Kilimanjaro

What an Action-Packed Year!

I’m sitting at my desk, waiting for a snow storm to roll in, and thinking about how we are ending this amazing year. There was the usual travel to attend NHF’s and HFA’s annual meeting, and I also attended the Bombardier Blood movie showings in California (at FFF Enterprises and Genentech), Michigan, North Carolina and Utah!

My work was honored at a spectacularly beautiful gala hosted by Hope for Hemophilia in New Orleans, where I received a beautiful award and watched a video about my work–that was amazing and surreal! Save One Life, the international nonprofit I founded, received an award at NHF’s gala in September.

Laurie Kelley with NHF CWO Val Bias and Save One Life
executive director Chris Bombardier

I cycled in Massachusetts to raise money for Save One Life while honoring the memory of Barry Haarde, climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise money for it as well, and rode a bike for three days with the likes of Kim Philo and Michael DeGrandpre, through three states to raise money for HFA–Gears for Good.

Hiking Kilimanjaro

I visited Haiti, Tanzania, Kenya and the island of Zanzibar. Haiti was a less than 24-hour visit due to the violence, but something good came of it, as we established enough of a toehold to start the first ever hemophilia program in Haiti! If nothing else happened this year but this, I would be completely happy and call it a successful year!

Team Philo!

I visited many old friends and colleagues throughout the country, and also hosted visitors from India, the Philippines and Kenya in my home. I endured a torn meniscus, back spasm, altitude sickness or something like it, flipped over my handlebars in Maryland in a tunnel, and was hit by a car while on my bike in Massachusetts. But I’m still standing!

For fun I saw Metallica, the Rolling Stones, the Who and many other bands, visited the Museum of Natural History in NYC, Buddy Holley’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas and the crash site in Clear Lake, Iowa, and hiked up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and all through Zion in Utah.

James Hetfield of Metallica… because
Nothing Else Matters!

Save One Life was restructured and welcomed a new executive director, Chris Bombardier!

It’s been quite a year. And so we are finishing our 29th year of existence at LA Kelley Communications! Next year is our 30th anniversary…. 30 years of bringing original and ground-breaking publications, all free. We thank our sponsors for supporting our work here in the US, which supports indirectly our work in developing countries. And we thank you for reading our publications, allowing us to help bring news and insight about bleeding disorders to you, and for all your support for Save One Life!

Here’s to a new year! May yours rock!

Kilimanjaro: Undergoing Severe Exertion

“The mere animal pleasure of travelling in a wild unexplored country is very great. When one lands of a couple of thousand feet elevation, brisk exercise imparts elasticity to the muscles, fresh and healthy blood circulates through the brain, the mind works well, the eye is clear, the step is firm … the mind is made more self-reliant… No one can truly experience the charm of repose unless he has undergone severe exertion.” —Dr. David Livingstone

I don’t know about the mind working so well at high elevation, as mine seemed to work a bit against me just before the summit, of Kilimanjaro,  but I do know about the charm of repose, as I am writing this from the exotic island of Zanzibar, a place Livingstone knew well. This is where he ordered supplies and hired porters for his trips to the interior of the “Dark Continent,” so called because on maps it was largely unexplored. I thought about Livingstone’s biblical sufferings while I tried, for the third time, to summit Kilimanjaro, all to raise money for Save One Life.  I did summit twice before, in 2011 and in 2016. But this time seemed at once easier—been there, done that—and harder—that much older, and lacking the prep time needed.

Want to know what it was all like? Read on!

Monday August 5, 2019 DAY 1

Day 1 on the mountain is done! I’m lying in a dusty tent, snug in my 0° sleeping bag, everything organized and ready for tomorrow’s hike. My sleeping bag is an engineering marvel. It compresses down to a small package but traps heat so well that even in 0° weather you can sleep pretty much naked and not feel cold. I did the entire 4.5 hour climb today with no problem. I wasn’t wearing my pack this time and felt like I was cheating… but it was a good call. I had a two-month, off and on back spasm this spring, which finally resolved but not in enough time to really get strong for the climb. A knee injury May 6 forfeited all my running, which would have helped aerobically.

We had a long drive to Arusha, Tanzania, from Nairobi, Kenya. We were all up and ready by 7:30 am. The drive took about 8 hours by bus, which we thought might be easier than flying; I flew last time and some of our luggage didn’t make it in time for the climb. It’s just a bit nerve wracking! The bus was easier, and we saw the countryside, and made new friends! A group of Polish people hopped on too, and one of the guys, Michael, was quite the clown! Wiry with crazy blue eyes, he kept us laughing… and he was drinking something from his “water” bottle! In fact, we would see him and his team on the climb, and we were pretty sure he was drinking each night into the climb, which is insane!

Once we got through customs at the border of Kenya and Tanzania, we enjoyed the Tanzanian countryside. What a change from Kenya! There is a drought, and the landscape became dry, dusty, stripped. Dust devils swirled madly in anger on either side of our highway. My teammates were giddy with excitement; our trip was really starting.

We finally arrived at a place I know well—Kibo Palace hotel in Arusha. I really like Arusha—a small city at the foothills of Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro. We quickly checked in. Then the guides arrived: Jackson Tsui, a tall Tanzanian with a soft voice, and Edwin! I had Edwin as a guide three years ago! And Jacob Slaa, who climbed with me in 2011.  What are the odds?

Back at my hotel room, we had to pack for a 6-day climb; I finished my blog and saw that I hit my fundraising goal: $10,000! This helped me have a wonderful night’s sleep before the climb started.

Our team? Wendie and Ric Chadd from California. Wendie and I have known one another for 20 years. She and Ric have a son with hemophilia, and Wendie works for specialty pharmacy NuFactor, owned by FFF Enterprises, whose CEO and founder, Patrick Schmidt, is a longtime friend and supporter of Save One Life. Mike Adelman: senior vice president of Aptevo, which makes Xinity. He climbed and summited with me in 2016. His friend Jim Palmer, and son Sam (age 14). Jim is surgeon from Philadelphia—friendly and positive. He also summited with me in 2016—lots of suffering on the way down on that trip!  Myles Ganley, person with hemophilia B, age 25. Strong and fit! Shannon Peterkin, ex-Navy from Louisiana, big as a mountain himself. His red hair and prominent beard led the guides to nickname him “Simba,” which means lion.

We took a two-hour bus ride to the Machame Gate (5,718 ft), and waited for paperwork to be done, and for other groups to set off. Then through the gate and off we went! Through the rainforest we trekked, gaining altitude. The forest is thick and primeval, with trees and vines covered in green velvet. The air was thick and moist with growth and rot. We needed to go pole, pole (slow, slow), and Edwin set the pace. Jbiri was the young porter who carried my pack, which was light anyway. Mike and I were the first to stroll into camp, at Machame (9,927 ft). We signed in, then Edwin took us to our camp.

We didn’t eat till 8:30 pm but everyone was laughing and joking. The 30 porters carry everything we need for 6 days. Tonight we had fried tilapia, fries and spinach. Outside, the stars were shining bright. You could see the Milky Way streaking across the sky like a diaphanous scarf.

Tuesday August 5, 2019 DAY 2

It’s chilly! We were all awake at 5 am, from the rustling and chatting of the porters in the frosty air as they packed up camp.  We awake with hot tea in our sleeping bags, brought each morning by two of the porters, who carefully add sugar and milk, or whatever you like. A hot bowl of water follows, and since you cannot shower for 6 days, this little bowls becomes a very precious commodity! You quickly learn to appreciate the simple things. Breakfast was omelets, fruit, toast, and oatmeal. Jim and Sam look tired this morning, and are not feeling well.  So early in the trip, this does not bode well.

We started hiking after camp broke, and did the half day climb up, and up to Shira Cave Camp. Single file, taking huge steps, at least at a 45° angle, if not steeper. This was one of my favorite parts of the climb. It’s like climbing Mt. Washington for 5 straight hours. Rocks everywhere! Sometimes the ground was a single molten lava rock, lumpy but smooth. We saw our first senecios, funny-looking trees related to the daisies.

Our quads got quite the wake-up workout today! We arrived at Shira Cave Camp (12,355 ft) around 3 pm. Jim looked very wan. Sam was feeling better. I was with Jim in 2016, and he was strong right till summit night, so this was not right for him. Eventually Jim decided not to go forward; he and Sam packed up and with one guide, Prosper, and two porters, they left.

We would miss him; his smile and positive attitude really helps everyone in a group that eventually would suffer. But all went to our tents and I slept from 9:20 pm till 5 am again. I felt fantastic, totally enjoying everything. But now Shannon wasn’t feeling well.

Wednesday August 7, 2019 DAY 3

We awoke to another chilly morning. But we could see our goal, Kibo summit, in the background! We had oatmeal, eggs, pancakes, toast and jam for breakfast. We were off by 8 am, to Barranco camp, which would take us 8 hours. Within 30 minutes we were warm and began discarding jackets. I forgot the path went upwards so much, through scruffy little hills, and huge boulders, spewed out of the volcano probably a million years ago!

The view was spectacular, the sky blue. We were looking down at a solid cloud cover, like cotton balls forming a welcome mat. And to the west, Shira Mountain and Meru popped up through the cotton, and to the East, Kibo, summit of Kilimanjaro. Situated near the fault-line of two tectonic plates, Kilimanjaro began to build itself up around 750,000 years ago, via thousands of years of lava explosions from the volcanic cones of Shira, Mawenzi, and Kibo.

Shannon didn’t eat at all as the day went on, and we determined this was a bad combination of Diamox (altitude medicine) and malaria meds (which he didn’t need). Perhaps this is what Jim suffered from too?

I felt great, strong and focused. Lots and lots of hiking, and all good. We all seemed to need to pee every hour—a side effect of the Diamox. It got so ridiculous that we were all losing our modesty quickly.

We stopped at the 300-foot Lava Tower, all in good spirits but starting to feel the altitude at about 15,000 feet now. Lava Tower is a “volcanic plug”; at some point long ago, lava spewed out of a vent at the base of where Lava Tower now stands, cooled, and hardened, thus stopping up the vent beneath. 

We had another nice lunch, then packed up and headed down into the Barranco Valley. As I predicted, it was chilly, temps dropping as we lowered ourselves down the rocky hillside and into the barren valley. I also love this part of the hike! Maybe just because I know this so well. But here we saw the towering senecios and other strange looking plants, like something from a Dr. Seuss story, the Lorax, or from one of the movies where people go back in time to the dinosaur age. We seemed to shrink as the trees towered over us. Ric and Wendie loved it. We finally arrived at camp (Barranco, 13,066 ft), and saw the intimidating 800-foot Barranco wall, which we would climb in the morning. So, we climbed up to 15,000 ft then climbed down, to acclimatize. Dinner and bed early!

Thursday August 8, 2019 DAY 4

This was the day! This very night we would begin our summit push. But first, we had to get out of the Barranco valley. Again, we are awoken each morning in our dusty, cold tents, by two young porters who quietly and gently bring us tea, coffee or hot chocolate, even as they are bundled up and facing the cold. They gently and respectfully pour the hot water, dip in the tea bag, stir in the sugar, until it’s just right. Then they zip up the tent when they leave; I feel spoiled. I get to have hot tea with cream and sugar while still in my sleeping bag. Even though we have gone without showers for 4 days, and are covered in dust, we feel like royalty having hot drinks in a tent!

We are pumped at breakfast. Shannon is feeling better, now that he has stopped taking malaria pills. He makes an amazing recovery and starts eating again. Jackson wants to be one of the first out, so we start out around 7 am. Straight up the Barranco wall, until we are about an hour later doing a “scramble,” hand to foot. The guides are there to help us. We have to navigate “kissing rock,” so named because you have to hug it in order to slide around it. A bit hairy! We each look back every 20 minutes or so, and the camp we just left gets smaller and smaller. Mike cracks a joke about the strange yellow tents that are all connected, like gerbil tunnels. They haven’t started to break camp yet. I joke back that maybe they can’t find their way out?

I’m not using poles but just powering up with my quads, feeling excellent.

Everyone is doing great. Before long we reach the top, and the view is glorious! To our left, the east, with the sun starting to shine above the clouds (we are above the clouds!), and below us, colorful dots that are the tents that made up our camp. We pause for water, and photos. And always, a bathroom break.

Then we start the hike down, which takes the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. It’s a long slog, down from the wall, had to foot, carefully, down sidewinding rocky paths, and finally onto long stretches of dusty trails. We would hike about 7-8 hours this day, all the way to Barafu Camp (15,239 ft). Still, I felt good, solid. Shannon was recovered, everyone was doing well. We reached the camp, and our tents were already pitched. It’s very rocky here, chilly, but nice when the sun is out.

Soon we had our dinner, around 5, and straight to bed, after sorting everything out gear wise. I fell right asleep for 4 hours. In fact, I got the best sleep and felt great. So what happened that night to me?

We put on our gear at 11 pm, getting ready for a 12 am departure. Base layer of wool; fleece pants and top. Puffy coat. Rain pants over fleece, and my EMS tough jacket that goes everywhere with me. One iPod was dead, but the other seemed to have full juice. I was feeling so good I didn’t feel the need for it! Water, gloves, hat, and we were ready to go. Off into the chilled night air; I figured it got to about 20°, which isn’t bad at all, and later when the wind came, about 10-15°.

It was all good.

I felt strong with no digestive issues at all, this whole trip, and had a full stomach of pasta. From 12 am-5 am I felt great. The summit push is all short switchbacks, one foot plodding after the other. Things could not have been better. At 5 am we took a break, and Ric, sitting on a rock, looked crushed. He asked Mike for some motivation. I gave him some: You can do it! You’ve come this far! It’s only about an hour! He rallied and pushed on. Jacob had given me Red Bull around 3 am, freezing cold and tasting bitter, but I guzzled it, knowing from experience it can really help. I don’t recall ever feeling bad or sore. Just a bit tired, as the legs slowed.

Good morning Kili!

I looked up from time to time to see the stunning white stars in the black heavens. I thought: They are beautiful, but cold and unfeeling. They have no pity. Not like our guides: they were great. Warm, caring, always there to help. Team Kilimanjaro! My favorite moment was when Myles reached down to give me a hand up. Myles, the youngest, and with hemophilia, was crushing this mountain! He made it look easy. The stars stood back with a cold, clinical eye to all our suffering. It was harder to breathe as we went on.

Wisely, Jackson put Ric first. I recall when Jonas did that to me in 2011; I was flagging so bad, and thought, Oh no, I will slow down the pack! But just the opposite: I picked up steam! But come 6 am- 7 am, I was definitely slowing. The sun came up below us, lighting the clouds pink from underneath. My feet: it started as forward stumbles, like I had stepped on wobbly stones. I tricked myself into believing I had just tripped on some rocks.

Then side to side stumbles, like I was drunk. I kept apologizing to Jacob, as I thought I was not paying attention. My mind seemed sharp and my core was warm, and I was not ill; what was wrong? I had never overall felt better on Kili. But little by little, it felt like every little stabilizer muscle in my feet and ankles were giving away, like the snapping of suspensions on a bridge. I kept stopping, trying to get O2 to my feet and muscles. On KIli, at this point, oxygen was about 50% of sea level. Like trying to do spin class while breathing through a straw, someone told me.

Pretty soon, my legs were just collapsing, and once I even held onto a big rock, just to stay upright.  And Stella Point (18,848 ft) was a mere 65 feet away, but straight up, the steepest part of the entire climb. How could I possibly reach that? Our team pulled further and further away, and my feet grew more and more useless. Jacob was determined to get me up there.

This became a battle between my rational brain, my legs, my willpower. All screaming at me at 18,000 feet.

I think I knew too much. This was my third climb up Kilimanjaro. The first summit was in a blinding snowstorm with -5°. Jonas dragged me up. The second summit I did with relative ease. Listening to Metallica on my iPod, encouraging another climber, dancing with the porters, I did fine. But I bonked big time on the 3-hour descent, and my legs just dissolved into gelatin. I was thinking of that while hugging the rock. How will I ever get down? It will take me another 1.5 hours at least to summit and then I have 3 hours down… It seemed impossible. You can’t climb if your legs don’t move and I could not will them to move.

Of course, I could have done it. I did it the first time and second, under worse circumstances. Now, the weather was excellent, and I was fit. But I wondered if having a back spasm for two months off and on, and then an injured knee for two months helped ruin my workouts.

And psychologically, I thought, Been there done that. I’ve summited, I have nothing left to prove! But it still eats at me, even as I write this.

So Jacob and I headed down; within 30 minutes I was getting more O2 to my legs, and was able to walk well. That’s all it took! We got back to Baranfu at 10 am, and I knew my teammates were just starting their descent. I cleaned up, ate some breakfast, tried to sleep (no way), and just waited for everyone. They appeared around noon; Shannon was exhausted! Ric and Wendie went right to sleep.

I felt cruel but I had to wake everyone up at 2 pm, so we could head out. Shannon was so tired, and Jackson made the good call to not descend to Mweka Camp (10,204 ft), which would require a 5 hour hike! Could you imagine? 7 hours of hiking, followed by an 8-9 hour summit hike straight up, three hours down, then another 5 hours, all on about 4 hours of sleep? It was only 2 hours to high camp. And it was a lovely walk down; we finally got to groomed trails, the valley to our left, lush and green. So different than the dusty, barren plateaus we were on! The sun was up, it was warm again… the night seemed a distant thought.

They did it! Save One Life on the roof of Africa!

Why did I quit so close to the summit? Knowing too much, having summited before, and not enough aerobic practice? I don’t know. I wish I hadn’t quit, but I did. But I was so glad out team summited, and I was proud of them!

Saturday August 11, 3019 Mweka Gate (5,423 ft)

We were all in great spirits when we arose in the chilly air, which quickly gave away to spring like temps. Behind us, we could see Kilimanjaro startled awake with sunshine pouring into its glacier-eyes. We had a hearty breakfast while the porters broke down camp. Everyone wants to get home now! When the porters gathered around in a circle, this as the customary sign that they would perform some dancing and singing, and we would hand out tips. Edwin led the spirited songs, with a couple of the guys really getting into it!   One by one, Mike handed out tips to me, and I shook hands with each and passed their $40 on.  And we packed up and left! This was all downhill, and the way was muddy and slippery. I again slipped and fell into the mud, just like I did in 2016! Colobus monkeys chattered above, and the way was surrounded by lush trees, moss and fertile forests.

It took about three hours. So, we ended another trip by meeting up at the Mweka Gate, me by myself, finding Myles, Mike and Shannon together. Ric and Wendie were behind. We washed off our boots for $1, signed out of the park, and had a Coke! It was delicious! Not water from my now-stale Camelback. Even though I didn’t summit, I still shared in the celebration, and Jacob even gave me Stella Point on my certificate.

Finally Ric and Wendie showed up. Now we all had a cold beer (Coke for me), and we joked and compared notes. All in all, a great team, great comraderie. And maybe it was meant to be? I already started thinking about a return trip, and Jackson had me thinking of going up the seven-day Rongai instead.

And when I later checked Facebook, saying that I had quit so close to the summit, everyone chastised me kindly: I did not quit, I did great… 65+ comments and more coming. Best of all? We raised a lot of money for Save One Life’s programs and families in need. And when I jokingly said I need to come back to Kili and redeem myself—who wants to come? I was only joking.

But three people already want to sign up. Make it four—count me in. See you again, Kilimanjaro!

Team, Kilimanjaro is the outfitter I have used three times now, and they are superb! I highly recommend them and will use the, again. Thanks to our guides, Jackson, Edwin, Jacob and Prosper, our cook, and all the porters! And my wonderful teammates: Wendie and Ric, Myles, Shannon, Mike, Jim and Sam. And to everyone who donated to support Save One Life!

“The journey is not easy…”

I’m writing from Arusha, Tanzania and tomorrow I start my hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world! This will be my third time. I summited in 2011 and 2016—no easy feat! Why, at age 61, do this again? To raise money for our mission—Save One Life. We’ve asked our community to help support our many programs in developing countries and donations are pouring in! Also, my fellow climbers are members of the community who want to experience a world vastly different from their own first-hand, at ground zero. To experience even for a day or two, the lives of the poor with bleeding disorders in a developing country. It is an experience they will never forget. So much so, that two of our climbers climbed with me in 2016 and have returned. And I thought I was the only crazy one!

I want so much to detail the trip right from the beginning, but there was been zero time to write or journal. A few hasty Facebook posts is all I could manage. After the climb, I will share so much more. But first, the most impactful—and unexpected—part of the trip.

Our in-country program partner, The Jose Memorial Haemophilia Society, established thirteen years ago by Maureen Miruka, mother of a child with hemophilia, took us to visit families in their homes. This idea is what distinguishes us from any other program in bleeding disorders and we not only insist on this, but we love it. But Saturday we did something different and new.

We drove to Gertrude’s Hospital, a stunningly beautiful, colorful and peaceful hospital in Nairobi. With my seven other companions, we attended a Women’s Group at 10 am, and a youth group simultaneously. The six guys took the children and young men into one room, while Wendie Chad and I, along with Maureen and assistant Sarah Mwangi, welcomed the women.

We were stunned as 28 women filtered into the room. And more kept coming over the next few hours. What was to be a 2-hour meeting stretched to over 4 hours as the women poured their hearts out. We sat in a big circle, and after a lovely prayer by Mrs. Mwangi (no relation), we went around the room. The women were a bit tentative to share. Usually all the attention is on the boys. One mother started by saying how her husband abandoned the family because he couldn’t deal with all the hospital stays. Now she has to work, cleaning houses and earning next to nothing.

Another mother optimistically said, “You have to have hope for tomorrow when you find that you are not the only one.” She lost four family members to untreated bleeds. While Kenya now has a steady though small supply of factor from the WFH and us, it is never enough.

One mother shared how her neighbors shunned her; another, how her own family turned on her. One mother was accused of witchcraft (yes, this is still a belief in rural parts of Africa).

More mothers and women kept coming in. A mother in a gray shirt shared how her first child died of a bleed. When her second son showed symptoms of hemophilia, her physician (at a major hospital!) told her son just needed more protein.

You almost didn’t need to know Swahili to know what they were saying: the pained expressions on their faces, the gestures to the elbows, knees, ankles as they spoke. One mother started to share and seconds later broke down in tears and sank back into her chair.

There was a rhythm to the conversation: the mothers started out quiet and shy as they shared. But each shared story empowered them to speak up. But the more they spoke up, the more emotional they became, and so started carrying, then reverted to being quiet. This would then encourage another mother to step up and share, and the rhythm started all over again. It was remarkable!

Maureen at last summarized the themes as the mothers shared: the need for social support; family planning; micro businesses (so the women do not have to be so dependent on men); stigmas of being different; becoming single moms as the husbands left.

The most powerful moment of the day was yet to come. Maureen presented sanitary kits provided by a nonprofit in Michigan called Days for Girls. Their motto: “Turning Periods into Pathways.” The kits were in pretty cloth bags and contained reusable menstrual pads. Some of the women present were not only mothers of children with hemophilia, but experienced heavy bleeding themselves. Physicians almost never diagnose mothers with hemophilia, but if their factor levels are below 50%, they could have mild hemophilia.

There is such a stigma around women and bleeding! We all know it, but we forget. I forget. I listened as woman after woman then shared their bleeding stories, how ashamed they feel, how isolated. It was so sad. They suffer a double blow of having a child with a serious medical issue, and then suffering themselves. Just to have them present and in a safe space where they could share, visibly empowered them! Maureen showed the contents of the kits and passed around many of them. The women checked them out and eventually all the kits found a home. The women were grateful and thrilled.

Maureen told us how women in Kenya in villages do not have access to pads often, and either use rags, or worse: they isolate themselves from their families, and stay in a corner of their thatched roof, mud hut or concrete home, and simply lie down and bleed into the sand for days. This is primitive and degrading.

What’s really amazing is my team, in cooperation with the Jose Memorial Haemophilia Society came up with this great idea and will work in partnership with Days for Girls to provide more kits and education. I am so proud of them!

The day ended with tears, smiles, laughter and of course tea! We hauled out suitcases filled with donated toys to distribute to the children. And before we disbanded for the day, the women all put a date on the calendar for the next support group meeting!

Let’s hope my climb tomorrow is as successful!

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.

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