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Emile Hirsch Headshot

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!