“Chris! What are you doing this summer?” asked second-year Alex Read from a phoned line in Germany during fall quarter.
“Uh, I don’t know, I was going to do some internships,” replied fellow second-year Chris Kingdon from his humble room in Hyde Park.
“I got an idea. Do you want to do something crazy?”
“Alright. What do you got for me?”
“Let’s climb Mount Kilimanjaro.”
This is the phone conversation that kicked it off. This was the long-distance dialogue between two close friends that jump-started their efforts to do something un-ordinary for an extraordinary cause and was the spark that led two University of Chicago students to stumble upon a life-changing experience, not only for themselves, but for individuals who could really use the help.
Read and Kingdon are the vice presidents of recruiting and programming for campus fraternity SigEp, and they are on the verge of embarking on the biggest adventure of their lives this summer.
“It all started when we got in touch with the B+ Foundation,” Read said.
Over the past two years Read and Kingdon have been two of the heavy lifters in SigEp’s efforts to promote the B+ Foundation, an organization whose influence runs as deep as Mount Kilimanjaro is tall.
B+’s official name is the Andrew McDonough Foundation. Andrew McDonough was a 14-year-old boy whose enthusiasm for life would have undoubtedly had him smiling at the prospect of climbing a mountain as tall as Kilimanjaro. McDonough was also a serious athlete, and his athleticism and passion for sports would have had him training for the treacherous hike as if it were the World Cup. Andrew’s athleticism translated directly to the soccer field, but after a day of doing what he loved most, competing in a series of soccer games, Andrew had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. It was discovered that he had leukemia.
Over the next 167 days Andrew fought through five surgeries, four strokes, a brain aneurysm, and four separate predictions that he would not make it through the day alive. Andrew beat all of those odds for a little less than half a year before finally passing. The motto that pushed him through those hard months matched his blood type: Be positive.
In those final months people from all over the world began donating money and giving support to the teenage sports-star for his chemotherapy and battle against cancer. After his passing, Andrew’s father, Joe McDonough, took that baton and ran with it, creating the Andrew McDonough B+ Foundation, which today helps thousands of children a year with the battle that Andrew once fought. They focus not only on funding families who cannot afford chemotherapy for their children and the ongoing research done on leukemia, but also on adding a personal touch that brings a big positive into the often negative fight against cancer.
“It’s not just the medical side of things. They’ll send volunteers to come sit with you if you are a single mother. They bring cooked meals to your house after a long day at the hospital. It’s a really caring, personal foundation,” said Kingdon.
“Unlike other big charities B+ is small enough where it is really accessible and if you actually need money you can call them up and probably even talk to Joe,” Read said.
SigEp’s connection with B+ stems from its philanthropy chair, Steve Barron, and his close ties with the family. Steve is Andrew’s brother’s best friend and has been involved with the organization since day one.
For the past few years Sigma Phi Epsilon has raised money for the cause with events that Andrew would most definitely have approved, such as sports tournaments (focusing in particular on soccer). Read and Kingdon were ready to try a new project in order to take on Andrew’s enthusiasm and passion for life.
“We wanted to take it to the next level and do something huge,” Read said. What is more huge than one of the world’s seven highest peaks?
Standing at 19,298 feet tall, Mount Kilimanjaro, located in Tanzania, is Africa’s tallest mountain and the fourth most prominent mountain in the world. About 25,000 people attempt to climb Kilimanjaro per year, and less than half succeeded. The mountain is responsible for 10 to 20 deaths yearly, and it is speculated that more people have died climbing it than Mount Everest, though fewer have attempted Everest. All in all, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is no small task, and Read and Kingdon are preparing for their trek as any athlete would prepare for his “Super Bowl”.
On your average school day morning ordinary University of Chicago students crankily crawl out of bed to thoughts of a Bartlett breakfast, an unfinished reading, and a day of hitting the books. Read and Kingdon’s minds are elsewhere when their alarms go off. They are not thinking about hitting the books at the crack of dawn; instead, they are thinking of hitting the weight room and the pavement on six-mile runs in preparation for their climb. The workout plan they are following isn’t any slouch either.
Read, who played a couple of varsity sports in high school, plans on joining the Marines after college. The regimen he and Kingdon are following is a tweaked version of a Navy Seal workout that is supposed to get Read in shape for the Marine Physical Fitness Test.
“I’ve been kicking [Kingdon’s] ass getting him out of bed, going to the gym,” Read said.
Kingdon laughed and admited, “Yeah, I guess Alex is the motivator behind the training.”
This Marine workout begins chiseling you at phase one. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday consists of a four-mile run, five sets of 25 pushups, five sets of 25 sit-ups, and four sets of five pull-ups in super sets. By the end of phase two Alex and Chris will be running six miles every day of the week at a 7:30 pace, doing 20 sets of 20 push-ups, 20 sets of 25 sit-ups, five sets of 12 pull-ups, and 10 sets of 15 dips.
“Being in good shape is the best type of preparation. When you start getting sloppy is when things start getting dangerous. So you need to keep focus,” Read said.
The duo’s hiking experience stems from Kingdon, who has been climbing with his family since age four. Both he and Alex recognize that the preparation should not limit itself to being in pristine physical shape.
“Our biggest chunk of training — I mean the gym is helpful and all — really is adjusting to the altitude,” Read said.
Their warm-up for hiking what is arguably the world’s most recognizable mountain after Everest will be trekking the Colorado Continental Divide Trail from June 20 until August. This five-week hike is a whopping 500 miles long at 10,000 feet above sea level and may in fact prove to be as difficult, if not more difficult, than the monster mountain in Africa.
For the Colorado trail Read and Kingdon will be completely on their own. No cell phones, no laptops, and no civilization except for the small towns they will run into every eight days to resupply. They will have to carry everything with them from water purifiers to tents to their gourmet dinners of beef jerky and Cliff bars.
Read and Kingdon are already planning out the extended equivalent of their spring game. They plan to battle the rapidly changing terrain at a rate of about 10 to 30 miles per day. Some mornings they will be heading over the top of mountains and others they will be walking down valleys. The constant new challenges that the Colorado trail will present them with is what makes the hike such a perfect warm up for Kilimanjaro, as by the time they hit Africa’s tallest mountain they will be ready for anything.
“The most dangerous part is being cut off from everyone in case something happens,” Kingdon said.
“It is also the most exciting part. You have to completely rely on yourself and accept real responsibility,” Read added.
After finishing their five-week tune-up, Read and Kingdon will head straight from Denver to Tanzania, catching their breath for a few days before taking on the larger-than-life Kilimanjaro for the B+ Foundation. They will start climbing on the Equinox, the year’s longest day, a strategic move that will allow them to maximize their time in the sun. Even though the pair will be climbing in the summer, the mountain is so tall that it can get cold enough that it snows at night. This is just one of the challenges they will face on Mount Kilimanjaro ,due to the increased altitude, along with difficulty breathing, nausea, headaches, stomach burning, extreme cold and wetness, and limited sleep.
Read and Kingdon will be climbing with a group, but they will not be letting anyone else carry their stuff.
“No way,” said Read.
The climb to the top will take seven days, the most grueling of which will be the final two: their fourth quarter.
Kingdon described it as such: “The second to last day you hike from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. because you have to wake up at 11 p.m. and start at midnight. Then you finish that evening. You have to get to the top and back down quickly because there is no camp at the top. Deaths happen from not getting down quick enough.”
This 15-to-16 hour hike on their last day will be worth it, however, if they fight through it and stay positive.
The benefits for the organization, for their fraternity, for themselves, and most importantly, for the children they are helping, will be too high of a number to count. They are symbolically taking B+’s message to the highest level by climbing to the summit of the world’s fourth tallest mountain.
Read and Kingdon hope to create a Kilimanjaro-size enthusiasm around their climb. In collaboration with Jack McDonough they have set the goal of raising $150,000 for B+. They hope to do this primarily through donations starting at the place they know best, UChicago. Up to this point their main influx of donations have come from the 200 friends and family members who received handwritten letters from Read and Kingdon asking for their help in the cause. Outside of donations, they are trying to arrange corporate sponsorship for their climb; their main targets are North Face and Patagonia.
The headliner who has been most willing to help up to this point is American Airlines. Read and Kingdon are hoping to get at least one portion of their flight covered by AA. The rest of their expenses they will pay for themselves with money they have saved up through work.
Unlike other fundraisers that only wind up giving part of the donations they receive to their cause, Read and Kingdon are going to give everything they receive to B+ and the leukemia cause.
As Kingdon puts it, “Apart from the cost of the stamps for mailing the checks [to the organization], literally 100 percent of the proceeds will be going to B+.”
With this money, the now small organization based in Maryland is looking to branch into the Midwest region of the U.S. to help more children in the surrounding areas, even possibly establishing an office in Chicago to immediately help the local community with the assistance of the SigEp chapters in the neighboring area.
“Because of all of the work that we have done out here, they are thinking about having a Chicago office. This will be a way to support that and give them a platform for the move,” Read said.
Since one of B+’s purposes is to promote physical activity, enthusiasm for life, and just going out there and being active, Read and Kingdon are hoping that their dedication to working out will inspire some of their fellow fraternity brothers to get involved in a fraternity-wide fitness challenge.
“We are hoping that through this project we can create a bunch of change in almost everything that we are involved in and get people excited about what they are doing,” Read said.
With all these aspirations some might be skeptical that Read and Kingdon can accomplish everything they have set out to do, but being positive is their motto. Though they cannot be sure of what their final product is going to look like, they have faith that their training will push them through the climb and that that climb will create the necessary buzz to really impact lives. The vision of standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro looking down at the clouds is enough to keep them moving forward at this point.
“It should be pretty powerful, the culmination of 10 months of work. If we have raised a good chunk of money and awareness by the time we are up there I bet that’s going to be an incredible feeling,” Kingdon said.
Read joked, “I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe bring my favorite baseball card up there or something. I might cry.”
The one downside to their climb is that they might love it too much. Both have heard that once you climb your first really big mountain, you can’t stop, but that’s a risk they are willing to take. In the end their adventure will hopefully benefit kids like Andrew through B+ and their enthusiasm for life will spread to those around them.
Alex said, “Raising money for something like this is really meaningful. You can really see some concrete results, like saving someone’s life.”