Happy Holidays again Vancouver Canucks NHL fans. Here’s the balance of the Kilimanjaro story for our VHN Plus folks. It’s the second full 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 the 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.
“For sure, one of the toughest things, if not the
toughest thing, in my life, that I’ve done.”
— Boston Bruins Captain Zdeno Chara, after six days on Kilimanjaro
BIG Z ON THE MOUNTAIN – PART 2
After night two on Kilimanjaro, I had slept a grand total of about three hours. Not a good formula when you’re trekking four to seven hours a day at altitude. I was becoming legitimately concerned about how this fatigue might affect my way to the top, and I wasn’t the only one. Producer Darryl Lepik was also complaining of sleep issues. The other climbers were suffering from general fatigue, mild dizziness, and headaches, the details and extent of which they didn’t share.
Overcoming the challenges and symptoms was made easier by being immersed in the incredible natural surroundings. On day three, we’d be adding another 2,400 feet of altitude. We crisscrossed a number of streams and volcanic valleys as we worked our way to Mawenzi. We saw dik-dik antelope running on a hillside, encountered a handful of birds, stumbled across a lizard or two, and were constantly surrounded by bees.
The environment became drier and more desolate as we continued up, and the scenery became more surreal and dramatic, with the ominous presence of mountain peaks on either side of us. When we stopped for a water break, we’d look back down the slope of the mountain, above the clouds that surrounded Kilimanjaro. The view was awe-inspiring, but also eerily isolating.
Our straightforward and vigorous four-hour trek brought us to the Mawenzi crater at 14,200 feet. We would lunch here, take an afternoon acclimatization hike up and down a ridge, and then camp here as well. This hike was more of a rock climb, our most perilous of the entire trip, requiring the use of all four limbs. The ridges of the crater were made up of strewn, jagged volcanic rock. We switch-backed up the lower portion and then pulled ourselves up the rocks along the western rim. Before returning to the crater floor, we sat on this rocky perch for about a half-hour. Looking out across the “saddle” at Kibo, the prize, the roof of Africa, the summit of Kilimanjaro, we truly began to ponder the task that lay ahead.
“It’s been pretty tough at times but the toughest is yet to come,” Mark Brender stated.
“I’m trying not to think about it yet,” Chara added. “We’re just sitting there trying to get used to the altitude. Looking out at Kilimanjaro sitting in front of you, it doesn’t get any better than that. Just sitting there and relaxing; those are priceless moments.”
Summit day (or night) was about thirty-three hours away.
The trek up the ridge provided magnificent scenery, an exciting and adrenaline-filled climb, and another 700 feet or so of acclimatization. Aloyce had maximized our preparation to avoid altitude illness, and he led us around the landscape to some amazing spots. Each night, there were fewer and fewer “other climbers” on our path. The first camp had a handful of groups, the second night maybe three or four, and on night three, beneath the spires of Mawenzi, it was just us and one other small group.
Compared to this spot, beside a small pond on the floor of a volcanic crater a couple of miles high in Tanzania, it was hard to imagine a more dramatic campsite.
“This has been amazing,” Darryl Lepik said as he spoke into my handheld camera. “Just the scenery and the experience, it’s been absolutely phenomenal and I expect that to continue for a couple days.”
Lepik’s occasional nickname during this trip was “lip balm,” because he seemed to be the only guy who remembered to pack it. Brender had some chapstick, but not much, and who wants to share that? Lepik had a small jar of the stuff, and I was like a junkie. I didn’t want to push my luck by asking too often, but at the end of each day, begging for balm became mandatory. At one point on day three, I thought my upper lip had shriveled off my face.
Things were looking up for day four, in more ways than one. I managed about three hours of sleep overnight and most of the next hike was relatively flat.
It was time to cross the saddle, the seven-mile plateau ridge between Mawenzi and the base of our ultimate destination. Ten minutes into the hike we had wound out of the Mawenzi bowl, crossed a small ridge, and just like that, it was as if the previous night’s camp didn’t exist. It was gone; the isolated landscape had disappeared from sight.
As discussed by the group at the previous night’s dinner in the mess tent, that night-three campsite would be our last “normal” campsite. Each morning, we had enjoyed the routine of waking up, eating breakfast together and discussing the day ahead, venturing out, reaching a camp, settling in, relaxing, exploring, eating dinner, and then turning in when the sun went down. That would all change on night four. It would be a night awake on the mountain.
The trek across took us exactly five hours, gradually leaving Mawenzi in our past and drawing Kibo imminently into our future.
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“That was a pretty nice hike,” Chara stated. “Nothing too hard, it was almost relaxing as we get used to the climate and altitude. I tried not to think of the summit too much but it was tough because you’re staring right up at it.”
We arrived at what our guide Aloyce called the School Camp, “base camp,” off the beaten track of the main path at 15,400 feet. It was a spot that was established and previously used by the organization Outward Bound. We were the only trekking party at the site. Instead of putting us with potentially a half-dozen other trekking groups at the Kibo Hut on the main trail to the west, Aloyce allowed us some privacy and an exclusive view of the surroundings.
It was at base camp that I came to another realization: I hadn’t taken a dump for four days, since before the entire journey started. Nor had Chara apparently. When I weaved my way through some boulders just to the west of our campsite to find the “outhouse,” I was surprised to find Zdeno had beaten me there. Three little steps led up to a four-foot by four-foot piece of wood with a hole cut out of the middle. This was the floor of the outhouse, the hole being about the size of a football. There was no door or wall on the front, just three short tin walls on the sides and back, and a four-by-four foot tin roof above. The walls and roof were rattling in the wind. The act of crapping involved target practice, squatting over the hole like a baseball catcher, all this while looking out over the grandeur.
Upon seeing Chara, I turned back around and said, “Oh hey, I guess I’ll wait ’til I see you come back to camp. Nice form.”
He wasn’t smiling, but I don’t think he heard me. A new term popped into my head: human giraffe yoga excretion.
Base camp was very windy and wicked cold, even in the daylight. Such is life at above 15,000 feet. There was nothing to do but to bundle up, eat quickly and wait for the sun to go down. There was plenty of nervous energy in the mess tent. Aloyce sat in and briefed us on what was going to take place.
The plan was to try to get a little sleep starting at 7 pm before gathering outside again at 11 pm for a quick snack and departure. We’d leave for the summit before midnight.
Why midnight? Because the climb to the crater rim of Kibo took six hours. After arriving there at sunrise, the trip to Uhuru, the mountain’s highest point, was another three-hour round trip. After that, a three-hour descent to Kibo Hut on the main trail, followed by three-and-a-half more hours to the next overnight campsite. For those who went the distance, it was a sixteen-hour trek.
Our climb to the summit would first involve working diagonally westward and up, to join the main trail well above Kibo Hut, and then to finish like most everyone else, at Gilman’s Point straight up the mountain. Gilman’s Point sits at 18,650 feet.
During the last few minutes of daylight, my fellow trekkers offered up some extra layers for me to wear, another pair of socks and a few extra band aids.
We enjoyed one last mountain sunset, with a view back to Mawenzi across the saddle, and a view down through the clouds to some faraway village lights on the East African plain.
When the sun sank, the temperature went with it. We wore three layers to bed, two pairs of socks and a toque. I would add a third pair of socks before leaving, not so much for the cold, but to ease and prevent blisters.
By dark, we had packed up the materials we wouldn’t be taking up, and left them aside for the porters to carry to the next campsite. We laid our last layers next to us in the tents, along with our headlamps.
There was no chance in hell I was going to sleep.
After squirming around for what seemed like four hours, I asked Brender what time it was, expecting and hoping to hear something close to 11 o’clock.
“Five to nine,” he said, much to my disappointment. We had two more hours to kill, and I surprised myself by actually nodding off for half an hour. Apparently nervous anticipation can be exhausting.
Day five for us on Kilimanjaro officially began a little early, a few minutes before midnight. When I popped out of my tent with all of my gear in place, all of my layers heaped on, and my headlamp functioning, the rest of the group was already standing by.
It was pitch black. We had a dramatic panorama of stars overhead, but no one really noticed. With our headlamps on and our focus entirely upon the ground in front of us, we didn’t care a whole lot for the stars.
For the next six hours we’d be climbing in the dark. Vertically, we had about 3,200 feet to gain. Slowly: pole pole.
“Kind of like the anticipation before a big game,” Chara described. “Really nervous, cold hands, cold feet, getting ready to basically start the walk.”
Aloyce, the head guide, led the way out of camp. I was next for no particular reason, then Big Z, then Darryl, then Bergy, then Brender, then the three porters carrying the TV equipment, and then the assistant head guide.
The journey redefined “patience is a virtue.” We literally walked with our lamps shining down upon the set of feet in front of us, and took something slightly larger than baby steps for six hours. Each of us had a spiked walking pole in one hand to help with balance. Occasionally we had to navigate our way along ledges, or around boulders and over rock outcroppings, but most of the time we trudged upward through scree (loose rock). The talus gave way a little bit with almost every step and each of us periodically would slip to a knee or almost fall over when the rocks shifted under our feet.
There was no talk other than to ask about each other’s well being during water breaks, of which there were many. Despite the fact that the landscape within the range of our headlamps was fascinating and ever changing, the stepping and trudging became monotonous at times, almost trance-inducing.
At one point, after I almost clipped Bergy with the follow-through of my walking stick, I said “Sorry, you alright?”
“Shut up and walk,” he answered. We were all feeling a certain level of disbelief and frustration at the progress. What I didn’t realize, was that the others were also experiencing annoying, maybe even painful levels of altitude symptoms. I wouldn’t know until hours later, who was completely worn out already, who had a wicked headache, or who was ready to quit.
Mark Brender, who would later experience extreme disorientation symptoms on the crater rim, was actually at this point the spunkiest. He offered enthusiastic words of encouragement at every stop.
After two or three rests, we changed up the order. Chara went immediately behind Aloyce. The big man had some trouble with his footing and found the going tough. He explained later that the slipping and sliding on the scree dramatically added to his fatigue.
On one hand, the pace tested everyone’s patience; frustration stemmed from often having to halt due to the man in front of you slipping. At other times, when a rhythm was established, left-right, left-right, crunch-crunch, crunch-crunch, the climb was almost soothing. Those stretches didn’t last long.
About three hours in, we came across another line of headlamps to our left. Another group was making its way up to the summit via the main path. A few minutes later, we’d merge on to that path just behind them. Soon after the merge, we took another rest.
“It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” said Chara later. “I’ve done a lot of hard training, many kinds, but nothing compares. You’re baby stepping behind one another, climbing, zigzagging, losing balance. It’s dark, you’re tired, and your feet are slipping on loose gravel. We must have stopped to rest fifteen times.”
An indelible image for all of us was the view from the main trail towards the top of mountain in the dark. At various points above us, you could see the random and rare light from distant headlamps. The same below us: distant specks of light, in lines, creeping, turning this way and that, making their way up the mountain.
We also stared towards where we thought the sky met the top of the mountain. It still seemed a long way off, and we already felt like we had marched for an eternity.
A few minutes after we gained the main trail, we came across a little plateau where a group of trekkers were resting.
“We’re halfway to Gilman’s Point,” Aloyce informed us.
“Holy shit, you’re kidding me!”
“Oh my God.”
We had three hours of climbing to go, working with a mental cocktail of fatigue and altitude sickness
“Suck it up boys, let’s go!”
The next three hours consisted of climbing a switchback trail made up almost exclusively of loose rock. We dug in and, after a handful of water breaks, some team building words of encouragement, and some timely “pole-poles” thrown in, we finally arrived at Gilman’s Point. The last two hundred yards were excruciating on mind and body; the Point kept disappearing and re-appearing as we wound and climbed our way through a labyrinth of rocks and boulders.
A few minutes after sunrise on July 4, 2008, we gathered at 18,650 feet.
A snow-filled crater sat a few hundred feet below us within the vast volcanic bowl of Kilimanjaro. Huge glaciers towered in the distance to the east, and closer to us on the west side of the summit. Also off to the left, a narrow path up the ridge of ice and lava rock stretched out before us. It ran, along the crater rim another kilometer, and another 800 feet above us, up to Uhuru Point, the highest point in Africa.
We took a few minutes at Gilman’s Point to celebrate and photograph our accomplishment. Out came the video cameras, and then out came the question.
“Who’s going on to Uhuru?” Brender asked. “Are you going on to Uhuru?”
“Yes,” I said. “There’s no chance in hell I’m not going at this point.”
I believe the small doses of Diamox anti-altitude-illness medication had helped me. I was exhausted but had no symptoms and felt determined. The others hadn’t taken it. I was disappointed to hear Chara and Lepik say they weren’t going.
“Too tired,” said Chara. “I was exhausted. Completely out of energy.” He didn’t want to risk injury and impact his hockey, while Lepik had a variety of altitude symptoms.
Berg and Brender decided to give it a go. The three of us, along with Aloyce, his assistant, and three TV porters all began the trek up the trail.
A few minutes in, Brender had a change of heart.
“I’m gonna go back,” he said. Unfortunately for him, when he returned to Gilman’s Point, Chara and Lepik had already left to head back down the main trail. Unsure exactly where to go, particularly without a porter, Brender decided to wait two-and-a-half hours for us to return. Not a good decision.
Meanwhile, Berg got a little goofy about halfway up the Uhuru trail. He doubted his ability to finish off the trip and was getting dizzy. Aside from us coaxing him, two other factors pushed him to the top. One was walking behind Aloyce step by step, while they both held on to Aloyce’s walking stick horizontally. He was being towed, essentially. The other motivation and inspiration came from a passerby who was headed down from the top.
“If there’s any Americans here, happy Fourth of July,” the young lady said.
Although I don’t consider myself particularly patriotic, the words provided a definite boost for me as well. It was cool our endeavor to the mountaintop occurred on such a significant date.
“Damn right,” I was thinking. “Let’s celebrate a holiday on the top of Africa.”
The path became snowy, icy, and slick the higher we moved. We picked and weaved our way to 19,350 feet. Out came the video cameras.
“I can’t believe we made it,” Berg said with a big smile.
“We’re here,” I said on camera, pointing to the wooden signage at the peak.
After ten minutes or so: Done. I could not wait to get down off the top of that freaking mountain.
We hustled as best we could back along the narrow crater path. Only twice were there spots where you had to be extra careful. A wrong step would mean falling hundreds of feet into the bowl. We arrived back at Gilman’s Point to find a zombie named Mark Brender.
Sitting at above 18,000 feet for almost three hours had turned Brender into one big massive headache. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t see straight, and he could hardly move.
Aloyce and I guided him down through the boulders and rocks near the top, and then Aloyce alone handled Brender the rest of the way down through the scree to Kibo Hut. Berg and I “skied” our way down through the loose rock.
At one point a descending teenager above us somehow jarred loose a large rock that came thundering down the mountain towards me.
“Slider!” someone yelled. It missed my head by about two arm lengths and then missed a girl who was descending twenty yards below me by about six feet. Two or three times the size of a bowling ball and moving about twenty-five miles an hour, the rock would have killed one of us had we been hit. If it hadn’t mangled one of us immediately, it would have meant slow death by internal injury. There’s no medevac off Kilimanjaro.
For a few moments I stared up at the kid and was ready to beat the shit out of him, but logic and fatigue almost immediately took over. Despite the near-death experience, I was mostly focused on “get me off this mountain.” Satisfying my anger would have meant having to walk back up.
For three hours we leapt, jogged, and slid down through the rocks to Kibo Hut, where Lepik and Chara had been waiting for hours. After swapping medical stories and tales from the top, we came to the realization we still had another three hours to go. Fortunately it was all downhill or flat to the next campsite, but still, we couldn’t believe we had three more hours of hiking.
It was hot, it was dry, and for the only time in my life, I felt like I was actually sleeping as I walked. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Chara, Lepik, and Berg marched on ahead with a porter. Brender, Aloyce and I lagged behind. At one point during a water break, I almost zonked out sitting on a bench. We peeled off layers as we went, down through 14,000 feet.
By 5:30 pm, we arrived at Horombo Camp, a crowded and boisterous area along the main trail. With the descent, Lepik’s and Brender’s altitude symptoms fortunately subsided. I skipped dinner, sliced my blisters, and passed out. Dead to the world, I missed the sounds the others heard a few hours after dusk.
“Simba!” the Africans said. A lion had passed within a hundred yards of our tents, grunting in the darkness. The next day we’d see its enormous paw prints on the trail.
Our final day involved six more hours of downhill trekking. Berg and I, the two oldest guys in the group, the two that had pushed to Uhuru on day five, were likely, and not surprisingly, aching the most on day six. My feet were killing me and Bergy had a legitimate hitch in his giddy-up.
“My knees are sore,” he said.
His limp spurred John Wayne comparisons. He walked like he had just hopped off his horse and was about to enter a saloon.
During the first part of the day, we strode through dry moorland and later crossed footbridges over small valleys with streams. Early in the day there was actually a dusting of snow on a few of them. The second half of the hike, we descended through rain forest.
In fact, according to the locals, over the course of the previous twenty-four hours, we had traveled through every climate on Earth: glacial ice at the summit, all the way down through rain forest at the bottom of the journey.
At one point along the trail we were able to observe black monkeys jumping around in the trees just above us. Aloyce had no other name for them, just “black.” They were very active, leaping over our heads across the path from tree to tree, and walking and eating very near to us at ground level. Cousins, if you will, of humans, they stared back at us like little kids, casually chewing on leaves and swinging around with the help of long opposable thumbs.
Further along, we walked beneath black and white colobus monkeys sitting in the canopy. They were much less active than their all-black relatives.
As we neared the national-park gate and the village of Marangu, we came across small children, and later women, who came up from the village to beg. A German couple walking ahead of me stopped and gave a boy a dollar for a flower he had picked. The other locals simply asked for money, clothes, or whatever we could spare.
It was quite a reality check after being alone on a mountain.
Once over the final few steps and back at the national-park gate, we bid farewell to the porters. We tipped them more generously than they were accustomed to. They applauded enthusiastically when Aloyce read out the gratuity amounts. He, his assistant, the cook, and the three porters who toted the TV gear earned extra. Among the twenty of them, they split about $800. We also gave them our boots, as is customary, and much of our gear and clothing. Chara gave away practically everything he had taken up on the mountain.
“These people can use everything they can get, and if I had more stuff, I’d give that to them as well,” Zdeno stated.
Bergy, Lepik, and Brender were generous as well. I couldn’t help out unfortunately, as I had to return my rental clothes instead of giving them away.
We bid the porters and Aloyce farewell, jumped into a Land Rover and headed out through the gate, through the village of Marangu, toward the lodge.
There was a sense of relief, satisfaction, and sadness, as we bid adieu to a group of men we’d never see again. Their faces were unforgettable, forever tied to our once-in-a-lifetime trek upon the great Kilimanjaro, an adventure that soon after it ended seemed more like a dream than reality.
We understood Chara rarely, if ever, drank. However, that night he and the rest of us gathered for a couple beers at the lodge to reminisce.
To us, starting the trip, he was an enormous, mean-looking, media-weary, fitness machine. By the end he was a friendly, smart, sensitive world traveler. Image isn’t everything.
For him, I went from being the tall TV guy who traveled with the team from the media he disliked, to a sportscaster guy he could trust with information, who appreciated many of the same things in life he did, and who had just summited a mountain.
Chara was appreciative of the camaraderie, the time spent, and he expressed little regret for tiring before the summit. On a Kilimanjaro postcard I asked him to autograph for my son, he wrote, “Hi Ian, your dad was the strongest of all of us. We had an unforgettable life experience. Your friend, Zdeno Chara, #33.”