From UT to Tanzania

November 27th, 2017 Posted in From Our Alumni
Father, daughter alumni climb Kilimanjaro to ‘electrify Africa’

By Samantha Rhodes, (Comm/Arts ’16, Honors ’16)

Porters Little Man (left) and Jungle Boy (right) chat with Samantha Rhodes before entering the mess tent for dinner and a vitals check. Behind stands Leki, waiting to sanitize everyone’s hands.

“I want to make your biggest dream come true,” he said, looking at us with all-too-serious eyes.  “If you reach the top, it makes us very happy.” Then he proceeded to pump water into our canteens with his bare hands, as he’d done every day after breakfast before hitting the trail, saving our fingers from the biting wind of Summit Crater Camp’s 18,700-foot elevation.

As a new porter on Mt. Kilimanjaro’s most dangerous 33-mile long Western “Lemosho” Route in Tanzania, Little Man already had made this climb 10 times — still paling in comparison to Ben, the lead guide who has made 200-plus trips to the summit. But none of us were world travelers or professional adventurers, and after the fifth early morning of crawling from a tent into howling darkness up unpredictable inclines, we knew this was the craziest thing we’d ever signed up for.

Tami, Steve and Samantha Rhodes reach Lemosho Gate on their journey up Africa’s tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro.

My dad, Steve Rhodes (Bus ’85, MBA ’91), stepmom Tami, and I were on a mission: to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in a fundraising campaign to raise $30,000 for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) International Foundation’s rural electrification efforts in Africa and around the world.

Both my dad and I work in the electric cooperative industry, which differs from the typical investor-owned utilities. Electric co-ops, formed by farmers who joined together to electrify rural America back in the 1930s, are member-owned, not-for-profit businesses with the goal of providing safe, affordable, and reliable electricity. Steve is CEO of DeFuniak Springs-based Choctawhatchee Electric Cooperative (CHELCO) that serves Florida’s panhandle, and I am associate editor of Columbus-based Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives’ monthly magazine, Ohio Cooperative Living. Both of us know volunteer co-op linemen who’ve journeyed overseas to string power lines. We support America’s electric cooperatives’ network through NRECA International to improve lives in places where no typical utility company would venture.

Porters accompany climbers on the trek up the mountain and carry their gear to the summit.

Since 1962, NRECA International has provided access to electricity to 110 million people in 42 developing countries. Kilimanjaro’s home, Tanzania, is one of the countries identified in recently signed legislation that would benefit greatly from assistance to receive reliable and affordable power. In fact, less than 10 percent of rural Africa’s population has access to electricity, according to NRECA International.

As such, we wanted to help “Electrify Africa” by joining the nearly 33,000 people who flock to Kilimanjaro each year, including the porters who support the expeditions of paying climbers. Many come to climb the tallest mountain in Africa in an attempt to cross off “reach the 19,341-foot summit” from their bucket lists. What the tour companies don’t tell you is that one-third of all Kili climbers don’t make it to the summit, and up to 10 die each year — not including those who go unreported — from altitude-related sickness, rock slides, falls and heart attacks.

They also don’t tell you that your 10-person team’s success is largely dependent on 58 super-fit Tanzanian strangers: the cook staff, guides and porters, who carry everything you need up and back down the mountain — mess tent and personal sleeping tents, chairs, food and water, and your precious 22-lb. duffle bag of cold-weather gear. Even more unbelievably, they carry this 50-plus-pounds of baggage on their heads or necks, many without using their hands to balance the load. And let’s not forget: This was a weeklong journey.

Climbing the beast

Proud UT alumni Steve Rhodes and his daughter, Samantha, were joined by Samantha’s stepmother, Tami, on a journey to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Here, they’ve reached their physical goal to the top of the mountain. They continue to raise funds to ‘electrify Africa,’ working through the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, International Foundation.

We didn’t realize how diverse the landscape would be until it changed on us two days into the climb on the Shira Plateau. The breeze suddenly felt more like wind, and jackets were soon pulled over our sweaty T-shirts. We grew to despise the volcanic dust that blew around us like fog, making our noses run black. But we were in awe to find that five different climate zones exist on the mountain, and nearly every type of ecological system can be found there: cultivated land, lush rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert, and an arctic summit.

By now, we could see Kili straight ahead, looming over us, its snowy top completely obscured by clouds — the place we were somehow supposed to reach in only a few short days. Looking the gigantic monster of a mountain straight in the eye was intimidating to say the least, and it took a toll on our confidence.

To our horror, on Day 4, Tami fell ill with what we believe was dust-induced bronchitis, hacking up so much phlegm she bruised her ribs. She refused to give up, but shortly after, we lost our first group member, Christine, who decided she couldn’t handle Kili or the constant shivering any longer. As we watched a porter escort her down the ruthless mountain out of sight, a deeper truth sank in: Victory here was more dependent on mental willpower than physical fitness.

Shivering from the frigid temperatures at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Steve Rhodes, his daughter, Samantha, and his wife, Tami, display a tribute to The University of Toledo. Sam and Steve are both UT alumni.

Green slowly faded from view and was replaced by slippery, brown-black volcanic gravel and enormous, speckled boulders. Day 6 was without a doubt the toughest and most dangerous test. A sign marked “Challenge Spot: Beware of falling rocks” even warned us as we approached the murderous Western Breach, jaggedly carved out over the years by melting glacier runoff and rock falls. Just last year, a hiker was killed on the breach by a merciless rolling rock, and in 2006, three Americans were tragically killed in the same fashion. We told ourselves not to look up — no amount of neck straining would help us see the end goal in the clouds.

Even those of us taking Diamox, an over-the-counter medicine to help prevent altitude sickness, had to pop an Advil nearly every day for headaches. By the end of Day 6, we kept to ourselves and moved like sloths, consumed with our own oxygen-deprived thoughts and why-am-I-doing-this-again questions. (By the time we would reach the summit, the air there would only have half the oxygen it did when we began our ascent.) We posed with massive glaciers about 1,000 feet from the summit, then curled up in our sleeping bags as the wind howled and shook our tents. We prayed they would delay our final ascension climb; we can’t hike with wind like this…right?

The climbers stayed at Lava Tower Camp on Day 4. The summit of “Kili,” off to the left in this photo, is three days away.

Wrong. Even after all we had been through, nothing prepared us for summit day. On Day 7, we woke by 4 a.m. and hiked ever-so-slowly up the slippery, narrow dirt path by headlamp. Here, one all-too-easy slip of footing could have been lethal. We lowered our heads, pulled our balaclavas up to our eyes, and tried to ignore the biting wind and tear-snot mixture running down our faces.

Arriving at the summit during sunrise was nothing like we expected: insanely cold, crowded, and short-lived. International groups lined up beside the Uhuru Peak sign, speaking indiscernible languages and seemingly incapable of taking turns for photo ops. We hugged, snagged a few celebratory photos (with the aid of porters), and enjoyed the view among the clouds.

Then suddenly we were heading downhill — the more painful two-day segment of the trip nobody warns you about. To summit and then complete our downhill trek to Mweka Camp on Day 7 was a 10-hour ordeal and nearly a 10,000-foot descent.  Total muscle exhaustion is a real issue; our guide told us around 12 people a day have to be carried down in iron stretchers after their quads give out, no longer able to hold their own body weight. You couldn’t pay any of us enough money to do it again. Toes crunched into the front of your boots is not a pleasant feeling; dad and Tami actually each ended up losing their big toenails as a result.

The unexpected takeaways

It was during this tedious descent that our minds began to whirl and the realization hit us. We had successfully reached the summit on the continent’s tallest mountain, halfway across the world from home…but was it all really over, just like that? After all this time (months of training and a year in the planning), the climax, the thing we had been working toward, was over in 20 minutes.

Ironically, our photographs told a different story. The long-awaited summit photo — you know, the one that fuels your decision to buy the plane ticket in the first place — had turned out pretty lackluster with poor lighting. Meanwhile, dozens of gorgeous landscape shots over the seven-day uphill trek were what struck a chord with us. Preoccupied with making a trophy memory out of the summit, what we didn’t realize was that each day’s photos were key memory bricks laid in time that together could be used to build an honest, more life-changing house of experience.

Yes, everyone knows the adage: The destination isn’t as important as the journey itself. The same was true of our Kilimanjaro adventure.

This photo of Kibo, the official name of the mountain’s summit, was taken from the Shira Plateau. As they crossed the Shira Plateau on Day 3, they headed for more vertical climbing in the next leg of the journey. Trekkers climb up from the trailhead on Days 1 and 2 and then traverse the Shira Plateau for a day or so, before hiking vertical again.

Unexpectedly, the local people — especially the porters — were some of the kindest, most inspiring people we’d ever met. Aside from being the key physical factor in our Kili success, the porters were also our cheerleaders, always passing our panting, weary team line with a “hakuna matata” — meaning “no worries” in Swahili — and an encouraging sing-along song. Nearly every morning, three porters, including Little Man, would knock on our tent door, too enthusiastically wishing us each a good morning, and serve hot coffee. Insistent on preserving your energy, they refused to let us even strap on our ankle gaiters.

We were at the complete mercy of these third-world strangers for all of our needs, and watching them conquer the trail twice as quickly bearing five times as much weight in scanty hiking garb and torn-out tennis shoes — all while focusing on getting us, helpless tourists, to the top and down safely — was a slap-in-the-face dose of humility. They were living examples that there’s no reason not to take the best possible attitude in any given situation, even when you aren’t sure of the outcome.

Funding big change

Taken on the afternoon of Day 6 of their journey, this photo shows the Rhodes family posing in front of the Furtwangler Glacier located in the crater at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The following day, they began a 90-minute climb to reach the summit by sunrise.

We knew as we planned our climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro it would be a tough trip, but we were fueled by the knowledge we were doing it for a good cause. Now, since fostering friendships with the locals, our passion and dedication to raising money for the nonprofit NRECA International Foundation has only doubled.

On the six-hour, unpaved drive back to the airport in Arusha, we rode through the rural villages of Tanzania, passing “houses” so dilapidated I had trouble believing families could find shelter from the elements there — let alone possibly know how dramatically electricity could change their lives. Smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, dust upon dust and miles from any practical buildings, the thin children in rainbow-colored clothing who ran out to our Land Rover smiling, hooting, and waving nearly split my heart in two.

After emerging from the rainforest at the bottom of Mt. Kilimanjaro at the end of their journey on Sept. 18, 2016, Samantha, Steve and Tami Rhodes posed for a photo under a sign to commemorate their physical and mental feat. Many who attempt the climb of Kilimanjaro do not summit and often succumb to severe altitude sickness.

Thanks to generous donors around the country, we’ve raised $42,000 for rural electrification efforts through word-of-mouth and our blog. Though we’ve surpassed our original goal by more than $10,000, we’re not ready to call it quits. The $45k benchmark is in sight, and if two UT alumni can do what we’ve done, we know anything is possible.

Climbing Kilimanjaro was thrilling, doing it as a family made it even more special, but the best part is yet to come: the improved standard of living that results when electric poles are set and power lines are strung in impoverished villages before wide-eyed children and grateful parents.

We started this trip knowing we wanted to raise money to help Africans. But we returned knowing whose lives we want to electrify — and that makes all the difference.

To make a donation, see more photos and videos from the Rhodes’ trip, or learn about the NRECA International Foundation, visit  www.RhodestoKili.com.

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