Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Conquering Kilimanjaro One Step at a Time

Brian Hart spent over eight months planning for this trip. Hundreds of hours training, hiking and gearing up for the greatest climb of his life. His Goal: Along with his climbing buddy, Kirk Parry, Brian wanted to take his brother Brad Hart (former principal at Northwestern Lehigh Elementary School) to see one of the most magnificent sunrises in the world--atop Mount Kilimanjaro and do it before Brad would lose his ability to see anything at all.

When the moment came, Brian didn't look at the sunrise--he looked at his brother's face.

Oh sure, Brian caught a glimpse or two of the incredible spectrum of colors and maybe with a tear in eye appreciated the amazing glowing scenery around him. But somehow his goal had not only been acheived but exceeded.

Brad Hart has been losing his vision from retinitis pigmentosa so rapidly in a span of five years, he'll be completely blind. His "bucket list" included seeing as many sunrises as he could see. His brother, Brian, added the "atop Kilimanjaro" part for him.

Even sweeter was the combination of the incredible climb with raising money for the charity Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH). The organization provides sight-saving surgeries for children in Guatemala. The surgeries range from the simple to the serious: correcting crossed eyes to cataract removal.

Prep for the Big Climb
From November 2008 until August 2009, the three men did nothing more than focus on getting Brad to the tallest walkable peak in the world. Planning to see the summit, snows and sunrise on Kilimajaro, a collection of three inactive volcanos became all-consuming. From conception, which included talking to Dawn, Brad's wife for her input, to the plane's final arrival
home, touching down in Philadelphia there was nothing but hiking on their minds.

The three did an altitude preparation program in Colorado. "It was one long weekend," says Brad. "We arrived on Thursday and left Sunday we climbed to 13,000 ft." The trouble with altitude sickness is that everyone's body behaves differently. "If you get sick," says Brad, "you have to turn around." Luckily the men adjusted well and while the altitude's thinner air took a toll on them, it never prohibited them from continuing their climb.

Not to mention expenses: airline tickets in the thousands, the climb fee was $1,100 per climber. Then the fund raising goal of $10,000 each. Once again exceeding expectations, the three men raised $40,000.

Why so high?
Brad says that the idea of watching a sunrise from the Kibo summit of Kilimanjaro was conceived when Kirk and Brian climbed to Mt. Rainer last year. It was a surprise to me, he says. They sprung it on me New Year's Day 2009 on a conference call, Brian from Pittsburgh and Kirk out in Wyoming.

"I like challenges," he says. "So I said yes right away, not giving much thought to it. I only thought about the experience, the opportunity to bond. "But, later" Brad says, "it hit home. I became really anxious about hanging of a cliff; doing a technical climb." So he did some research and talked to his partners in climb. "When I talked to Brian and Kirk, I discovered it wasn't a tech climb with ropes and rock walls but it would be a very grueling, vigorous hike that required a lot of planning."

"My brother, Brian and Kirk did alot of outdoor stuff. Due to my vision I didn't do so much. But my wife Dawn, had been approached in November 2008 about me climbing. She was supportive from the beginning. So were the kids. With Dawn as an occasional hiking coach, Brad took to the Appalachian Trail. They understood what was necessary--all the training and things that I had to do, he says. "I missed family time while training, but my family was very understanding."

Brad's family and friends also understood the lasting impact a trip of this magnitude. "We combined two very important goals, a challenging physical feat to see a beautiful breathtaking sight and raising funds for saving surgeries through Pa VOSH.

Into Africa
It was a 19-hour flight to get to Africa. The three men left Pittsburgh on Monday and arrived in near the base of Kilimanjaro on Tuesday. "We were excited on the way over. The flight didn't seem long at all--I slept, talked, we chatted about our hiking." But coming home was different. "I left at 5:00 am and arrived in Philadelphia 36 hours and 5 planes later."

Overall, Brad, Brian and Kirk found the friendliness of Africans refreshing. "They were accepting of us, there we were in their realm, and they were always kind. From the people in the markets, on the roadsides, people selling us trinkets, to those hiking with us, they were always welcoming."

The warm welcome of the people of Africa helped, but didn't diminish the physical obstacles Brad faced. "During the hiking I felt fine, but visually it much more challenging than I anticipated," he admits. "Every step required thought, it required energy to listen, respond and follow through. Brian was in front and Kirk behind, calling out constant verbal commands. It took a lot to process all the information about where and how to place my feet in secure areas. It really wore on me, I felt it all. I had eye strain, headaches, muscle fatigue and the mental exhaustion because I pushed myself further than I had ever before."

Shadows to Sunrise with Guided Steps
It's not easy to let someone do the hiking for you. "When we were climbing, Kirk, Brian and I were alone for about three days, then we joined up with other members who were also doing the same sort of fund raising." The men were fortunate to be surrounded by trained support people.

But the weather played a bigger role in the climb than anyone anticipated. "Because it was sunny, the shadows made it difficult for me to see the terrain," says Brad. The dark patches made navigating rocks treacherous. "And during cloudy weather there wasn't enough light to see the ground," he says. Yet it turned out better than they all thought it would. "We fell into a good cadence," says Brad. "Even over the dirt, the rock wall, we climbed up and down. The vegetation was sparse at higher elevations so I didn't have to worry about roots or branches above. I was used to steep rocky terrain because we hiked [the Appalachian Trail] at Port Clinton and it's steep there. So it was the best I could find around here to get ready for Africa."

Other challenges for Brad: "The most difficult thing to get used to was the length of the days. Typically a normal-sighted person can do it in 5 hours per day, but for me it was 9- to 10-hour days because I was being guided." Usually Brad's wife and kids helped with him being independent but says Brad: "We [Brad, Brian and Kirk] fell into a nice routine. I was able to be trusting. I never fell, I slipped couple times but Brian and Kirk were there to catch me."

Brad was given an extra gift of seeing the sunset at 15,000 feet the night before attempting the summit of Kibo. Then during the day they climbed another 1,000 ft. And then, Brad couldn't take another step. The group made the decision to stop shy of Kibo and see the the sunrise at 16,000 feet. "We started hiking in the dark to get as high as we could." After 7 days of climbing, camping, and sleeping in tents, the moment came. "I didn't make it to the summit, but I pushed myself as far as I could go and we decided this was our summit--our goal was right here, we timed the dawn, found a flat rock and waited."

Then the sun greeted then men. "I first saw the outline of the volcano, then blue first, deep blue then slowly the whole spectrum of colors spread over the cloud layer. We were so high, we were above the clouds." The men heard nothing: It was calm, windless, total silence. "At that moment I reflected on it all. I didn't feel tired, a little cold at first, because I was cooling down from climbing, then I felt the peace, the calm, the happiness. I looked at Kirk and my brother giving me the thumbs up, saw the smiles on their faces," he recalls. "I think my brother may have cried."

Down to Earth
"We stayed at our summit for about a half an hour, then went back down." Descent for climbers is usually pretty easy, but the day and a half down was more challenging. The trail is steeper and the footing tough," he says. "You're moving faster and heading down." Brad explains why the trip up was longer than the trip down. "Your body needs to acclimate to the rising altitude so it takes about 7 days to ascend, you must take it slower on the ascension."

Gear also slowed the men down a bit. "I carried about 25 lbs, the porters carried the rest," says Brad. "We just carried the tents, but the porters set up camp. They would pass us everyday. At first I thought we are really slow, then I didn't think about it much." But Brad was in awe of the porters who balanced 40 to 45 lbs of gear on their heads.

"The most difficult thing for me was being away from normal surroundings, from family. I was outside my comfort zone. And it was a culture shock for everyone. I was surprised that the cane is not an international symbol of vision impairment. People kept asking me what it was for."

"And yet the easiest thing was putting my trust in Brian and Kirk, knowing that at the drop of a hat they'd be there for me. If I stumbled they'd be there, grabbing my elbow, they adjusted to me and recognized my cues for help. They'd put a head lamp on my thermos so i could see my meals in the limited light."

Serious Support
Brad, Brian and Kirk did amazing things but it was the ordinary folks back home who did the extraordinary. Their churches, neighbors, community all pitched in from fundraising to prayer to welcoming them home. "I was happy that it didn't bother them that I didn't reach the summit," he says. "It would have been 26 hours of hiking that day for me to reach it. Climbing the terrain in the dark would have been tough for even the normal sighted person. But when I got home people would say: Great job!

"People did pay attention to what we were trying to do. Glad Tidings Church in Westlawn had a prayer service and gathered donations for us. Westlawn United Methodist Church had a 24 prayer-vigil for the whole eight days we hiked."

The Northwestern Lehigh community knows Brad as principal at the Elementary school from 2002 to 2007, and he still has ties in the community. And with a nod to his education background, the three men stopped on the way back at an orphanage and school. "We brought food, supplies, and school supplies for the kids," he says. "It was really a great way to end the trip."

For the rest of mortals, Brad says not all everyone has to climb mountains. "Some people are drawn to challenges, some to service, but it's important not to get so wrapped up in our own lives, we need to see the world from a different perspective," he says. "I encourage people to get involved," says Brad, noting that travel to foreign countries or raising tens of thousands of dollars isn't necessary to contribute. "Always try to do your very best, no one can fault you for that."

More of the adventure on the blog: http://act-2009.blogspot.com/ AND check out VOSH at: http://www.voshpa.org/