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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.

Hell looms above, but our journey begins in heaven. Our preclimb basecamp occupies a lush grove of towering podocarpus trees and cassia bushes spackled with yellow blooms, tucked away on the lee side of Kilimanjaro’s 14,980-foot neighbor, Mt. Meru. In the afternoon, the musicians noodle melodies on their guitars while warm winds scented with wood smoke drift across the foothills, rustling our canvas cottages. The bucolic setting reminds me of a quote from George Mallory, of Everest fame, who said that the first rule of mountaineering is to stay as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. I mention this to my teammates one morning while we wait in line at the omelet bar.

It seems bizarre, bordering on the surreal, to be sharing a camp with this particular cast. Love Hope Strength is like a punk-rock version of Livestrong: tattooed, edgy, antiestablishment, but with a commitment to the outdoors and a cause. In addition to Peters, Tilbrook, Curnin, and Wilson, our expedition includes Slim Jim Phantom, the drummer for the Stray Cats; British singer-songwriter Nick Harper; and a rockabilly guitarist from Australia named Brien McVernon, who sports a pommade-shellacked, Elvis-inspired coif and refuses to climb in anything other than his black leather jacket. “A man has to have standards,” he tells me.

Granted, they aren’t exactly current chart toppers, but, to an alt-leaning Gen-Xer like me, they’re sentimental favorites who featured prominently on the mixed tape of my youth. The chance to spend some quality time with them, on a trip that might be described as a mash-up of VH1’s Behind the Music and Into Thin Air, filled me with glee.

The cause carries personal resonance, too. A few weeks before I’d left for Africa, my mother underwent a double mastectomy after her third bout with breast cancer. She seemed to be through the worst of it, and the prognosis was favorable, but it had been an exhausting run. I left for Kili feeling like I could breathe again for the first time in months.

In Tanzania, I rendezvous with the LHS team on Mt. Meru. Our expedition is led by African Environments, a premium outfitter that had recently guided Today Show host Ann Curry. I pester our lead guides, Noel “Mchili” Mbwambo and James Kivuyu (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Wesley Snipes), for route details.

About 30,000 people make it up Kilimanjaro annually. But about an equal number fail, undone by steep trails and punishing heights. On average, about 10 are killed each year, usually from complications brought on by altitude.

The plan is to ascend the Lemosho Route, which will provide a relatively measured pace–eight days (six up, two down) instead of the five typically taken on other routes–during which we’ll cross the Shira Plateau and climb the Western Breach, including a dangerous section called the “Bowling Alley.” It’s arguably the best route on the mountain: fewer crowds, more scenic diversity, and a more interesting (if more challenging) crux.

Alas, the comfort factor drops the moment we depart basecamp, embarking on a dust-choked jeep ride followed by a steep four-hour hike through the jungle to Big Tree Camp, at 8,700 feet. We crowd into a forested grove, colobus monkeys frolicking in the branches, and set up for the night.

Foley reads off the tent pairings: Peters piles in with his wife, Jules. Cy Curnin and Nick Harper bunk together. Glenn Tilbrook gets his own tent, due to his seismic snoring. I room with photographer Owen Fegan.

As we disperse, I see Slim Jim Phantom–pale, rail thin, and wearing a Yankees baseball hat–staring at his shelter with a twisted expression. “I’ve never slept in a tent before,” he says.

“What about in Nepal?” I ask. “On the Everest trek.”

“We stayed in tea houses. They were dingy, but they had walls!” Phantom lives in L.A., where he spends much of his time at the Cat Club.

Phantom was touring with Peters when Peters received his diagnosis in 2005. The band, ironically, was called Dead Men Walking, and Peters had shown up for practice the night after his first chemotherapy treatment. “I didn’t want to let the guys down,” he says. When he later approached Phantom about LHS, Phantom promptly signed up, even though the highest ascent he’d previously made was an elevator-assisted trip up the Empire State Building.

Phantom’s tentmate, Robin Wilson, 43, is the LHS band’s newest recruit. The two make a curious pair. Wilson was once nominated for a Grammy, has teen-beat good looks, and likes skateboarding and video games. Prior to Kili, he worked out five days a week with a personal trainer and went camping in Arizona’s mountains. Outfitted in the latest trekking gear, Wilson looks like he could outpace the guides.

That afternoon, we gather under the Big Tree for a concert. The musicians are armed with acoustic guitars, except for Slim Jim, who wields drumsticks brought from home and keeps the beat on a five-gallon white plastic pail, turned upside down in his lap.

The performance, our first on the mountain, is a rousing open-air jam. No mics, no amps, just five guitars, a bucket, and Robin Wilson slapping a tambourine. The musicians are still feeling good, aglow in the spotlight of jungle-filtered sunshine.

They run through a medley of past hits before Peters steps out with “Right Back Where I Started From,” a jangly number with syncopating verses that get the whole camp clapping. The song gathers and swells, chords snapping in the crisp mountain air. Peters sings and strums and wails on a harmonica. He’s a master showman, on stage or in camp, and soon he’s got the crowd belting out the chorus while the instruments pause–one beat, two, three, four–then kick in again for an overflowing finale. It’s music at its most elemental, stripped of props and digital production, performed for an audience of strangers-about-to-become-friends who bound through the circle doing the chicken dance. I’ve been on high earnest-alert since arriving, but I can’t help myself–I’m still humming as I crawl into my bag late that night.

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