Mount Kilimanjaro 2019 – Climbing for a Cause
Over the summer of 2019, Beyond Adventures offered Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s undergraduate and alumni members, including family members, an opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Consistent with SAE’s vision of True Gentleman making our global community better, participants volunteered at a local school in a remote Tanzanian village before the climb. It was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to leave the familiar and embrace life outside the comfort zone, all in the company of fellow SAE brothers.
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Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro has been on the bucket list for Steve Johnson (Tennessee-Martin ’76) for several years. A casual climber, the former cop has been hiking 14,000+ foot mountains since 2001 and replied to the very first email inquiry. “I may not have the opportunity to do it again as I get older,” he said. “Summitting a mountain is an intense journey, something you cannot share, except with those who have been. The summits may be different, but the feelings you experience at the top are the same every single time.”
Keith Wosneski (Denver ’94) also took an interest in the trip for his bucket list. During his junior year, he studied abroad, and since then, Africa has always been on the list of destinations. With zero climbing experience, ascending Africa’s highest peak seemed a bit daunting for the father of three. However, it was his ties to SAE that ultimately made his decision. “My old roommate and former Eminent Archon of my chapter passed away last year unexpectedly. I saw the email about the trip immediately after and knew I had to go and take my son Kole,” said Wosneski. “I travel a lot for work and know that time is precious, especially with family. It was an opportunity to cross Africa off my list, spend quality time with my family, and expose my children to other cultures. How could I say no?”
Unlike his seniors, Brian Meyer (William & Mary ’17) discovered the trip in a slightly different fashion. Although he was aware of the opportunity, the recent graduate had another major priority in his life: finding a job. Traveling to another country was not a consideration. One phone call from a Supreme Council member made the difference. “Mike Rodgers (William & Mary ’92) called me personally to inquire about my interest,” Meyer recounts. “While he may serve the entire Realm, Mike always makes sure that his chapter stays involved. It reminds us that it doesn’t matter how big or small the school or chapter is — anyone can make a difference.”
The youngest member on the trip, Johnny Vrba, is still an undergraduate at Arizona State University. The self-proclaimed adrenaline enthusiast was all-in, immediately. Having already mastered the water (SCUBA certified and lifeguard), he wanted to take on the Earth. “I’m so comfortable in the water, and never realized how little of ‘the outdoors’ I have experienced. My first time sleeping in a tent was at the base of Kilimanjaro,” reflected Vrba.
Although the men knew each other by name and Fraternity, none of them would meet until the first day of the trip. The travel obstacles they faced while traveling globally (long flights, crying babies, long customs lines, and airplane food) faded into the distance during the drive from the airport to the hotel. “It was truly unique to see because the mountain range covers so many geographical areas. You can see the jungles, mountains, and clouds all at once,” remembers Wosneski.
After a much-needed night of rest, the group continued to Legho Village, their pseudo-home base for the next two days, and the location of the service project. “The village, located in the mountains, has stunning views of the surrounding around including Mount Kilimanjaro,” said Meyer. Views aside, one of the focuses of the trip was philanthropy. Poverty is one of the most significant issues worldwide, and seeing a shanty town first-hand puts it into perspective. “Just by being born in the United States, you’ve hit the jackpot,” claims Wosneski. “It brings all the things you see on TV or read about to life.”
The night finished around a campfire to reflect on the day and set expectations for the following day. The SAEs often stayed up late, conversing on Fraternity and life. These gatherings became regular nightly “meetings,” with the SAEs jokingly declaring themselves founding fathers of the Mount Kilimanjaro chapter. When discussing the trip, all four brothers proclaimed they are closer to each other than their chapter brothers. “We quickly connected over the common purpose of the mountain, but the diversity of life experiences between the four of us truly solidified our bonds,” recalls Johnson. Vrba, the sole undergraduate on the trip, said getting to know Wosneski and Johnson was one the highlights of the trip. “Until then, my interactions were mainly with members of my age. I got to see a whole different side of SAE and life. I probably also know more about Keith [Wosneski] and Steve [Johnson] than their wives do.”
Philanthropy was a focus on this adventure — the SAEs brought sports equipment and school supplies to an elementary school in the village. They also painted the classrooms and played games: soccer, football, frisbee, duck-duck-goose, sing-alongs, races, and dance-offs, to name a few. Activities aside, Wosneski said the impact the group had on the kids and vice-versa was the best part of the day. “To see the village kids light up from the gifts was one thing. To see a change in world perspective, to show us how good we have it, that made the trip,” he reflected. “My son, Kole, connected with one of the porters (guides) who was climbing the mountain over and over with other people’s stuff on his back, to pay his college tuition. Kole realized very quickly how truly blessed we are.”
With the service project completed, there was only one task left: climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Every day was a grind, physically and mentally. Wake up, eat breakfast, climb, eat lunch, climb, eat dinner, sleep. Wash, rinse, and repeat, six times over. Once the physical exhaustion sets in, which it will no matter how much you train, the mental determination takes over. “There’s a sense of perseverance that drives you forward. I don’t know how to explain it, but just being there, on the mountainside, seeing the peak, really makes you push yourself in ways I didn’t know was possible,” recalls Meyer. “Having other brothers there also helped. We motivated each other, and we kept each other in check. But most importantly, we looked out for one another.”
On the third day of the ascent, Johnson was suffering from severe altitude sickness. According to the porters (guides), this day was the most important for adjusting to new altitudes as the group broke the cloud line at 10,000 feet. If you didn’t acclimate today, it would be impossible to continue higher. Johnson, already falling behind in pace, was advised not to push forth. Going up is not a good idea with altitude sickness. Aside from the obvious health concerns, Johnson said, “I’m not saying this to be noble. I honestly didn’t want something to happen to ruin a possible future trip.” With the rights and feelings of others rather than his own in mind, Steve Johnson started his descent down Mount Kilimanjaro.
After loading his daypack with oxygen packs (just in case), Johnson and one of the porters, Samia, said their farewells and began hiking down. To save time, they took a more direct route but at the expense of a much steeper incline. At one point, there was an 8ft wide, narrow ledge they had to traverse over while clinging to the mountainside. Looking down was not advised. Upon arriving at a flatter region, they ran into another porter from a different company. He had gotten sick (like Johnson) and was sent home, but the company didn’t provide him with transportation or money to get there. Johnson kindly offered to share his ride whenever it arrived. However, the other porter’s destination was two hours in the opposite direction of Beyond Adventure’s home base. “I asked what it would take to get this fellow home… $3.00. I was flabbergasted! All this hullabaloo over three measly dollars, a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I was amazed that such a small sum in the USA could have such a huge impact in Tanzania.”
Johnson gave three dollars to Samia, to give to the other porter. He explained that the other porter needed to recognize Samia as the person who helped him out — it would help build relationships later. “I’m retelling this story not to be braggadocios. I’m retelling the story, so people reading this will understand the absolute desperation and poverty we have witnessed in Tanzania. How a people living under such depressed and depressing conditions could be so happy & kind and so quick to smile & laugh and have the sweetest spirit. We should be ashamed in the USA for how much we take for granted,” reflected Johnson.
Dedicating the rest of the climb to Brother Johnson, the remaining SAEs pushed forward. The night before, the climbers turned in after an early dinner to wake up around midnight to begin the summit attempt, an 11-16 hour day. Temperatures usually range from -4° to 5° Fahrenheit, but luckily the thermometers read a balmy 30 on departure. After hours of hiking in the dark, the sun started to rise about 45 minutes from summitting. Most were out of breath and beginning to feel the effects of climbing for seven days straight. “Nevertheless, we persevered past the pain and kept our eyes, physically and mentally, on the goal: the tallest point in Africa,” recounts Meyer. Around 7 am, the group arrived at Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and the highest point in Africa (19,344 feet).
“One of the most physically, mentally, and spiritually challenging things I’ve ever accomplished.” -Keith Wosneski
“No words can describe the emotions I felt up there.” -Brian Meyer
“Best time of my life, honestly. It’s going to be hard topping this.” -Johnny Vrba
“Climbing Kilimanjaro, even only as far as I got, was life-changing. Extremely humbling meeting people from other parts of the world.” -Steve Johnson
After 20 minutes on the peak, the cold and tired band of brothers were encouraged to start the climb down. Like Johnson before them, they took a different, more direct route. The six-day ascent only takes a day-and-a-half to descend. They traversed down loose sand and dirt, unlike the hard rocks they encountered going up. “It was difficult not because of the terrain, but because we were incredibly tired and our legs already felt like noodles,” said Meyer. Tired, but not broken, the trip closed with a final dinner. Johnson greeted the group at base camp, eagerly awaiting their return. The group went around, reflecting on the profound insights they had discovered over the nearly two-week excursion. It was clear that everyone was taking something intangible from the climb.
“I learned more about myself and the world during this trip than sitting inside any classroom could have ever taught me. Laughter truly is a universal language. Out of fear comes the greatest reward. The gift of life should not be taken for granted. This trip was the start of something huge.” -Johnny Vrba
“Being willing to take on a new challenge is the biggest challenge. This trip has certainly given me a new perspective on life.” – Keith Wosneski
“Physically speaking, climbing the mountain was only part of the journey. Having the mental and emotional strength was just as important, if not more.” -Brian Meyer
“Most people my age ponder life’s irony and count their blessings at this stage. I’m amazed that I can still go through life-changing experiences. Will the humility that I experienced stayed with me for life?” -Steve Johnson
Each gentleman on this trip left part of himself on the mountain, but also took part of it home. The lessons learned about the world and self will forever resonate with our members who stood among the clouds. These brothers share a deeper bond of brotherhood that only they will truly understand. All four were extremely adamant that the wide-range of ages and life stages of the brothers was the best SAE-related thing about the trip.
“We share a common understanding of what it means to be a True Gentleman, and now, a wealth of life experiences. Did we always see eye-to-eye? Of course not. Did we come from the same backgrounds? Not even close. However, our brotherly bond transcended those differences. It made this trip an enjoyable one in the company of my fraternity brothers.” -Brian Meyer