Any athlete who has ever gone through two-a-day practices gets a glimpse of the effort that goes into something like this and the unspoken bond it forms between team members. We found that testing ourselves to the limit was both liberating and soulful."
Photo by Bruce Polizotto
tale of two mountains
Tanzanias Mt. Kilimanjaro subjects trekkers to one of the most
arduous hikes on the planet. From the 5,000 ft. elevation base camp to
19,340 ft. Uhura Point at the craters rim, you trudge more than
70 milesthe first 40 at a constant 30¾ grade through rainforest,
savannah, and high desert before you even reach the base of the dormant
volcano youve seen in photos. Then you scramble over endless fields
of boulders momentarily frozen in ice at oxygen-starved elevations and
pray you dont get a cerebral edema. The final 900 feet are nearly
vertical above the crater floor, an ascent that takes nearly three hours
and offers a view of the Great Rift Valley, the possible birthplace of
mankind and site of the Leakeys anthropological research.
On average, 10 climbers die on Kilimanjaro each year. The tallest free-standing
mountain in the world is one of the Seven Summitsthe
pantheon of mountaineer lore. But many technical mountaineers avoid the
mountain of the gods. The adrenalin-driven find ascending Africas
highest mountain not worth those risks or the grueling, six-to-eight-day
That effort is singed into the lungs and memory of Wabash Trustee Bruce
Polizotto 63. In October of 1999, he joined nine men, aged 45 to
60, for what the trips organizer advertised as a grand adventure.
Before the trek ended, two men would be carried off the mountain, most
would become painfully ill at high altitude, and all faced obstacles,
physical and emotional, they had never imagined.
Spending a restless final night on the crater floor as a fellow team
member howled in pain with what was later diagnosed as a pulmonary edema,
Polizotto gave up on sleep and stepped out of his two-man tent to find
that anabatic breezes had swept the early evening clouds. A star-strewn
sky was within reach, as if you could climb a few feet higher and touch
the Southern Cross.
With no background light, and such clear air at this elevation,
there were so many stars, and the light so sharp and clear. It really
was wondrousno camera could capture it.
But when friends ask Polizotto to recall his most memorable image from
those ten days, he answers: the back of the boot of the guy in front
of me. Thats not just a glib response.
His comrades on the trail were a blessing; their conversation
or steady footfalls kept his mind on the task at hand and the person moving
ahead of him. That attention to one another would save a life on the groups
For although they left Kilimanjaro pledging theyd never do
that again, a year and a half later the friends gathered at another
trail, this one in the Andes. The three-day trek up the Inca Trail to
the Sun Gate at Machu Pichu in Peru was shorter, at lower elevation, (14,000
ft.), warmer, and rich in flora, fauna, and history, with Spanish culture
literally layered atop the Inca foundation. Polizotto was amazed to see
Andean condorswith their 12-foot wingspans, the largest flying land
bird on earthriding thermals over the mountains.
But the trail itself was more harrowing than Kilimanjaro
Its like being on a Stairmaster for eight hours a day, and
the drop-off made it like walking along the ledge of a skyscraper without
For those unaccustomed to the trail and the altitude, every step brought
risk. The odds caught up with the group during their descent.
There was no reference point to followyou just looked into
the air, or down at the pack in front of you. When we were hiking down
from the Sun Gate at Machu Pichu, one of our hikers lost his footing.
He was teetering over the edge when another on our team grabbed his pack
and pulled him back in. He probably wouldnt have survived that fall.