s death, after a two-year battle with colon cancer, that really got him thinking that the future might hold fewer opportunities to pass up before he no longer had a choice.
“Chris was the wake-up call,” said Belanger, who dedicated the expedition to him and ended up raising more than $17,000 for the LLS in the process.
Belanger calls Kilimanjaro “Everyman’s Everest.” It’s not nearly as high, but anyone who can walk can climb Kilimanjaro – as long as they’ve trained properly to build up the necessary cardiovascular endurance, the author says.
For seven months before the climb, he and his teammates, laden with heavy packs of gear, hiked the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the Blue Hills of Massachusetts and other high-altitude trails to get ready. Training in winter conditions was especially vital.
When the moment for the ascent finally arrived, in late March 2017, Belanger joined eight hikers with the LLS Team. And despite all the training, nothing could have prepared him for the physical challenges and rollercoaster of emotions that were waiting on the mountain.
The team packed weather gear for all four seasons, says Belanger, because climbers pass though all of them, twice, during the eight days it takes to scale Kilimanjaro – six up and two down.
“It starts out as a rainforest, but there are glaciers up there,” says Belanger. “It’s an arctic tundra.”
The fear starts to set in at around 19,000 feet. Air temperatures are bone-crunching cold, and there’s so little oxygen in the atmosphere that breathing seems next to impossible. Pretty frightening for a guy who struggled with asthma as a child.
“You have to go slow, because your body can’t take in as much oxygen,” recalls Belanger. “It’s like breathing through one of those thin coffee straws at a diner, and then going for a jog. At some point it’s uncomfortable all the time.”
He recalls being so cold he put on his balaclava – a type of face mask that covers everything but the eyes. He was forced to remove it and endure the numbing cold because he was unable to draw breath through the protective gear.
“I was really struggling,” he says. “I was uncoordinated, foggy...I felt like I was drunk. But not the fun drunk.”
The conditions are so inhospitable that when the team reached the peak, they had just a few minutes to savor the moment and take their scrapbook photos before commencing the descent.
But something happened up there that left him forever changed – for the better, says Belanger.
About three days in, Belanger realized he had become “unplugged.” There were no planes, no cars, no email. No smog, no light pollution.
At night, it was like being “in the Milky Way,” he says – about as close to astronomical heaven as one can get without riding a spacecraft into the stars.
He remembers seeing tiny flowers blooming near the peak and thinking how resilient they were – and how resilient he must be to have come so far.
“I realized it takes grit for me to be here and feeling like, ‘Alright, I still got it. Not bad,’” he says.
By the time he got to the peak, he felt as connected to the bedrock components of his life as he was liberated from all the tedious involvements of life below.
It was as if his whole being had been distilled into the few things necessary for life – walking, breathing, eating. Watching the sun rise as the team reached the apex was “a profound moment of spirituality,” he says.
The inspirational payoff of scaling Kilimanjaro already has him plotting another challenge to juice his next decade on the planet. Another mountain, perhaps? A marathon?
But Belanger says the lasting takeaway from a trip to the edge of the stratosphere is: Do not fear the path ahead. Because if he can conquer Kilimanjaro, whatever waits for him on the flatland is going to be a cakewalk.
“That’s a pretty neat thing I can take with me forever,” he says.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo