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The big day has come. As I mentioned last week, I am accompanying a group of employees of Elanco, a Heifer International corporate supporter, as they climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and raise money for Heifer. I'm likely to be out of Internet access after today, but I'll be sure to update everyone when we make it back down.

The climbing team has assembled at our hotel outside Tanzania's Kilimanjaro National Park, and we are excited. We're also wondering what's in store for us.

Mt. Kilimanjaro is not a technical climb -- no ropes or crampons -- which leads many amateurs to attempt it and be forced to turn back. The altitude is the critical element, and it affects each person - young or old, fit or fat - in an unpredictable way. Our group will be climbing the Rongai Route, beginning today (Wednesday) very near the Kenyan border.

Our staging hotel is on the south side of the mountain, nestled, along with several other hotels, into a rural community which, like most places in Tanzania, runs on agriculture. On our free day before the climb, a local man walked us along paths through the hills - and right through the back courtyards of many small homes - to see sights like waterfalls and the local market. The countryside is covered mainly with banana cultivation, along with native trees. And if you're someone who thinks of Africa as being all hot and humid jungle or savannah, wrap your mind around this: we're almost on the equator, and temperatures range from the mid-80s in the day to mid-60s at night. Delicious!

This group of Elanco employees is composed mainly of Midwesterners and Canadians. Is it cliche' to say "salt-of-the-earth?" If so, I don't care, because that's what they are: warm, friendly, patient and certainly not afriad of a little exertion. Here's how they came together for this trip:

Randy Bagg initiated this whole adventure; he works in research and regulation at Elanco, and he has dreamed of climbing Kilimanjaro for years. When he first proposed the trip to his officemate, the fun-loving James McCurdy, the younger man thought he was half-joking. Friends point out that Randy isn't particularly adventurous or daring, but he shrugs off that observation. "I like new experiences. This is a challenge," he says. "And I've always been intrigued with Africa."

Another Elanco employee, the irrepressable Marta Haley, says she "invited herself along" and convinced Gail Neuwirth Geisler to make the attempt as well. Marta and Gail work to promote Elanco's anti-hunger corporate responsibility programs, and fundraising for Heifer meshed neatly with this journey. The group, at last check, had nearly reached their goal of raising $5,895 for Heifer, or one dollar for every meter of Kilimanjaro's height. (Click here to help us reach the goal.)

These people are passionate about hunger, and about helping Heifer. Some of them have visited Heifer projects more than once, and speak about the projects with nearly as much passion and authority as a Heifer worker. Yesterday afternoon, the group spent an hour after lunch talking about how to make the critical anti-hunger efforts resonate more with their fellow employees.

Later today, the climb begins, and we'll see how tough we are. But we all know that the real challenge is much bigger and harder to address. How can we, together, lighten the load of people who struggle day after day, year after year, with the oppression of hunger and poverty?


Kelly MacNeil