Happy Holidays Vancouver Canucks fans. Here’s a little bonus for our VHN Plus folks. Actually a big bonus: The full first chapter of the two-part story of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for charity with then Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. Originally published by ECW Press in my book No Heavy Lifting in 2018, with a foreword by John Shannon.
In memory of Mark Berg, who passed away from cancer in early 2021.
A third of this chapter was shared with the Hockey Wanderlüst newsletter this weekend. VHN’ers get the whole thing here.
“Piece of cake.”
— Comment by a passerby, on our way to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, June 2008
BIG Z ON THE MOUNTAIN, PART 1
In the summer of 2008, Boston Bruins Captain, Zdeno Chara, decided to add his name to the list of NHL hockey players involved with the international humanitarian organization Right To Play. Chara, the tallest player in league history, would do this in a fittingly large manner. Not only would he visit underprivileged African children for a few days in Mozambique with Calgary Flames defenseman Robin Regehr as RTP Athlete Ambassadors, Chara would then stick around and raise awareness for the cause by trekking up Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.
The climb involved four other people.
Mark Brender, Deputy Director of RTP Canada, organized the entire trip and accompanied the hockey players around Mozambique before joining in on the trek. Brender, in a previous life, had traipsed around a portion of the Himalayas.
Darryl Lepik was a producer for NHL Productions/Studios who leapt at the chance to climb Kilimanjaro. A self-described work-out freak, triathlon type, Lepik essentially built the business opportunity to shoot a documentary around the personal opportunity of climbing the mountain. He made the travel and budget arrangements for himself and his camera guy, organized the shoots, and essentially directed the production.
Mark Berg was Lepik’s hand-picked choice as cameraman. Aside from being affable and talented, Berg was considered in decent enough shape to handle the climb, and, more importantly, interested in taking on the challenge. He was also paid handsomely.
I was the last adventurer. I had been to Africa shooting a documentary with Brender and Right To Play the previous summer and was anxious to get involved again. Like Lepik, for whatever reason, I had a profound interest in summiting this mountain. I planned to take part in just the Tanzanian portion of the excursion, promote the cause, and write about it for a handful of media outlets in Boston. For this, I was not paid handsomely. I actually used frequent-flyer mileage to fly round trip to Africa.
At the last minute, I also decided to make this excursion the sixth and final thirty-minute episode of Hockey Odyssey, a pilot TV series, plagued by a limited budget, which aired on the NHL Network.
Berg would be shooting his documentary on high-definition equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars. I’d be shooting on a Panasonic palm-sized camcorder worth about six hundred bucks.
It all seemed like a great idea: Raise some money and publicity for a good cause and throw in some personal adventure and accomplishment for good measure. Well, as Scottish poet Robert Burns best put it, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley” (often go awry).
The first problem for the fellas: logistics and bureaucracy in the developing (“third”) world. Despite the fact that they had properly filled out the necessary paperwork in advance, the customs agent they were dealing with upon arrival in Mozambique wasn’t going to cooperate. Unsure whether to pay him a bribe, and afraid of being arrested if they did, the crew decided to hold their wallets. And without his palm being greased, the customs guy decided not to allow the professional equipment into Mozambique at all. Berg and Lepik were forced to shoot some limited video on their own personal camcorder and to take some still photographs, while the HD equipment remained under government sequester. They did get all the gear back as they left the country, but for the first segments of the final product, they’d use their still shots, plus video from the documentary we’d made the previous summer, involving other kids and different hockey players.
Meanwhile, as the first portion of their journey was winding down, I was flying into Nairobi, Kenya, to meet them at the airport. Unfortunately, I arrived fourteen hours ahead of them, and, no, there’s not a hell of a lot to do at the Nairobi airport.
Typically in this scenario anywhere else in the world, I’d hop a cab or train to the nearby metropolis. In this case, it wasn’t such a good idea. Knowing I was going to be in Kenya for just that day and a brief layover on the way home, I didn’t really want to change any money. More importantly, the crime rate in Nairobi was off the charts at this time, and a popular pastime was the kidnapping of foreign tourists.
Thus, I slept on and off in a chair in the “business class” lounge, drank tea intermittently, ate crackers, and occasionally took a lap around the portion of the airport in which I was allowed. Fortunately Wimbledon was in full swing and I watched a lot of tennis on an international sports channel, and some bizarre foreign movies when the channel was changed.
When my four compadres finally turned up, and I met them in preparation to board our evening connection to Kilimanjaro, the crew was speechless with frustration. Lepik and Berg explained the aforementioned TV camera trauma. Berg was particularly stressed out, still concerned that his equipment had almost been permanently seized.
The conversation then turned to Diamox (acetazolamide), the anti-altitude-sickness medication. I explained how I had taken, at the advice of my doctor, four pills in the morning and four in the afternoon each of the last two days in preparation for the climb, and how the stuff made me have to piss like I had razor blades in my bladder.
Brender in turn described how his doctor had told him to take eight in the morning and eight more throughout the day, and that it also made him have to pee like a well-hung racehorse.
Berg then said his doctor told him to take two in the morning, two in the afternoon and two at night, but that he hadn’t taken any yet. I suggested he abstain completely to avoid excruciatingly intense, short-notice urination urges. Little did we know at this point just how much our Diamox-taking strategy would impact the success or failure of the overall endeavour. I decided to start taking one pill each morning and one before bed each night, Berg and Brender chose to take them rarely and randomly, while Chara and Lepik opted to forego the preventative medication altogether. We each took it upon ourselves to decide on the appropriate drug regime, given the inconsistencies in our various prescriptions, and the fact that we didn’t really believe the drug would make a big difference to how we felt on the climb.
Symptoms of altitude sickness can include headache, nausea and dizziness, loss of appetite, fatigue, shortness of breath, general indifference, and disturbed sleep patterns. All of us would eventually experience at least one of these ill effects. The most important key to avoiding these problems, aside from pre-medication, was gradual acclimatization.
We were less than twenty-four hours from beginning our climb, but we still had to jump on a prop’ plane from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. What seemed like a routine connecting journey became anything but for me.
Upon arrival just beyond the southern slopes of Kili’, I discovered my luggage had been lost. Normally, lost luggage involves a relatively minor inconvenience and eventual door-to-door delivery by the offending airline. In sub-Saharan Africa: not so much. My shit was gone!
A pair of jeans, some flip flops, maybe a couple shirts, some toiletries—on a trip to Aruba, that would have been OK. But in this case, they had lost my big trek backpack and everything in it. The carefully compiled list of items from Worldwide Quest Agency’s pre-trip checklist was gone. Hiking boots, heavy boots, winter coat for 19,000 feet, gloves, winter pants, socks, fleece, long-sleeved layers, boxers, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, retractable hiking pole, small first-aid kit, and my toque, were all gonzo.
As we rode in the shuttle from the airport to the Marangu Hotel, I took stock.
“OK, were heading up the mountain tomorrow,” I thought. “I have nothing, and we have no choice but to start. Delaying the trip is not an option. Zdeno Chara (whom I didn’t know very well at the time, other than his public, hard-ass, hockey-machine persona) is going to kick my ass if I whine or somehow manage to screw up his trip. Or, they’re going to climb and I’m gonna go home, or I’ll be sitting in Marangu for a week. This sucks!”
I did have my little NBC Torino Olympic carry-on backpack with me. As we pulled up to the lodge, the other guys hopped out with all their tough-guy hiking shit, like Doctor David Livingstone. I hopped out like Dora the Explorer.
“C’mon guys, let’s go!” Not so much.
Brender empathized. He was like, “Dude, we’ll figure something out.”
Chara looked at me like, “You’re not screwing up my trip.”
Berg looked at me like, “You’re not screwing up my trip.”
Lepik didn’t even bother looking at me.
(that’s about a third of the chapter)(you can use “Canucks” coupon code)(Thank you for supporting VHN)