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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.

That night, in Crater Camp, I’m not bleeding but I might as well be. I’d been to this elevation a couple of years before, while trekking to Everest’s North Col, but it didn’t hurt as bad. Maybe I’d just forgotten. I press the heels of my hands into my eye sockets because it feels like my eyeballs are about to explode. Sleep is a distant fantasy. I lie in my bag, listening to the percussion of pee and projectile vomiting outside, wishing the hours would evaporate so we can get going again.

Climbing big mountains always entails a certain degree of self-imposed suffering, but there’s nothing quite like extreme altitude to make you feel your worst. The triple whammy of fatigue, cold, and hunger only exacerbates the slow bodily disintegration that sets in for real at around 18,000 feet. It’s a condition, I realized after spending time with cancer survivors, that’s eerily akin to chemotherapy. “I felt like I almost had a strange kind of advantage,” says a trekker named Kelly Carpenter, an oncology nurse from Burlington, Vermont, who had spent the previous year being treated for colon cancer. “The nausea and exhaustion from chemo are really similar. You learn just how much your body can take, how to persevere through the lowest moments. Throw up, keep moving.”

The Love Hope Strength Foundation was born from this sort of misery. Peters created the organization in 2006 with James Chippendale, an entertainment-insurance executive from Dallas, Texas. A year earlier, concerned about swollen glands in his neck, Peters had gone to the hospital for tests and discovered that he was in the advanced stages of chronic lymphatic leukemia. The white-blood-cell count in a healthy adult ranges from 4,500 to 10,000 cells per microliter; Peters’s was more than 500,000. “I’m not quite sure how you walked in here,” his doctor said.

The idea of staging a mountaintop concert and fundraiser took root during the weeks that followed. Peters was undergoing leukapherisis, an emergency procedure that knocks down your white blood cells by siphoning blood out of one arm, running it through a centrifuge, then reloading it through the opposite arm. It requires a patient to lie still for up to six hours at a stretch. The process was so painful that Peters sometimes passed out in the middle of it. To take his mind off the discomfort, he stared out of his hospital room window, where he could see Mt. Snowdon, the tallest peak in Wales, shining out of the distant mists. He vowed that if he survived, he’d play a show on the summit.

In fact, Peters believed that he’d already experienced the miraculous healing power of music. Ten years earlier, after he had been diagnosed with a different cancer (lymphoma), he’d insisted on completing a solo concert tour in the United States before beginning what would be a debilitating bone-marrow transplant. A faith healer named Bambi told him he should wear green, a color that would protect him. In the States, he bought all of the camouflage gear he could find at an army surplus store.

“I knew I had to stay really upbeat and focused,” Peters says. “It was this incredible feeling. I’d go out on stage in my combat jacket, like John Lennon, and play songs like ‘Strength.’ I’d been playing music all of my life, but I found my voice on that tour, my real voice. It felt like all of the songs I’d ever written had been preparing me for this moment.”

The day after Peters returned home, to the astonishment of his doctors, more blood tests revealed that he had gone into spontaneous remission. He was healed. For the time being.

Like Peters, Chippendale had also been broadsided by cancer, in 1998 at age 31. At the time, the charming young executive–who had once been voted one of Dallas’s most eligible bachelors–had been living the Texas-size life: six-figure salary, all-night parties, babes galore. Then one morning, unable to shake what he thought was the flu, he’d gone to see his doctor. The next day, he started treatment for acute melogynous leukemia. A hole was drilled in his chest to pump in chemotherapy, and the desperate search for a bone-marrow donor started, a frightening purgatory that lasted for seven months. He wouldn’t go back to work for two years.

“Everything changed after I got sick,” he told me. “I wish I could invent a pill that would let people experience what it’s like to have a deadly disease and then get another shot at life. Before, it was, ‘How does the world revolve around James Chippendale?’ Afterward, I was like, ‘How can I help?'”

The two men met in March 2006 through a mutual friend, when Peters came to the U.S. for his first post-leukemia performance. They were both in remission by then, basking in the bright light of second chances, and they talked about ways they might parlay music into charity.

Chippendale loved the idea and, his entrepreneurial wheels turning, encouraged Peters to think beyond a concert on Snowdon. A global cancer fund. Concerts in the world’s most exotic and inspiring locations.

“I’ve always wanted to trek to Everest basecamp,” Peters said.

“That’s it!” Chippendale replied. “We’re going!”

And they did. It was a stunt, of course–musicians climbing mountains for cancer–but a soulful one, and it seemed to strike the proverbial chord. The roster of trekkers filled almost immediately, despite the required $25,000 donation. There seemed to be no shortage of individuals who wanted to test themselves against the dizzying terrain, including a few, like Peters, who were cancer survivors themselves. The message was blunt and forceful. Climbing a summit is an iconic metaphor for obstacles overcome, strength confirmed, a battle won.

The Everest trek raised enough money to purchase the first mammography scanner and internal radiation machine in Nepal. The following year, after a trek to Machu Picchu, LHS funded a mobile screening unit that now conducts as many as 30,000 cancer exams a year in Peru. Between treks, the group hosted bone-marrow donor drives at events like Colorado’s Red Rocks concert series and the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. By the end of 2009, LHS had added more than 4,000 names to an international database of donors, and raised nearly $2 million.

“The climbs have a dual incentive,” Shannon Foley told me when we first met. “The mountains pose a personal challenge for those on the trek. And the treks are a source of inspiration and motivation for those who follow the journey. Plus, our message is really positive. We’re rock and roll. We want to make philanthropy cool.”

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