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Quincy resident Graham Shea, 29, and his brother John Kennon Shea, 31, are about to do what has never legally been done before — paraglide off the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.
The brothers will be among up to 200 paragliders who will first trek for seven days to the 19,340-foot summit and then attempt the historic flight.
In the process the group will raise $1 million to be divided among three charities in Eastern Africa: Plant with Purpose; WorldServe International; and One Difference.
This is the first time the Tanzanian government is allowing paragliders on the mountain, and permission was only granted because of the $1 million donation. Each paraglider must raise $5,000 to make the trek.
Additionally, each participant must pay for plane fare, plus $3,800 for porters, meals and other logistics, and then there’s a list of gear needed to survive the harsh elements.
Despite the costs, Shea is lured by the adventure, the opportunity to share the experience with his brother, and the chance to benefit Plant with Purpose, one of Shea’s favorite organizations.
Shea’s adventure begins Jan. 27 as the group assembles at Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge before setting out Jan. 29 to make history. Last week Shea answered a few questions about the trip, his preparations for it and why it is so important to him.
What are you doing to become physically prepared for this trip?
I’m conditioning as hard as I can as high as I can. Running through the forest on Mount Hough is a real workout. Skiing this season will help a lot too, because Tahoe is high. I’m going to start running with a pack when my legs can handle it.
How high have you climbed in the past? Do you think altitude sickness will be an issue?
I’ve climbed Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen twice each, so 14,179 feet is my record. Kilimanjaro is a big jump from that at 19,341 feet, but with seven days to acclimate I’m not too worried. Many people climb it who haven’t trained at altitude and do just fine.
Do you have any trepidation about this trip? If so, which part of the trip most worries you? Excites you?
I have a feeling the flight, and specifically the launch, are what’s on everyone’s mind. Even experienced pilots rarely launch from this high, though it’s certainly been done.
There is about half the air pressure at the top of Kilimanjaro, so we will need about twice the speed to start flying — or land, if necessary, before reaching the bottom. Many planes can’t even fly that high.
We also have to watch out for one another if the airspace gets crowded, which is something the few previous (illegal) Kilimanjaro flights have not had to worry about. However, a lot of research and planning has been done, and we will be in the company of many of the best paraglider pilots in the world
Though I’ll be one of the comparatively less experienced, I have launched at high altitude before, so I am not particularly trepidatious about that. But it will definitely be interesting.
One of the most exciting things for me will be meeting the other pilots. I can’t think of a more fascinating group, from world-record holders to the city of London police commissioner. And these are all people who care about relieving suffering and extreme poverty. I only wish the expedition were longer.
How long have you been paragliding?
I started formal paraglider training in June of this year and flew as much as possible till I met the experience requirements for Wings of Kilimanjaro.
I did a bit of informal dabbling before that (with instruction) in a related sport called “speed-flying.”
It’s a seven-day trek to the point where you will paraglide. How long will it take you to descend?
That’s a very good question. Quicker than those who have to climb down!
With a four-foot-per-second sink rate and no lift, it could be as little as an hour, but that’s not a likely scenario. There will be thermal activity (rising hot air) as well as possible ridge lift from the mountain. Combine that with a group of extremely experienced and competitive pilots, and I think there will be some really long flights.
We will discuss detailed flight plans in Tanzania before the climb, but I would be happy to stay up all day if I can. We can carry water and food in our harnesses.
What are some other unique challenges for this expedition?
We’ll be climbing through four climate zones, from hot rainforest with monkeys and giant ferns at the base to nearly lifeless arctic conditions at the summit.
That means we’ll be launching in freezing winds and landing in African summer heat only hours later. I’m hoping I don’t drop any clothes if I have to shed layers on the way down.
Oxygen is an issue at the top. Even without altitude sickness, the human brain can be affected when it has to run on half the oxygen it’s meant to.
We’ll have a good system of decision-making in place so as not to risk impaired judgment at the most critical part of the expedition — the launch.
Because weight is always an issue on a climb, my paragliding instructor converted my lightweight speed-flying harness to work with my paraglider wing, which combined weigh only 10.6 pounds, including the reserve parachute. That saves me several pounds.
How does it feel to share this experience with your brother?
John Kennon and I started paragliding precisely because we wanted to spend more time together, but this blows away any expectations we had.
To my knowledge, we’re the only brothers doing it, which is neat for us, and I think reflects well on our dad, who was an exemplary pilot and humanitarian, and who always encouraged us to be a team.
I wish he could be around for this. John Kennon and I have helped each other and learned a lot from each other over the years. (John Kennon lives in San Diego and is chairman of the family’s health care company established by his father, Ken Shea.)
How did you originally become involved with Plant with Purpose?
John Kennon introduced me to Plant with Purpose, which is based in San Diego. I traveled to Tanzania with them in 2010 and spent two weeks visiting homes, farms and schools where they have organized community savings-and-loan programs, built cisterns and taught advanced agriculture techniques to farmers.
I also attended their bi-annual international meeting and met representatives from Haiti, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Rwanda, Burundi and Thailand, where they work.
What intrigued you about this organization?
There are thousands of organizations that fight poverty, but many of the problems being addressed are actually symptoms, like malnutrition and lack of water, rather than causes.
By tracing the chain of problems “upstream” as far as possible, Plant with Purpose has started solving issues it didn’t even intend to address, like water-borne illness. They’ve been around for 28 years, and even provide consulting for less-experienced organizations.
I also appreciate that they see spiritual renewal as integral to renewing people’s relationships with each other and with their land.
This will be your second trip to Tanzania. Will you be able to see some of the people that you met on the first trip?
Yes. Doug Satre, director of outreach for Plant with Purpose, will be climbing with us, though he’s not a paraglider pilot — yet.
Before Kilimanjaro, John Kennon and I are traveling to Burundi with him to see the work being done there. He and I shared some great adventures the first trip, and he’s a good Swahili teacher.
You have committed to raising $5,000 for charity to be included in this trip. How can people help you?
I will be paying my own way for the trip, but I invite those who are interested and who have a heart for this type of charity to donate before the Jan. 15 fundraising deadline at wingsofkilimanjaro.com/grahamshea.
I would also appreciate prayer for safety and for God’s blessing on the people who are being helped through these charities.
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