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Emile Hirsch

Emile Hirsch

Posted: March 19, 2010 08:48 AM

Kilimanjaro, By a Hair

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It was a sleepless night, and I found myself rolling around in my sheets, as restless as I'd been in a long time, experiencing that uniquely displeasing kind of anxiety that you actually feel in your heart as the pressure builds. Could I really be considering this? Hell yeah, I could, and was--my turbulent bed thoughts were being disrupted by a 19,340 foot behemoth that was pulling me to it like an inescapable black hole. Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who first reached Mount Everest's peak with Tenzing Norgay in 1953, once responded tersely to a question posed to him by a reporter as to why he climbed mountains. "Because its there" Sir Edmund said.

Luckily I find myself having more of a reason to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania January 7th, 2010. My friend Kenna, a talented singer and musician, has spent the last year and a half organizing a benefit climb called Summit On The Summit, the ultimate goal of which is to bring awareness and relief to the world's clean water crisis. Kenna has assembled a group of musicians, actors, and even a couple of water experts, as well as a documentary crew from Radical Media, to all climb Kilimanjaro and shoot a documentary while doing so. The goal of which is to create a hybrid of an educational class on the clean water crisis, and an odyssey to the roof of Africa--Kilimanjaro, the tallest free standing (not surrounded by other mountains) mountain in the world.

Upon agreeing to do the climb, and jumping through the necessary hoops of paperwork, immunizations, and assembling my gear, the sole focus of my universe and existence becomes training. Being the last one to join the team of 45 people to go for the summit (including our film crew) I have to do in three weeks what everyone has been (hopefully) hard at work at doing for the last eight months: getting buns you could crack a walnut on. My physician, Robert Huizenga, is the guy who quickly dashes any hopes I have of coasting on my natural physical abilities. Judging by the look in his eyes though, he's thinking 'what natural abilities?' So I'm going to have to go hard, with at least 90 minutes a day of hiking, treadmill, or stairs--and all with at least 15lbs of weight on my back. Driven partly by fear and madcap dreams of summit glory, I hit the Gold's Gym across the street from where I live like I haven't ever done. Through sore calves taffy pulled hamstrings, twitchy tendons, and steep waves of nausea, I slowly yet inexorably begin to feel my muscles gain in strength and size, and my favorite part--get to eat whatever I want three meals a day now, rapidly gaining eight pounds.


Technology is indeed changing the way we operate--on my downtime I find myself sitting rigidly at the computer, sipping a Banana Cream Muscle Milk, my eyes piercing the screen, sharp slits with endless You Tube videos of Kilimanjaro reflecting off my fried corneas late into the night. Home made tourist videos, travel diaries, clips of specials on the mountain, and website after website, I get so inundated with Kilimanjaro and mountaineering, I feel like I've already been there. Not quite, little Hirsch, I chastise myself--my days of being an armchair adventurist are about to end abruptly. One You Tube video stays with me though and grows to haunt my dreams--a 20 second clip of two Porters (the native mountain workers) taking a man, face covered in a ski mask, briskly down a steep hill, holding onto his arms as his head drunkenly lopes and bandies about, his brain short circuited by the malignant affect of altitude sickness.

Saying last goodbye's to my friends and family before I depart is a sticky situation--no one want to downplay the gravity of the risk, because there's always the possibility something unforeseen could happen, yet at the same time the more gravity given to a goodbye could in itself make one less confident of one's potential success. Either way you cut it, better to tell ones to you that you love them while they're in your embrace, and never feel a pang of regret. Both of my parents support the climb, as does my girlfriend Brianna. There's not a lot of the histrionic "what the hell are you doing?" arguments bouncing around.

At night, now that I've given myself over to the climb, ear buds fill my head with the voices of Jon Krakauer and Ed Viesturs as the audio books I've downloaded onto my ipod weave far off worlds of wonder. Krakauer's books "Into Thin Air" and "Eiger Dreams" I find simultaneously sobering to the realities and risks of mountaineering, yet inspiring to the personal challenges and spirit of adventure in the sport. Viesturs "No Shortcuts To The Top" and "K2: Life and Death On The World's Most Dangerous Mountain" leave my jaw agape in bed as I feel myself transported to the bottleneck of K2 in the Himalaya's, with Fritz Veesner on the epic 1939 expedition, or the summit of Annapurna, the world's deadliest mountain, as Viesturs proudly radioed down to Jimmy Chin (a high altitude climber and photographer joining us in our climb) that he'd finally made it to the summit, completing his lifelong dream of being the first American to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks in the world. Call me naïve, young, or just plain monkey hear monkey do, I'm frothing at the mouth with so many tales of adventure I find myself continuously dreaming I'm above the clouds, putting one exhausted foot in front of the other.

After meeting Kenna and several members of our team at LAX airport including actress' Jessica Biel and Isabel Lucas, musician Santi White and rapper Lupe Fiasco, as well as photographers Jimmy Chin and Michael Muller, and many other amazing individuals I would be grateful to be able to soon call my friends, we managed to hopscotch to Amsterdam for a quick stopover, then hightail it South to Tanzania. Everyone in the groups are totally gung ho, and despite dizzy constitutions following 30 hours of flying, our collective excitement is thick enough one could cut it with a knife.

2010-03-18-_K4O8075.jpg At the Arusha Hotel, after being introduced to our guides and divided into four groups--one and two for the influencers and educators, three and four for the film crew, and getting the rest of our gear from the guide company Thompson Safari's--trekking poles, sleeping bags, and an informative lecture on medical safety to everyone by Melissa Arnot, the beautiful, blonde and brown eyed 27 year old mountain climbing wonder extraordinaire, were all pumped up with adrenaline as we struggle to sleep the night before the climb.

After Melissa speaks, I take her aside and ask her to come with me to my room quickly--I want to show her something that's been worrying me. A day before I got on the plane, I noticed a hard, painful peanut M&M sized ball on my pelvic bone--a classic little ingrown hair. Only the pain since getting on the plane has now tripled. This begins now my official relationship with Melissa--she lathers me down with iodine and removes the culprit hair mercilessly with tweezers. All she gets out of me is one quick girlish yelp followed by a wolfish grin, and a relief that that problem has been so quickly done away with.

I luckily manage to get good nights sleep despite the packing chaos the rest of our group seems engulfed in. Ever the hyperactive personality, I keep checking my pulse with one of the electronic instruments one of the techies Nick has. My pulse never wants to dip below 110 beats per minute, and dark visions of having sudden death cardiac arrest at 19,000 feet caress me to sleep.

On our drive out of Arusha in our train of beat up four by four Safari vehicles, Lupe and I trade jokes with a fast pitter patter of a couple of homegrown class clowns, with topics centering on our odds of making it to the top of the mountain, religion, and the potential perils a mountain man could face for fornicating with a two headed sheep with a sheepskin condom. Lupe is hilarious, as is Simon Isaacs, a Vermont born cause marketing expert who regularly adds to our blob‐like conversation of absurdity, although I think after a while we start to get on UN Humanitarian worker Elizabeth Gore's nerves, despite occasionally wringing an involuntary smile from the corners of her lips. However, our mouths are quickly given a rest when our driver points ahead. There's Kilimanjaro, he says. After having been looking at pictures and You Tube videos for weeks, part of me thought I already kind of knew Kilimanjaro, that it almost wouldn't be a big deal when I saw it. Good thing assumption is not a mother virtue--the peak claws into the sky above us, dark and violent, capped with a majestic solid white glacial cap, like some kind of high altitude crown. I know it's beautiful, but at first glance, it has about as much "beauty" as the beautiful designs of a Pit Viper waiting under a toilet seat.

After passing through the main gate at 7,000 feet and signing into an unending beauracratic mess of a public record book, jotting down names and passport numbers, we go up another 3,500 feet and park the vehicles. There's about 200 porters waiting for us--all bearing bags jam packed with the tents, food, water, and supplies for the days ahead--so, for example, when we finish a day of hiking the tents are waiting for us--a definite luxury for us on this climb. Porters are all strong men, some wearing as little as shorts and sandals, and all possessing a ruggedness of spirit and soul that shames most of us with their sheer strength-- many of the men are carrying sixty pounds on top of their heads while scrambling through rock clusters with ease that most of us are using every drop of adrenaline we can muster just to hang on.

To start out here were only going for two hours today--but even at an energetic snails pace, I still feel my heart do the thumpty thump as my throat sucks the dry air, ravenous for oxygen. Our groups are split now into four, and our group, two, we quickly name "Dos Locos," given our tendency towards the delightfully absurd. I draw our group logo on Michael Muller's blue rain poncho--a bearded man resembling Michael, with his eyes practically blowing out of their sockets in different directions, and of course--brain exploding out of the top of his head, equipped with requisite hands to the sides of his face ala Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.

Out in the middle of nature like this with none of the mixed blessing technology like cell phones and blackberries so many of us find ourselves chained to, the jokes, conversation, exchange of ideas flows so freely and is so intellectually engaging that I wonder if this is what college would have been like if I had gone. I'm happy on the trail, beaming as I climb up every sloping hill, and looking at the landscape, which at present reminds me visually of the Southwest, like Santa Fe New Mexico, where I was partially raised. With no trees around on this first day walk, there's lots of bushy type plants and dwarf shrubs, and the trail is wet and muddy, gushing under our feet due to a recent rain. There's also some borderline sketchy rock maneuvers we do, ascending and descending a series of steep forty foot gullies and crossing the creeks below, all of us carefully hopping on the rocks and employing our long dormant rock hopping instincts and avoiding potential freezing water visits. Pole, pole, the famous slogan we keep hearing from all the guides that has become like gospel on the mountain to all who desire the summit: slowly, slowly, that is.

2010-03-18-image001.jpg At our first camp we get organized into our tents, and they've generously given me my own, while some of our groups will share with two people per tent. I was considering briefly not writing about this part--but fuck it--by this time now my ingrown hair--the one about an inch up and left of my manhood, has become more than just an unwanted houseguest, shooting from its walnut sized mass a stabbing pain whenever I move at all. Even bending down to tie my shoes has become an exercise in sadism for me now. Melissa's had enough of my limping around, and she calls me to her tent. She puts a pair of blue rubber gloves on, and removes a tiny syringe and some pads from a plastic bag filled with medical supplies. Melissa says she's going to drain it out, because its now infected and filled with pus. This may hurt a little, she says. She delicately plunges the thin needle directly onto my little red walnut, and I'm gripped with pain. She takes her thumbs now, and slowly squeezes the walnut, and pink and blubbery white pus begins to erupt out, as my pain quickly turns into fire and brimstone agony--I literally cannot believe how hell one little ingrown hair is raising. And then, as if possessed by The Joker in The Dark Knight, I compulsively start laughing, uncontrollably. This is like popping the deepest pimple of your life times fifty. After she drains it, despite still reeling from the squeezing, which went on for at least two minutes, I still feel immensely relieved the pressure is gone--the dreaded pus now wrapped in a dispensable plastic bio bag. If there was a single experience in my life that equaled the pain I felt in those moments with Melissa, I don't know what they are.

After our guide Wilfred, a tall and intelligent Tanzanian man, finishes going over plans for tomorrow while we chomp on a spaghetti and soup dinner, and listening to a heartfelt speech from Kenna about his pride in being able to help people that are less fortunate than others, and realization that Kenna could easily be suffering from a water related illness. Born in Ethiopia, he came to the US when he was young, but things could easily have been very different for him. As Kenna's voice becomes a soft whisper and his eyes grow deeper and moist, I'm glad the spiritual leader of our climb is so honest with his feelings.

A small group of us including Isabel and Jimmy, Los Angeles physical trainer Jason Walsh, and water expert Alexandra Cousteau all sneak off after dark with our headlamps on, and steal a few minutes to see the enveloping view of stars, so bright and clear they beg to be picked from the sky.

I'm in my tent right now at 13,600 feet the next day at camp three--my body tired and pulse is racing, partly due to the altitude sickness medication I'm on called Diamox, but now also due to the antibiotic cephalexin and the anti inflammatory steroid dexamethasone I've immediately been put on, as my infection has tripled in size and quadrupled in pain after today's six and a half hour climb. Almost every step for me today has been excruciating, and people on the trail keep stopping me and asking if I'm okay as I stop and lean on my trekking poles, wincing and trying to catch my breath.

2010-03-18-image003.jpg Just to make the last hundred feet to the camp takes just about everything I've got. As I stagger into my tent and collapse onto my sleeping bag, painful tears stream down my eyes and an angry lump weighs in my throat--I know my body well, and I know that there is no possible way I'm going to be able to continue this climb. There's no way I'm going to be able to join Kenna and the others on their quest to the summit to raise awareness for clean water. My heart swells with empathy now for every sick or dying man, woman and child--all I have is a stupid ingrown hair that has freakishly spiraled now, as Melissa tells me, into a potentially serious infection.

And the damndest part is, at base camp three where we are now, I can see the peak I've been dreaming about every night for the last month. It taunts me, and for brief moments waves of scornful rage bites onto me like unleashed little attack dogs. Altitude sickness my ass, I was breathing the air up here, and it felt so fresh to me it was like it was scented with roses. Tired legs were the last of my worries; I'm in the best shape I've been in since Sean Penn took me to my physical limits. But this is an unworthy opponent‐‐ the smallest thing, a trivial, measly hair, boring its way into my body and somehow releasing Pandora's box on my ass. Not like this, I tell myself, as I'm wracked now in my sleeping bag with the chills and shivers--not like this. But an honest and pure epiphany hits me--how many of my fellow human beings last thoughts were 'Not like this?' How many good people's lives have been tragically cut short, given the short end of the stick in a cruel and merciless world. I don't feel a shred of regret now, sinking my head deep into my hands--I feel humble.

After having a conversation with Kenna in my tent about what to do, we both agree for now to treat my situation as a general health problem--and make plans for me to head back down the mountain tomorrow and get picked up and driven back to Arusha--there, I'll call my parents and loves ones and let them know what is going on with me. But for now, I can't think clearly, as the stabbing pain in my groin pierces through me like a rusty nail, just beyond the fabric of my tent the great Mountain, quicksilver slipping through my grasp.2010-03-18-image004.jpg

Or maybe not. That night, a particular stinging sensation wakes me from my foggy dreams and has me reaching for my headlamp--I shove it down my sleeping bag and see my large bump has been slowly frothing up bloody pus in my sleep. Acting on what I'm almost sure is basic human instincts of taking care of ones own body, I grab a clean sock and begin milking the thing like a large cow teat, the pus readily barfing out. I hop over to Melissa's tent in the dark, and let her know what's happening, and also because I know however my clean my sock is, I need to properly sanitize this immediately with iodine. Exhaling deeply once I lie back down in my tent, I feel renewed hope--maybe the antibiotics will start working soon.

In the morning I wake up with a renewed sense of purpose after my first good night's sleep--and when Melissa comes into my tent to check on me, we both agree that I'll continue on slowly today, and see how it goes--if at lunch I'm in unbearable pain, or it looks like the infection spreading out of control, we'll evacuate. Sometimes I can be a pessimist, but part of me feels like this could turn around for me in the next 48 hours or so--but only time will tell.

During the hike today we peaked out at 15,000 feet, and set up our lunch tent where a massive dark and monolithic rock crag has been called Lava Tower. It's a much steeper gradient we're going up today, but the nice slow pace and pressure breathing--a technique of rapidly exhaling with your lips in the whistling position, ensure that the altitude is pleasant. Lupe and Simon debate foreign policy, and Jessica works her camera getting various shots, and Elizabeth takes a little spill on a slippery boulder and bruises her shin and hip.

When we descend down to camp three its pouring rain and everyone is tired and wet. Slinking into my tent I'm crestfallen to see that the infection now looks even worse--more swollen, and spreading. Melissa takes note of this, and starts me on a course of a different antibiotic--clindamyacin--just to be absolutely sure we've covered our bases. She reckons it to knocking a guy out, then kicking him in the face while he's down, and I couldn't be more onboard, eagerly popping the new blue pills down into my mouth. But fuck though, I ask myself--maybe I have some freak Tanzanian bacteria they haven't discovered yet, that is immune to antibiotics, and once it hits my lower pelvic lymph node will immediately go straight to my heart and leave me dead in 48 hours? I've never been accused of lacking an active imagination.

By now, passing pussing my wound in the early mornings has become old hat for me, and luckily I can feel myself rapidly recovering with each drop drained. I try and stave off weird hallucinations probably due to antibiotics mixing with my anti malarial medicine Malarone, wrapped up in my sleeping bag completely covered like a deep coal miner.

It's the early afternoon now at 16,000 feet. It's a brief day for us, because tonight we make our bid to the summit around 2am. Even looking at the handwriting in my journal as I write this, it's become sloppy and slightly sophomoric, with misshaped letters and over sized commas. I find myself emotionally highly on edge too--I had a little back and forth earlier with someone from the group back at 15,000 feet, and my blood is still boiling--a normal spat of bickering wouldn't rattle a normally thick skinned dude such as myself. Better do some pressure breathing and calm myself down.


Our plan is to wake up at midnight, and begin our seven‐hour hike to the summit in the dark of night, planned so that as we reach the top the sun will be rising. Everyone in the group is tense at breakfast, eyes suspiciously darting around to make sure nobody is cracking up yet. Few people have appetites, but Muller and I force down some oatmeal and bread with peanut butter slathered on it.

Outside we all get into a line, fit our headlamps on correctly, and begin the hike up the rest of the mountain. Several other groups on the mountain had already left before us, and we can see their little tiny headlamp lights stretching up and up the mountain like an infinite glowing snake. Shaking off the fatalism of looking up takes me more than a few minutes each time, so I try to keep my head down and focused on what's in front of me. There's also a strange creeping claustrophobia that I can feel breathing down my neck; there's nowhere to go right now, your at 18,000 feet in the dark, keep it together son.

Several of the people in our group are already starting to get violent headaches and nausea, and Melissa hikes up and down the mountain between our two groups making sure nobody's health is in jeopardy. Muller and I packed two extra packages of beef jerky, and I gnaw into it with the zeal of starved rat at one of our brief breaks. Perfect snowflakes begin landing on my glove in front of me, and for a second I wonder if this is remotely what it feels like to visit another planet.

After a good eight hours of trekking up, we finally reach Stella Point at 18,701 feet. Here it basically flattens out for the next forty‐five minutes of walking, only raising an additional 639 feet to Uhuru peak, the summit. At Stella Point everybody gives each other big hugs and congratulations, but the job isn't done yet--and the last forty‐five minutes, as the weather clears just enough to get a glimpse of an ancient gigantic glacier, are hardly Childs play.

When the group finally gets to the summit, a palpable relief overtakes our group, followed by a wave of emotion that breaks in many tears from most everyone. I can see how much pressure each person has put on themselves, not just because of ego, but because they felt like they were really climbing for something they knew was greater than themselves. Our group holds up a banner together, and a million thoughts are flying through my head--how in the world are we going to get back down when I can see several of our group already have altitude sickness? How deep is tonight's sleep going to be, after scaling these walls? How can our group do everything it can to help the global clean water crisis now? Across the globe at that very moment, the Haiti earthquake is just hitting, creating a living nightmare for thousands upon thousands of people. We are all unaware at this moment--and all hold up a big plastic banner that says simply: SEND WATER!