Flopping a huge tractor tire over and over around his yard, swinging, curling and lifting a 50-pound sandbag and walking around his neighborhood barefooted are several of the activities that Conway attorney John Long used to prepare himself for the climb of his life.
Although Long says he was physically prepared for the six and one-half day trip to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and back down again, the native Conwayite says he was not prepared for how hard it is to breathe the thin air at 19,392 feet above sea level, the highest point in Africa.
“I got there and I thought ‘I really didn’t think this all the way through’…I was ready for the physical stamina of walking, but the mental aspect of having such a long distance climb and the effects of altitude, I was not ready for that. One thing that got me was you could always see the summit, and it seemed like it got farther and farther away. You could never escape the summit,” Long said.
Long’s group of 46 climbers had “porters” who guided them up and down the mountain.
“They were awesome,” he said. “They made me feel like a whimp.”
There are a number of different routes on the mountain and Long’s group was guided along the most difficult one, known as the Machame.
As the group reached about 15,000 feet on the third day of climbing, Long says he began to feel the symptoms of low oxygen. His head hurt, he was nauseous, very fatigued and just plain irritable.
To help the climbers adjust to the altitude, the porters took them back down about 2,000 feet to camp overnight. After the descent, he says, he felt a little better. After about a day his headache and nausea went away.
“Just bending over to tie my shoes took all my breath…and the higher we went the shorter our strides got,” he said.
At this point, Long rose to his feet to demonstrate how his final steps were about half the length of each foot.
“The night before we summited, we got to our camp at about four o’clock in the afternoon. We ate supper. We rested for about three hours and then we left that base camp at 10 o’clock that night and we started walking, and we arrived at the summit at 8 o’clock that morning and then we turned right around and walked down to the base camp. That took three hours. We took a two-hour rest and then walked to the next camp and we arrived there at 7 o’clock that night.”
That made for a 21-hour day, he points out.
“I accomplished my goals of reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro. I did it. I fortified the relationship I have with the Geita Gold Mine, showed them I was committed to their cause, and so I say ‘mission accomplished, don’t have to go back there again,’ ” he chuckled.
After reaching the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, all of the challenge wasn’t over.
“It hurt more coming down than it did going up because of joints and your toes rubbing into the end of your shoes,” he said.
The porters that guided Long’s group made the trip much easier than a lone climb.
All Long had to take was his boots, a heavy coat and some Long Johns, and the Geita Gold Mine supplied the rest. The climbers started in a rain forest where the temperature was about 80 degrees, sort of like wooded areas in Horry County after a rain, but at the summit the temperature plummeted to about 20 degrees, so climbers needed everything from shorts to snow pants to a t-shirt and thermal underwear, according to Long.
An area near the top of the famous mountain is desolate, sort of how Long images that Mars looks. There is some cactus.
Nearer to the top of the mountain, there are pieces of broken volcanic rock, because Kilimanjaro is an inactive volcano. It is very dry and dusty, according to Long.
Out of the 46 climbers who made the trek with Long, 40 reached the summit. Long was the only American in the group. The others were all Africans from Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Mali and South Africa.
“Nobody died,” he said. “They had somebody die last year, so we’re thankful of that.”
The porters cooked all of the group’s meals and stayed behind to clean up. Then they sprinted past the climbers to the next stop where they set up camp and prepared more meals before the climbers arrived.
Their menu consisted of rice, beans, chicken, soup and porridge. Around midday, they usually ate a candy bar, muffins or something similar.
“I lost 12 pounds,” Long said.
At the top of Kilimanjaro, Long said, “You could not tell where the snow stopped and the clouds started. It was just quiet. There were no ropes, no markers. They would never have that in the United States.”
One of the trickiest maneuvers that they had to make was passing “the Kissing Rock,” which is basically a large boulder surrounded by a small path, so small that climbers have to hold onto the boulder and almost kiss it to step around it.
“There are no regulations, at least that I saw,” Long said.
All the way the climbers were encouraged to walk slowly and drink lots of water.
Knowing that he’s been to the mountaintop makes Long feel good, he said.
“It gives me a lot of confidence because, for lack of a better word, this new life that God has given me of working in Tanzania, there are a lot of challenges that go along with that, and this climbing Kilimanjaro just gives me confidence that I can do it…If He can get me to the top of a mountain, He can do anything with me,” Long said.
Long’s recent accomplishment is definitely connected with his six years of missionary work in Tanzania, with four of those on the islands around Lake Victoria. He is about to add a new element to his work, which brings him to his explanation for why he decided to add mountain climbing to his list of adventures.
The plan to scale Kilimanjaro started a year ago when Long found himself on one of his mission trips on an airplane with some Tanzanian men whose hats and t-shirts indicated that they were coming from the Kilimanjaro airport.
He says the men were talking about the “Kili Challenge.”
He was immediately taken with the idea, but didn’t say anything to them.
After he landed he met up a friend, Samuel Limbe, whom he has been working with in Tanzania.
Limbe knew one of the men, who works with the Geita Gold Mine, sponsors of the annual Kili Challenge. In the past 10 years, this group has raised more than $5 million to fight HIV/AIDS in East Africa.
Limbe talked with the group and learned that they were looking for a nonprofit organization to confront the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the islands of Lake Victoria, where 15 to 20 percent of the islanders are HIV/AIDS positive.
Long explains that the fishing is really good in Lake Victoria, so men come from many parts of Africa to earn a living fishing, leaving their families and homes behind.
Added to this large group of lonely men are prevalent prostitution, flocks of HIV/AIDS people who are trying to escape the stigma that comes with being HIV positive and dangerous fishing.
The average age of death for a Lake Victoria fisherman is 27-years-old, according to Long.
“There’s a feeling of hopelessness in the islands, so even if they know how to prevent the spread (of HIV/AIDS)…they don’t because they think they’re going to die soon anyway,” he said.
Long wants to give them hope in Jesus, so they’ll think they have something to live for.
Long said his nonprofit group, Beautiful Feet Ministries, was already busy building churches and vigorously preaching the Word of God in Tanzania, so Long saw that instead of building churches, his group could build community centers where people could come get HIV/AIDS testing, receive counseling, positive or negative, and be referred to government facilities to receive treatment.
Instead of installing a pastor at each center, they could install a nurse and counselor. Instead of showing the Jesus film, they could show films about preventing HIV/AIDS.
The African authorities liked the idea and a partnership was formed among the Geita Gold Mine, the African Inland Ministries and Long’s nonprofit group, Beautiful Feet Ministries.
They will start by planting their community centers on two of the six islands in Lake Victoria. The Gold Mine is putting up $44,000 this year to begin implementing two centers.
They have already bought one hotel that they plan to remodel with hopes of beginning to welcome patients in November, although it could take several more months before they’re ready.
The group was excited when they learned that Long wanted to take the Kili Challenge and climb Mount Kilimanjaro to show them he was serious about and committed to the HIV/AIDS project. They have asked Long to be the American ambassador for the Kili Challenge for the coming years.
Long says part of the reason the porters took them up the mountain on the toughest route was so they would experience some of the same symptoms that AIDS patients have, hence the headache, nausea, fatigue and irritability.
Although Long has been ministering in Tanzania on a back-and-forth to the United States basis for six years, he is winding down his Conway law practice now with plans to return to Tanzania Dec. 27 with his wife Mary where they will stay for at least two years ministering full time.
Long says Mary wasn’t flustered when he talked with her about his plan to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
“At this point, she is so numb to my ideas,” he said. “I think she just rolls with them. She was concerned with the altitude most.”
He quotes her as saying, “That’d be so cool. You’ve got to do it.”
The Longs have three children, Reuben, Virginia and Caroline. Long is the son of Conway natives, Ann and Furman Long.
The Long children were invited to go to Tanzania for the long-term stay, but Long says, they all opted to stay in the United States this year and go to college.
Mary and John plan to start language school Jan. 4, 2019, where they will learn to speak the Swahili language.
While many of the nearby residents live in mud huts, the Longs will live in a more western-style house that they are building for $10 a square foot about 30 miles from the nearest city.
They’ll have solar power and a cistern for water.
They’re building the house big enough to host mission teams any time they want to visit.
Everything Long has accomplished he gives God credit for.
“It was all by the grace of God because I was content with the life that I had here and when I went on a mission trip in November of 2012, God just broke my heart for the lost and grieving people of Tanzania. I used to say He turned my life upside down, but really He turned my life right-side up,” Long said.
Theoretically, he said, he could have happily continued his life here, working as an attorney and chasing the American dream, “but I can’t imagine saying no to God with this adventure.”
Long’s new philosophy of life is, “You only live once, take advantage of it. That’s what I think. If there’s something you want to do out there, if God makes a way, you can do it. Never say never — that’s for sure.
“What amazes me about my new life, ever since I said yes to going to Tanzania, my life has become more adventurous. I’ve done things I never thought I could do – never thought I’d have a nonprofit organization, never thought I’d travel to Africa 12 times or have friends from all over the world. Just saying yes to God opens up a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Long said his family is proud of the new more adventurous person he has become, but he thinks it scares them a little.
“They just don’t know what I’m going to do next. They want me to be safe. Safe is kind of boring sometimes,” he said.