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Wings of Kilimanjaro - Part two of an epic journey

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After a seven-day climb, Graham Shea, center, stands atop the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. He was part of a group of 90 paraglider pilots who sought to make history by flying off the face of the mountain. Even though weather prevented the flight, the pilots, along with approximately 500 porters and guides, was the largest group to ever climb Kilimanjaro. Photo submitted
Debra Moore

  Graham Shea set out to make paragliding history last month when he and 89 other pilots climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in the name of charity.

  The seven-day climb, which began Jan. 29, was supposed to culminate in a momentous flight — the first time that the Tanzanian government permitted paragliders to take off from Kilimanjaro. Permission was granted in exchange for a $1 million donation to local charities.

  Shea, a Quincy resident, shared the experience with his brother, John Kennon “JK” Shea, who also has a passion for flying and giving back. They became aware of Wings of Kilimanjaro through their work with Plant With Purpose, an organization founded in 1984 to address deforestation and environmental degradation in the tropics. Plant With Purpose expanded to work in six countries, including Tanzania.

  Shea’s aspirations and preparations for the Kilimanjaro trip were reported in the Dec. 19, 2012, edition of this newspaper.

  When asked during that interview what worried or excited him most about the trip, he responded, “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.”

  Instead, everyone’s minds focused on survival. The largest group that ever ascended Kilimanjaro ran out of food and water and saw many of their porters abandon the expedition.

  The pilots climbed to the summit and waited in the bitter cold for the clouds to clear.

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Graham Shea, left, and his brother John Kennon “JK” Shea enjoy a moment’s rest after trekking to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain. JK took along his ukulele and the music helped to boost group morale.

  A helicopter made a daring water drop, which bought another day’s time, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Ultimately all of the pilots but one exited the mountain, not on wings as planned, but on foot. After 45 attempts to launch, a Nepalese pilot named Babu successfully flew through the clouds and landed safely.

  As Shea shared photographs and memories of his trip during an interview last week, he said that he wasn’t disappointed — the journey he took was far more enlightening and rewarding than any he could have envisioned.

  You can read the full, first-hand account of Shea’s adventure on plumasnews.com.

  Here are some excerpts from his story:

***

  Finally, our climb had begun. An endless line of porters and pilots snaked under the mossy rainforest branches, where blue monkeys dangled and watched inquisitively. Muggy rain swelled waterfalls along the trail. The trees were a little smaller where we stopped to set up our city of tents. To my surprise, the porters had set up tables with silverware and thermoses of hot water for tea or coffee. There were even candles the first night, and heaping plates of hot food. I couldn’t decide whether I liked having that much service on a mountain climb. It seemed heavy and unnecessary, but I didn’t complain.

***

  The next morning my lower lip was cracked and swollen. The equatorial sun’s power magnified the higher we climbed, but soon it became cold enough that I left no skin exposed. We scrambled breathless up bare rock faces toward our last camp before the summit. Gusts of about 50 miles per hour shoved us around on the ridge we followed and made me wonder how we could ever take off with paragliders. Behind us, the needle spires of Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro’s sub-peak, jutted up through the snow. Again, we were higher than I had ever climbed.

  I don’t know if there’s a better view anywhere in Africa. The sun sank behind Mount Meru to the west, and from a sheer cliff I watched the highest clouds splashed up against the mountain like frothy waves. In the mess tent that night a pilot told me his porters had quit. Another, who spoke Swahili, said about 100 more were planning to leave. I found this hard to believe, but had no real reasons to doubt him. We had run out of water that day, so our expedition leader, Adrian, had sent for more to be brought up. It was bitterly cold and windy, and morale seemed brittle.

***

  The final climb was a brutal head-on assault. We clambered slowly up a sharp ridge that left no room for traversing. Icicles clung to the rocks, even in full sunlight. Far below us, I could see the tents from camp were still up, and the porter turmoil continued. A stream of porters bled from camp down the mountain in confirmation of the worst. I hoped our climb would not be in vain. My altimeter reached 17,000 feet, then 18,000 feet. We were among the glacier walls. Cresting the crater’s edge at Stella Point revealed a fantastic landscape, part Antarctica, part moon.

***

  I climbed into my sleeping bag early that night just to get warm. Would Adrian lie to save the expedition? Would we ever fly? Would any of us die on the mountain from the selfish spite of those who had revolted? The doctors had taken impeccable care of both pilots and porters. I felt safe in their hands, but they were the most grave and serious about the need to leave.

  I slipped on my earphones and listened to The Kepple Band, a local Quincy group, sing, “Up into the mountain sky, there’s not a single place to be where you are not there with me.” JK had brought a ukulele up the mountain just for fun, but the harder things got, the more the group wanted to hear us play. Ironically, music was the only thing powerful enough to combat our hardship when it became most severe. My whole world transformed as I listened, and soon only the spectacular beauty of the mountain, and the glorious sacrifice of our faithful porters were left in my mind. Fear was gone. We would make it down one way or another.

Click here to read more about Graham Shea's Kilimanjaro adventure in his own words.

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