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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.

We push higher into the alpine moonscape: Fischer’s Camp, at 12,950 feet. The team is gathered in the mess for tea this afternoon when Foley whips the canvas door flap aside and strides in like an army colonel.

“Molly’s sick,” she announces. “She says she’s dying.”

There is group-wide guffawing. Molly Silverman, 31, one of the trekkers, is a self-described “hippie chick” and single mom who does part-time eldercare work in Phoenix, where she lives. (Her well-off family had paid the $15,000 donation.) I like her, but she’d proved an enthusiastic conversationalist, and had sent the others running. She’d occupied her hiking time picking up kitchen Swahili from the porters.

Foley has spent most of the afternoon playing nurse.

“Don’t leave me!” Silverman had cried. “Biridi! Biridi! I’m cold! I’m cold!

“I thought you said you were hot?”

“Molto! Molto! I’m hot! I’m hot!

“You have to stop speaking Swahili,” Foley told her. “You don’t even speak Swahili.”

Foley’s had a rough few days. A couple nights ago, she bit into a crusty roll and broke off a tooth. Yesterday, she tripped on a rock while walking to her tent at night and blew out her knee. Here it comes, I think, the loose thread of attrition that will start unraveling our delicately woven team. Will we have to jettison Molly? Endure more nights of wailing? Will it derail what have become our regular afternoon concerts? None of the above, it turns out. Molly seems better the next day, despite having thrown up on our guide James.

The musicians appear unfazed. “Molly’s driving everyone nuts,” Phantom tells me later with a shrug. “But she’s got great spirit. I think her heart’s in the right place.”

That afternoon, after we’ve shuffled our way up to Lava Tower, at 14,000 feet, the musicians goose morale with an inspired show, including a version of Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh’s “Wooly Bully,” during which they substitute pole-pole for the chorus.

The following day, we ascend a series of short switchbacks to Arrow Glacier Camp, set on a denuded bench at nearly 16,000 feet. Tendrils of snow and ice, what little is left of Kili’s retreating icecap, thread down from the cliffs above. Mchili calls this place Ann Curry Point, since the anchor and her crew turned around here. I arrive at my tent to find a bright orange helmet near the entrance. “Why are there helmets?” I hear a teammate ask anxiously. Tomorrow, we depart at 4:30 a.m. to navigate the steep rubble fields and blocky ledges of the 3,000-foot Western Breach, including the Bowling Alley, an exposed stretch where three climbers were killed by a massive rockslide in 2006. The helmets, I think cynically, are mostly there for liability reasons.

Before dinner, I join Robin Wilson for a hike above camp, the old mountaineer’s trick to help push acclimatization: Climb higher than you sleep each night. Wilson got involved with Love Hope Strength through a friend and film producer who had been on the Everest trek in 2007; the only musician he knew previously was Slim Jim Phantom. “I can’t think of anything in my life that has affected me in such a positive way, on so many different levels,” he says of his decision to join the Kili trip. “I got in great shape, and I’m surrounded by musicians I admire doing a good thing for a good reason. Plus, I’m pretty sure I’m the first person ever to play a Cheap Trick song for 100 African porters.”

We’re above the clouds, which have gathered during the afternoon and now stretch across the horizon, hiding the savannah. Bulbous columns of vapor float toward the mountain like Macy’s Parade balloons.

Wilson and I trundle back down to camp and join the others huddled in the mess tent, sipping Ballantines-spiked tea. It’s too cold for our usual evening concert, so Cy Curnin and Nick Harper practice some new material before Foley wraps the evening with the Reading of the Emails–messages from back home that she downloads every afternoon and shares with the group.

“Mom, I miss you! I put onions near my eyes to make me sad,” writes the 5-year-old son of Angie Devaney, 38. After a few more, Foley reads a note from my mom: “I hope all’s well. I have new boobies from a box!”

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