Aug 04, 2015
By: Heather Haines, Director, External Relations
It’s hard to believe a little more than two weeks ago, our team of 16 climbers descended from the highest point in Africa, as part of the Summit to See the END. Part of the richness of the experience of climbing Kilimanjaro was spending seven days with END Fund colleagues and our partners, their friends and family — including Jonathan Rechtman, Beijing-based nephew of our Board member Melissa Murdoch. Jonathan’s thoughtful reflections, animated conversations, and humorous anecdotes kept us stimulated, happily distracted, and often amused during the difficult days on the mountain (and throughout the many shared meals). He captures some of his recollections and musings from our shared journey here.
By: Jonathan Rechtman
I have just returned from an unforgettable and eye-opening trip to Tanzania – a trip that would not have been possible without the generous support of friends and family. I want to thank them for that support, both personally as well as on behalf of the END Fund.
Myself, my aunt Melissa, and my 15 year-old cousin Ainslie (who has never really hiked before) are the three family protagonists on the trip.
We were joined by more than a dozen other climb-mates, most of whom are either donors or nonprofit leaders, or both. In addition to the END Fund leadership and staff, we had the senior leadership of Helen Keller International, the Fossil Foundation, and the International Coalition for Trachoma Control, as well as a handful of myriad board members, U.S. State Department officials, tech entrepreneurs, artists, and hangers-on like me – really great group, which is good because it got pretty cozy on the mountain.
Our group of 16 hikers was supported by – I know this sounds like a joke but it’s not a joke – over fifty porters, six guides, and two cooks.
Perhaps nothing on this entire trip impressed me as much as the incredible strength and patience of our support team. The guides were knowledgeable, attentive, encouraging, and determined to get us to the top. The cooks were amazing, serving hot, nutritious, three-course meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner on top of a more than 19,000 ft mountain, keeping us fueled up and energized all day every day. And the porters – well, I think one of my climb-mates put it best:
You think you are fit and strong until you compare yourself – struck with altitude sickness on the side of a mountain and longing for more oxygen in the dark and cold – with a porter, who follows you up the mountain, takes your pack of water and food half way that you can’t seem to carry to the top. Follows you down, picks up the rest of your stuff (30 kg of camping stuff) at the bottom, carries it on to your camp 5 hours away and then turns around and walks 2 hours to where he sleeps and then back in the morning to pick up your stuff and repeats. For all that he earns $5 a day.
The hike started in a rainforest surrounded by mildly aggressive monkeys, but after the first day and a half of hiking we broke the cloud line. Everything from then on was just spectacular, sweeping views of cloud-seas and far-away misty mountains poking through the froth.
After almost a week of ascent, we reached base camp at around 2pm of Day 6 and settled down to rest through the afternoon and evening. At midnight, we donned our warmest clothes, chugged hot cocoa, and set out on the final, freezing assault on the summit – trudging painfully through the wind and darkness for over six hours, gaining 1200 meters of oxygen-starved elevation as we switch-backed up steep rocky scree and crested the rim of the volcano just as the sun began to rise.
Frankly, I don’t remember much of it. High altitude really does mess with you, and by the time we reached the top I was not only physically exhausted, but also mildly delusional and mentally and emotionally drained. Basically, every step forward is bringing every cell in your body closer to literal suffocation, and the entire universe distills itself down into some very simple, very harsh questions: “Do I have the will-power to take another step? Who/what in my life motivates me to go higher? What is my relationship with pain?”
We did make it, and it was worth it. At least, it feels worth it now that I’m safely back home. At 5895 m/19,341 ft above sea level, it just felt cold, woozy, and numb.
We descended the mountain in short order, enjoyed our first hot shower in over a week, and set out again the next day in 4x4s for an on-the-ground visit to a village in the Maasai hinterlands where the END Fund supports sanitation capacity building and trachoma surgery clinics.
The clinic was hosted at a boarding school in the middle of the desert, where 800 students from 6-15 years old live and study in pretty abject conditions, but who nonetheless showed real warmth and excitement at our visit, giving us a spectacular song-and-dance routine (literally) and showing us around their self-made hand-washing stations and their dormitories (where a lack of space means that up to four children share a single bed).
The trachoma clinic is run out of the school and serves the local Maasai community. Trachoma is one of the five neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) targeted by the END Fund, and is particularly nasty in this part of the country. Poor sanitation (especially a lack of clean water) causes bacterial infections, which leads to the inside of the eyelid to roughen and, in advance cases, the eyelid will begin to curl under itself, forcing the eyelashes to scratch and damage the eyeball with each blink, causing severe pain and potential blindness.
At this clinic, trained practitioners examine the patients’ conditions and can either pluck the offending lashes from under the eyelid (as in the pictures below) or conduct a simple surgery in which small incisions are made around the eyelid to allow it to “uncurl” – kind of painful to watch.
We then visited a Maasai “bomo” – a family cluster of huts circled together – where one older man has built a fortress of mud and straw to house his 11 wives and 60 children, many of whom seem to be suffering from one or another early stage NTD and/or at the very least have flies crawling all over their faces – also painful to watch.
A lot of the impressions and takeaways are still settling in, but I definitely feel that the trip has given me a very different perspective on development, health, and both social and individual willpower. I hope that this will be a first, formative visit in a series of future visits to this part of the world.
I certainly hope to stay involved with the organization, and remember it’s never too late to give – or give more – to a great cause.