Stephen Ball was vacationing with wife Dale in Tanzania in 2003 when he met a group of men in the airport who'd just descended from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Something about their adventure at 19,341 feet instantly captured his imagination and wouldn't let go.
"I kind of fell in love with Africa on that trip and thought, 'I've got to get back,'" the La Cañada resident recalled in a recent interview. "I looked at these knuckleheads in the airport and thought, if they can do it, so can I."
The following year, Ball made plans for his own ascent to the top. He enlisted the services of Kiliwarrior Expeditions, a company owned and run by Wilbert Mollel, a young native of the Maasai tribe and a mountain devotee determined to set himself apart from other outfits.
The nine-day journey Mollel had crafted was designed to improve hikers' success rate as they moved through below-freezing temperatures and multiple terrains and altitude levels.
Experienced and well-compensated porters, along with Mollel's unparalleled expertise, made the trip an experience of a lifetime — one Ball was eager to share with and recommend to other adventurers, including fellow La Cañadan Leonard Gomez.
Gomez and wife Denise had experience training at 14,000 feet, but the behemoth Kilimanjaro held special appeal. Like Ball, they booked a trip through Kiliwarrior with a small group of friends and had the same unforgettable experience, which they credit to Mollel's considerate planning and personal touch.
"I don't think I've met anyone as successful and humble as Wilbert. He treats people as he'd like to be treated," Gomez said in an interview at his home. "He's just a great guy."
Now, when the 40-year-old Mollel comes to the U.S. on a rare trip, he is sure to make a special stop in La Cañada Flintridge. There, the Ball and Gomez families gladly open up their homes and invite others in the area who've climbed Kilimanjaro with Mollel to celebrate his arrival.
Last Tuesday found Mollel staying with the Gomez family as part of his own two-week expedition through Southern California. A large group of hikers celebrated his arrival with a festive dinner, inviting him to hike up the San Gabriel Mountains, join them on a trip to Baja or take an airplane tour of the coast.
"This is how the friendships get when they put their lives in my hands," Mollel reasoned. "They say, come and see my family, so that's what I do."
The expedition leader explains Kilimanjaro's allure to those with "bucket list" aspirations, or those who are simply ambitious or curious in nature. For him, the relationship is a kind of love affair.
"Climbing the mountain is part of my job, and it's part of my heritage," he said. "I have a passion for the mountain, and I'm happy to share it with other people."
Gomez — like Mollel, a lifelong mountain worshipper always up for an adventure — can attest to the special bond formed between people who share a journey together.
"Something happens on that mountain," he said of his experience with Mollel on Kilimanjaro's snowy slopes.
"I don't know if it would have been the same with anyone else," agreed Ball.
Sara Cardine, email@example.com