On the worldwide charitys 50th anniversary, it was some rookie fund-raiser/climbers who took the major steps.

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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A CARE Package From Kilimanjaro
On the worldwide charity’s 50th anniversary, it was some rookie fund-raiser/climbers who took the major steps.
Climbing for Causes | Remembering Scott Fischer

By James M. Clash

[Editor’s note: Writer James M. Clash successfully climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in January of 1996 and created the following story soon after. While climbing, Clash, himself a relatively experienced climber and mountaineer, was enormously impressed with both the expertise and humanity of the expedition leader, Scott Fischer. Tragically, Fischer was later to perish in early May, one of eight climbers claimed by a brutal storm on Mount Everest.

Fischer’s photos illustrate this article, and at its close Clash offers a brief portrait of a man he came quickly to admire and even consider a friend.]

"Pole, pole," the porters chant. In Swahili that means "slowly, slowly." Not that any of us is racing. At best, it’s two breaths per step now. We’ve been climbing the godawful Western Breach of this godawful Mount Kilimanjaro for three hours; our guide, Scott Fischer, says we’re above 17,000 feet. That’s higher than a lot of small planes fly. Some of us who feel better, like the Starbucks crew, sing "pole, pole" to the tune of the 1960s song "Wooly Bully."

Not me. In my altitude stupor, I stop and look around. Things are a bit out of focus. A light snow is falling, making the steep rock even more slippery. Clouds drift by; we’re actually in them one minute, out the next. I hear someone vomiting behind me, another victim of AMS, acute mountain sickness. Fischer takes her pack. I ask if I can help, too. But it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing I can do; I’m just trying to survive myself. At that altitude, even the asking takes energy. It seems as if we’ll never get to the next camp.

We’re a determined group of mostly American climbers, part of "The Climb for CARE," an unusual fund-raiser. Sponsors--many of them corporations--have sent climbers to Africa’s highest mountain, 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro. The idea is to raise money and awareness for CARE’s 50th anniversary this year (1996). After expenses, CARE--officially the Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere Inc.--expects to net more than a half-million dollars.

Most of the expedition participants, while accomplished in business, are by no means serious climbers. It’s a group of investment bankers, corporate lawyers and senior executives who are long on heart, obviously, but shorter on the kind of climbing experience that might have made them think twice about the rigors of this ascent.

There's one major exception: Scott Fischer, owner of Seattle-based Mountain Madness, an adventure travel company. A world-class mountaineer with ascents of Everest and K2, the world's two highest mountains--without the aid of oxygen bottles, no less-- Fischer has been contracted by CARE to lead these climbing neophytes to the top. Including CARE representatives, guides and the media, there are 20 of us.

Climbing with this kind of group is interesting, if not a little dicey. While you don't have to be Sir Edmund Hillary to climb Kilimanjaro--the mountain does not require ropes and crampons--19,000 feet is still challengingly high. There's only half the oxygen there is at sea level. Weather, altitude sickness and exhaustion will all come into play during the climb, especially near the top.

Which is where we are struggling now, some six days into the Shira route. It's Kilimanjaro's longest approach, but that's precisely why Fischer likes it. The Shira will give us eight days on the mountain versus the usual five for the Marangu (or "tourist") route. The slower ascent, he has told us, should help the group adjust better to altitude, which will increase our chances of reaching the summit. At a pre-climb press conference, Fischer had boldly predicted 100 percent success.

Three more hours of this lumbering agony and we're suddenly at the crater rim, close to high camp. There's Catherine Walker, senior vice president and general counsel at Westin Hotels & Resorts. And Peter Ackerman, looking like a scruffy mountain goat with his six-day stubble. In the 1980s he was a honcho at Drexel, Burnham Lambert--Michael Milken's No. 2 man. Back in the States, he's now the managing director of Rockport Capital, an investment firm in Washington, D.C. Right now this 49-year-old man, who has never before camped outdoors, much less climbed a mountain, is sound asleep, snoring away, exhausted.

We shake him: "Peter, wake up." He still snores. Suddenly, with a start, he blinks, then stares at us like we're from another planet. We could be, the way we look. It's 20 more minutes to camp, we tell him. Disappointed and disoriented, he struggles to his feet and blindly trudges on.

High camp, perched at 18,500 feet next to the 80-foot-high Furtwangler Glacier, is the altitude of Gillman's Point, where most Kilimanjaro climbers on the tourist route stop, claiming they've summited. Not so. The true top is Uhuru Peak, another 840 vertical feet up and, because of the altitude, the most difficult part of the ascent. We have that to look forward to the next morning.

First, though, we have to get through the night. Wind-swept, barren and cold, the lava rocks and glacial ice of Camp 6 are a stark contrast to the lush vegetation and animal sounds of the jungle so far below. Mountaineers call territory above 18,000 feet "the death zone" because human life can't permanently exist there. The body slowly deteriorates from the reduced oxygen supply and eventually shuts down. We're not going to be here long enough for that to happen, but the night will exact its own toll.

By 6 p.m. we're in our tents. As the sun sets, the temperature plummets into single digits. Sleep is almost impossible with the potent combination of altitude, a 40-mile-per-hour wind and plain old-fashioned excitement about the morrow. Every so often, I glance at my watch, swearing at least an hour has elapsed. Usually it's only 10 minutes.

We're a very far cry now from what seems like the baronial splendors of our first few camps. There we'd rise at 7 a.m., when the amiable porters brought tea, coffee and hot washing water to us in our tents. Breakfast was served around 8, after which we'd pack our gear and hand it to the porters. Then we'd begin the day's hike--anywhere from four to six hours--while the porters dismantled camp. Along the trail they'd pass us, these extraordinarily agile, vigorous Tanzanians, some with 100-pound loads and torn sneakers. By the time we arrived at the next camp, they'd have the tents pitched and dinner cooking.

Camps consisted of two-person tents, a large mess complex for meals, three freshly dug toilets (complete with wooden seats!) and a big campfire. At night, at the lower elevations, we congregated around the fire, told jokes and swapped stories. At Camp 3, 12,500 feet up, everyone explained why they had come along and their link with CARE. Some were quite moving.

Cathy Lindenberg, for example, relived her attempt on the mountain 18 years ago and how she'd reached this very elevation before turning back. Pregnant at the time, Lindenberg suffered complications and was forced to abandon her expedition. Now, with her husband, Marc, the senior vice president of CARE, she had the opportunity to try again. Menno van Wyk, the CEO of One Sport, a Seattle hiking-boot maker, was the first executive to sign up for the climb. Van Wyk talked about his parents, poor immigrants from Holland, and how CARE had helped many of their friends just after the war. For him, the climb was a way of giving something back. Dave Olsen, a senior vice president for coffee at Starbucks and a major CARE supporter since the 1980s, felt a special sort of affinity with the organization: Both he and CARE were turning 50 this year.

Now I lie awake, wondering about tomorrow. How are we going to handle the last 840 feet to the summit? "Piece of cake," Fischer had said earlier, with his usual brio. "Piece o' cake."

Somehow, in my state, "piece o' cake" doesn't sound appetizing. Plus, having been on other expedition climbs like this, I don't believe him. But what's important is that the rest of the group might. Half the battle in high-altitude climbing is mental, and Fischer knows it.

The wake-up call comes at 6 a.m. Thankfully. It's still terribly cold, so we put on all our clothes and are off around 7:30. Within 15 minutes, the sun rises, warming us up 10 or 15 degrees.

The air is incredibly thin, but we make slow, steady progress. Fischer was right, I realize; the extra three days of acclimatization have done their job. Most of us feel better than the day before. Step, breathe ... breathe, step ... breathe, breathe, step ... we're chugging locomotives, in high gear.

Within an hour, we're approaching the top. Now it's two to three gasps per step. I glance ahead at Cathy and Marc Lindenberg, trudging arm in arm. Cathy will make it after all, I think, then smile. Walker, Ackerman and the rest of the CARE champions are close behind. It's a big moment for all of them and their sponsors. If we reach the top, CARE will be a half-million dollars richer.

Suddenly we're there--a wide football field of broken volcanic rock nearly four miles above sea level. In his famous 1936 story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Ernest Hemingway describes the mountain as "wide as all the world, great, high and unbelievably white in the sun." Sixty years later, there is no reason to rethink or revise that description.

It's all backslaps and handshakes for the group, with an airplane-like view for hundreds of miles around. From my pack I remove an altimeter to check the height. The reading: 18,800 feet. Not bad, only off by 540 feet. The more amazing thing: I can still do math in my altitude stupor.

After a slew of souvenir photos, it's time to begin the long trek down. The plan is to descend eight hours via the steep Mweka route, making camp at 10,000 feet. We know that 9,340 vertical feet is a lot to drop in one day, but with small packs it's doable. Moving with the easy momentum of a descent, at 5 p.m., tired but happy, we finally reach Camp 7.

Fischer is there, waiting. He's not smiling, and we know instantly that something is wrong. "We've got to keep going," he says. "There's no water here to make camp."

At first, we think he's joking. But his tone is deadpan, not the usual optimism. We suddenly realize the unthinkable: We'll have to descend all the way to the roadhead at 6,500 feet--another four hours--that night. That's a total vertical drop of 13,000 feet--or 13 Empire State Buildings. In one day.

We're all bitching that last stretch. Bitching about the dark, bitching about sore knees, bitching about blistered feet, mud, mosquitoes, you name it. At one point, I even vow never to climb again. Finally, at 10 p.m., we're all back at the trailhead where we first put in. We immediately collapse into our tents. Sleep, for the first time in a week, is not a problem.

Two days later, we've come out of the bush to Nairobi, with the scaly grubbiness of eight unwashed days well rinsed off. We're civilians again, dining at a touristy but interesting restaurant called the Carnivore, where they stuff you with almost every exotic meat imaginable--ostrich, alligator, wildebeest, gazelle--until you surrender by sporting a little white flag. It's perfect, as we're ravenous for meat after eight days of starchy pastas, potatoes and cereals.

During the evening, Cathy Lindenberg asks what my next climb will be. Without hesitation, I confess to Mount Elbrus in the former Soviet Union (Europe's highest peak), or possibly the legendary Matterhorn, on the border of Switzerland and Italy. Cathy laughs, then reminds me of my recent pledge never to climb again.

"Oh, that. I do that on every climb," I say, then explain about climber's amnesia, how you remember just the good parts of an expedition, not all the pain. Cathy laughs again, says she understands. She's already beginning to remember only the good parts, too.

James M. Clash covers mutual funds as a staff writer at Forbes. He writes on adventure travel for Sky.

[This article appeared in Sky magazine, September 1996, and is reprinted with the publisher's kind permission.]

Photographs courtesy of Mountain Madness.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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