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Story and photos by Kelly MacNeil, World Ark contributor
MOUNT KILIMANJARO , Tanzania— “Look!” Marta said, forcing us to pause. “We’re walking above the clouds!”
And it was true—laid out before us was a textured white carpet familiar to airplane travelers. And yet we weren’t behind tiny circular windows; we were standing on the side of Africa’s tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro, as part of a fundraising effort for Heifer International by employees of Elanco Animal Health.
In the five days it took our six-person group to approach the crater rim of this ancient volcano, we tried to soak in the strange beauty around us, but always with the question in our minds: will we make it all the way to the top? Months of training were invested, but the extraordinary altitude could fell even the most physically fit person.
Randy Bagg, a researcher for Elanco, initiated the trip, a fact the others found surprising as Randy admitted he hadn’t been in a tent since age 8. But the challenge intrigued him. Randy was pleased to bring along Brendan, his wry and soft-spoken son.
When Randy first proposed the trip to his officemate, the fun-loving James McCurdy, James wasn’t sure whether to take him seriously. But he quickly signed on and the group expanded to include more Elanco employees: the buoyant and generous Marta Haley and Gail Neuwirth Geisler, a woman with shining eyes who seemed to feel she was breaking the rules by taking such an outrageous trip.
As a Heifer International employee, I would come along to document their trip. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was already at the top of my “bucket list,” a dream that became suddenly, stunningly real.
On the morning of the first day, we eagerly stepped out onto the Rongai trail, only to hear “Ah! Ah! Ah!” as the guide waved us back behind him. “Po-le, po-le,” he said cheerfully—“slowly, slowly.” As we settled behind his measured pace, we exchanged incredulous glances. Slowly, indeed. Five days later and several thousand feet higher, however, we would be begging him to go slower still.
The climb up Kilimanjaro isn’t technical; there are no ropes or crampons, just a long, steady walk. Nonetheless, between 15 percent and 50 percent of climbers (depending on who you ask) don’t reach the top, mainly because of problems with the altitude. Kilimanjaro reaches 19,341 feet, more than three miles high. On the third day of the climb our lead guide, Priscus, calmly explained the dangers of altitude sickness. For an unlucky few, headaches and exhaustion could advance to nausea, coughing, vomiting and confusion. Once someone gets sick, the only solution is to descend.
We were already feeling some of the peculiar effects of the thin air. The short walk from my tent to the dining area—a distance of perhaps 12 yards—left my heart pounding. To help acclimatize, we were directed to drink several liters of water a day, which had predictable consequences. There were frequent pee breaks on the trail, and the Elanco group quickly became intimate over jokes about bladder capacity.
The group had set a goal of raising $5,895 for Heifer International from friends and family—$1 for every meter of Kilimanjaro’s height. They asked family and friends to contribute, and held an after-hours gathering with coworkers that included a raffle. The winner decided to donate all the prize money back to the cause.
Elanco, the animal health division of Eli Lilly and company, has a long-standing relationship with Heifer. Since 2008, Elanco has funded three projects—in Indonesia, Zambia and China. In addition, the company is contributing more than $400,000 to a project in India. In total, the Lilly Foundation with Elanco and its employees have donated more than $2 million. Employees like Randy and Marta grew up on farms and believe strongly in the potential of farmers. Randy is also a veterinarian and would casually recite the breeds of cattle we passed at the foot of the mountain.
Marta, who recently held the corporate responsibility position at Elanco, said the company’s employees understand the problem of hunger. “When someone has a personal connection with a cause, there’s an innate thirst to do more. I’ve witnessed this firsthand with many of my colleagues around the globe,” she said.
Even with the Elanco group’s commitment, the climb up Kilimanjaro would not have been possible without the assistance of expert guides and a cavalcade of porters carrying tents, sleeping bags, fuel, food and other equipment. (Local men undergo the grueling climb because the pay is comparatively good, but not all touring companies pay a fair wage or provide decent clothing and support.)
Each morning, we ate a plentiful, hot breakfast while porters dismantled the tents. Later, on the trail’s narrow groove, we would step aside, marveling, as the porters hurried by with enormous loads atop their heads. “Jambo!” they greeted us. “Jambo!” we breathlessly replied.
The guides spoke English well and introduced us to the basics of Tanzanian culture, including the immortal phrase “poa kichizi kama ndizi,” meaning “crazy cool like a banana.” As the climbers shared stories and jokes with the guides, the value of the entire experience took on new significance. The importance of the stated goal—the summit— began to recede, even as we neared it.
In the afternoons, a chill enfolded us at the instant the sun dropped behind a cloud, as if someone had flipped the switch of the world’s thermostat. We ate dinners shivering, dressed in down coats and fleece hats. We talked about what lay ahead, not knowing what to expect.
Just before midnight on the fifth night, we began our summit attempt. Summits on Kilimanjaro are timed so that climbers will reach the top in the early morning, before the afternoon clouds roll in. In the biting cold, the Elanco group members adjusted the nose pieces for their supplemental oxygen. The full moon hung distant and white overhead.
At Kilimanjaro’s highest peak, the trail steepens into switchbacks on loose scree. Walking up the soft volcanic soil was like scrambling up a sand dune. The upward struggle became hypnotic, marked only by deep breathing and tiny, deliberate steps.
After five and a half hours, the team reached the rim of the crater, and we saw the glow of the sunrise. We were not yet at the highest point, but as the horizon turned pink, we could see the curve of the Earth, as if from space.
There was now a steady stream of other climbers trudging past the glaciers toward the summit: Uhuru Peak. The water in the tubes of our water bladders had frozen solid. As we continued, the setting moon lingered over the Western horizon long enough to mirror the sun as it rose in the East.
And suddenly, we were at the top: a simple wooden sign on a broad field of rock. We dropped our packs and looked at each other in amazement. “We did it!” Marta exclaimed, with tears in her eyes.
The guides, who had cared for us like children during the climb, permitted us only 15 minutes at the top to snap photos, because of the altitude. James and Randy were feeling nauseated, and the sun was now glaring. We lurched back down the scree at a pace that made our legs scream.
The next day, striding downhill on tired feet, Randy mused, “At first, this trip was about me and my accomplishment. But it ended up being about learning— about Tanzania and its people, and the things we can do to help others.”
The great achievement of the Kilimanjaro trek, all agreed, was that it brought the idea of global citizenship to life. Of course, the Elanco climbers were already big-hearted and generous. In all, the group raised more than $8,000 for Heifer International. Beyond that, the hikers return with stories of the Tanzanian people whose lives intersected briefly with theirs.
“One day on the trail,” James recounted, “I heard one of the porters laugh and thought it sounded just like my friend Steve back home. It didn’t matter that we don’t speak the same language; he was just a guy laughing with his friends at work.”
“It drove home for me that hard work to feed a family is what most of the world does every day. We are so fortunate to be able to fulfill a dream and raise funds for Heifer International’s cause at the same time.”