Kilimanjaro: Fire and Ice

The true result of endeavor, whether on a mountain or in any other context, may be found rather in its lasting effects than in the few moments during which a summit is trampled by mountain boots. The real measure is the success or failure of the climber to triumph, not over a lifeless mountain, but over himself: the true value of the enterprise lies in the example to others of human motive and human conduct.” —Sir John Hunt, leader of the 1953 British expedition that first ascended Mount Everest

Ready to roll! Kilimanjaro: the CEO Challenge 2016!

This was a week of triumph over self, as our group of nine attempted to summit Kilimanjaro, the largest free-standing mountain in the world and the rooftop of Africa. Kilimanjaro was born 300 million years ago in fire, when massive tectonic plates in Asia shifted, creating the Great Rift Valley and pushing up sections of the earth that eventually formed the volcano Kilimanjaro. If you climb Kili, like I did this past week, you will see miles of enormous lava rocks of black basalt littering the mountain, rocks that were birthed deep in the womb of planet Earth and blasted out when the volcano exploded. During the ice age, glaciers formed, adorning sections of Kili with massive frozen sculptures.

I thought of the similarities to hemophilia this week: bleeding into joints is the fire, the pain; ice, the pain reliever. And trying to improve hemophilia health care in developing countries? A grueling climb up a mountain is a good metaphor. For a successful climb you need self-discipline to get in shape, leadership, guides or a map, a compass, equipment, trust in your guide, and trust in your teammates.

Our team? An amazing group! Eric Hill, vice president and COO of Diplomat Specialty Infusion Group, and his 15-year-old son Andrew. Eric serves on our board of directors for Save One Life and sponsors 31 children. Eric climbed with me in 2011 with his son Alex. Rich Gaton, co-founder and president of BDI Pharma, a specialty distributor that provide hemophilia and other therapies. Rich’s company is a proud member of Save One Life’s Dedication Circle, sponsoring 20 beneficiaries over the past eight years. With Rich are his wife Wendy and two daughters, Taylor (20) and Samantha (16). Mike Adelman, vice president of commercial operations for Aptevo Therapeutics, Inc., manufacturers of the recombinant factor IX product Ixinity. And Jim Palmer, MD, a surgeon from Philadelphia and friend of Mike’s. Individually, we wished to triumph over self. Together, we climbed to raise over $65,000 for Save One Life.

Day 1: August 7, 2016 Sunday

We all gathered in the lobby of the Kibo Palace hotel in Arusha, Tanzania, excitement shocking us like static electricity each time we hugged one another good morning. Our guides, Hesbon, Kelvin, Victor and Edwin, helped us put our stuffed rucksacks on the bus. We clambered aboard and squeezed in among porters, guides and bags. It was a two-hour ride to the Machame Gate, where our adventure awaited.

First we stopped at the familiar store we stopped at five years ago, when Eric and I and another group summited Kili, to pick up snacks. We sat about in the sunshine on the grass, waiting for the guides to return. Hesbon went with me across the street to a shop to get a Nalgene bottle, for $7 which he fronted. I don’t think I ever even used the bottle in the end.

Finally, back on the road. We passed roadside shops and rural homes, dust swirling from our speed. When we reached the Machame Gate (elevation 5,718 feet), we felt pretty calm. Outside the gate, a mob of vendors hawking shirts and hiking supplies. Inside, the gate was swarming with hikers, porters, bags. It would be a very late 12 pm before we started our official hike. In the meantime, Hesbon filled out paperwork while we put on gaiters and filled our Camelbacks with water. We would carry a 25-lb daypack each day while our porters would carry our 50-lb rucksack, along with their own daypack and all the accouterments of camping for nine: mess tent, folding chairs, port-a-potty, our tents and mats, and food for 29 porters, four guides, a cook and nine hikers for six days!

Our first day then had us hiking about six hours to the Machame Camp, elevation 9,927 feet. The route was a groomed trail for the most part, through a dense and moist rain forest. It was cool and progressively dark. The forest was lovely, lush green, with trees covered in soft moss, making them resemble a young deer’s antlers, covered in velvet. Many birds serenaded me. One had a distinct sound: “Tweet… bong!”

Hitting the trail!

The hike was harder than the team expected and harder than I recalled from five years ago. Very steep, working our quads and calves intensely. At times we broke away from one another, then paired up with different teammates. Wendy took her time as she had asthma; husband Rich stayed by her side the entire day. The lead guide Hesbon also needed to stay with her as he always would be last to enter camp, to ensure his hikers were all present. Mike was stricken with food poisoning the night before. The hike was very difficult for him but incredibly he persisted and arrived at camp one. By 6 pm, the weather turned rainy and cold as we all stumbled at various times into camp. It was dark. Camp was crowded with people, so different than five years ago when there were perhaps three teams, spread out comfortably over the camp ground. Now there were maybe ten teams, with all their gear and porters and tents. Pandemonium in the dark, as we all shivered in the rain, waiting for our team to assemble and find one another! Our porters had our camp ready, and we finally found our tents and crawled inside.

I had a single tent; everyone else shared one. As I would each night, I laid out my sleeping bag, stuffing in my clothes for the next day to keep them warm when I awoke and placed necessary items for the night close by: Kleenex, water, cough drops. I was nursing a cold that would later strike my chest and make the hike difficult for me. One by one, we were being hit with physical challenges to the climb. Dinner was welcome, though we had to grope our way in the dark to the mess tent, careful not to trip on the tent stakes. Juju, a young man who doubled as a porter, would serve us each night. Each dinner usually started with steaming soup, rolls, followed by a main course– chicken, rice, beans, for example. Our team sat about the table, eating, joking and comparing experiences of the day. By 9 pm we went back to our tents, and crawled into our sleeping bags.

Day 2: August 8, 2016 Monday

Gaton girls at the Shira Cave Camp

I awoke at 4 am to the sounds of the porters preparing for the long day ahead. I had a pretty good night’s sleep though. My sleeping bag, rated for 0°, is toasty warm, making it hard to leave each morning as the temperature dropped more and more the higher we went. Each day started the same: Juju and Able brought us each tea or coffee first thing, to warm us up in our tent. This was a luxury, tea in “bed”! Then, they brought a plastic bowl filled with very hot water, to wash and brush our teeth in. You cannot imagine how important one little bowl of water becomes. Kilimanjaro is very dusty, and even by day two we were coated in dust. Washing was a luxury, and that little bowl of water became something I was excited to see each morning.

Breakfast on Kili

Then breakfast: usually a round of fried eggs, toast, jam, more tea or coffee, pancakes. Yes, they prepare all that fresh for us each morning! We top off the Camelbacks with water, toss in electrolyte pills, stuff in our rain gear (you can’t go anywhere on KIli with rain gear) and anything else needed for the day, pack our sleeping bags and clothes in the rucksack, and get ready to leave.

“Twende!” shouts the guide Kelvin, a big guy, at least 6 feet tall, who walks with a noticeable limp. Let’s go! We had our concerns about his limp, but also learn he was a national soccer player in his time. The leg injury forced him to retire, and he was able to still climb well, despite it. Mike is still not well, Wendy was much improved overnight, and the Gaton girls each have slight headaches, from the altitude. We are all taking Diamox, a hypertension drug that doubles as an altitude-sickness pill, but symptoms still appear in each of us from time to time.

Laurie Kelley and Mike Adelman hit the trail on Day 2

Today’s climb was through a completely different geological zone, the Moorlands. Gone were the towering green trees and milder temperatures of the rain forest. Starting our hike with a bang, we immediately ascend a rocky path that leaves us gasping. The entire day would be spent climbing on rocks and not a trail, much like my Mt. Washington training hikes. The air was cold, and we were encased in cloud cover all day. We would miss some stunning views of nearby volcanoes, as we could see little but the path ahead. As we ascended, we put some space in between us on the hillside; through the mist, seeing other climbing parties in their various colored rain gear, I thought we looked like brightly colored beads strung on a necklace draped on the grey neck of some ancient beast.

We passed the hardier vegetation in this cold climate: the Everlast plant with its pretty flowers, and the “antifreeze” plant, which closes each night to protect itself from the cold. The topography has changed radically.

We climbed from 8 am until 2 pm, reaching Shira Cave Camp, at 12,355 feet. By now everyone was feeling good, except Mike. But he never complained, and still kept plowing forward on this difficult hike. At 4 pm, Edwin, a cheerful 28-year-old guide, asked us if we wanted to do a 45-minute acclimatizing climb while dinner was prepared. Despite the large number of climbing parties, there was more space at this camp, and we spread out. Eric, Rich, Mike and I all did the acclimatization climb, which was not hard. I felt great at this altitude and relished the climb on the rocks, which were beautiful.

Jim Palmer, our team doctor and new friend!

Later in my tent, I wrote a bit about the day and felt the cold seeping in. Tomorrow will probably be freezing temperatures when we awake!

Eric Hill and son Andrew: my second time climbing Kili
with Eric!

Day 3: August 9, 2016 Tuesday

Our strong porters

I wondered when I woke up, why am I doing this? Sleeping in a bag on the ground, freezing cold, facing a long hike ahead. I could be home, clean and warm, having summer fun! That was the one and only time I thought this during the six days, caving in for a moment to a human desire to escape misery. Instead, I switched to thinking what fun this was, to challenge oneself, to share hardship with fellow teammates, to see who and what we all are deep inside. I dressed careful within my sleeping bag, then braced for the cold. Frost etched all the tents as we emerged like lethargic bears awakening from hibernation. The sky had cleared! Now we could see other volcanoes, including the summit cone of Kilimanjaro, Kibo Peak. That was our goal! Everyone was excited. Our goal! Kibo Summit on Kilimanjaro Still smiling!

Our goal! Kibo Summit on Kilimanjaro
Still smiling!
Lava Tower

By now I was coughing with a chest cold, complicated by all the dust and increasing cold air. Everyone else was well but coughing too. This would continue for days even after our climb. Breakfast was high energy and we could feel anxiety; we wanted to get going. Breakfast was hot but soupy porridge, toast and tea, and fried eggs. By 7:30 am we were on the trail, looking forward to a four hour hike through the Barranco Valley. This was a totally different kind of hike today, mostly flat with a few hills to navigate. Victor, our guide, took my camera and snapped dozens of photo of us as we climbed. We had on warm outerwear now, as the wind picked up. By noon we were at the Lava Tower, a massive rock formation jutting out of the ground, looking a lot like a mini version of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Perfect spot for lunch and we all joyfully sat at the table. By now our team had gelled beautifully with each person playing a role. Mike was our jokester, keeping everyone laughing with his witty remarks. Samantha was our musician, and she and Mike began thinking of songs we could sing to use pole pole, which means slow, slow in Swahili. It was hysterical listening to the many songs of the 60s and 70s that accommodated this but my favorite was set to Mony Mony.

Descending into Barranco Valley

After lunch we checked gear, loaded up our stuff, and headed out for one of my favorite parts of the climb: the descent into the Barranco Valley. Our plan was to ascend all morning, to 15,000 feet, which we did at Lava Tower, then descend and sleep at a lower elevation, so we can acclimatize better. Barranco Camp, our goal, was at 13,066 feet. Passing through a natural gate of volcanic rock, we descended into the valley carefully. The topography changed again, with rocks surrounding us on the hills, and strange trees appearing, designed to withstand the wind and cold. These giant senecios are actually cousins to the daisies! And they looked like truffula trees, whimsical creations of Dr. Seuss, which was appropriate as each black boulder we passed was coated with moss, that appeared as little yellow fu manchus. It looked comically like hundreds of black-faced Loraxes were watching us pass through the truffula tree forest!

Strange senecio trees

As beautiful as the descent was into the valley, the cold was seeping into our bones. Even Rich Gaton, who is so stoic and strong, confided he was freezing. My chest cold was painful and persistent now, and my nose was running chronically. When we arrived at camp, dotted about with colorful nylon tents, the weather was foggy, dreary, and cold—so cold. How would we do the summit if this bothered us? Andrew and I were shaking in our rain gear while heading for dinner at the mess tent. Our tents for sleeping that night were close together, so much that when Wendy or Rich so much as rolled over, I would know it! I felt badly as my coughing was going to bother my teammates. Wendy always seemed to have the right medicine for the right moment. She was our warm nurturer on the trip, despite struggling with asthma in the cold air this entire time.

Day 4: August 10, 2016 Wednesday

Summit Night!

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.—Miyazawa Kenji

Mike demonstrates how cold it is!

Today we would climb to 15,239 feet to Barafu Camp, the final camp before the summit assault. First we faced a 7-hour hike, including scaling an 800-foot rock wall right after breakfast, then a long hike to camp, braving cold but more detrimentally, dust. We were excited, though! We started our day with the usual hot tea in the tent, followed by my priceless little blue plastic bowl of hot water. By now we have given up any semblance of being clean. Dust is everywhere. Breakfast is a time to share, be social, joke, check in with one another. Everyone was doing well, with an occasional high-altitude headache that faded after ibuprofen doses.

We geared up, and began the climb. Again, one of my favorite parts of the trip! My quads are feeling fantastic after all the training I did this summer, hiking Mt. Washington and working with my trainer, Dan French. In fact, I would not use my trekking poles on the entire journey, except for the rapid descent after the summit. So here, I vaulted straight up the wall using my quads and balance. Everyone did well; everyone scaled it and enjoyed photos at the top, where a crystal blue sky greeted us. The view—spectacular. We could see down into the valley. Our camp was now just a colorful speck. Our team was smiling and happy!

Onward with no time to lose. We marched down the valley, on slippery, dusty trails that plummeted down at 45° angles at times, maybe even steeper. Our guides held our hands and prevented falls whenever possible. At the bottom, we crossed creeks, jumped rocks, and made it to a flatter surface, dusty with volcanic ash powder, and dotted only occasionally by the oddly placed massive boulder. It was a surreal, primitive, prehistoric landscape. Grey and black base, domed by a brilliant blue ceiling. We were feeling the effects of altitude, which slowed us a bit. Eventually we started to ascend again, up the trails, where flat slabs of shale chimed when we stepped on them, adding a touch of class to the barren landscape.

By the time we reached base camp, we were struggling with oxygen, sunburned and elated! This was it. What we came for. What we prepared all year for. The Moment! The entire camp was perched on a mountainside, and before us was the stunning, magnificent Kibo Peak, beckoning us to climb. We could clearly see its white glazed top, its rocky sides. Kili is a beauty of a mountain. I felt awed and honored to be standing before it. I made my way to my tent, ditched my backpack and gear and wandered about till all of our team made it to the camp. My coughing had gotten worse and my voice was hoarse and raspy. Hesbon offered antibiotics as a precaution. My lungs are my Achilles Heel, so I took them. They immediately gave me severe heartburn, so badly I was not able to eat much lunch. This was a bad sign as I would need my energy to summit.

But attitude and motivation go a long way, and I was pumped up! Our plan, explained Hesbon to the group, was to have a light dinner, then return to our sleeping bags to catch maybe a few hours of sleep. Then we would depart in two groups: the first was Eric Hill and son Andrew, who proved to be the mountaineers of the group. They could go faster than us and wanted to not have to stop for breaks (stopping for frequent breaks can refuel the climbers but can also allow the cold to settle in, and can actually demoralize the faster climbers who crave to keep moving). Their guide would be Kelvin, and they’d leave at 1 am Thursday morning. Our group was the second group, guided by Victor, including everyone else. We’d leave at midnight. Wendy opted not to summit, which was disappointing to all, but the right decision. She had struggled with asthma and dust the entire day, and it was quite frankly astonishing she was even at base camp. As sweet as she is, the woman has a core of steel!

I actually was able to get some sleep, though had to pass on dinner, as my stomach burned with the aftereffects of the antibiotics. At 10 pm, I awoke and started planning what to wear to the summit: layers. Incredibly, the weather was mild, at only 20°, with almost no wind. This was a stark contrast to five years ago when it was -5° with 50 mph gusts, freezing us, sapping us of strength, and cloaking any view with white out conditions. We couldn’t get off Kibo fast enough then. This time would be radically different.

We gathered in the mess tent and did a gear check. We were each assigned someone to carry our backpack and monitor us. Team Kilimanjaro does a great job of motivating climbers as well as monitoring their physical condition for signs or mountain sickness. Off we went!

The guides forced us to go pole pole. One step, then another, as slow as possible. They also created a rhythm, so important in keeping your pace and momentum. The night was clear and millions of stars burned overhead. It was a night created for a perfect summit! Step, swing, step, swing went our gait. Up, up the rocky path to the summit. I monitored the time and by 1:30 am we had our first break. Hydrating is key, though water tends to freeze in the Camelback tube. I looked upwards at the infinite sky and saw constellations: Orion the Hunter, Taurus, and then Cassiopeia, shaped like a W. The W was upside down, forming an M (for mountain?) over Kibo, and it guided me through the night. Twice I saw shooting stars, like fireworks celebrating our summit. I took the time to take out my iPod and started playing music to keep me going. Five years ago I lost track entirely of the night, and 7 hours merged into memories of only about an hour. Not this time: I played about three hours of Metallica and the Doors, and then Guns N’ Roses. At 5 am, I was actually dancing with the porters on the mountain, gyrating as they sang, then playing air guitar to Welcome to the Jungle….

Our goal
Clowning around at base camp: 15,000+ feet!

And then the iPod died. I knew from then on it would be a struggle. While hoping to summit at 7, our group was slow. This was good as no one got sick, but it depleted that much more energy. The guides forced Red Bull down us, which I detest but drank. It instantly gave us energy. Stinger waffle snacks, Gu gel, hot tea, anything to keep us energized. But the energy drained away. I bonked. I had been running on music and fumes and now my music was gone. It did a psychological number on me. Why didn’t I keep a second iPod in my other pocket! (Note to self for next time…)

I thought about the kids I know who struggle with hemophilia and poverty. This suffering was ordinary, a luxury, self-imposed. No big deal. Just put one foot in front of the other. The trouble was, my feet would not always respond to my commands! Victor took my arm and guided me, assuring I would not stop or sit. Sitting down was the kiss of death on the summit climb and was not permitted.

Mike was now doing great, finally over his food poisoning and feeling strong. Amazing! Jim was confidently plugging away, and never once seemed to fatigue. Rich Gaton and I climbed closely together, with his daughters. Without their mom there, I felt a deep need to stay close to the girls. They are strong, but I had done this climb before and knew the pitfalls. Self-doubt, giving in to fatigue, wanting to quit—been there, done that. Rich and I conversed, which was nice, as it kept our minds off the fatigue. Dawn broke behind us, a red orb peaking through the clouds below us. Funny, sunrise was happening below us! Above us, the summit.

Day 5: August 11, 2016 Summit Day!

Incredibly, we reached Stella point at the brilliant dawn of day, at 18, 848 feet. This was a milestone for sure, and you could see Uhuru Point, at 19,349 feet, the official summit, up ahead. It seemed so close and, in my mind, addled by lack of oxygen, I thought it was only a ten minute walk. I told this to Taylor, who was exhausted and ever so politely said, “I think I’ll stay here at Stella,” and sank to a rock. We cajoled her, and I told her just ten more minutes! Think of how you will feel if you stop now! Hesbon pulled her up and she stumbled on. I needed Victor too to guide me on. The ten minutes was actually another hour! Perhaps the hardest hour of the entire six days was getting from Stella to Uhuru, but we all did it.

We did it! At Uhuru Peak, the summit! Save One Life team

We hugged, we posed for photos with our Save One Life banner, and actually explained to some fellow summiters what the program was all about. I looked about at the view I couldn’t see five years ago when I first summited. There are no words: a massive volcano, with a deep caldera of lifeless moondust, shocked with gargantuan glaciers. The glaciers are blue tinted rectangular structures that you could compare to alien spaceships, or modern architectural skyscrapers or, as Taylor put it, like the rocket popsicles we ate as kids. I struggled to find a way to describe their icy beauty, like frozen fortresses on display for millions of years.

We needed to get down as oxygen is only 50% at the summit. We linked up one by one: Jim, Mike, Rich, Samantha, Taylor, me, our guides, and started the descent. Eric and Andrew were already on their way down. This would take over 5 hours and was another punishing trip. But for now, we gleefully focused on the goal we achieved and worked so hard for: the summit. Somewhere in my oxygen-deprived head, I was also thinking of what this could mean for Save One Life and the patients we serve. Money for programs; motivation to keep persevering despite setbacks and challenges; and perhaps, another summit climb, when more captains of industry like Rich, Eric and Mike join us to experience the outer limits of endurance, to raise money and awareness for hemophilia in developing countries, and to triumph, personally and professionally. When there is a common cause to help others who suffer, a purpose bigger than ourselves there seems to be no limits to what a group of compassionate people can accomplish.

Thanks to my teammates—you are strong, exceptional, compassionate and brave! In particular, thanks to Eric Hill for suggesting this climb and for his leadership, and to Dr. Jim Palmer for his advice, services and wonderful attitude! Thanks to Team Kilimanjaro for safely escorting us on this amazing journey. Thanks to everyone who contributed to our fundraiser, for you made this climb successful and worthwhile. Please visit Save One Life to learn more about how to sponsor a child with hemophilia in need, or to get involved. Get ready for the Kilimanjaro CEO Challenge… 2017?

Kilimanjaro: Days 4-6

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey. —Miyazawa Kenji

Tuesday August 9, 2011

Facts: More than 20,000 tourists attempt to climb Kilimanjaro every year. Six out of 10 will not finish. About 10 people die each year during the climb, usually from high-altitude sickness.

It is cold now, about 40 degrees. We awake in our tents in the Barranco camp, which sits in a valley, at 6 am as “Young” Frank and Ellie bring us much-appreciated hot tea. It’s hard to complain when they are up before us, wear less than we do, tote our gear the same rough path we do, earn a few dollars a day and always serve with a smile. There’s no chance of washing up in this winter weather so we change into whatever clean clothes we can find, brush our teeth, spitting into the bushes, and then quickly get to the mess tent. We have this getting ready thing down to a sort-of science.

After breakfast, Jonas unzips the mess tent door flap and walks in, with Jacob in tow. Today we will walk about seven hours to base camp, Jonas tells us in his solemn baritone. seven hours. Jacob always stands a bit behind him, on his toes, grinning like the Cheshire cat, enjoying the look on our faces. We’ll arrive around 3 pm, have dinner at 6, go to bed and try to sleep a bit, then get awoken at 10:30 pm, pack and gear up, and strike out for the summit around 11:30 pm. We are nervous, and excited.

First we must scale the 800-foot Barranco Wall, a steep fortress of volcanic rock at 12,959 feet that requires what’s known as a “scramble,” hand over hand climbing, and provides some scary moments. It takes about an hour and a half to do this, and while we grunt and sweat, porters seem to zoom by us with their heavy loads. Truly amazing to watch. We respectfully step aside when they pass.

Once we scale this wall, we again descend, knocking small rocks and gravel down below us. Soon we are on steadier footing. As we pass through the Karanga Valley, the walk is quiet, as if we are lost in our own thoughts through this alpine desert which continues to enchant me. Rocks abound, creating a barren, lunar landscape in the middle of lush Africa. At first the rocks were lava, black and pitted remnants of an ancient volcanic explosion. They are huge and massive, all around us. Then, they appear smaller and smaller, until they look like little cannonballs scattered about, as if some African battle had long since been waged. Finally, about five hours into the rigorous hike, the rocks turn to sedimentary rocks, Jonas tells me, which are flat, stacked one on each other like pancakes. A dozen people walking on this new pathway make the rocks crack, sounding like stone chimes with each step. It’s an odd feeling, as nine Americans shuffle on the dusty trail quietly in this eerie atmosphere now, dust kicking up around our boots constantly. Our vision is now limited by a mist or cloud that has moved in. We trudge forward like explorers in a new land, unsure of where we are headed. We keep our heads down to watch our footing, and also because we can’t see much other than the person in front of us. Looking down, I see a sprig of pretty yellow flowers, like a surprise greeting. The asteraceae. The strange juxtaposition makes me want to take a photo, but I remember ruefully that Jonas has my camera. Later, as I look through my photos for the day, I see that he took the very same shot that I wanted!

Dust is our enemy today. It is everywhere: in our nasal passages, our ears, hair, hands, and fingernails. Our boots are embedded in dust; our pants sift dust. Kelly has had a cough the whole trip and the dust must affect her terribly but she never complains. The rocks and our slow pace affect Jeff’s ankles; while he also never complains, he asks if he can go ahead of the group at a faster pace, which will actually make it easier on his ankles. The angle is really hurting him. The guides grant permission and he and Frank take off. I tell you, these are tough hombres with me.

We will be on the trail today for seven hours. I slog behind Brittney now, the last, with Jonas bringing up the rear. Since he has become such a good photographer, I let him keep my camera. At 3 pm we finally arrive at base camp, exhausted. As the porters have arrived ahead of us, as usual, our tent awaits us and Mary and I sink to its floor. I’m sure we are all thinking the same thoughts: this is it. No turning back. We are going to attack Kilimanjaro in a few hours!

It is freezing. It must be about 15 degrees. The tent offers a little shelter, and we quickly unpack and pack our gear and clothing, stock up on Gu gel and Cliff bars, Advil and electrolytes. I am thinking rapidly, fueled by adrenaline. Even if we sleep a few hours, the summit will take about seven hours, bringing us to morning. That means we will have had only a few hours sleep in 24 hours, while all the time pushing our bodies to the extreme in zero degree summit weather. I focus on packing instead.

Dinner is a tense affair as we are all excited. We speak about what we feel: some feel nauseated, some think we can do it, some don’t want to think about it. We eat a little and then head off to our tents. Keeping warm is all about layers, so Mary and I plot out how we will dress: thermal base layer, top and bottom; Mary’s flannel pajama bottoms (nothing could be warmer), and another thermal top; fleece top with a hood and ski pants next; my EMS super-warm black jacket and rain pants for bottoms. Topped by a down ski parka. A balaclava for my head and my fleece hood, and the ski parka hood and I am good to go!

We strip off the layers for now, bring some of them into our sleeping bags to keep them warm and settle into our bags. My bag is rated for zero degree weather and even if I only wore a t-shirt and shorts I am as warm as toast. It’s amazing how light it is and how much it protects me from the cold. Mary’s bag is rated at 20 degrees, but she added a polar fleece liner, which folds to nothing, but still keeps her very warm. I stick in my ear plugs as the porters clean up, pop a melatonin and eventually drift off to sleep for a while.

I wake up at 10:00 pm, hot, and it’s about 5 degrees out. My excellent sleeping bag? Eastern Mountain Sports Mountain Light 0°. I throw it off me, worried about sweating. Once you sweat and get wet, you could be in serious trouble with the cold. No sense in sleeping anymore as young Frank will be by soon to wake us up. Now I am nervous. The mountain looms before us, and we must go. I start by putting on the layers, including head, feet and gloves. Oh, forgot the head and foot warmers! I unlace my shoes and insert the foot warmers, and get a set of hand warmers going. Once we are done, Mary and I stumble to the mess tent, where Jonas, ever solemn, waits to tell us what to expect tonight.

We have a light meal of porridge and toast. Some in our crew are feeling nauseated, mostly from nerves, and cannot eat. Jacob comes in to “motivate” us which means “Get out of the tent, everyone! Get out of the tent!” He knows there are many teams wanting to climb tonight, and he doesn’t want to get stuck waiting behind a line of climbers. We switch on our head lamps and go. Bundled up, geared up, we are ready to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. We will attempt 4,000 feet in zero degree weather all night long.

It is biting cold; the stars overhead are brilliant. The air is still and calm. We fall into our formation, with me in the rear, as usual. Jonas is behind me, Frank ever in front. We carry only our backpacks but there are more porters with us, I suppose in case someone falls ill. Altitude sickness is a true concern. Its symptoms are a headache which gets progressively worse, like a migraine; nausea; and chest fluids. So far, we are all good. No one has really had any symptoms. Once in a great while one of us will feel a headache but it goes away.

We trudge, one foot in front of the other; it’s 11:45 pm. We should only concentrate on one foot, one step at a time. I don’t recall exactly when I start feeling the profound effects of oxygen deprivation. After one hour of climbing, we stop and rest, eat Gu gel or have water. The air is dry and thin and hydration is the key to success. Our noses are runny, and will continue all night long, and for days afterwards, we will all have sore, raw, peeling noses. It’s hard for us to navigate our own backpacks, so the porters are there to help us. The minute I fumble with my mitten, just even to check the time, Joseph is close at hand to help. I marvel that their clothes are not as thick as mine; their shoes not as good as mine. Yet, they are ready to help in a split second, whatever our needs. On we go.

Wednesday August 10, 2011

It’s 2 am, and I am stripped of every ounce of energy. My mind is clear, no nausea, but my legs feel as if someone wrung them out as you would a towel. I feel as though my muscles just shriveled into nothing. There is no power that can make me put one foot in front of the other. My breathing is very labored: “Uh…” I exhale, “Huh!” I inhale loudly. We stop again, collapsing onto our trekking poles. The porters and guides are all fine; they are all acclimated and feel none of the effects that we do. They wait patiently while we try to get more breath to get oxygen to our bodies. We are all feeling something.

I am surprised to get a hot cup of tea from Joseph! Where did it come from? The tea revives me. When we stop, it is a relief as I can catch my breath, but then a deadly cold sets in, and so we must keep moving.

It is a surreal experience. I look overhead and have never seen so many stars, so clearly, so close to earth. I feel like I could reach up and touch them, if I wasn’t so oxygen starved. The moon shines brightly, illuminating a large stretch of rock that we are climbing. Below us are clouds! It is beautiful, primitive, captivating. Time to go, Jacob pushes us on.

We hear singing. Jonas has started a song in the clear and frosty night air, and the porters all join in, chanting. It’s in Kiswahili, so we don’t know what the song is about, but it is great. The rhythm helps us find a stride, and the singing is motivating. On my right, Jonas walks alone, singing, overseeing all the climbers. On my left, several porters silhouetted in the near dark, outlined by the moon, climb swinging side to side, like dancing, swaying to the music, right leg out, left leg out. I feel like we are dancing our way to the summit. Overhead, stars burst the night sky like fireworks. I see Orion low on the horizon, kissing the clouds below us. Directly before me, my fellow climbers, all in a row. We walk in formation, right, left, right, left, feeling like a chain-gang, for we cannot leave now. We’re in too deep. Chanting, we move slowly up the mountain, stepping up rocks, hoisting ourselves with our trekking poles.

Leaning heavily on my poles, I place one foot in front of the other. I realize I need to stop again. Then again. Then again. I cannot get 25 footsteps without stopping to gasp for air. Can I go back? How can I do this ridiculous feat? Twice I ask Jacob if I can go back; I don’t think I can make it, and I don’t want to keep holding the group back. There are more climbing teams below us, and Jacob doesn’t want us to get clogged on the mountain trails. Yes, I want to go back. What a disappointment! I scaled the mountain for two hours, but I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine another four hours of my legs burning and collapsing under me. I simply cannot will them to go on. How can you make your body move when you are completely depleted of any reserves?

Joseph waits patiently for a decision. He will do whatever the guides decide. He is like my personal servant, ready to help me remove my gloves, which I did at one point, in ten degree weather! The minute I started searching for the Camelback tube, fumbling with my mittens, Joseph is there to guide the tube to my lips. I never felt cold. The layering worked well: I only felt some chill and slight numbness in my toes but all else is perfectly warm.

I’m not the only one hurting. Brittney looks vacant, staring; Julie, who was in the front, vomits, resumes her hike, and then vomits again. Jacob moves her to the rear. The next thing I know, Jonas has Jacob put me in the lead. Why the lead? This is the worst idea! I am so slow and will slow everyone down, and the entire set of climbers below me… such is my confused thinking. Joseph is now ahead of me, and I plod along at a snail’s pace, losing all sense of where my teammates are. Maybe they are ahead of me after all? All I know is that it is deathly cold, the stars are beautiful, and only Joseph and I exist in this strange, surreal world. One step. Another step. Another step.

I rest again. When will this end? I see that the group is behind me a distance, and I actually gained ground. This encourages me and I start up again, feeling that I am doing better than I realized. Jonas starts singing again, and I recognize the tune “How Great Thou Art,” my favorite Christian tune, sung in Kiswahili. I love that song because it praises God’s hand in nature, and it’s appropriate as we are surrounded by some of the most beautiful nature in the world. This compels me to focus and push on. The next song is another beautiful Christian hymn, one my grandmother used to sing, “Rock of Ages.” Also appropriate. I wonder if Jonas actually does have a sense of humor after all.

By 3 am, I am so dead, I want to lie down and be left behind. I know now why people who are caught in winter storms, like those on Everest in 1996, want to just lie down and fall asleep in the snow and die. It’s so inviting, and my legs are once again bereft of any kind of reserves. They feel hollow, worthless. My trainer, Dan French, told me during training that when my legs were depleted and exhausted from exercising, then my body would start using other parts, like abs or the back, and this is where my previous back spasms came from. I started thinking about this as my legs are now depleted. Sure enough, my back starts aching viciously, and then my abs. Three more hours of this? Impossible.

I am no longer put in front. I guess I am in trouble now. I would later learn that the singing is a way to help motivate climbers—it works. Putting the slowest in the front is also a psychological trick to get the climber motivated. When they are “last,” they feel worthless, a burden, hopeless. True, true, true. And that worked, for a while. The only things not working are my legs.

Jonas now steps in to help me. Jacob is sent to take care of Julie. I am given Red Bull at 3 am in zero degree weather. I sip it but oh, horrible stuff. I feel like a child refusing its milk, making faces. “You need energy for your muscles,” Jonas tells me. He continues to tell me about how it will quickly get energy into my system. Joseph helps me get up, and this time Jonas locks my left arm tightly with his right arm and paces me; he pulls on my arm and I follow. This is good and bad. It works; I move up the mountain. But it means I am not going to my sleeping bag any time soon.

“Do you have a headache?” Jonas asks dispassionately. No. “Do you have nausea?” No. “How is your chest?” I’m fine; no coughing or fluid buildup. “You’ll be okay,” he states matter-of-factly as he squeezes my arm tightly. I consider lying next time he asks.

Up we go. My life is now reduced to a few things: one foot in front of the other; hydration; labored and noisy breathing; leaning on this arm of iron. I need to focus on something other than the burning and constant pain in my legs. I recall that President Theodore Roosevelt would recite his favorite poetry when he was in trouble on his expedition to Brazil, after his presidency. He traveled to the River of Doubt, which was not completely charted on the world map. He did finish the expedition and put what is now the Roosevelt River on the map, but almost died in the process. While suffering from malaria, he recited the poem Kubla Khan over and over. So I started to recite my favorite childhood poetry, and realized that I don’t recall a lot of poetry. My favorites were from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book so I started reciting it in my brain. Now Chil the Kite bring home the night that Mang the bat sets free. The herds are shut in byre and hut and loosed till dawn are we…

I am now stopping to gulp air every 25 steps. At this rate I will summit sometime next week. Why doesn’t Jonas let me go down? Please, I beg. He once again coolly and without the slightest emotion asks: Do you have a headache? Are you nauseated? How is your chest?

Lie, lie, I tell myself. But I don’t. I confess I am fine; I don’t have altitude sickness.

“You can make it,” he replies calmly, amid the struggling climbers, and me, slumped on his arm.

Where have I heard those words before? I realize that this climbing Kilimanjaro is a lot like childbirth. In fact, worse than childbirth, and having had three kids, I know what I am talking about. You are in extreme pain; you are exhausted. The night is endless. Your vision has been reduced to tunnel vision. You can focus on nothing but the pain. People are telling you to push (on). But in the back of your head, you know that there is a glorious outcome waiting for you. You feel alone, though you know you are surrounded by caring people. You want to scream at those same people when they tell you you’re okay; you will make it; you’re doing well. And worst of all, you asked for this!

Jonas and I walk about as slow as two humans can walk, up the steep incline, energy melting away with every step. I stumble along the endless switchbacks; I fall; I trip over every rock and trekking pole. We take breaks; I ask him to sing again because it really does help. I can’t recall if he ever did.

Things get so bad when we pause that I start sinking to my knees. Jonas supports me by giving me a hug, allowing me to lean into him, and pats my back and with no emotion says, “You can do this, Laurie. You can do this.” He doesn’t want me to stop walking, knowing that cold will overtake me. The next rest time, I am hanging on to him with what strength I have, saying, “I’m trying” or “Ok.” I apologize a lot to him for all my inadequacies as a human being, for wasting his time, for trying to think I could do this. He doesn’t really answer these ramblings. Probably he has heard all these confessions before from every climber, and then some.

It’s a macabre dance: plod, plod, plod, hug, hug, hug, head buried in his parka, struggling to breathe in air that is 50% less oxygen than sea level. Joseph stands ready to help with water, and at one point, to help drag me. When they allow me to sit down, which isn’t often, my eyes close right away. “No sleeping,” Jonas lectures. This is absolutely taboo, but so hard to comply with. My eyes have a will of their own.

I decide that counting helps me focus and maybe I can measure my improvement? I count out loud my steps with a raspy, labored voice. I get to 25, and we must stop so I can breathe again. Eventually I get to 30 before stopping again, then 50. I am getting encouraged! Somehow we make it towards Stella Point, at 18,848 feet, where the ground gets flatter, and I actually reach 100 steps before I have to stop. It’s amazing how quickly the legs recover and get oxygen when the slightest pressure from gravity is removed. I continue to count out loud. Jonas, who seems to have no sense of humor, surprises me with a hint of one. “Laurie,” he said, “Try counting in your mind. Save your energy.” I felt half rejected and half amused. I think Jonas just made a joke at my expense.

“Only 20 minutes now to summit,” Jonas informs me. Incredible. The night that seemed so endless, so pained filled, is nearing the end? Suddenly the wind picks up and blows fiercely. The ground is covered in snow and frost, which surprises me. When did this happen? We see more people, though they move like ghosts in the blinding flurries. Yes, the end is in sight; I start to walk independently, and finally, after six and a half hours, reach Uhuru Point, the highest peak on the African continent. My teammates are there already.

I think I collapsed on a rock, my mind foggy and slow. Mary, my daughter, who I hardly saw all night, was there and doing fine. Most everyone was okay; fourteen-year-old Alex had his eyes closed, slumped on a rock, and Brittney was staring blankly. They all had fluffs of snow frozen onto their eyelashes and hair. My buddy Julie made it, but she also had a dazed look on her face, as I am sure I did. So we were all accounted for. Jonas had insisted I bring my 35 mm camera, which is quite heavy, to take pictures. I wanted to bring only my Sony Lumix, to reduce weight, but Jonas insisted. You just don’t argue with Jonas. He tucked my camera in his parka the entire night. At 6:54 am, he began taking pictures in the terrible weather. We couldn’t see the sunrise or even anything further than 15 feet in front of us, which is sad because we should see a spectacular view of Tanzania from here.

It was hard to see, and hard to hear one another above the roar of the wind, and visibility was bad, but we were happy. We pulled out banners and had our photos taken at the sign that signifies the highest peak. We even had a couple of humorous moments.

After about 15 minutes we had to start down again. The wind has picked up to about 50 miles per hour, and actually pushes against us. We take shelter momentarily behind a large boulder with other climbers not in our group, and when there is a break, move on down to Stella Point.

After Stella is the part I don’t recall well. It took over six hours to summit, but seemingly a few minutes to descend to a point where the snow was gone, and we could shed our layers, and see base camp. But that’s impossible. The sun was shining high now, as if to celebrate with us our victory, and a great valley spread out before us like a welcome mat. I was still weakened by the oxygen deprivation, and Jonas retained a firm grip on my arm. Joseph was ever present to hydrate me. What I do recall is hitting sand on the mountainside, and being made to “scree-slide,” which means we skied down in the sand using our boots, digging in our heels to slow ourselves. The hike down took in reality about three hours, according to my watch. The sand slopes caused me to use different muscles, and the altitude was less, but I still needed Jonas to help steady me.

The times I tried to hike down independently, I often lost my balance or tripped. Being rather proud, I wanted to walk down but I had to admit my limitations. “You are like a baby,” Jonas said. “Let us take care of you.” And they did. Soon we caught up with the group at a large outcropping of rocks, where we stripped off a few layers and enjoyed the bright sunshine. Somehow there was mango juice for us to drink, which normally tastes rich and delicious. Now? It tasted rancid, as everything did with the effects of altitude. But with two six-foot wardens standing over me, I sat on a rock and obediently sipped the seemingly bitter juice, wondering if I could toss it over my shoulder when they were slightly distracted. They never were.

The team was excited, even in our depleted and painful state. We did it! This was the thought uppermost in our minds. We actually did it!

Barafu base camp is visible but seems like an optical illusion that keeps moving further away the closer you get to it. At last, at last, the endless night is over and blessedly, we arrive. Mary and I collapse into our sleeping bags. It’s 10 am.

For reasons unknown to me, I’m up at 11 am, ready to march again. We still have a full day’s hike ahead of us. So after lunch, the porters break down camp and we pack up our rucksacks for them to carry, slung on our backpacks and headed out. We were taking a different route home, Mweka, which proved to be amazingly simple. Just downhill, on a trail strewn with rocks and rock steps. The going was painful due to our cramped muscles and swollen toes and knees, but it was fun. Julie and I fell behind the others, as usual, but had such a great time chatting. I really like her! Jonas trailed us like a bodyguard and willingly took my camera to once again take amazingly wonderful photos. The day was sunny, warm and Kilimanjaro National Park expanded to our left as we descended the mountain trail.

We finally arrived at camp around 5 pm, late. The others had arrived about 20 minutes earlier. This was a nice camp, with a registration cabin and amenities. There were many other groups present. Pine trees surrounded us and we were all deliriously happy with the results of the day. And starving! We enjoyed our dinner immensely.

Thursday August 11, 2011

The pressure is off; we climbed Kilimanjaro! We feel some sort of euphoria which helps us to forget our swollen knees and aching muscles. I am amazed at Jeff Salantai: yes, he’s young, at 31, and incredibly fit, but he has hemophilia and just endured a major ankle operation in February. I don’t know how he managed to climb Kili! But he did, and he is limping today, but he grits his teeth, cracks a joke, makes us all smile, and carries on. Such strength! He is a poster boy for hemophilia perseverance and accomplishment!

Today we descend to the Mweta Gate, to be collected and brought back to our hotel. We have about a 3-4 hour hike downward. It’s all on trails that are very stony and rough, but well defined. And it’s downhill! That’s good news; the bad news is it will play havoc with our joints, muscles and toes. I pop some Advil to help with the swelling, have breakfast and pack up once again.

It doesn’t take long for Julie and me to get separated from the group again. We love to chat, and I like to stop to take photos. With our swollen knees, it’s easy to go slower. The scenery is beautiful in the brilliant daylight. We hike through the desert again, the sedimentary rock, then to the moorland. On our left is the broad expanse of the Kilimanjaro National Park. This way down seems so easy! We are coated in dust and there just isn’t a way to stay clean. Trailing ever behind us is our lead guide Jonas, who happily answers our many questions and begins to joke with us. Really. Julie even laid it on him: Don’t you ever smile? To which he smiled. The rest of the two hours is a walk with three friends, as we each shared more and more of ourselves. It was lovely. Who knew that Jonas was a Maasai? Did he kill a lion then, as the young warriors are expected to do? He claims he did and told us a fascinating story about it.

Nearing the end we reach the forest again, and a light rain sets in. I love it! I have no desire for rain gear. I let the rain wash away dust and refresh my skin. We start to pass locals on the trail, who know one word in English: “Chocolate?” I wish we had some but I dole out Cliff bars instead.

Porters race by us now, eager to finish and collect their pay. Excitement is filling the air as the trip nears its end. When we reach the gate, we are reunited with our group, and Neil is there, to welcome his daughters back! It was great to see him again! He was so very proud of his two girls.

The porters and guides surprise us with a birthday party, there in the dusty parking area, surrounded by locals. Tomorrow is Alex’s 15th birthday! They sing Happy Birthday to him, and despite the long journey, they are animated and happy. They present cake and “champagne,” and Alex, despite his father’s strict southern gentlemanly upbringing, devours his piece before the rest are handed out. While we are waiting, a van backs up over Mary’s foot—and sits there! She later said to me, she couldn’t believe she endured 6 days on Kilimanjaro, without accident, only to have her foot run over in the parking lot? Turns out her boots were strong, the sand soft and her foot was fine.

I can’t say that about mine. My toes are gruesome. The downward walk for hours has jammed my big toes’ nails, and they are inflamed, blackened and soon, infected. They will stay this way for about two weeks. Of course, Julie immediately provides me with antibiotics. What would I do without her? (Thirty minutes after my plane lands in Boston I am off to the podiatrist to have them lanced.)

We have a 90 minute ride back to the Kibo Palace Hotel in Arusha. First, a lunch break at a local restaurant, where our three guides give us a chance to regroup and chat about the trip. The wash basin is right in the dining area, and I am ecstatic to see soap and hot water. I wash and wash but cannot believe how dirty my hands are; the water runs black. I am so excited, I go to the back of the wash line to wash them a second time!

The food is fresh and good—I eat chicken, but Frank tempts me with the strange looking beef on his plate. Tastes like, liver? Oh, it’s ox tongue! It’s all washed down by Cokes and Tusker beer. Jonas, Jacob and Frank seem happy: another mission accomplished. The ride back is quiet and I snap a photo of everyone sleeping—except Kelly Herson, who as always has a megawatt smile on her face. Back to the hotel, we shower, some of us for an hour, and become relatively human again. We invited the guides to dinner at the hotel that night at seven. We are all clean now, with fresh clothes. Jokingly, I reintroduce myself to the men I just spent six days with, as I am sure they will not recognize me without a Nike hat, hiking gear and black smudges.

Jonas presents the climbers with certificates of their climb and we beg for one more performance of the songs they sang on the mountain, on that incredible night when we climbed Kilimanjaro. They do, and we join in and then applaud. We leave them with some of our climbing gear as a gift, generous tips and happy memories. These guides are with Team Kilimanjaro, and I will praise them as professional, personable (even Jonas!) and efficient. I highly recommend this outfitter and its guides and porters. www.teamkilimanjaro.com

Tomorrow we head for Nairobi and then fly to the Maasai Mara for a three-day safari, our third adventure in a trip filled with adventures. As long as there is no hiking, we’re good!

Outfitters used: www.teamkilimanjaro.com Experts in climbing and summiting! Thanks to guides Jonas, Jacob, Frank and Alex, and the 40 porters who carried our supplies and equipment. Thanks to my great teammates! Thanks to all who sent their prayers and good wishes. It helped!

Thanks to all our corporate sponsors: BioRx, ASD Healthcare, Bayer Corporation, and Grifols. Thanks to the dozens of individuals who donated funds to help us reach over $60,000 for our African programs! We will be starting college scholarships, a microloan program and continue outreach to find those with bleeding disorders who suffer in silence…

(Please notify me if I have neglected to mention your company’s donation!)

Our Route up Kilimanjaro

Machame route

▪ Machame Gate (start of trek) (5718 ft/1738 m)

▪ Machame (9927 ft/3018 m)

▪ Shira (12355 ft/3756 m)

▪ Barranco (13066 ft/3972 m)

▪ Karanga (optional camp, used by 7-day climbers)

▪ Barafu (high camp before summit) (15239 ft/4633 m)

Stella: 18,848

Uhuru: 19,349

▪ Mweka (descent) (10204 ft/3102 m)

▪ Mweka Gate (end of trek) (5423 ft/1649 m)

Good Book I Just Read

Not On Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond
Don Cheadle and John Prendergast 2007

Actor Don Cheadle was compelled to help end genocide after starring in Hotel Rwanda, a movie about the role one man played to save hundreds of lives during the ethnic massacres of April 1994. Together with activist and journalist Prendergast, he has started a nonprofit that seeks to educate and motivate average citizens to act. With the realization that change will only come when we link economical and political repercussions to the behaviors of sovereign nations, such as embargoes and divestiture, and not just military action, he focuses on the mass killings that occurred in and around Sudan’s Darfur region, and also inspire people to step up and speak out in an effort to generate more attention to what is happening in this part of the world. The book provides a brief history of how the Sudan incubated genocide, what role other countries have had, and what this means for the world.

The weakest part of the book is that it is an overview, not a detailed analysis. The style is difficult: Cheadle is very casual and talks a lot about himself, how he got involved, right down to detailed (and very banal) dialogues with his relatives and friends. Prendergast is quite full of himself! They flit back and forth in the first-person voice, then third-person… so you never quite know who is talking when, and the flow is interrupted. Is it a book about them, or genocide? It’s a book about two celebrities writing about genocide and their own efforts.

A lot has happened since 2007, when the book was published. The UN finally stepped in with muscle, sent an arrest warrant for the president. The UN estimates that 300,000 people have been killed in the five year Darfur conflict, which was launched against the non-Arab people of the south. And as you may know, on July 9, 2011, South Sudan has become the world’s most recent new country.

The strength of the book is its simplicity and call to action. I applaud these gentleman (Cheadle was absolutely fabulous in Hotel Rwanda, one of my favorite movies) for undertaking such a task, for motivating the public and for not just rallying but giving concrete, doable tasks to make a difference in the world. Could be used for any international activism subject. Three stars.

Kilimanjaro, Days 1-3 “The Enchanted Forest”

Our African travels now bring us to the Main Event—the Kilimanjaro climb. Up 19,370 feet in harsh weather in the middle of the night to raise money for Save One Life, our nonprofit child sponsorship program. Nine other people are now gathered Friday night in the lounge of the Kibo Palace Hotel in Arusha, Tanzania, to listen to two men, our guides, on whom our lives will depend, speak about our climb. With me are: my daughter Mary (17), Eric Hill, president of BioRx and son Alex (14); Julie Winton, RN, BioRx; Jeff Salantai (31), BioRx; Neil Herson, president of ASD Healthcare and his two daughters Kelley (16) and Brittney (20). The only problem is my gear is missing, as is Eric’s and Alex’s. Eventually mine shows up much later that night (after many phone calls), but Eric and Alex are completely without clothes and gear. They will need to rent gear from the outfitters, Team Kilimanjaro.

We were up at 6 am on Saturday at the hotel, and ready by 7 am. It’s a lot of packing to think about, being gone for 6 days in the wilds of Africa! We don’t really know our guides yet; there’s just one guy with a big smile that seems to connect with everyone. On the bus Julie got everyone to sing our theme, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”! She likes the Marvin Gaye version while I like Diana Ross’s. There’s lots of chattiness; everyone is excited.

Machame gate

It takes 90 minutes to get to the Machame Gate. Along the way we saw rural Tanzania, how poor people are compared to US standards. We stopped half way at a convenience store, where most of the team bought little bracelets from a street vendor. Soon we are at the Gate. This is where it all begins! We filed out, and saw pandemonium. There were hundreds of people swarming. Porters lingered everywhere, big bags of gear sitting in the muddy and dusty roadway, other hikers of all nationalities… we wait about an hour to complete paperwork. It’s a bit confusing. We start putting on our hiking gear—gaiters, backpack covers—while waiting. The air is chillier than I expected. Finally we’re done and we start. It seems surreal: all our training, planning, fundraising, and here we go!

Our lead guide is Jonas Gerald, tall and impassive, assisted by Jacob Slaa, the guy with the big smile, and Frank, who perpetually smiles. We hike today from 12:30 pm until 6 pm, with one stop for lunch. I am so surprised when on the trail we pull up to a table, chairs, and wonderful food, in the middle of a forest!

We will go through 4-5 ecological zones on this climb. Today we hike through the forest. It is beautiful: nice and cool, moist, on a defined trail. There is huge green moss growing up and around the trees like some fuzzy, green sloths. Lichens hang down from other trees like trails of lace on a Victorian gown. It seems an easy hike, not too steep, a few rocks, and a set trail.

Julie is amazing: she thinks of everyone else on this trip. Today she has snacks for everyone and keeps everyone hydrated. Even the guides and porters get snacks!

I like this trip because my 17-year-old daughter Mary is with me. She’s an impressive girl who hiked all that time with no poles. If I compliment her, she is quick to say everyone is doing great. Indeed, 14-year-old Alex, the youngest, is a strong hiker, as are Kara Ryan, and Kelly and Brittney Herson. I had wondered about the Herson girls and how they would fit in, as no one really knows them, but they are super sweet, strong, and soon, everybody loves them and their can-do attitude! We are fortunate to have a diverse group of 10 people who all get along well with one another.

We break for our first camp around 6:00 pm at the Machame Hut. We have a mess tent with a table, so we can all have dinner together. Dinner is hot veggies, celery soup, potatoes and fried fish. I learned Sama hani means “I’m sorry” (for stepping aside when porters brush by us) and Twende means “Let’s go!” (used often by our guide, Frank).

It’s fun to go to bed in our tent, with our sleeping bags. It’s been so long since I’ve done something like this, and I love it! And we are tired; we climbed from 6,000 feet at Machame Gate, to 10,170 feet tonight. We wait to see who will first feel the effects of altitude.

Day 2 Sunday, August 7, 2011 “Into the Mist”
I guess I didn’t sleep too well. I fell asleep from 9:30 pm to 11 pm, but the porters kept us awake till 1 am or so with their animated chatter. They work very hard; I’ve never seen anything like it. They are efficient, powerful and zoom by us on the trail laden with all our tents, food for 6 days, sleeping bags, and clothes, all bundled into sacks, which they balance on their heads. These porters are often young guys, slim, and often without great gear themselves. Some wear sneakers with tears of holes; they are gloveless in the cold and wear regular street pants. I was up until 2 am and then slept off and on. I had strange dreams.

“Young” Frank (not the guide), a sweet, 20-year-old boy with a shy smile, starts our day with a cup of hot tea. It’s so nice! Ellie, another nice young man, tags along to add sugar. This is luxury! We sip hot tea in our sleeping bags and begin our day. I put on make up in the morning sunlight, which makes Eric laugh out loud. I will abandon this practice the very next day. Contrary to my belief, it’s not all about how you look on Kili. We are all sharing a small stand-up tent for a bathroom, which has a portable toilet in it. If you think about it, it’s kind of gross, but honestly, when you are there, it seems perfectly normal! We are even grateful for this small luxury!

Breakfast is eggs, toast, jam, and porridge. Neil isn’t eating or saying much, and doesn’t seem himself. This could be early effects of the altitude. We’re worried about him.

The camp is crowded with other groups, including a loud Japanese or Chinese delegation. It looks like a refugee camp here!

We start out earlier than most groups, at 8:06 am. The climb today takes us away from the forest and into the heather, or moorland zone. The topography changes dramatically. It’s cool, and mist rolled in above us and around us. I feel surprisingly great. We will climb to 12,461 feet when the hike is done. We move more slowly today, with Alex the guide leading the way, steadying our pace. There are lots of rocks on the trail and narrow turns and ledges. The trees are beautiful! At first I think we are in a scene from the “Wizard of Oz,” when they come to a poppy field. Then later on, I think this is like a scene from Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.” Very primordial, with lava rocks and giant boulders.

A popular plant we see is the lobelia deckenii, or what our guide calls the “Antifreeze plant.” It closes up tightly each night to protect its leaves and unfolds to catch the morning light.

The air is crisp, cool, and moist; we don’t sweat much today. But the dust! The air is filled with baby-powder fine dust that infiltrates everything. Our nostrils are black, faces were smeared with dirty streaks, and our fingernails are ringed in black. Mary’s teeth even appear black when she speaks to me!

 

Up, up, and up we go. There is still a clear trail, which I didn’t expect. Sometimes the trail is made of stone steps, winding, twisty, steep. Neil falls further behind us, and I am next to last as I am kind of slow. Jacob stays with him while the rest of us push on. The air is thinner and it is harder to walk at 12,000 ft.

Julie and I hang out together, walking slower than the rest. I am also taking photos, which slows me down. The scenery is spectacular! We need to stop now and then to eat, take water. The porters truck past us on the trail, their loads frighteningly heavy. We are constantly shouting, “Porters right!” to let them by us.

Lunch break! We have peanut butter sandwiches, fruit and avocados, which Mary loves, and carrot soup, which is delicious! Then they bring out pasta and sauce! I couldn’t eat any of that. There is no sign of Neil at lunch.

We walk slowly the next hour and a half through the Shira Plateau to the next camp. This is when we get our first real look at Kibo, the dramatic summit of Kilimanjaro, rising up above the rocks, blue in color with clouds challenging its summit. At one point, I am totally alone! Not another human being in the place. It is glorious. I look all around, and hear nothing nor see anything. Just me and Kili. I wish it could have lasted longer. Privacy is one thing you don’t get on the popular Machame route.

I stroll into Shira Cave camp and am greeted by the others. I wash up for dinner and everything is black. My legs and arms were filthy black. Mary did well! She’s awesome. So strong and chipper. I’m so impressed by her.

Neil arrived around 4:50, a full 90 minutes after we arrived in camp. I bring him hot tea while his girls put him in his sleeping bag. I also brought him a Cliff bar for fast energy. When Julie comes on the scene, she takes charge to help; altitude sickness is serious and must be dealt with. We are so blessed to have Julie with us, as a nurse and compassionate friend!

Day 3 Monday “Walking on the Ocean Floor”

I took melatonin last night and had a great night’s sleep, despite the cold. I am shocked when I unzip my tent to see frost coating everything. I left my boots outside and they are frozen today. Huge white-necked ravens sit in the small trees near us, cawing for some food. (Which of course I toss to them) Sun strikes the far away ridges of the mountains, which are separated from us by clouds and looked beautifully surreal. We are actually looking down on the clouds! Breakfast is on, and I’m hungry. We had porridge, toast, eggs and jam. Mary is not feeling well. She looked so tired, pale and so weak.

After some discussion, it’s decided that Neil will go back down the mountain today. The rest of the trip will only get harder—and higher. It’s a loss to our group, as Neil was such a driving force behind our fundraising and so motivational for us all.

Today will be a long day of climbing, about 7 hours. We will go to 15,000 feet, then descend for the evening back to 13,000 feet, to help us acclimate. We hit the trail by 8:06 am and walk for two hours. Within 10 minutes we can feel the 12,000 ft. altitude. Our quads burn and our legs feel heavy. We walk in single file quietly, shouldering our back packs, following a trail that leads us toward Kili, heads down, like a herd of burdened, untethered pack mules. Frank is in the lead, walking pole, pole (slowly, slowly). It’s cold, but when the sun comes out, layers come off quickly.

We stop frequently as we tire easily. We sip water from our Camelbacks, and slow our pace. I want photos so I hang back a bit from the others. The terrain is more sparse now, just scrubby bushes with so many rocks! Some of the monoliths are huge, standing erect like those statues at Easter Island, keeping vigil over this ancient mountain. Small boulders dot the lunar-like landscape, with clumps of red straggly moss hanging off of them. It’s easy to remember now that Kilimanjaro is a volcano, and what I see around me were lava rocks from inside the volcano, deposited here long ago after an eruption.

I feel at times like I’m walking on the bottom of an aquarium, which someone tried to decorate to simulate the ocean floor. It occurs to me that this area may have been submerged in water millions of years ago; like the high mesas in Canyon Lands, Utah, where you can still see salt beds, remnants of a receded salt ocean millions of year ago.

It isn’t a difficult hike, but tiring, due to the thin air. Eventually we stop for lunch near the Lava Tower, and I find myself staring blankly. Jonas by now has removed and is carrying Mary’s pack, and we give her Neil’s poles. She is disappointed but agrees. Lunch is great: hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, fruit, cornbread, avocado, and tea. Mary can only eat fruit. We don’t rest long. Today we climb to 15,000 feet, and then camp at 13,000 feet. So far, no altitude sickness.

After lunch we descend down a very steep, rocky path, into the Barranco Valley, and we trek through the alpine desert. It’s beautiful—for a rock lover like me, this is heaven. The rocks are enormous, pitted and some are shiny black. Mist rolls in and it becomes very chilly. Mary agrees with me that the topography looks like a scene from the movie Lord of the Rings. As we hike, we feel like characters in the movie. The air becomes dramatically colder and we all threw on more layers and rain gear. I think the temperature might be freezing, until I step in some mud and see a little rivulet. The wind chill makes it feel freezing.

The group soon forges ahead, leaving Julie and me with the unsmiling Jonas. I enjoy this walk the most. The alpine desert is hemmed in by ridges of Kilimanjaro, dotted with lava rocks, and decorated with the most unusual looking trees. We laugh that they look like those from a Dr. Seuss story, such as the Lorax. Truffula trees! They also at times remind me of saguaro cactus. These are the giant senecios. Hard to believe that they’re cousins to the daisy. I thought I might hear songs run through my head while gazing at such scenery, but no. My mind is silent, in the moment, observing and taking it all in.

We arrive at Baranco camp, where a few other groups await. Everyone is tired, and sits about doing their own thing: Mary, just resting; Jeff napping on a rock; Kara writing in her journal. I hike ahead of Julie and Jonas and had a bit more time to walk alone in solitude, which made me happy. This camp sits in a little valley, and is beautiful.

What will tomorrow bring? It’s much too cold to change clothes or even wash up. Washing in the hot basin that Frank brings each morning is great, but there is nothing to dry oneself on. Thankfully we brought little towels that seem to dry quickly. We do our best to stay clean!

Tomorrow, Day 4, will bring us to the foot of the summit path! More to come….

Stairway to Heaven

The true result of endeavor, whether on a mountain or in any other context, may be found rather in its lasting effects than in the few moments during which a summit is trampled by mountain boots. The real measure is the success or failure of the climber to triumph, not over a lifeless mountain, but over himself: the true value of the enterprise lies in the example to others of human motive and human conduct.” —Sir John Hunt, leader of the 1953 British expedition that first ascended Mount Everest

In one week I will return to Kenya, for my fifth visit. And two weeks from today I will be somewhere along the Machame route on Mt. Kilimanjaro! I’ve been training hard these past two months with an excellent trainer. He’s helped me increase my endurance–rather than walk on my treadmill, or even jog, I set it at the highest incline, strap on ten pounds and my hiking boots, and “hike” for an hour, sweat pouring off me. The first 15 minutes are hard, but soon, it is a rhythm, and then it’s easy. I look forward to it the next day!

Check out my rainproof jacket, embossed with our Kilimanjaro logo, compliments of Neil Herson, president of ASD Healthcare and fellow teammate!

Twice a week I’ve been doing plyometrics, simple looking exercises that are deceptively hard. Dan’s license plate reads “TRNZ4MR” and he is a Transformer! I’ve shed 7 pounds of fat and have toner muscles. Just in two months! I have learned to love to eat egg white and protein bars, and no longer crave M&Ms, my stress food. I feel ready for Kili.

Mary, my 17-year-old daughter, feels ready too. She has been hiking with me, and most recently, in Montana for one week. While hiking up the ski trails, now all grass and rocks without snow, look at the sign she came upon! A good omen. Another? She worked out with Dan once–and when she hit my iPod, which had been playing the Doors for an hour–the shuffle picked a song out of 4,200 songs… called “Kilimanjaro.” (Hear Twilight Zone music playing, anyone?)

Today we sorted through all our gear. It’s a lot of planning. We have to plan for 5 days in Nairobi, visiting hemophilia patients, the members of the Jose Memorial Haemophilia Society, the hospital and doctors. We’ll be taking visits to the villages, far from Nairobi. Then, we will leave on the 5th to fly to Arusha, Tanzania. The next day, we start our 6 day climb!

All of this benefits Save One Life and our Africa programs. All ten climbers are paying their own expenses. Every penny raised goes to the organization and to fund our programs in Africa. Please stay tuned as I hope to bring you stories of our adventures, and portraits of the people whose lives we touch. I am most anxious to see Peter, who has hemophilia, and his younger brother Zakayo, who was in a psychiatric ward when I visited him, a victim of the riots that broke almost two years ago. The ward was a grim place. His brother was declared “cured” but the family had no money to pay for his care. No money? No release. The poor young man was trapped in that place. We paid the $300+ fee to get this young man released to go home to his family. For us this is what it means to save one life. One child, one young man, one hemophilia patient at a time. They all have names and stories and our climbers will have the immense privilege to enter their world, and experience a little of what they endure.

Our climb up Kilimanjaro may be the hardest thing we have ever done in our lives, but pales next to the daily lives of those who live in poverty with hemophilia. Thinking of them makes our climb a stairway to heaven, as the money we raise will help ease their suffering. We get to relax after our six day ordeal; theirs never seems to end.

Please make a contribution to the fundraiser! 100% of your donation goes to Save One Life and our Africa program, and not to climbers’ expenses! Help change the lives of those in Africa with hemophilia–one at a time. Visit SaveOneLife.net and click “Donate”

Countdown: Three Weeks


Three weeks from today I will be settling into a sleeping bag on Mt. Kilimanjaro, gazing at what I think will be a billion stars overhead. But… back to today. I was supposed to go back to Mt. Washington to hike again, but the Auto Road was closed, my hiking partner Mary is gone in Montana all week (hiking) and… it’s a long way to drive up and back–about 6 hours that I don’t have right now.

But training continues!

I dusted off my Orbea Diva racing bike and took it for a 12 mile bike ride, thinking of Barry Haarde and thanking him for reigniting my love of cycling this year. Quite frankly, I am afraid of my bike. I’m used to the heavier hybrids, where you can really pump hard and fast, standing up even. But this thing.. it weighs about 3 pounds, is light and super fast, but moves when you do. The bike was shaking for 10 minutes when I realized it just feels every vibration in me. It has clip-in pedals, which also takes some getting used to. I survived and really enjoyed it!

My trainer, however, says the bike isn’t enough. Not enough cardio. Ten minutes with my trainer and I feel my heart bursting and pounding, just like it did on Mt. Washington. I see him twice a week and it’s made a huge difference. Dan suggested I increase the incline on my treadmill (what a concept! I’ve had it for years but never do that!), throw a ten pound weight on my back, lace up my boots and walk it. Sounds easy, but within 10 minutes, I was sweating and got the heart pounding again. This is a good thing. Eventually, someday, it will get easy. But not really before Kili.

As important as the training is what I am eating. Previously, I had fallen into a pattern of carbs, carbs, carbs, which gives me lots of energy. But also gives me points in the day when I am totally depleted. I’ve switched to a high protein diet, with minimum carbs. It was kind of hard at first, but now I am slowly losing my cravings for any carbs. This is great because not craving them allows you to think about what you are to eat, not just react. The protein helps repair the muscle tears (plenty of those) and carbs give you energy. This past week I ate so few carbs I found myself really depleted. After an hour with Dan, I went to run 4 miles, made it 2.5 and crawled the rest of the way home!

On Friday Tara, her friend Julia from Ohio, and I went on a whale watch out of Gloucester, or “Glah-sta” as they say in Boston. The trip was five hours at sea, on a hot and brilliant day. We saw lots of whales! I was as hungry as one, as my metabolism is really picking up. Tara watched me at one point and said, “You’re freaking me out, eating a cheeseburger.” I don’t think she has ever seen me eat a cheeseburger as I am mostly vegetarian. And I never eat red meat. No longer. All the working out has raised my energy levels, and I feel like a machine churning away calories! It seems I can’t eat enough, but I am slowly losing weight.

And tonight, Tara and Julia, despite the horrid heat in the daytime, stoked up a lovely fire in our outdoor oven and made s’mores. I haven’t had one of those since 1983 I think. The treadmill says I burned off about 400 calories; how much could one little s’more cost?

Seriously, I’m learning so much about eating right, and exercising for maximum effect. (And seriously, I did eat a s’more) If you want to learn about being fit, getting fit and raising your standard of life, check out the icon next to this blog, over there on the right! Bayer has a Living Fit program that might be of help to you!

On Saturday I went shopping at REI and bought sleeping bags, day packs… a ton of stuff you need for six days on the mountain. We will start in tropical weather and end (hopefully) in winter weather with the temperature dropping to the 20 degree mark! It’s really getting exciting, now that the big day is coming!

Consider a sponsorship! I still need to raise more money. Go to www.saveonelife.net and click on Donate Now. Then click Kilimanjaro and follow the directions. Let’s raise it for Africa! Asante Sana!

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