Breaking All the Rules
Back in the late 70s, long before Eddie Frank would become a world-renowned expert in high altitude climbing, he made his first attempted climb of Kilimanjaro and almost never made it off the mountain alive.
That he survived what would be a sequence of bad planning followed by terrible choices can only be attributed to dumb luck, with an emphasis on “dumb”, given that, in Eddie’s own words, what they attempted in those few days was the exquisite work of morons.
By all rights, everyone on that climb should be dead. They broke every rule of wilderness survival, including “a” and “the”.
Nowadays, thanks to the marvels of water-repellant polytetrafluoroethylene abbreviated as PTFE and known commercially as Gore-Tex, anyone who can click a mouse or get to the mall can climb Kili and stay warm and dry, which is the general objective for comfort and safety on the mountain. And because it gets wet and cold up there, the moisture-wicking properties of Gore-Tex become your best friend—if only for the confidence in your preparedness it brings.
Though PTFE as both chemical compound and brand came into existence about a decade prior to Eddie’s almost-fateful climb, it was far from commonplace in the 70s, and could not therefore simply be rounded up at your local REI. In fact, hard as it is to imagine, REI outlets were few and far between. The retail location of choice for “outdooring” was the local army surplus store, where they sold everything from heavy down bags of Korean War vintage to aluminum canteens to some GI’s old boots.
Two Ice Boxes
PTFE’s then-scarcity may be attributed to the bitter, two-year, 35-witness patent infringement lawsuit surrounding the obviously valuable technology. But more likely, because the “safety” culture was a tad different back then—meaning it did not exist, and therefore neither did the multi-billion dollar global “outdoor” industry—a cowboy slash devil-may-care mentality governed all but the most serious wilderness outings.
Adventure was for the bold and the young, who of course are totally indestructible.
That said, here’s the laundry list, laughable by today’s standards, of Eddie’s gear: no hat. Cotton army jacket, lightweight, olive green, not suited for the cold, rain or snow. Cotton sweatshirt. Levi’s jeans, naturally faded, cotton. Cotton underwear. There’s that cotton again. There’s a reason why they say “cotton kills”. It owns no wind-stopping properties; it absorbs and holds moisture; it doesn’t dry and makes you cold and you get hypothermia. The End.
And then of course the shoes: hard to believe looking back, but Eddie wore steel-toed Red Wing workboots, which in his own words, were like wearing two ice boxes around your feet. Cold, hard fun.
Here was a brave, thoughtful and adventuresome young man with a dream in his heart (climbing Kili), the most rudimentary gear, and the means of getting there: driving overland south through the Sahara, then East along the equator to Tanzania. Not the most direct route but it got him and the eight other climbers to the mountain with a checklist that, now, reads like a recipe for disaster, and as it would turn out, nearly death.
Instead of researching outfitters for comfort, reliability and safety, Eddie did what, surprisingly, most people still do to this day: he hired a local guide through a local hotel which also provided the food, which by all measure, sounded like Medieval gruel. And off they went.
Sleeping in huts and living on the “gruel” along the abbreviated Marangu Route, the early-goings of their 3.5 day ascent were rather uneventful, and according to Eddie, morale was high. No one present knew what Eddie and all high altitude experts know today: that ascending to just over 19,000 feet in a tad over three days can at best make you uncomfortably sick, and at worst, kill you.
The dangers to humans in high altitude stem from the ever-changing air pressure as you ascend. Climb too quickly and you fail to properly acclimatize, and when that happens, under the heading of “Acute Mountain Sickness”, the physics of nature hold in store a few inconvenient surprises including crippling headaches, nausea, vomiting and as a worst case, pulmonary edema, a blockage of arteries by tiny blood bubbles in the lungs which of course if you do not get the right treatment in time, can kill you. It can kill you anyway.
Even today, six out of ten people turn back on Kili for this very reason – not the edema, but the nausea and crushing headaches. Both symptoms were there in extremis for Eddie, in fact would dog him on his next seven climbs, until he started developing the health and safety protocols, which as many know, have become the standard on the mountain, and defying all odds, have produced for Tusker an astonishing plus-95% summit rate.
The intelligent safety rule that Eddie applies today—but back then, he wouldn’t understand if it gnawed him on the backside—is rather simple: if you vomit or have a headache, you don’t go up you go down. Going higher will only make it worse.
This mindset was still over a decade in Eddie’s future, and uncomfortable as his symptoms were, the hardship for two whole days did not deter him. A lot can be said for will, or stubbornness, depending on your working definition. On the third day, the signs became more ominous and the decisions more reckless. At 16,000 feet, they ran out of water which, objectively, can be catastrophic and yet instead of going down to resupply or just call it quits, Eddie persevered, in his cotton, without hat or water through the bitter cold.
At midnight, on the start of the fourth day, they were stirred from a fitful sleep by the guides (for want of a better word) at Kibo Hut, the last and highest of the huts on the Marangu Route. And with an angry storm brewing, they headed out in pitch black for the final 4,000-plus feet push to the summit.
An hour into the grueling climb up 45-degree shale, the snowstorm hit. And it was big. Today, under those conditions, the climb would most probably turn back but nothing they had done so far would suggest that degree of consideration or caution. And so, they pushed on. But even “indestructible youth”, it seems, has its limits and eventually, with a “mere” 1,000 feet to go and his extremities turning numb, Eddie turned his group back. You could argue that the rest of his days were calling to him. Or, more likely, he’d just had enough. Soon the storm thickened to a whiteout, and deaf and blind in the blizzard, they got lost at 17,000 feet.
Five long hours later, wandering up and down the mountain at night in a bleak storm—the stuff survival movies are made of—the exhausted group found their way back to Kibo Hut, where they shivered and collapsed for a while, waiting it out. The next day, despite having no water, they took their day and a half descent off the mountain. Miraculously no one died and the only thing that got hurt was pride. Eddie was humbled, lucky to be alive, happy to be off the mountain. Which is another way of saying he was desperately ill-prepared for the rigors of the high altitude climb, and especially the weather. He wasn’t sure if he would ever try it again.
But mountains are climbed because they are there, and with Kili going nowhere (although today, with global warming, the glacier at the top is), a few years later, Eddie would summit under beautiful weather, with water to spare. The headaches and nausea, however, would persist until he realized a simple fact: the climb needed more time to both enjoy, and not get sick, hence the longer routes Tusker offers today.
What didn’t kill him would make him, in time, reconsider all his strategies and assumptions, and with much practice and repetition (48 climbs and counting), a bona fide high altitude expert recognized by leading medical authorities in the field. More than his knowledge of the physiology and what is considered by docs as “best-practice”, what the experts value in Eddie is his boots-on-the-ground experience with thousands of climbers at high altitude, a stat rivaled by few, if any, human beings on the planet.
Eddie almost gave his life to the mountain—not from courage, but ignorance—and had you asked him then, let’s say, lost during the whiteout at 17,000 feet, if he saw a future for himself in climbing, he would’ve laughed you off the glacier. That is, if he could get his frozen facial muscles to work.
Little did he know that the long and winding road from this climb would lead him into air as rare as Kili’s at 19,340 feet. He would be climbing, as an expert, with the leading high altitude doctors in the world.
The Folly of Youth
To borrow from Shakespeare, Eddie’s “beginnings knew not his endings”. In fact his beginning on the mountain nearly brought him to his end.
But it didn’t. He survived and transformed the harrowing, sobering experience into a life’s work. He put the “s” in kill (as in what cotton does) and morphed it into a skill, and countless climbers on Kili are now safer for it. Whether climbing with Tusker, and their world-renowned medically trained high altitude mountain guides, or with rivals who have wisely tried to imitate Tusker health and safety protocols, anyone climbing the mountain, if only by osmosis, reaps the benefit.
The steel-toe boots and the cotton are long gone—replaced by the three different pairs that Eddie wears on the mountain, along with the full water-wicking/ temperature stable wardrobe, making Eddie the Gore-Tex poster boy.
But memories of the fiasco are not.
It began the chain of events that helped Eddie become the high altitude expert that he is. What didn’t destroy him made him smarter, inspiring him to take local village kids and turn them into his small army of world class mountain guides and mountain chefs.
Kili, and the people climbing it, have his youthful folly to thank for it.