It all started with a broken pair of sandals.
And Bryan Michael Washburn, of Clinton, had no idea that a kind gesture to repair the shoes he had trekked through Europe in would spark an inspiration to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania last month to help raise funds for British author J.K. Rowling’s charity, Lumos.
“I went to Everest Base Camp two years ago — I had done a trek back at Kathmandu wearing broken sandals, and I had gone all over the world with them,” Washburn recalled. “There was an Indian man on the streets there who saw them and offered to fix them. At first I said, ‘No thanks,’ but he insisted and finally I relented and let him fix my sandals. It turned out, he was a professional shoe person who moved to Nepal to get out of the caste system. During the bus ride there, he had his kit — more than $300 worth of equipment —stolen from him.”
The climber continued, “He invited me back to his home for tea…where he, his wife and three children lived in a small room. I posted something on Facebook saying, ‘I’ve got to help this guy.’ And as I was getting my connecting flight (home), all these people were sending me money through PayPal. After that experience, I said if I do anything” like this again “or if I’m going anywhere, then I’m going to do it while raising money for a cause that’s important to the place I’m visiting.”
Washburn and his buddy David Swierczek, of Utica, who have been best friends since attending kindergarten at Harts Hill Elementary School in Whitesboro, had discussed challenging themselves to a Kilimanjaro climb for the last decade — the highest mountain in Africa. About two years ago is when both started to seriously plan for the trek, and then Washburn learned of Rowling’s Lumos foundation.
“Tanzania’s problem is child trafficking, and Lumos has offices in Kenya — right next door — so I reached out to them and told them why I wanted to do a fund-raiser for them,” said Washburn. “And they’ve been in contact with us since the beginning of September. They said, ‘We’ll give you a logo, banner, information on how to start a fund-raiser and how to promote it…’ so they were very cooperative. Now they’re doing a follow-up where they’ve invited us to New York to do an on-camera interview, and they wanted videos of us and other climbers, and they’re putting it all together” to make a promotional video.
“But the mountain came first, then the fund-raiser,” the 39-year-old quipped about the pair’s planned climb. Washburn had just interviewed for a job with the New York Beef Council as the organization’s digital community coordinator before leaving for Tanzania on Oct. 10, and was working on a presentation for a second interview via their 14-hour plane ride and travel time going there and while coming back home. He started the job on Nov. 11.
“We took the train from Utica to New York, then our flight from JFK (John F. Kennedy Airport) to Dubai was seven hours. Then we traveled from Dubai to Moshi in Tanzania, and that was another seven hours,” Washburn remembered.
It took seven days for Washburn and Swierczek to make the trek up to the summit of Kilimanjaro and just two days to descend. It was Washburn’s first major mountain at 19,300 feet. The climber said it takes longer to get up in order to allow your body to adjust to the decreasing air pressure.
“I did tons of research, and when I did the Everest Base Camp, I created a template for myself,” said Washburn as to how he prepared for the Kilimanjaro climb. “I decided to find out as much about the mountain as I could, others’ experiences climbing it, I researched the trails, and then for 3-4 months leading up to it, I was at the Fitness Mill Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tuesdays I would hit the bike and travel through Clinton, parts of Paris Hill and Kirkland — I’d do anywhere from 6-18 miles a ride. Then on Thursdays I’d do yoga, and Saturdays we’d hike in the Adirondacks with all our gear. I had a bag of birdseed to simulate the weight in my backpack I’d have on the mountain. As it got closer — all of September — I did yoga every day and then the bike three days a week. I was also on a strict diet.”
Washburn said he and Dave got to pretty much experience all four seasons during their trek. Six out of the seven days it “poured” while climbing up, he said, with Tanzania’s rainy season arriving about a month ahead of schedule. The weather prompted the climbers to wrap their boots in plastic wrap so that they didn’t suffer from hypothermia.
“Dave is done. He said he’s never going over 7,000 feet again,” Washburn laughed. “But my next one will either be a beach or I may do Aconcagua, which is the tallest mountain in South America — in Argentina. A little technical climbing will be involved, but it has six different echo systems from start to finish in the Rainforest.”
As for the Kilimanjaro climb, “We got dumped on (rain) and it was about 50 degrees, so it was interesting,” he recalled. “By Day 2, you’re going through heath and moorland areas, and then it becomes a semi-arid desert, but it’s misty and rainy. We chose to do the climb in October because it’s suppose to the the second-driest month there, but the rainy season started a month early.”
“As we were going through the landscape, it was cold and wet, but it was very different,” the climber continued. “Then we’d get to a place that was like an alpine desert, where there was no foliage of any kind, and it was mostly rocks. Then when we got near base camp, it was like Mars. The mountain was a volcano” at one time, “so there’s just a vast area of shale. The last eruption created the plateau where we were walking, which was volcanic rocks, and of course at the top was all snow — the glacial summit zone.”
It was at the wintery summit where Washburn and Swierczek planted their Lumos banner and took a photo. The porters and guides all congratulated the climbers at the end. And each received a special certificate to authorize the completion of their climb.
As a team, all the climbers in the group hung out for one last dinner together before everyone said their goodbyes, which was the only official celebration of the completion of their trek, Washburn said. As the climbers tipped their guides and assistants, they were sung to in Swahili during a special ceremony.
Through their adventure, Washburn and Swierczek were able to raise about $2,575 through their Facebook fund-raiser. The day they entered the mountain, it closed out.
Lumos officials said they are grateful for Washburn’s and Swierczek’s willingness to dedicate their climb in honor of bringing awareness to the organization and its cause.