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Adventure Philanthropy: What it Takes to Summit Kilimanjaro – Roadmonkey Dispatch #2

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Text by New York Times reporter and Iraq war correspondent Paul von Zielbauer, who started Roadmonkey as a way to combine adventure travel and giving back and engaging with local communities. He is currently taking guests up Kilimanjaro, followed by volunteering at a school in Dar es Salaam, Tanzanina. Paul will be checking with us along the way.

In my previous post, I described the nervous energy that each of our ten Roadmonkey expedition members felt as we began our seven-day ascent to–we each hoped–the summit of 19,345-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point Africa.

Day One began with a hike into rain forest marking the beginning of Kilimanjaro’s Lemosho route, one of the most difficult paths to the top of this spectacularly scenic and extraordinarily physically and mentally demanding mountain. Looking back at photos of that first day, each of us–eight women and two men, from New York City, San Francisco, Michigan, Colorado, and Montreal–were so fresh, clean, and, frankly, naïve about the hardship that lay ahead. In between catching our collective breath in between hill climbs that first day, we were still all talking, laughing and taking trailside photos of fresh elephant poop.

“We had no idea what we were in for,” Jolie Altman, of Birmingham, Mich., later said, rather wistfully.

Any illusion that this expedition would be little more than an extended uphill day hike evaporated into the dry mountain air on Day Two. Rain forest gave way to a sort of volcanic, high-desert moonscape grown over by green and brown bush and small white and red buttercup-like flowers. And our chipper conversation gave way to extended periods of silence as we walked nearly nine hours–covering about ten miles of challenging uphill terrain along a six-inch-wide path carved from the unforgiving bush. We arrived at our camp, called Shira-2, physically exhausted, mentally drained and, in a couple of cases, having run out of water two hours earlier.

“Not a day I would choose to repeat anytime soon,” said Christine Burke of New York City.

We began Day Three refocused and serious, like prize fighters who had run into an opponent with unexpected power.

Finally came Day Six and the summit attempt, the moment our group, hardened by five days of hours-long traverses, rock scrambles and lung-straining uphill hikes, had been anticipating–not without some anxiety.

The nine-hour hike to Mt. Kilimanjaro’s summit begins at midnight, in ink-black darkness, with our headlamps blazing up an almost insanely steep rocky trail. Step, pause, (breath) step. Step, pause, (breath) step. Repeat. For nine hours.

I can’t overstate how difficult this was, especially after very little sleep over the six previous days. As the sky lightened, around 5:30 am, several expedition members began to suffer symptoms of altitude sickness: throbbing headache, nausea and almost falling asleep in between uphill steps. One of us actually collapsed, feeling unable to breathe; our guides quickly wrapped her in a thermal blanket and calmed her until she could walk again.

Two other Roadmonkeys were so exhausted they burst into tears as they reached the wooden signpost marking Mt. Kilimanjaro’s summit point. But we did it: from enormous dedication and an incredible show of guts, all ten of us reached the roof of Africa….an accomplishment that none of us will likely ever forget.

Now, we head to Dar es Salaam to begin our volunteer project, painting classrooms, building desks and installing a clean-water drinking system for about 100 underserved children. Kili has given us strength to do just about anything.