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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.

Day two is a doozy: We grind up 3,000 vertical feet in eight hours, tracing a ridge out of the forested foothills to the sparsely vegetated moorlands of Shira Camp, elevation 11,300 feet. The porters gallop past us en route, pulverizing the trail into a fine talc, gargantuan canvas duffles containing our food, shelter, and chemical toilets balanced on their heads. When I get to camp, my tent is up, pad inflated, sleeping bag rolled out.

Before dinner, the musicians gather for another alfresco performance. Nearly 8,000 feet above, Kilimanjaro’s dramatic summit cone turns ocher. If anyone’s suffering at this point, it doesn’t show.

At dinner, I sit next to Paul Cooney, a 28-year-old IT entrepreneur from California who sometimes goes by the moniker Coondog. I ask him how he hooked up with the expedition. “My company started making money, and I was looking for a charity to support,” says Coondog, gnawing a chunk of bread. “I researched a bunch of organizations, but I wasn’t feeling it. Then I saw Mike Peters at a concert, talking about Love Hope Strength, and it just clicked.”

Thirteen trekkers (10 women, three men) raised $15,000 each–pestering relatives, holding bake sales, soliciting corporate sponsors–to secure a spot on the trip. Their connection to the cause varies by degree and type. Some, like Cooney, are looking to do good with some discretionary income. Some have lost parents, grandparents, siblings, friends. Others, like Peters and Kelly Carpenter, are cancer survivors.

“The hike is a test,” Carpenter tells me one morning on the trail, describing how chemo left a lingering numbness in her feet and hands. “It’s a way to confirm that I’m healthy again. That I have my life back.”

Another trekker who intended on joining the trip was named Kevin Carlson. The 36-year-old musician from L.A. had been fighting a brain tumor, and he’d appeared to be fairing well until about a month before departure. Then we received a somber email from Foley, informing us that Carlson had relapsed and died. Carlson’s name came up occasionally during the trip, ghosting along with us on the trail, a reminder that most cancer stories don’t end with mountain climbing.

Cancer is one of the only major diseases that has resisted our best and boldest efforts to eradicate it, or even reign it in. Since Richard Nixon declared a “war” on cancer in 1971, the National Cancer Institute alone has spent more than $100 billion on research. But cancer mortality rates have fallen only five percent since then, according to a recent story in The New York Times. It’s a woeful statistic, especially compared with, say, heart disease, which has dropped 64 percent in that time.

That’s one of the reasons LHS focuses on treatment, not research. In places like Nepal and Peru and Tanzania, recovery rates could be increased simply by providing technology that already exists. Likewise, bone-marrow donors can save lives–there just aren’t enough of them registered. Recently, LHS’s practical approach to the problem has been noticed by bigger players.

Last year, Peters, Chippendale, and Foley attended the first Global Cancer Summit, in Dublin, Ireland, organized by Livestrong. It featured organizations like the International Union Against Cancer (UICC), with whom Love Hope Strength is now partnered. The UICC will help manage money–like driving donations from the Kilimanjaro climb into the construction of a new cancer ward for children in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam. And LHS is becoming the new face of bone-marrow donor drives around the world, using quick-and-easy mouth swabs and tying into musical events wherever possible. It’s the most significant LHS development since Foley spilled a Guinness in Lance Armstrong’s lap at the conference. “I can be a little accident prone,” she says.

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