OAKWOOD — Look at the skies today. If there are clouds, chances are they are at 9,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level, which is about average for Georgia.
Now consider this: Using his feet and determination to raise money for an African charity, Robert Smucker of Flowery Branch climbed about 8,000 feet beyond that elevation, or nearly a mile and a half, to reach the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in East Africa.
Smucker, 55, led the June 21-25 hike as part of a fundraiser for a nonprofit Christian organization's efforts to develop 2,500 acres in Swaziland for large-scale farming, fisheries, poultry houses and a dairy farm.
Altogether, about 100 people hiking eight mountains in five countries on three continents reached their respective summits June 25, raising about $100,000 for Heart for Africa's Project Canaan.
Smucker, an engineer with Ciba Vision in Duluth, led seven other people up Kilimanjaro, which at 19,340 feet is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.
Known for its spectacular, snow-capped peaks above the clouds, Kilimanjaro actually is a cluster of three volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira.
"My enjoyment wasn't necessarily climbing to the top as it was getting (the others) to the top," Smucker said during an interview last week at Gainesville State College.
Smucker had climbed Kilimanjaro before as part of a previous Heart for Africa fundraiser. The rest of the group was made up of young hikers making their first trek up the mountain.
The group started the hike at 7,000 feet in an area of rainforest. The hikers ventured through three other climates on their way to the summit: desert, a barren sort of "moonscape" and, finally, arctic.
"When we climbed the summit, (guides and support staff) woke us up at 11 p.m. and we started our climb at midnight," Smucker said. "It was six or seven hours to get to the summit.
"That's the hardest part of the whole climb. You walk 10 feet and you stop and rest, then walk another four or five steps and rest. That's how you've got to do it."
Months of training and preparation paid off for Smucker's group, which made it to the top intact.
"They all did great," he said of his group. "... I'm so proud of them."
Other hikers aren't so fortunate when climbing Kilimanjaro. Altitude sickness, caused by a lack of oxygen at high elevations, befalls many. And the only way to get better is to go back down the mountain.
However, reaching the summit doesn't mean you can camp out there and maybe spend an hour or so drinking in the awesome views.
"You can only stay at the top about 15 minutes," Smucker said. "We made the mistake of ... being up there nearly 40 minutes. ... Everyone was getting sick. Also, the weather starts getting bad up there."
The trip down the mountain goes at a much quicker clip.
"We were almost at the point of actually skiing," Smucker said. "We went from 19,000 (feet) to 12,000 in four hours. ... You're fighting gravity and there's a real strain on your knees."
Smucker has done work with Heart for Africa for six years, serving on the organization's land advisory committee.
He said he felt a spiritual calling to do such work, largely inspired also by his parents, who served as missionaries during and after World War II.
"I grew up hearing all the stories about what they did in the Philippines," said Smucker, whose mother is Filipino and whose father was American. "I have always felt the need to go serve."
Heart for Africa particularly reaches out to children in AIDS-ravaged Africa, building orphanages in Kenya, Swaziland and Malawi.
"It's a pretty sobering experience when you go to these places," said Smucker, who also has served with Conscience International and just returned with that group from the Horn of Africa, which has been struck by a devastating famine.
The Kilimanjaro experience came about because Smucker was looking for a fundraiser to benefit Africa and he wanted it "to have something to do with Africa."
"On my flights from Kenya to South Africa or Swaziland, we'd always pass by (the mountain), and I'd always see it," he said. "So, it was always in the back of my mind that that would be something good to do."
Finally, in 2008, he decided "to go for it" and climb Kilimanjaro for the first time.
As for a third trip beyond the clouds, he shakes his head.
"Two times is enough," he said.