Summit on the Summit

In the age of social media, a group of celebrities demonstrate that "raising awareness" isn't always code for self-congratulation.

Isabel Lucas at the summit     Photo: Photograph by Michael Muller

Michael Muller, self-portrait

Michael Muller, self-portrait

Jessica Biel

Jessica Biel on one of the trail's steeper sections

Emile Hirsch

Emile Hirsch on the approach

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THE TENTS WERE glowing like night lights as I wandered among them, desperately looking for our expedition medic, Melissa Arnot, and her stash of Imodium. It was 12:30 A.M., 15,000 feet up on Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, but everyone was awake and about, getting ready for the start of our summit push. I ducked past the 12-person film crew and into our meal tent, where Jessica Biel, Emile Hirsch, and Lupe Fiasco were sipping tea and peppering Arnot with questions.

"What will be the hardest thing?" Biel asked.

"It'll get harder to breathe. It feels like there is a hand pushing down on you," replied Arnot, who explained a technique called pressure breathing that forces more air into your lungs.

"This is the hardest physical challenge I've ever done," Biel said. "I am not turning around now."

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This nylon city was part of the massive Summit on the Summit expedition, which had been dreamed up by the Ethiopian-born musician Kenna to bring attention to the global water crisis—a worldwide shortage of clean drinking water that kills more children (some two million per year) than any other single cause. Meanwhile, in the U.S., seven billion gallons per day soak into the ground thanks to leaky pipes.

It's a big issue, but it's not one that ranks particularly high in the American consciousness. Biel, Hirsch, and Fiasco, along with a dozen other experts and activists, were there to fix that. I was there to write blog posts, chosen because I'm a screenwriter and know when to keep my mouth shut, unlike the dozens of reporters who'd tried to get on the trip.

The first time I kept mum was when Kenna invited me, saying, "I'm getting together a bunch of cool people to climb Kilimanjaro, and I want you to tell our story." The subject of climbing never came up but probably should have. My idea of hiking is 36 holes of golf. The highest I'd been was 12,000 feet, and that was 20 years ago and required a chairlift. But Kenna could have asked me to swim to the moon to raise awareness for neglected constellations and I'd have said yes.

Your first reaction to "raising awareness" is probably an eye roll. Mine was, too, but hear me out. A few years ago I had a WTF moment. I woke up one day as a convertible-driving screenwriter with the number-one movie in theaters—the Vince Vaughn–Jennifer Aniston comedy The Break-Up—and a stack of unread copies of Outside in my Hollywood apartment. A series of individual decisions had added up to a character description of myself that didn't match the life I aspired to lead. So I bought a truck, moved closer to the ocean, and started seeking out stories worth telling while leading a more active life.

I donned body armor and followed Texas National Guardsmen fighting cartels on the Mexican border. Then in October, I directed a viral video for the congressional commission on WMD urging the government to modernize vaccine production in light of the H1N1 virus. And they actually listened.

Now my two selves had merged near the top of Africa's highest peak and promptly gotten food poisoning. Inside the meal tent, I nodded gravely at Biel, who smiled back as if she were hanging out in a café on Melrose. (She grew up tromping around the mountains of Boulder, Colorado.) I asked Arnot if she could step outside. If you passed Arnot on the street, you'd never know she's summited Everest twice, the second time on a broken leg. I thought of the physical discomfort she'd endured and tried to be casual, like I was asking for gum. She dropped an Imodium in my hand, and I asked when it would start to work.

"It will be a little while," she said.

"Anything else I can do?"

She shook her head with a you're-kinda-screwed look. "Nope."

I headed back into the expansive tent labyrinth. There were 45 members of our team, and it took 255 porters and 16 guides from Thomson Safari to lug all of our stuff. Our rations alone included 856 eggs, 269 pounds of sugar, 158 loaves of bread, 102 pounds of beef, and 44 whole chickens—as well as the tea and cookies that everyone was now consuming for last-minute energy. Then there were the computers, generators, satellite links, and fuel that allowed us to blog and tweet. Nothing about the attempt was fast-and-light, as alpinists prefer to climb, but nobody was short-roped up, either.

I ducked into another meal tent, where Kenna was sitting with the singer Santi­gold, photographers Jimmy Chin and Michael Muller, environmental activist Alexandra Cousteau, and Australian actress Isabel Lucas—who continued to mystify us by looking like she'd just gotten out of hair-and-makeup.

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The first thing I noticed this time, though, was the silence. "You guys will be fine," said Chin. When we'd first arrived, five days earlier, Cousteau had asked everyone to share a goal for 2010. Back then, everybody was chatty. Cousteau wanted to balance her personal life with her career as a National Geographic explorer, and Lucas pledged to learn from those wiser than herself: "We should embrace our elders," she said. To which Pur's Dr. Greg Allgood, at 50 the oldest on the trip, said, "How about my tent at 8 P.M.?"

The laughter that had filled the tent was a distant memory. Now everyone was exhausted, but we had to suck it up. We hadn't been recruited for Summit Almost on the Summit.

Right about then, Arnot poked her head in. "Let's go, people," she said. "Get your packs. It's time to climb."

A local guide took up position alongside me. Chin loped up and down the trail effortlessly, like a sheepdog checking his flock.

Like me, Lucas was struggling, but she refused to give up, leaning on Kenna at times for support as she placed one foot bravely in front of the other. Hirsch seemed to gain energy the higher he climbed.

Seven hours after leaving camp, all 45 of us reached the 19,340-foot summit—100 percent success, a marvel for a group this large. We'd heard all about the spectacular views from the Roof of Africa, but we could've been on a soundstage at Warner Bros. for all the swirling snow. Still, that didn't matter. As we stood in the snow sharing hugs and tears, we knew we'd accomplished our mission.

Summit on the Summit had more than 12 million views on Twitter, was number one out of 376,000 causes on Facebook, and will top 1.5 billion trackable media impressions before it's all over. And now that everyone is texting donations—$10 can be sent to the UN Foundation by texting SEND to 90999—awareness is converting to real help.

So the easy part of the climb is over. We summited. Got your attention. But more children fall ill every minute. Water's draining out of faulty pipes. There's work to be done. The hard climb awaits. And there's room for all of you to join us.

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