Just after midnight in the morning of Oct. 26, a handful of Canadians, all with ties to the ad industry, will crawl out from their tents onto the rocky ground around Camp Barafu.
In the thin, frigid air 15,000 feet above sea level, the group—13 in all, including Brett Marchand, Shannyn Werstroh and Nissa Poetranto—will begin preparing for the last leg of their long journey to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, still five kilometres, 4,000 feet, and eight hours of slow hiking above them.
In the cold and the darkness, anticipation and adrenaline will (hopefully) numb the aches, pains and fatigue that often come after hiking up roughly 44 kilometres from the town of Moshi, which was the starting point six days before.
“I run a fair amount and do other things, but hiking is harder than people realize, or at least it is for me,” said Marchand, CEO of Plus Company. “You’re actually sore the next day in places you’re not sore when you go for an 8K run.”
Speaking to The Message a little more than two weeks before the start of the climb, Marchand said he wasn’t nervous at that point, but expected to feel different once he got to Moshi.
“I’ll be more anxious about not making it—for whatever reason,” he said. “I have a bad Achilles, who knows, shit happens. I’ll be more anxious about the unknown.”
Collectively the group constitutes the “nabs Kili Climb 2023,” a sponsored challenge to raise much-needed money for the charity which supports people in need across the industry (click here to donate now).
But there are other ways to raise money for the charity. Climbing Kilimanjaro is also about an extraordinary, and rare, personal accomplishment, the right to say you’ve been to Africa and scaled its tallest mountain (one of the world’s so-called Seven Summits).
Werstroh, associate director, programmatic, at Xaxis, first saw Kilimanjaro on a trip to Kenya 10 years ago, and has dreamed of climbing it ever since. “When I was told that I would be able to raise money for a cause I cared deeply about, paired with this exciting lifelong dream, I couldn’t say no,” she said.
“The anticipation of conquering Kilimanjaro’s slopes, witnessing breathtaking landscapes, and experiencing the unique culture of Tanzania is incredibly exciting.”
For Poetranto, biddable media lead at Mindshare Canada, the “Kili Climb” is at least partly about life after covid, doing the kind of thing so many dreamed of during lockdowns, though with a more practical incentive as well. “I really wanted to achieve this climb as a personal goal—also while I still have the knees to do it,” she said with a smile.
And for Marchand, the climb is about raising money for nabs, and doing something unforgettable with his daughter, Allie. Every year, he makes plans with his both his kids for what they can do together. “And a couple of years ago, just before the pandemic, my daughter said ‘I want to climb a big mountain on every continent.'”
Nabs has organized a Kilimanjaro fundraising climb twice before, in 2015 and 2016. Of the combined 28 climbers who attempted, all were successful. It’s not an overly technical climb, and there are no rock faces to conquer—rather, it’s a long, gruelling hike upwards for seven straight days.
“From a physical standpoint, anyone in decent shape should be able to handle the workout of the daily hike, even in sections that are more inclined,” said Mark Neves, nabs’ central director and lead organizer for the climb.
Official statistics about the success rate for climbing Kilimanjaro are hard to find and / or are outdated. But estimates for seven-day climbs are 90% or higher. The more time taken for the climb, the higher the success rate because of the importance of acclimatization.
By the time they get to Barafu—well above most cloud cover—the reduced air pressure makes it difficult for the body to take in the oxygen it needs to complete basic functions. At sea level, each breath is about 20% or 21% oxygen; at the top of Kilimajaro, it’s less than 10%. In the best case, it just slows you down. In the worst, it can cause altitude sickness, which can cause debilitating headaches and nausea.
“We talk about altitude a lot, and how to best prepare yourself for it,” said Neves. The nabs climbers have the option of taking Diamox, which helps with altitude sickness, and will be taking an extended route up the mountain to adjust to the altitude and thinning air.
“That allows them to meander as they climb to give their bodies maximum chance to acclimatize to higher altitudes,” said Neves. “They also take a ‘climb high, sleep low’ mentality, which means that there are days that, at midday, they are actually at a higher altitude than when they camp for the evening.”
But nobody can really know how their body will react unless they’ve been through it before, and most climbers will have never been anywhere near the 15,000 feet of Camp Barafu, never mind the 19,000 feet at the summit. Marchand has done climbs of 14,000+ feet before, and never suffered from altitude sickness. “That doesn’t mean I won’t at 19,000 feet,” he said, and Allie has felt the effects before. “I get a little lightheaded but not nauseous or anything else, where she’s been quite nauseous,” he said.
The goal for “nabs Kili Climb 2023” is to raise $150,000, of which they had raised just over $116,000 as of Friday morning (click here to help).
But nabs also thinks of the climb as a metaphor for the work it does. “In nabs’ 40-year history, we’ve climbed a lot of mountains for clients and with clients—often with their families,” reads the copy explaining the mission (you should really click here). “After 40 years, you would think nabs would be tired of all the mountain climbing. On the contrary, we are just beginning.”
“Raising money is important, because we’re an industry that doesn’t have a backstop for most people,” said Marchand. “I’m lucky enough not to need a backstop, but there are a lot of people who aren’t as fortunate…. I wish nabs had more money.”
But—speaking like a true marketer—Marchand knows this is also about raising the profile for the charity, a great story on its own that provides a way into deeper conversations about the work it does. “It’s not as important as the money, but it’s good to raise awareness.”
By mid-afternoon on Oct. 26, the nabs climbers should arrive at the highest point of Mount Kilimajaro, the Uruhu Peak 19,341 feet above sea level, and their part of the nabs mission will be complete (have you clicked here yet?)
After less than an hour snapping photos, taking in the views and catching their breath, the group will start back down to Barafu. While it will have taken them a full day to reach the summit, the trip back down should only take about three hours (thanks gravity), enough time to reflect on their achievement.
“This journey promises personal growth, a deeper connection with nature, and a profound sense of accomplishment,” said Werstroh, who knows climbing Kilimanjaro will be a challenging physical undertaking, but also expects it to be a “a profoundly emotional and spiritual one.
“I believe that, by embracing both my nerves and excitement, I am setting myself up for a life-changing experience on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.”