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Brent Theobal Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

Golden West Colleague

Brent Theobald
Public Safety Supervisor

Brent climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro this past summer, but before we share his experience with our readers, let us introduce you to Brent who has had a most unusual childhood. Brent was born in Papua New Guinea. His parents were missionaries in a small tribe where everyone lives and gets their sustenance from the jungle, the way they have lived for thousands of years. He was home schooled up to the eighth grade; then attended an international boarding school for high school. He came to the United States at the age of 18 and became a U.S. citizen.

CULTURE SHOCK

What kinds of adjustments did you have moving from a jungle environment in New Guinea to the U.S.?

There were adjustments to almost everything. It was assimilating myself into a culture that’s supposed to be yours—says it’s yours on the passport—but one that you have never lived in. There were so many different things such as driving on the freeway, going to a bank, finding a place to live; I mean the list could go on and on. Something as simple as walking into a Costco or Albertsons and seeing the endless rows and rows of groceries and merchandise was amazing.

CLIMBING MT. KILIMANJARO

Our readers will find your experience very interesting. Please elaborate on this unusual opportunity.

Mt. Kilimanjaro is 19,340 feet high and is one of the seven summits. It’s the tallest free standing mountain in the world and lies on the border of Tanzania and Kenya. The mountain itself has five different ecological zones: cultivated lower slopes, then into montane forests (a type of forest that receives it watering from mist), the grassy moorlands, the moonlike alpine desert, and then finally the ice capped summit. It’s like going from the Equator to the North Pole in literally four or five days. We climbed from the base of the mountain to the summit in five days, and we took one of the most difficult routes, the Umbwe route. I didn’t do all of the training I would have liked before I went, so just to put this into perspective, a buddy and I flew from Los Angeles to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, jumped on a charter flight to Kilimanjaro, and the next day we were climbing the mountain. We literally went from sea level to climbing a mountain in a period of a couple of days, which definitely proved to be challenging.

What was the total number of people in the climbing party?

Three: a good friend of mine from the military, my youngest sister, and me. They were in good shape, and I was not, but we all made it to the top!

You say you didn’t have time to do the training you would have liked. What type of training would you normally do to be fully prepared for a climb like that?

Normally I would have actually climbed Mount Whitney at least once or twice and then probably gone up to the White Mountains which have an elevation of about 14,000 feet, clearly making sure your muscles and body have that endurance. But more importantly with climbing, it’s the acclimatizing to the lack of oxygen in the air you experience. The night I was summiting I really got hit hard with altitude sickness. It felt like I was not in control of my body, like I was drunk.

What kind of experiences did you have during this five day period? Very few people will ever have an experience like that.

W. H. Murry, a Scottish Mountaineer once wrote, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” One of my goals has been to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. There are quite a few mountains I want to climb, but Kilimanjaro was on the top of my list because of where it is located. Even the pictures don’t do it justice. The moss that grows on the trees is just dripping, especially when you start getting into those higher zones in the moorlands, and you think there should be dinosaurs walking around. It’s absolutely incredible. After moving into the alpine desert, the landscape becomes devoid of vegetation, and you get the sense that you might be walking on the moon. We reached the summit at 5 a.m., after walking through the glacial snow for three hours. Unfortunately, the glacier on Kilimanjaro is rapidly depleting, and it may be gone within 10 years! As we were coming down, the sun was breaking over, and the rays were incredible. It is not only the beauty of nature around this mountain; it is also the culture of the people. Kilimanjaro provides an environment for a wide variety of vegetation and animals, and this provides lush areas around the base of the mountain for cultivation. I can’t stress enough how incredible the culture is around the base of Kilimanjaro. We had some guides who were climbing with us. They were members of the Chaga tribe who are an amazing and very hardy people, similar to the people you would find in Tibet or in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are very friendly people who are full of life, and their vibrancy, I believe, comes from this spectacular setting. I did get a picture in my GWC sweatshirt on the top of the mountain, so the college was represented on the roof of Africa.

Were you at any point concerned about the safety of your party?

Yes, the first night we were climbing it was very cold and rainy, and one of our guides got hypothermia. It hit him hard, but no one knew it until we arrived at one of our base camps and he was nowhere to be found. So we went back to find him and had to carry him down the mountain in the middle of the night to the hospital. We thought we were going during the dry season, but it was actually the end of the wet season into the dry season, so it was still very rainy. Hypothermia and pneumonia are always lurking in that type of situation. Also you have to worry about climbing, where you put your feet, and what you do. The route we chose to climb was non-technical; however, there are areas where we were free climbing vertical faces. You have to be careful of what you’re doing and watch for fatigue, because you’re going to get hurt when you are tired and make a mistake. Also my concern was the altitude and not being fully acclimatized, but at some point you just have to commit to your goal.

Is it as difficult coming down as it is going up because you have to hold your weight back?

You know, that is a very good question. As a matter of fact, it was very difficult coming down. I went from the summit to the base of the mountain in one day, and I was hurting because of altitude sickness. During my descent I was extremely fatigued due to the lack of oxygen as opposed to being out of shape. This is how a lot of climbers actually die, when you succumb to the fatigue and think to yourself that you’ll just sit for a while and rest, but then you fall asleep. That is when your body and organs shut down. One of the major difficulties on the descent is climbing on the gravel that can be as deep as a foot in certain sections. So with a near vertical descent, this gravel can cause you to slip and fall multiple times-especially when you are fighting altitude sickness. It’s hard on your body— especially your knees, hands, and feet.

MILITARY SERVICE

I was in the Marine Corps from 1999 to 2004, and I served in special operations in Afghanistan. In fact, I was in Afghanistan in October of 2001, right after 9/11. I was in Iraq, and I’ve done a lot of special operations training all over the world.

What are your hobbies?

I love surfing, diving, boating— anything in the water. I also love to rock climb and hike. I go up to the Sierra Nevada’s whenever I can, and I run to stay in shape. Music is another passion of mine, and I love to sit down at my keyboard after a stressful day.

Editor’s note: Brent began his current position in the fall of 2007. Prior to that, he was a GWC Public Safety Officer. He has a number of goals he wishes to achieve for Public Safety, and we plan to share these goals with our readers in the winter issue of Wavelength in February.