A 60-something year-old University President from Iowa heading to Tanzania to attempt to climb 19,340 feet to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro?

That's me. David Maxwell, president of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

I will be accompanying members of the Drake University Football Team to Tanzania as part of the Global Kilimanjaro Bowl — the first collegiate game of American football to be played on the African continent.

As part of this experience we will engage in service projects — including building a wing on an orphanage for children of AIDS victims, building housing for teachers at a school outside of Moshi, clearing land for school playgrounds, and working with a local organization that serves orphaned street children.

We will cap the trip with a trip to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro with our partners (and competitors) the CONADEIP All-Stars from Mexico.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reaching the Summit

All The President's Men at the Summit of Mt.Kilimanjaro.

Well, the mountain allowed me climb it to the summit, Uhuru peak. The whole way to the peak, I kept looking at the ground immediately in front of me (which is a good idea, since if you miss the next rock, you may become a sacrifice to Kilimanjaro...), and tried to plant my foot in a way that the mountain would accept it.

I know that this sounds New Age goofy, but it's not meant to be. You really do have to become part of the mountain, to feel it with your head, your heart and your feet if you're going to make it. It's a spectacularly difficult climb (for a non-technical trek).

The summit beckons.

We started the ascent from Kibo Hut at 15,100 feet at 11:30 p.m on Saturday. Needless to say, ascending through volcanic scree, climbing through and over boulders (often with a magnificent drop-off if you missed your footing) in the dark and cold was not easy. You just have to keep telling yourself — for 6 hours — “OK, I just took one step and that worked out all right, so

let's take one more,” and not focus on how far you have to go. On the other hand, I'm sure that if I saw the 35-degree incline covered with volcanic obstacles in the daylight, I would have declared myself insane for even thinking about it and

gone back to Kibo!

Doing the final ascent in the dark has another profound advantage — you get to see the sun rise over the rim of the crater. As you can see from my photo, it is truly magnificent. It is a spiritual experience — standing at the highest point in Africa watching the sun rise makes you profoundly aware that you are part of something much, much bigger than you are, and that by climbing to that point you have become more connected to the whole. A number of the players had tears in their eyes as they stood at the summit, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the experience and the view in front of them.

It was wonderful to stand on Uhuru Peak with Justin and Steve — this is the kind of thing they've been trying to get their dad to do for years, and it was very moving to share this whole experience with them. They've been great, very supportive (probably amazed that their old man could make it), and they've had wonderful interactions with the players. The three of us are very grateful for the way in which the whole team — players and coaches — has welcomed us with open arms into the Drake Football family.

Out of the 70 people who began the climb, 64 made it to the summit! The average success rate for this route is much lower, which says a lot about our guys' determination and fortitude. Some of the players who summited had fairly severe high altitude sickness symptoms (bad headache, vomiting, dizziness, weakness), but Dr. LouAnn Fleer cleared most of them to do it if they wanted to — they passed a battery of tests to determine that they did not have the onset of pulmonary or cerebral edema.

A section climbed in the dark...

I was incredibly impressed with their strength of will to summit while feeling that sick (I had no altitude symptoms, and it was still the hardest thing I've ever done physically). I was also profoundly touched by the ways in which players helped each other up and down the mountain — those who were feeling strong helped the sicker players up and down the mountain. It was an incredibly caring, selfless team effort. It's become clear to me over the last two weeks that our football team is a very special group of young men.

The route down was easier, of course, but a lot more painful. We descended 4,100 feet back to Kibo Hut on Sunday morning. We arrived there by 10 a.m., having just watched the sunrise at the peak. That part of the descent included negotiating over/through the boulders again, and then falling, skiing, running, stumbling down several thousand feet of loose scree. Then, after lunch, we had another 6-hour trek to Harumba Hut.

We were told that the trail was easy, good, gentle ups and downs, mostly down. Clearly, we have had some failures in KiSwahili to English translation. What this really meant was pretty steep downhills on paths covered with river rock and huge tree roots, all designed to destroy those parts of our knees and quads that the scree hadn't annihilated already. That was 6,000 feet of descent in one day after most of us hadn't slept since Saturday morning and summitted Kilimanjaro.

Yesterday we had the last 6,000 feet of descent to the gate — another "easy" trek over boulders, rocks, ledges and giant tree roots. Most of us are having trouble getting in and out of chairs, and going up/down stairs.

And it was worth every bit of it.

We did have some people who became too sick to make the full climb — some of them quite ill. They are all, thankfully, on the mend. Lower altitude is the best cure. All but one of All the President's Men (including Dr. Freer, of course) made it to the summit (see the picture). The one player who didn't make it got severe altitude problems at 14,100 ft at Mawenza Hut — his oxygen saturation was too low and his pulse was 150.

Three Maxwells on the Mountain.

Dr. Freer determined that he needed to go down to a lower altitude to recover and wait for us on the return journey. It was painful for all of us — the 16 of us had become really close as a team, and he is a joyous, outgoing bright young man who had been looking forward to reaching the summit for months (as we all have). He was always the life of the party at meals, always had a smile and nice things to say about everyone. It was heartbreaking. He had to wait at Harumba Hut for two days until we came back down. He greeted us with a big smile and, "I'm so proud of you guys for making it!"

I have had many conversations with the players, and it is consummately clear that this trip has changed their lives in all kinds of ways. Some of them are talking about changing majors and/or career aspirations so that they can do work that helps in Tanzania and in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Their interactions with the Tanzanian children at the service projects, and their interactions with the people of Tanzania have opened their eyes, their hearts — they already are changed, and they see the world in profoundly different ways than they did two weeks ago. It's clear that the "exceptional learning environment" promised in the Drake University Mission Statement is not just the campus in Des Moines — it's Tanzania, Uganda, China, Europe....

We've discovered that time is viewed differently in Africa. I don't mean this to be condescending, or culturally arrogant — I truly admire it. "The bus leaves at 8 a.m." means it leaves sometime in the early part of the morning; "dinner is at 6 p.m." means it's sometime in the evening, etc. There's a lot of standing around waiting — but it's only the Americans who are bothered by that.

The Tanzanians stand around chatting, catching up on each others' lives, talking about football (soccer), smiling, perfectly relaxed. Waiting seems to be a time-out from their lives — a time to refresh, relax, to talk and think. They are not tyrannized by time the way that we are, and they

seem a lot less neurotic and a lot more joyful than most of us as a result.

It's time to go finish packing and begin the 24-hour journey home. I know that this is too long, andprobably too rambling (chalk that up to latent high altitude goofiness), but I wanted to capture as much of the last few days as my fried but consummately happy brain is capable of. I'm sure that there will be some more blogs. I can’t imagine that I can process all this so immediately.

Tomorrow I will see the sunrise over Europe from an airplane window, and looking back will, I'm sure, cause more bursts of memory and thought.

As I close, it occurs to me that while I just sat here, drinking a latte in the lobby of the New Arusha hotel, describing all of the past few days in fairly matter-of-fact terms as if it were all normal, I still cannot believe it has happened. It has been remarkable.

Many, many thanks to Coach Chris Creighton for allowing us to be part of his dream.

Descending the mountain.

Tackling Kilimanjaro

Just had dinner at 13,800 feet on Kilimanjaro. Couldn’t blog yesterday - tried at lunch but no signal. I don't have a signal right now as I write this either — Justin has a signal on his iPhone, but there may be a wire mesh in the tent walls (and I am not getting out of this tent — we hiked most of the day in short sleeves, but the minute the sun goes down, it gets very cold).

Meals are incredible. Served on tables, folding chairs — in the open at lunch, in a mess tent for breakfast and dinner. Great soups, lots of pasta, rice and beans, chicken, beef.

The night before we left, there was a “mountain meeting” with several people speaking from experience about the trek. But the evening started with some brief remarks of thanks from IRIS (Iowa Resources for International Service), the folks who arranged all the service projects. They also bring Tanzanian high school students to school in Iowa. One of the program’s alumnae, a wonderfully articulate young woman, told us “We are very, very grateful for what you’ve done here. But remember when you get home that there are many people in your country who need help too. You should never stop being of service to others.”

Yesterday was a three-hour drive to the entrance to the Rongai Trail, registration, lunch, and off we went. It was wonderful to get moving, to begin the next stage of the adventure. Two very young children followed us several miles up the trail, occasionally asking for chocolate. None of us had any...

You would not believe how many stars you see at night on Kilimanjaro. At one point we could see five satellites moving on various tracks across the sky.

We were told that today’s route would be easy — gradual ups and downs. They lied. :-) There was a lot of fairly steep climbing, much of it on volcanic boulders strewn in the path. It was definitely up and down. I think we gained about 2,300 feet in altitude today, but I’ll bet we climbed at least 3,000! I felt like a combination of mountain goat and old goat. Thank you Lindsey for 3-1/2 months of squats with a medicine ball on an inverted bosu, lunges and dumbbell-laden step-ups. They worked. The agility drills were crucial preparation too, as we leapt from rock to rock — the penalty for missing was usually water, mud or a nasty fall.

One of the guides asked me how old I was —when I told him, he said, “Wow, you’re a tough old guy.” I appreciated the first adjective. The rest of the sentence was not welcome. Fortunately, for the rest of the day, he’s addressed me simply as “tough guy,” which, while welcome, is a gross overstatement.

The 16 of us (Coach Rick Fox, Justin, Steve, Dr. LouAnn Freer, 12 players and I) are Group 1. Yesterday the guys decided that we needed a name. After some consideration, they decided on All the President’s Men (acknowledging that it leaves Dr. Freer in an odd position, about which she was very generous). I’m very honored. The guys have been great. They've welcomed Justin, Steve and me into the family of Drake Football, and it’s a privilege (and a great deal of fun) to be traveling with them.

Amazing day — it keeps getting better and better. We've been told tomorrow is easy. Right.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Today the orphanage, tomorrow the mountain.

We spent today at Bridges Kindergarten and Primary school, helping to build a new classroom. Other “squads” from the Mexican and American teams were there yesterday and laid three rows of large bricks on the foundation (the building is about 20 by 40 feet). Today, our squad laid the next six rows of brick. We had to stop because we'd reached the tops of the windows and door, and the wood for framing them hadn't arrived yet.

We're all covered in dirt, dust and bits of cement — a perfect day. It is an incredible feeling to come together — Mexicans, Tanzanians and Americans — and make a building rise out of the dirt. I wish that we could have finished it, but everyone is clearly very grateful for what we were able to do.

We took a 45 minute break to spend time with the children (ages 3-5). They sang wonderful songs that were a combination of English lesson and exercise. Then chaos took the place of order and everyone was running around kicking soccer balls, demanding rides on shoulders. It's hard to tell whose smiles were bigger — theirs or ours.

Tomorrow we begin the climb. We have a “mountain meeting” tonight to go over the plan and to hear from Dr. Freer about altitude issues and adaptation.

Freer is a physician who is considered one of the leading experts on high altitude performance, and she works frequently on Mt. Everest. We will climb in groups of 16. I've already been told that Coach Creighton has assigned my sons, Justin and Steve, and me to Dr. Freer’s group — along with Coach Fox and 10 to 11 players. I asked coach if I should take the fact that Dr. Freer is assigned to my group as a sign of respect or a sign of grave concern.

He just smiled.

Everyone is anticipating the climb with a healthy mix of eagerness and apprehension. Everyone is fit enough to climb an almost 4-mile high mountain (even me), but altitude tolerance is a complete unknown for everyone. Even if you climbed Kili a month ago and felt fine, you might not make it the next time. There are a lot of variables, and hardly any of them are under your control. I can't wait to see the view from the top.

I plan to continue blogging on the climb. There is supposedly cell coverage on Kili (both an advantage and a little bit of a disappointment — I guess there are few places left in the world!). I’m hoping that my iPad battery lasts long enough, and that the solar charger that I imported from England to strap on the outside of my backpack will actually work. We will all find out.

Here we go...

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Safari

We were on safari today in Tarangire National Park — an eight-hour round trip journey in a Land Cruiser — plus half an hour with a flat tire in the middle of Arusha at rush hour. It’s interesting to ponder the Masai people in traditional garb herding large bunches of cattle while talking on cell phones. The sights are incredible, as you can see. The landscape is ever changing, from lush, dense greenery to the savannah — all with mountains on the horizon. Kili was mostly hidden behind clouds today. I’m convinced she’s pulled a curtain over herself so she can prepare some nastiness for our arrival...

Goose Bumps

These are very long, very exciting, fascinating days. I have very little time to blog (unless I decide to not sleep, which is not a viable option 36 hours away from climbing a 19,340 foot mountain).

There were a lot of people in the stands for the
football game, and we were welcomed by a group of Masai dancers. The local crew did a great job of turning a soccer pitch into an American football field. American football in Mexico seems to be approached with the same level of zeal as soccer is in much of Latin America. The CONADEIP team had five personal fouls (unnecessary roughness, taunting) in the first quarter. Our guys did a remarkable job of keeping their tempers in check. I watched this all thinking, “Oh, great—they’re having dinner together and spending the next three days working together on service projects.”

To our collective relief the minute the game was over, the CONADEIP players came running over to our players with bear hugs, handshakes and smiles. When they had dinner together, the CONADEIP players expressed surprise that some of their actions weren’t exactly considered standard procedure. It was another cross-cultural learning experience for all. The CONADEIP players are great kids, and it's been a privilege to get to know some of them.

During the game, our starting quarterback went down with a back injury, and our backup went out shortly thereafter with a shoulder stinger. As a result our freshman backup stepped up and got the job done. Good thing, too. I'd been throwing with some of the guys at practice on Friday, and I was told I was next on the depth chart. Every member of the team was outstanding and played with class, determination, focus and skill. Read a complete recap at the
Drake Kili Bowl website.

Ambassador Al Lenhart sat with me at the game (with a Bulldog pin in his lapel, of course), along with two Tanzanian government ministers and a rising star Member of Parliament. The ambassador and I spent much of our time trying to explain to our hosts what was happening on the field. Not easy.

After the game our players ran up in front of the stands where hundreds of school children who’d been at the two clinics were sitting. Our guys shouted “Tanzania” and the crowd responded with “USA,” over and over. Goose bumps. A number of players said to me various versions of, “I cannot believe this is happening, I can't believe this is real.”

More goose bumps.

At dinner Ambassador Lenhart expressed strong interest in connecting Drake with Tanzanian universities. We plan to be in touch. Good things just keep happening...


The Bulldogs pulled off a victory in dramatic style in front of nearly 12,000 spectators at the Sheik Amri Abedi Memorial Stadium in Tanzania.

Thanks to a second-half comeback, Drake beat the CONADEIPA All-Stars 17-7 in the Global Kilimanjaro Bowl, the first collegiate game of American football ever played on the African continent.

Make sure to check out the excellent photo gallery from Chris Donahue and get all the details of the game on the Kili bowl website.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Clinics: Day 2

Another group of several hundred schoolchildren today at the clinics today. The sight of the Mexican and American players working together to teach Tanzanian kids how to play football is impossible to describe. I hope the pictures help!

This young woman has just backpedaled 10 yards and “intercepted” a pass.
Mexican/American/Tanzanian break
dancing and beat boxing.

Tanzania's Minister of Sport welcomes the Drake Football team.

Another morning full of smiles...