Every 10 or so trips I lead, my faith in the human spirit gets restored. Not that it wanes a whole lot in between, but on trip number 10 it gets a nice kick in the ass. I say this after having just completed leading Tusker Trail’s first Kilimanjaro Climb for Valor. I led this climb to give 2 wounded Special Forces soldiers, along with 3 widows of Special Forces soldiers and a sprinkling of civilians, a chance to hang out, share their incredible stories and achieve a great challenge getting to the top of Kilimanjaro. It was a fundraising climb for the Duskin & Stephens Foundation, a nonprofit which creates scholarships for the kids of fallen U.S. Special Forces soldiers. Our goal was a hundred grand.
The climb was magnificent and truly epic. The group hit the ground running, and never went through those first 2-3 days of posturing and preening for the pecking order. This group was ready made, right out of the box. All I had to do was add a sprinkling of adventure.
And no adventure is a true adventure without serious challenges. Around midnight, on day 4 of a 9-day trek at 13,000 ft., I heard someone coughing repeatedly. Normally at home I’d say take a cough drop. But at altitude a cough could mean something serious, and this one did. I slid out of my sleeping bag and took my medical kit over to the “tent of the cough”. After performing a medical check, I determined that the climber was suffering from High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). That’s when a person accumulates fluid in the lungs as a result of not adjusting to the reduced atmospheric pressure at high altitude. It’s more common than you think. In fact, people die from HAPE at high altitude fairly regularly if they’re not treated quickly and taken down to lower altitude ASAP.
In this case our guiding team acted the way they were drilled – fast and efficiently. We put the climber on oxygen and inside of a portable altitude chamber – an airtight bag that, by means of an air pump, increases the pressure in the bag to simulate the atmospheric pressure at a much lower altitude. It’s a life saver when you can’t evacuate someone immediately. And we couldn’t evacuate due to the danger of doing so in pitch dark.
Two of the guys from Ripcord Travel Protection were on the climb, and with them we coordinated a helicopter evacuation. By the time the helicopter arrived just after sunrise, we had stabilized the trekker. He was flown off the mountain to the hospital and recovered fully after a few hours.
The group continued climbing, and in great form, summited together, spent the night at 18,700 ft. in the crater below the summit, and descended rapturous and euphoric. Such is the nature of a dynamic group. They struggle, face the challenges, laugh, cry and succeed together. That’s what makes it all worthwhile for me; that moment of euphoria at the pinnacle of success. And you try and make it last forever.
While I might have to wait another 10 trips for one like the Climb for Valor, it doesn’t stop me from trying to capture the glory every time.
There will be another Tusker Kilimanjaro Climb for Valor next year. Try not to miss it.