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Chara's Challenge: Zee vs. The Mountain

by Rob Simpson / Boston Bruins
Hockey journalist Rob Simpson accompanied Boston Bruins Captain Zdeno Chara on the all-star defenseman’s recent journey through Tanzania as an Athletic Ambassador for Right to Play. Topping off the trip, the NHL’s tallest man scaled Africa’s tallest peak. You can accompany Chara right from the safety of your computer chair as the story unfolds each day on JB

Mark Berg, Mark Brender, Darryl Lepik, Zdeno Chara.
Trekking with Zdeno – Day 1
Our goal: the 19,350 foot summit, Uhuru Peak, of Mount Kilimanjaro in northeast Tanzania, the highest point on the Africa continent.

The preliminary spot to reach is on the volcano’s crater rim, at Gilman’s Point, 18,650 feet.

The main reasons for the climb, was to raise awareness and money for the humanitarian organization Right To Play, for which Zdeno Chara is an Athlete Ambassador – throw in a little personal adventure/accomplishment and you have a heck of a trip.

Right To Play uses sports and group activities to mobilize coaches and kids in third world countries, in an effort to improve general education, and to increase awareness of the dangers of AIDS and malaria among other things.

The Bruins Captain had just visited Mozambique for a week, with RTP Canadian Deputy Director Mark Brender and a two-man NHL Productions crew, when we rendezvoused on a Sunday evening at the Nairobi, Kenya airport.

The four had just flown in from Maputo, while I had just spent a long day at the airport after connecting through Amsterdam and London on my way from the States. 

Can Chara conquer The Mountain?
Visiting children in Mozambique with Robyn Regehr of the Calgary Flames was the first week of Chara’s East African itinerary, the trek on Kilimanjaro the second week, but the first part of the trip hadn’t gone exactly as planned; the crew wasn’t allowed to bring their equipment into the country to record Chara and Regehr’s efforts with the kids.

The customs glitch brought some minor frustration and some activity delays, but as a whole, the week went well in terms of the humanitarian efforts (editor’s note: A flashback to Chara’s and Regehr’s humanitarian efforts comes on Day 3).

Then, after hopping a prop’ plane to Kilimanjaro from Nairobi, we discovered my large bag was lost.  No biggie, it just had everything I’d needed to climb the mountain (hiking boots that fit right for example), all of my clothes, toiletries, etc.  As the week would unfold, I gradually came to learn I wasn’t going to see my backpack, sleeping mat and bag anytime soon (In fact, as of 7/13, I still haven’t seen it).

We took a Land Rover to the Marangu Hotel, a lodge with cottages outside a village of the same name.  After a late meal with lively speculation as to what lay ahead, we turned in.

The next day we met the man we’d get to know quite well and rely on during the coming days, our head guide Aloyce Manyanga.

Aloyce knew the mountain well, having reached the summit more than a hundred times.  He preached “pole’-pole’”, a Swahili term pronounced “poe-lay” meaning slow, easy pace.

It went hand-in-hand with his other favorite word:  determination.

Zdeno Chara.
Going slow up the mountain meant a greater likelihood of success, as the number one reason for failure on Kilimanjaro is altitude sickness.  To acclimatize properly over five or six days on the way up is to greatly increase one’s chances of seeing the summit.

Many, what he called “bogus”, guides rush people up the mountain, or they rush up themselves.  As the week unfolded, we heard a few of these types vomiting in camp, or heading back down the mountain with throbbing headaches and disorientation.

“Pole’-pole’ my friends. Pole’-pole.

We signed in at the Marangu National Park gate, signed in the camera equipment and then I spent $240-bucks renting equipment and clothes for the trek. 

Yah, $240 is a lot, but when the airlines lose your luggage, and you’re standing at the start of a mountain trek with pretty much nothing, the African vendor dude kind of has you over a barrel.

Anyway, my daypack (carry on) had running shoes, a few toiletries, a shirt, a notebook and pen, my lucky plastic travel lizard my son gave me a few years ago, my sunglasses, my digital camera and my mini-dv handheld video camera with two long-life batteries. That’s it; the rest of my trek life would be rented or borrowed.

More than anything else, our first day of hiking was dusty, dusty.  Zee and I had taken a very dirty, wind blown two-hour van ride to an area called Rongai, on the east side of the mountain near the Kenyan border.  From there, after some signing-in formalities with the national park people, we set off up the dusty trail.  It was relatively easy, the ascent was limited, and we polished it off in about three or four hours.

Before taking on the summit, Chara & Co. took in an amazing sunset while on a boat in the Indian Ocean. Click the pic to see it too.
Here’s what happens on a day-to-day basis by the way:  Chara, myself and the other three members of the party carry our own little day packs (small backpacks) from start to finish, while the 21 (that’s right, 21) local porters (essentially African sherpas) carried everything else, including the tents, mess tents, all our winter clothes, cooking stuff, etc.

The TV crew had hired three extra porters to carry the camera, tripod, and battery/tape case.  (Incidentally, the battery/tape case weighs about thirty pounds, and the porter carried the thing up to 19,350 feet on his head.).

We never stopped talking about or marveling at the porters – they’d race ahead each day and have camp set-up, waiting for us.

The Rongai route is the second longest way up to the summit, offers a lot of scenic options, and is quite possibly the most difficult depending on what acclimation variants your guide chooses.  

On the first day it was pretty straightforward.  Chara and the group climbed gently and consistently through maize and potato fields, through dry forest, and then camped at an area of thick underbrush approaching the moorland (non vegetation) areas.

Being winter just south of the Equator, it became dark each evening just after 7:00 p.m. It also turned cold quickly:  Sun-sweat and dust, to dark-chills and an extra layer of clothing.

We ate, it was dark, and we all jumped into our tents with great anticipation of the days ahead. At one point, I stuck my head out of the tent and let out a “holy-moly!”  The others popped outside for a moment as well.  From horizon to horizon, in all directions, with no ground light pollution to speak of, we saw stars, stars, and stars -- like every star ever created – visible to man. I had seen something like this once before in Alaska and in a few other places way up North, but this was incomparable.

We were small.
Coming Up:
Day 2 – Things start to get tough, sleep deprivation, and blisters.
Rob Simpson is a program producer/host on NHL Network and the author of two books on hockey, the second of which “Black and Gold” a book of photography and narrative on the Bruins, will be released in early September.
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