From left: The author’s father in front of Kilimanjaro in 1978; the author at the peak in 2018 (Photos: Stephanie Vermillion)

After My Father Died, I Found Him Again on Kilimanjaro

Dad and I had always planned to climb Africa’s tallest peak together, but cancer took away our chance. I knew he wouldn’t want it to take mine, too.

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I flick water on my face. Maybe this will be the splash to finally jolt me from this nightmare. I try again, miss my cheeks, and drench my sweatshirt instead. As I reach for paper towels, I catch my swollen eyes in the hospital bathroom mirror. They carry a message I’ve worked tirelessly to ignore: This is the end.

For six months, I’ve been training to hike Kilimanjaro—preparing for the lactic acid, alfresco bathroom breaks, altitude sickness, and a week without showers. That all feels like a cakewalk compared to this. I’ve spent the past two weeks camped out in a creaky hospital chair as my dad, the inspiration for my upcoming adventure, slips away.

The stress pit in my stomach has become a black hole. I look back in the mirror for a mental pep talk, but my sweatshirt’s tattered letters—KILIMANJARO—send me spiraling again.

The vintage pullover belonged to my dad, who acquired it on his Kilimanjaro trek in 1978, back when he was a daring world traveler, not the shell of his former self lying intubated, and losing hope on a hospital bed. As he always reminded me, he’d “climbed Kili before it was cool.”

Dad spent a lifetime emboldening me to do the same. Three months from now, I’m supposed to fly to Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro International Airport, where I’ll follow my father’s footsteps up to the 19,341-foot summit of Africa’s tallest peak, known in the country’s national Swahili language as Uhuru, the word for “freedom.”

That was the plan.

Now, two weeks into his hospital stay, he’s tired of life on a breathing machine. He’s grown impatient; he craves home. His agitation this particular morning is making that clear. I’ve tried everything in my power to keep him from pulling at his breathing tubes. I played Beatles jams. We binged the Dodo’s dog-rescue videos. Now it’s time to leaf through the Tanzania travel photo book I’d designed for him the previous Christmas.

The oversize book, wrapped with a close-up cheetah snap from our first family safari in Tanzania, recapped his many jaunts throughout the country: our shared wildlife memories, his 25th wedding-anniversary celebration with my mom, and, of course, his initial trek to Kili’s summit.

“Dad, look, it’s Kili!” I squeal upon spotting the pages dedicated to the snowcapped stratovolcano. I thought these photos would remind him of our upcoming trip, of all that he had to fight for. His face goes blank; he dodges my gaze. Then I spot it: a lone tear skating down his cheek.

He knows it. Now I know it. It’s time to say goodbye.

That July morning in 2018 was the last time my dad was truly my dad. He took his final breath less than a week later.

When he died, at age 69, on July 27, my world crashed down. The only scrap of solace I could find was knowing Dad had loved well and lived wildly—climbing mountains, traveling, seeking adventure, and staying true to himself.

He left earth with no regrets. It was time I did the same.

The author’s father outside the A-frame Marangu-route huts (Stephanie Vermillion)
The author's dad stopping for air on his climb to the summit (Stephanie Vermillion)

My father, Don Vermillion, was raised in the suburbs of Lima, a small city in northwest Ohio. The flat, agriculturally rich region is synonymous with country music (Dad preferred Janis Joplin), 4-H clubs, and, eventually, its starring role as the fictional backdrop of the musical TV show Glee.

Dad was a Lima anomaly. During his first visit home from college, his grown-out chestnut curls, thick mustache, and newfound affinity for cowboy boots shocked my grandparents. It was the start of many raised eyebrows. Inspired by African history lessons and tales from National Geographic, Dad traded family vacations to Michigan for intrepid trips across that far-off continent.

Later, after he and my mom started a family, he worked hard to pass on his wanderlust. Dad used the living room globe to spin my brother and me through his exploits: That time the flight dodged bullets over Sudan. The time he spotted a Speedo-clad Idi Amin (Uganda’s former dictator) in a hotel pool. The intrepid honeymoon he’d plotted with my mom that ended up being a mishap-riddled journey to Timbuktu.

Yet of all of Dad’s feats, none hooked me like his journey up Kilimanjaro. He wore his summit like a badge of honor and saw me, a tree-climbing tomboy, as the heir to this high-altitude legacy. I was an eager student. We spent afternoons during my teenage years watching mountaineering films, reading dog-eared travel books, and revisiting his faded Kilimanjaro slides—with me inevitably poking fun at his peculiar trekking attire. Sporting aviators, flared pants, and a mop top of curls, he looked less like a climber and more like the fifth member of the Beatles.

As his wardrobe proved, Dad always marched to his own drumbeat. His doing so inspired others to pursue their dream trips, too.

He left earth with no regrets. It was time I did the same.

Take his African travels. After every trip, Dad returned to Ohio with a pack full of stories. He hosted informational get-togethers for neighbors and colleagues, not to brag about his adventurous life, but to push others to consider theirs. His journeys even inspired one childhood buddy to move to Zambia in the 1970s. “My friends and family just didn’t travel,” the friend told me after my dad’s funeral. “Your father opened my eyes.”

Dad’s mentorship worked on me as well. During college I spent my sophomore summer teaching English in Moshi, a small Tanzanian town in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. I didn’t have the funds or physical preparation for the climb at the time, but I did head up 14,908-foot Mount Meru, one of East Africa’s highest peaks, on a weekend backpacking trip. It was my first big trek. Dad later beamed with pride and shared his own harrowing Meru tale: a pop-up storm had turned his scramble into a death wish. “It’s the one that got away,” he mused.

Of course, dad was joking. He cared little about bagged peaks or passport-stamp collections. To him, a pin on a map meant nothing without a good story.

I left that summer in Tanzania ready to see more of the world. I continued my journalism studies and had pulled off months-long stints in Italy, Ireland, Morocco, and England by the time I finished school in 2012. I was penning my own stories, carving my own path, and one day, I knew, I would write about tackling Africa’s highest peak.

The author’s dad taught her Swahili climbing slang, like pole pole—the term for ”slowly, slowly”—that he swore by on his 1978 ascent of Kilimanjaro. (Stephanie Vermillion)
Minutes after reaching the peak, the author swapped her climbing hat for the same stretched-out wool hat her father wore on his climb (Stephanie Vermillion)

In the spring of 2013, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. They caught it early, he’d encouraged me—but not early enough. It had spread. Consultations with Doctor Google gave us five years.

The gravity of the situation brought Kilimanjaro to the forefront. If we were going to pursue our dream, of me climbing and dad meeting me at the bottom, we’d need to go soon. A major roadblock stood in my way: a nine-to-five communications job. I had ten total vacation days to live out a year’s worth of adventures.

That’s not how Kilimanjaro works. To climb it, I’d need at least seven days on the mountain for adequate acclimatization. Add to that the 16-hour flights that bookend the trip, then downtime to recover from the initial flights before tackling one of the Seven Summits. Plus, the getaway my dad and I had long planned ended with him meeting me at the mountain’s base before heading out on a family safari to celebrate. I would need two weeks minimum.

It wasn’t feasible. I shelved the dream again, though office life was beginning to feel like a prison. Life was short; Dad’s diagnosis made that clear. I needed to break free.

Three weeks later, I received the call I’d been dreading since the spring of 2013: Dad was in the hospital. He was going downhill fast.

In 2015, when my now husband, Frank, and I moved from Ohio to New York City, a new path presented itself: travel writing. I’d always seen the career as a pipe dream, something people fantasized about, but no one—at least no one lacking connections or an endless travel budget—could actually do. Yet through dive-bar travel meetups and happy hours, I encountered countless writers making it work. Maybe I could, too.

I started writing articles and blogs during my lunch breaks, and squeezed New York–area excursions into every spare night and weekend. Micro adventures—like attempting to hike my way into the Catskills 3500 Club, an organization for those who have bagged the region’s 35 peaks above 3,500 feet elevation—reignited the spark of my college escapades. I was living, and maybe soon I could ditch the corporate world and make Kilimanjaro a reality.

A 2017 bombshell accelerated my timeline. Back pain had forced my dad into spinal surgery just weeks before a family vacation to Tuscany, Italy. Progressing cancer was to blame. “It breaks my heart,” he’d whispered over the phone the night his doctor confirmed he couldn’t take the trip. Dad rarely showed emotion. This time, he let me in. The view crushed me.

His cancer was getting worse, I learned. Its spread was accelerating, and chemotherapy had done little to stop it. That five-year prognosis was looking more like a reality. Our race against time was on.

The author’s now husband, Frank, down on one knee (Stephanie Vermillion)
Post proposal beneath the Kilimanjaro ”congratulations” sign (Stephanie Vermillion)

The official impetus for the long-awaited Kilimanjaro excursion sparked on a Las Vegas business trip in early 2018. I’d spent the cross-country flight riding an emotional seesaw: crying about my dad’s situation, then plotting a Tanzania journey via my seat-back TV screen’s map.

When the plane landed, I rushed to my hotel and rang Dad four times in a row until he picked up.

“Hey, is everything OK?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry,” I said. “But I have an idea.”


“I think it’s time to do Kili.”

There was a beat of silence. He knew the hurdles well: chemotherapy appointments, his dwindling immune system, my short vacation allowance.

He surprised me: “I like the sound of that.”

We hatched our plan for October 2018. The timing was perfect. We could celebrate the 40th anniversary of his climb, and we had solid odds of catching the wildebeest migration near the Mara River on our Serengeti safari.

The climbing crew—Frank (still my boyfriend at the time), his brother, Nate, and I—decided to tackle the Rongai route, a remote 45-mile track up and down the mountain’s northern side that links with the Marangu Trail, which my dad had climbed, for the summit night. My dad, mom, and brother would meet us at the bottom for post-trek revelry and a one-week safari.

Dad and I threw ourselves into planning. My strolls home from work became Kilimanjaro phone catch-ups. We laughed about the memories from his climb, chatted through what to expect on mine, and talked logistics like training and gear—although I knew better than to heed Dad’s advice on the latter.

After a particularly fruitful REI trip that June, Frank and I orchestrated an impromptu FaceTime fashion show to run Dad through our haul. He oohed and ahhed over the boots, pants, and packs. With a glint in his eye, he promised to dig through the attic for his old flared climbing pants. I urged him to save his energy.

Three weeks later, I received the call I’d been dreading since the spring of 2013: Dad was in the hospital. He was going downhill fast. I flew to Ohio and stopped home en route to the ICU to drop off my bags.

A surprise awaited me.

“Hey, Mom—what is all this stuff?” I called downstairs, carefully examining the dusty box on my bed.

She ran up and peeked into my room. “Those are Dad’s climbing slides, and there’s his old Kili sweatshirt.” Then she’d hesitated. “He set them out to show you on your next visit.”

He thought we still had time.

The author and her dad during a 2011 safari, sharing fireside Kilimanjaro lager beers in his favorite place on earth: Tanzania (Stephanie Vermillion)

I consider these mementos, and many other moments from Dad’s last months, as my gaiter-swaddled boots kick up ash on the moonlit trail. It’s summit night on Kilimanjaro, and our midnight-to-sunrise slog to the peak of Uhuru is well underway. The conditions couldn’t be better—no wind, no snow, and somehow no signs of altitude sickness.

In fact, I’m nearing a state of transcendence, having watched the metronome of Frank’s feet for the past four hours. Step, step. Step, step. Just like my marathon-running days, this long-distance jaunt provides the perfect venue for reflection—especially when the person I’m reflecting on huffed and puffed up this exact path 40 years before me.

It’s a scene I thought I’d never see in the grief-stricken weeks following my dad’s death. I’d come close to calling off the entire thing. To climb without Dad after all these years of copiloting felt like sacrilege. Frank persisted; he and Dad had shared a long-planned secret—a mountaintop proposal on our favorite peak. Frank couldn’t let him down.

“You know he would’ve wanted you to climb,” Frank urged me on one of many emotional nights, me puffy-eyed, still bundled in my dad’s unwashed Kilimanjaro sweatshirt. “And hey, maybe it’ll help with closure.”

He was right, I eventually acknowledged. I told myself the trek could jump-start my grieving process—a step out of the numbness and into a new normal.

I still hadn’t figured out the trip’s vacation-day dilemma, and my writing side gig was finally gaining steam, so I quit my job to become a travel writer. I packed up my desk on October 1, 2018. Two days later, we were wheels up to Tanzania.

Our initial stints up the mountain centered on something I’d all but forgotten: fun. Travel had always renewed my zest for life, and up here on Kilimanjaro, that fervor coursed through my veins. We played soccer with the porters at every camp, swapped stories with our guide over leek soup in the mess tent. We danced beneath the cosmos, watched for shooting stars, then admired sunrises above the clouds. I felt tension ease for the first time in months.

Joy was just what I needed before this meditative summit night. As I gaze up the trail, headlamp-clad climbers dot the switchbacks like a strand of fairy lights. I take a deep breath of the crisp air, then let my mind explore grief.

This climb starts my new beginning, I think to myself as I gasp for air, which is thinning by the minute. It’s my version of “living with it.”

I think back to the lessons from my grief-book binge; each had impressed upon me a similar quip. When someone you love passes, you don’t get over it. You learn to live with it.

If only it were that easy. I’d eye-rolled my way through this TED Talk–perfect soundbite in the trying months following Dad’s death. But after a week beneath the African sun, my cynicism was melting, because up here, the advice was hitting home.

This climb starts my new beginning, I think to myself as I gasp for air, which is thinning by the minute. It’s my version of “living with it.”

Looking back, I’m almost sure Dad knew the excursion wasn’t in the cards for him. Chemotherapy wasn’t working as we’d hoped, and his oncologist had barely let him join us for a South Africa trip the year prior. There’s no way he would have approved Tanzania and its 16-hour flight.

Dad had kept this understanding on the down-low, though, knowing full well that my coping mechanism was naivete. Plus, planning this expedition let us make the most of his last months. We weren’t bemoaning cancer or mourning his diagnosis. We were living, laughing, bonding, and dreaming. He went out on a high, the perfect end to an action-packed life.

Except Dad’s journey is far from over, I realize as the sun’s first rays warm my cheeks, illuminating our snow-flecked volcanic surrounds. He left a live-large legacy, and Frank and I are just two of his many protégés.

“We’re so close!” I shout to Frank, his eager grin just as much about the peak as it is the question he’s minutes from asking. I’m way too overstimulated to notice his nerves.

I spot sun-dappled Mount Meru peeking above the clouds on my left, the summit “congratulations” signpost ahead to the right, and deep within me, there’s an emotion I haven’t felt for months: hope.