Tedy Bruschi and team top Kilimanjaro
Former Patriot endures challenging climb to summit in a 'truly memorable experience'
Editor's note: ESPN football analyst Tedy Bruschi chronicled his climb up the 19,000-foot Mount Kilimanjaro for ESPNBoston.com. Bruschi, former Titans coach Jeff Fisher, former Eagles tight end Chad Lewis and four injured military service members climbed the mountain to raise awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project.
TANZANIA, Africa -- It was 11 p.m. and one of the porters shook my tent to wake me. Hot porridge and tea were ready in the dining tent. It was time to summit.
Team "Hard Target" slowly gathered in the dining tent, all of its members looking tired. Some of us got an hour or two of sleep, others got none. I didn't sleep at all. Too excited for the climb, and maybe sleeping at 16,500 feet didn't agree with my body.
We had arrived at Kosovo Camp at 2 p.m. after a long climb from Karanga Camp. We had lunch and attempted to get some sleep before dinner. After dinner, at 6 p.m., we tried to rest again for the summit climb.
There were mixed emotions among the group. Two members of the team had to turn back. Ben Lunak, former Marine and single-leg amputee, was experiencing excruciating pain in his leg. They took him down the mountain on a stretcher, and Jason Martinez, one of the team leaders, went down with him. Ben did some amazing things making it to 15,000 feet. Seeing him scale rock walls with a prosthetic was truly inspirational.
After our late-night breakfast, we met outside and our guide, Manu, gave us final instructions. It was dark and we all had our headlamps on to light the way. I couldn't have worn any more clothes than I had on. Snow pants, jacket, gloves, you name it, I had it on. And it all came in handy as it didn't take long for the freezing rain to start.
I kept my head down, flashing my headlamp on the heels of the climber in front of me. I don't recall who it was. I do recall the shoe size. Probably about a 12. When you've had no sleep, and you're climbing in the dark and the air is so thin that you struggle to take a deep breath, all you really care about is putting one foot in front of the other. "Left, right, repeat." That was a motto I kept with me the entire climb.
The only thing that made me raise my head in the darkness was to see why we had stopped. Sometimes, there would be a tricky step for Brian Wagner, a below-the-knee, single-leg amputee, to manage. Other times, a team member would need a break.
At one stop, I knew we had a problem. Mike Wilson had stopped to deal with his altitude sickness. Mike had been sick for most of the trip, and many times I was awakened by his vomiting late into the night. He battled through it valiantly, but this time Manu couldn't let him continue. I heard Manu tell him he had a strong spirit, but for his own safety he had to turn back.
I felt terrible for Mike. I wish he could have continued, but this is the reality of Mount Kilimanjaro. You can't predict how the altitude will affect your body. Mike was also getting over an illness upon his arrival to Kilimanjaro. It was amazing that he made it to 17,500 feet.
We continued on, and the freezing rain turned to snow and back to freezing rain many times. As we closed in on Stella Point, which is at 18,500 feet, Nancy Schiliro stopped to take a break. Her toes were freezing. The rain and snow had gotten to her toes, and let's just say she was having a moment. I couldn't begin to imagine how difficult this climb would be with wet, freezing toes. I had seen Nancy climb difficult terrain all trip, using her right hand to guide her.
Nancy lost her right eye in the Iraq war and has limited vision and depth perception. She's as tough as they come, but frozen toes would've broken me down, too. Jon Sullivan, one of the heads of the Wounded Warrior Project, gave her words of encouragement, and Nancy, being the tough Marine that she is, continued on.
We reached Stella Point and our porters had hot tea for us. Don't ask me how they had hot tea, they just did. Manu and the rest of the Masai Giraffe crew amazed us at the things they could do throughout the entire trip.
I walked over to Nancy and told her we needed to change her socks. She gave me the typical, "No, I'll be all right" answer, and that's when I treated her like a defensive lineman who wasn't doing his job properly on the football field. Let's just say I put it to her in a way where she was going to sit down and I was going to change her socks whether she liked it or not. She agreed.
As she sat down, Sully, Jeff Fisher and I proceeded to take Nancy's shoes and socks off and give her dry liners and wool socks. Much better than what she had on. Her mood immediately changed from despair to hope. It's amazing what warm toes can do.
This is when I had my moment. I think being on my hands and knees had intensified my already pounding headache, and I needed assistance. I had been carrying Ben Lunak's prosthetic leg for the past day and a half up the mountain. We all wanted Ben to be represented up there and that's what he chose to represent him at the summit. I looked to Chad Lewis and said, "Chad, I need some help. Can you help me lighten my load and carry Ben's leg to the top?" Chad, my new kaka (which means "brother" in Swahili), didn't even hesitate and began to carry Ben's leg the rest of the way.
As we continued on from Stella Point, a huge ray of hope appeared in the sky. The sunrise! Knowing that we would see the sunrise from the summit, we all knew that the beginning of the sunrise signified the completion of the summit climb. This gave me a boost. Although my steps were still barely six inches, it was a small victory.
After each six-inch step, the sunrise became more and more beautiful. It was the most magical sunrise I have ever seen in my life, and I anticipate I will never see another that will rival it.
There we were -- Chad Lewis, Jeff Fisher and I -- finishing together. We knew the summit was very close, but still stopped to have a few moments to look back at this heavenly sunrise and take a couple of pictures.
We could now see Uhuru peak. Our goal was in sight! But we stopped one more time. There was a girl on the side of the trail sitting on a rock. She was by herself. Her friend who had accompanied her on the climb got sick and turned back. She told us she was "completely exhausted to the core." Her name was Allie and she was from England.
Jeff, Chad and I stopped to give her words of encouragement and said we would wait for her. I can only imagine how tough this would be to do by yourself with no one there to encourage you. She got up and finished. She made it to the top.
As we were about to summit, we saw the rest of Team Hard Target waiting for us, waiting to summit as a team. Team. You can have one in football or climbing a mountain. That word -- team -- transcends sports.
We finished the final 50 yards together and everyone rejoiced. We congratulated each other and everyone embraced. This was a lifetime achievement and we all understood that.
We took pictures and wished we could stay longer at Uhuru peak, but it was time to descend and relieve our bodies of the pressure that 19,341 feet can apply.
As we all started to descend, I turned around and took in the top of Kilimanjaro one last time. No one was there. I had an overwhelming sense of fulfillment. I ran back and had Dan Moses, our photographer, take one last photo of me at the top with my camera.
Kilimanjaro was a tough challenge and then some, but completing this challenge with Jeff Fisher, Chad Lewis and members of the Wounded Warrior Project is what made this journey a truly memorable experience. One I will never forget as long as I live.
To the members of my newest team -- Team Hard Target -- and everyone who supported us on our quest: Asante sana!
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team.