Given a penchant for remote places and a strong sense of adventure, Dick Cates set his sights on Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“As a life-long skier, I’ve always loved being in mountains. In 2010, my son Eric, friend Andy Diercks and I climbed above the Mt. Everest base camp. Previously I’d climbed in the Rockies, the Tetons, up Mt. Rainier, and in the jagged coastal range of west Greenland,” says Cates, director of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers in the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, and a senior lecturer in the soil science department.

The Kilimanjaro trek would include spending time with his son-in-law Dan Bloom and provide a good test of a new pair of knees. Cates says it took the better part of two years of planning and training to prepare for this summer’s hike up the world’s largest free-standing mountain volcano, which rises to 19,341 feet.

Mt. Kilimanjaro rises in the distance.
Dick Cates hiked to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, pictured here rising above the clouds.

“We started climbing on August 24 and summited on August 29. It was seven days round trip of strenuous walking,” he says. “On summit day we walked at very high altitude for over 16 hours. That’s as strenuous as it gets, for me anyhow.”

The wonders of the mountain revealed themselves as the group trudged along. Cates was surprised at how dry the place is. “It’s basically a high altitude dessert,” he notes. Blowing dust sometimes hampered his breathing, which was already challenged by the altitude. At 18,000 feet, the air holds about half of the oxygen it does at sea level, he says, and you can feel it get thinner toward the top.

“It’s spectacular to be up there with the glacier towering over your head,” says Cates. A climatic phenomenon known as “sublimation,” whereby the ice on the mountain evaporates directly into the air, is the main culprit in the retreat of Mt. Kilimanjaro’s glacier over time, he notes. “It isn’t really melting away like other glaciers do,” he says.

Sharing the mountain also held surprises. While Cates traveled with Bloom and their guides, many other people from around the world were doing the same thing. The relatively few flat, sheltered places push the hikers together to camp overnight.

“Out on the trail, you’d rarely see anyone else because people spread out,” he says. “But in the camps you’d be side-by-side with all kinds of other people, each with their own languages, schedules, and ideas about talking and behaving.”

At 12:30 a.m., at the start of the sixth day, Cates’ group broke camp and began the climb to the summit. After nine and a half hours the top was achieved. “I broke down in tears. It was the first time since we began planning the trip that I was sure I could make it,” says Cates. From the summit, they looked across the African plain—more than sixteen thousand feet below—a view that Cates describes as “breathtaking.”

The trip back down went much quicker. They gathered up their thoughts and gear and returned home.

“I loved the African people I met,” says Cates. “Our guides were extraordinary, patient, kind. Townsfolk were friendly and welcoming. It has always been so rewarding for me to have opportunities to meet and work with people from cultures that are so very different from ours.”

What’s next for Cates? His son Eric is returning to the farm near Spring Green this spring to join the business; there’s more teaching to do at the university; and there’s a 40th wedding anniversary to celebrate – Cates-style. “Kim and I are planning to either go sea kayaking in Baja, Mexico, which is Kim’s choice, or my choice is to hike the 110-mile circumference of Mont Blanc in the Alps,” he says.