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Member Profile: Peter Banks Summits Kilimanjaro

How many people can say they spent 15 hours climbing while experiencing more than 13,000 feet of elevation change on just one day of their vacation? Following his journey to Kilimanjaro earlier this year, Peter Banks can!


Peter R. Banks, Ph.D., Scientific Director with BioTek Instruments, Winooski, VT, had been seriously considering a Kilimanjaro trip with friends since 2005, but his desire to do so formed much earlier. As a boy, Banks recalls reading about the exciting adventures of Richard Burton and John Speke as they pierced the interior of Africa in the mid-19th century, looking for Ptolemy's Mountains of the Moon and the source of the Nile. Burton, injured with a spear through both cheeks; Speke, trying to use a pen knife to extract a beetle out of his ear as it was burrowing its way to his brain.

"This is tremendous stuff for the vivid imagination of a boy," Banks shares. "The Mountains of the Moon were so termed due to the belief that they were snow-capped – white like the Moon. The run-off was thought to be sufficient to form the source of the Nile. Speke later proved that the source off the Nile was not some snow-capped Mountain, but Lake Victoria, a huge inland lake second only to Lake Superior in size. Speke, of course named the Lake after the British monarch of the time. By this time, after significant exploration of the area, the thought of snow-capped mountains – within a few hundred miles of the equator – was believed to be preposterous. Thus the first account of snow-capped Kilimanjaro by Johannes Rebmann in 1846 was completely disparaged by the Royal Geographic Society – the leading scientific exploration organization of the time. The leading critic was William Cooley, an armchair geographer, who based all his beliefs on classical Greek and turn of the millennia Arab (that's 1 AD, not Y1K or certainly Y2K) accounts. Successive observations of Kilimanjaro snows by Baron Carl Claus von der Decken 15 years later served to establish the fact that Kilimanjaro has snow in its upper reaches. However, Cooley never believed it for the rest of his life."

"Today there is no question – Kilimanjaro has snow," Banks knows from personal observation. "The mountain reaches up to 5,895 meters (19,341 feet), so it doesn't really matter how close it is to the equator – it gets really cold up there."

A Dream Becomes Reality

Banks realized his boyhood dreams this year when from February 19 – March 3, 2012, he traveled with friends Bob Preville, Eileen Leavitt and Jorden Marshall to summit Kilimanjaro. Tanzanian guides Gody and Machu accompanied the team.

"I have an old friend, Walt Cicha from grad school days, and although we live on opposite sides of North America, I still get out to the west coast periodically. When I do, I either hike or ski with him, depending on the season. Since 2005, we have been talking about Kilimanjaro," Banks recounts. "Together, with Walt's good friends Bob, Eileen and Jorden, we started planning for Kilimanjaro as an epic hike. Kilimanjaro provides an exciting adventure, but there is no requirement for technical climbing like ropes, so a reasonably fit individual can climb to almost 20,000 feet. In the end, Walt couldn't join us, but we'll make sure he lives through the adventure vicariously through us."

It was everything Banks hoped it would be – and more.

"Snow so close to the equator is just part of the impressive story told by Kilimanjaro," Banks instructs. "Our eight-day trek along Lemosho route was 45 miles long with a greater than two mile elevation gain. The route took us through cloud forest, heath/moorland, highland desert and the arctic conditions of the summit. Vegetation was unique and defined by the elevation. Giant senecios were perhaps the most outlandish specimens we came across."

Banks and his friends felt the people they met along the way were of equal interest.

"We shared the first few days with a team from the United Kingdom, which distinguished themselves by a litter of cigarette butts that followed them on their trail," he laughs. "We termed them the two-pack-a-day trekkers. I somehow doubt they all made it to the summit, as we lost track of them after day three.

"We also came across a team of about 20 individuals, Muslims from the UK, who had raised over €100,000 for disadvantaged Muslims in the greater London area," he adds. "They took the more used Machame route from the south and we met them at the Barranco Wall, a 1,000 foot wall of rock that formed the only passage from Barranco camp at 12,000 feet to the summit ascent route through Barafu camp. We passed them on summit day about a quarter of the way up when half the team was completely spent. As it turned out, they all had to turn back without summitting due to about a third of them completely running out of steam at that point. They had insufficient numbers of guides to ensure that some of them could summit. We felt really bad for them.

"We also met a number of single trekkers," Banks shares. "One was a nurse from Calgary, who we adopted during the summit attempt. She showed great pluck in soldiering on through fatigue to eventually make it to Uhuru Peak after 10 hours of plodding. There was also a grand dame of 63 years old from Melbourne, Australia, who was resplendent in safari gear from the early 20th century. The only thing missing was a pith helmet! She also successfully summitted eventually with our new nurse friend."

Team Takes the Top!

"We summitted as a team at about 8 a.m. February 27," Banks gushes. "We had our own issues, but all made it through driving snow up the ridge to Stella Point, a plateau near Uhuru Peak at about 19,000 feet where we were met by gale force winds coming up from Rausch Crater. Jorden, who was wearing a poncho to keep the snow off his pack, had the garment ripped off his body as he came to Stella Point. We believe it has by now traversed the Indian Ocean and is somewhere in Australia. Eileen lost her hat at this point, which we were lucky to retrieve. The remaining 500-foot elevation gain was largely in the lee of the gale and we all eventually found ourselves at Uhuru Peak for the photo op. The skies cleared spectacularly after we summitted, and on the descent we were rewarded with exceptional views of Kibo's sister extinct volcano to the east, Mawenzi. We were actually looking down on its 17,000 foot peaks from our perch on Stella Point."

Banks is proud that they stuck together as a team and summitted as a group; he calls that their greatest accomplishment. "We all had different levels of ability at the high altitudes, but managed to team together, with a lot of help from our guides – and Diamox – to make that summit.

"I recall mostly a feeling of awe," he describes. "It was starkly beautiful with snow-plastered rock faces and glaciers that were completely at odds with the fact that we were only 150 miles from the equator. We left Barafu camp – Barafu is Swahili for ice, and is at about 15,000 feet at midnight on February 27 – each of us with headlights strapped on. The trail follows a ridge with steep incline to Stella Point at about 19,000 feet. We could see a progression of lights ahead of us extending all the way up the ridge in front of us, which defined our forward path. It was going to be a long climb. At about 2 a.m., it started to snow, getting progressively heavier. Although we were going ‘pole, pole' – which is Swahili for ‘slowly, slowly' – we still managed to pass a number of groups similarly ascending in the dark. By about 6 a.m., it was beginning to get light and the snow started to taper off. We reached Stella Point about an hour later at 7 a.m. The incline levels off completely at Stella Point and we were met with a howling gale in our faces. This was a rather inhospitable place to stop, but many climbers had to pause there to catch their breath. Uhuru Peak at 19,400 feet is only about a mile further on and we all got there by 8 a.m. Due to the severe altitude, and with worry about acute mountain sickness and weather, our guides only allowed us 15 minutes at the top for a few photos before we had to turn around and start our descent. It took us four hours to get back to Barafu camp, where we were allowed an hour's rest and brunch, before we had to continue our descent to Mweka camp at 10,000 feet, which we reached at about 4 p.m. for a longer, overnight rest. In all, we were about 15 hours on the go and experienced over 13,000 feet of elevation change. The next day we found ourselves at Mweka Gate and the end of our trek.

The team was determined, well prepared and well guided.

"We had a few specific acclimatization days where we climbed significantly in the morning, then descended to camp in the afternoon," Banks explains. "One in particular I recall was the lunch trip to the Lava Tower at about 15,000 feet on day four. On the way down, we all had mild headaches that were troubling, but were cured once we attained Barranco camp at about 12,000 feet. Another challenge was the food that was largely starch-based – potatoes, rice, bread, ad nauseam. This was supplemented with protein bars that we brought with us, but I was dying for a nice bit of fish! This was the first thing I ate when I got back to Moshi."

Banks says the real heroes of their trek were their porters, Gody and Machu. "These guys were amazing in the loads they carried for us day in, day out. It was at least two times what each of us carried and they moved at twice our speed!"

He truly loved the overall adventure, but says that apart from summitting, a couple images stand out for him and will always remain clearly in his mind. One was Barranco camp at 12,000 feet.

"We entered the camp on day four, passing through groves of giant senecios that towered above us," he remembers. "This flora resembles giant pineapples and is unique to the area. The camp is also adjacent to the Barranco Wall, a 1,000-foot cliff that we knew we had to negotiate the next day. There was kind of a ‘beauty and the beast' aspect to that camp!"

The other sight he will always remember is that view from Stella Point overlooking Mawenzi.

What's Next?

Like with many who achieve a lifelong goal, it can become a jumping off point for the next one. Banks and his team have been talking a bit about doing some trekking in Nepal, with a plan to perhaps even get as far as base camp or advanced base camp at Everest. Time will tell, he says.

Banks and BioTek

SLAS2012 sponsor and exhibitor BioTek Instruments, Inc. showcased its full complement of microplate instrumentation and software technologies in San Diego, as well as participating in tutorial, seminar and poster presentations.

Banks joined BioTek in November 2008 to manage its Applications Group while also providing key scientific leadership and direction in emerging trends, opportunities and scientific discovery across BioTek's global business platforms. Before BioTek, he served as technology leader, bio-discovery with PerkinElmer Life and Analytical Sciences, involved in strategic and product development activities. Banks holds both a B.Sc. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of British Columbia. In addition to his SLAS membership, he is also a member of the American Chemical Society and the American Society for Mass Spectrometry.

May 3, 2012