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High Note: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with Rock Stars for a Cause

The only problem with cancer survivors and rockers joining forces for a fund-raising concert on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro? It's hard to cheer when you can't breathe.

Mike Peters is playing a song.

Typically, he does this on stage with his band The Alarm, hair moussed into quills, throng cheering, klieg lights strobing, drums detonating like cannon fire. Today, however, he’s dressed in a camouflage parka, baby-stepping back and forth in front of the Furtwangler Glacier, more than 18,000 feet high on Mt. Kilimanjaro, performing for an audience of one, our expedition’s lone cameraman, Stash Slionski. Later, Slionski will upload the footage via satellite to a website where fans have been following Peters’s journey to the 19,341-foot summit, though it’s hard to say at the moment whether he, or anyone else from our beleaguered team, is going to make it.

Nothing is certain at this altitude, especially if you’re a two-time cancer survivor like Peters. Back in 2005, he was nearly killed by leukemia. A decade before that, he beat non-Hodgkins lymphoma. But few things leave you feeling more alive than a near-death experience, and in the wake of his most recent recovery, Peters, who is now 53, cofounded a nonprofit, the Love Hope Strength Foundation, and devoted himself to fighting the disease–literally one step at a time.

The foundation helped him combine two great passions: music and mountains (he’d grown up hiking among the craggy peaks of Snowdonia, near his home in Wales). Since LHS’s inception, Peters, a handful of his musician friends, and teams of sponsored trekkers have been staging elaborate fundraising treks to lofty destinations around the world. In 2007, the LHS crew hiked to Everest basecamp, where they performed a concert at 18,540 feet; the event generated $460,000 and was later televised on MTV. In 2008, they scaled Machu Picchu. This time, October 2009, it’s Kili: seven musicians, 16 trekkers, 125 African porters and guides.

Earlier today, our sprawling entourage pulled into Crater Camp, at 18,500 feet, following an arduous scramble up a steep headwall of shattered basalt called the Western Breach. Crater Camp, located in the summit caldera, is our last stop before the top, which looms a mere two hours’ walk above. If all goes well, come sunrise we’ll be grinding out the final steps to the summit.

But all is not going well. Despite the liberal deployment of what our teammate Cy Curnin, from the Fixx, calls “altitude remediation therapy,” including various combinations of on- and off-label pharmaceuticals, whiskey, banghi (Swahili for marijuana), breathing exercises, songcraft, yoga, and walking uphill at an excruciatingly pole-pole (slow) pace, at least half of our group is sick. Earlier, I saw Glenn Tilbrook, the lead singer from Squeeze, worm through a vent in his tent until his torso emerged, his hair matted with sweat, like some sort of bizarre alpine birth. “I’m burning up!” he rasped, before suddenly convulsing with a violent cough and disappearing

back inside. Trekker Carrie Marzolf, a microbiologist from Phoenix, Arizona,
is in such bad shape that the guides have dosed her with dexamethasone, a powerful steroid.
At dinner in Crater Camp, after Peters’s glacier solo, we play pulse-ox poker using a digital oximeter that clips onto the end of your finger. My blood-oxygen level has plunged to 80 percent. Another Casper-complexioned teammate has hit 69. At sea level, any reading below 90 percent would get you hospitalized.

“OK everybody, here’s the deal,” says Shannon Foley, our trip organizer and Love Hope Strength’s executive director, standing up in the corner of the pitch-roofed mess tent. In her hiking boots, she’s more than six feet tall. The Africans call her Mama Kubwa. Big Mama. “I know everyone feels like crap, but we’re heading out at 4 a.m. Got that? Four-Ay-Em.”

Nods and groans. Only about half of the team has even made it to the meal. The others are convalescing in their tents, blitzed by altitude, fever, nausea, and ballistic headaches.

“No wonder they call it Kill-a-man-jaro,” quips Robin Wilson, lead singer for the Gin Blossoms.

“I feel like we’re stuck in an episode of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here,” Peters jokes. Actually, he’s one of the few among us who appears to be doing pretty well, looking like he always does: shoulder-length shag of brown hair gilded blonde; raffish scruff; deep-set blue eyes that turn into crescents when he laughs, which is often, even at altitude.

Peters looks like a rock star but he doesn’t act like one, at least not in the conventional sense: no 72-hour drug benders; no tantrums or furniture smashing. He’s congenial and unassuming, charged by an earnest intensity that I remember from his ’80s-era Alarm albums. Peters’s music has always been aspirational and inspirational–passionate rock anthems about, well, love, hope, and strength mostly, with a sprinkling of political protest. His willingness to be vulnerable and sincere has made him the consummate frontman, whether belting out lyrics or championing a cause.

“I’ve always thought of my music and the foundation in the same way,” he tells me later. “You know the Rolling Stones’ song, ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)’? The lyrics go, stick a pen in your heart and bleed all over the stage. That’s what I’ve always tried to do as a songwriter, and that’s what the foundation does, it bleeds.”

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