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.


  1. SO very proud -- of you as a leader, of Coach C, and of the student-athletes. What the Drake team gained here is invaluable, and extends far, far beyond the realm of sports. Many kudos to you, and safe travels for everyone.

  2. Congratulations! That's so great that the three Maxwell men did this together. After this, a RAGBRAI would be a piece of cake. I'm thinking about doing the RAGBRAI again, in 2012, and this time with Raine. You in?

  3. What a great story. I'm glad you took the time to be there for this great adventure with the team. And I hope you keep writing your blog when you return!

  4. Our Son Traveled with your group and your blog was great to follow and I know his life will never be quite the same....much enriched that is for sure.