Monday, 24 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 1 - Kilimanjaro

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is the highest mountain (actually a dormant volcano, to be pedantic!) in Africa. It is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, taller than Everest. That means that it’s not standing in the middle of a high mountain plateau and it’s base is at sea level. I recently explained this to a friend by using our own heights to illustrate. Standing beside each other I am taller than he is, using this to represent the measurement from mountain base to summit. I represented Kilimanjaro and he represented Everest. I asked my friend to stand on a chair representing the Himalayan plateau on which Everest stands. That didn’t make him taller than me, I explained, only higher.

Kilimanjaro was the first of the Seven Summits climbed by Cason Crane, long before the idea of his Rainbow Summits Project was created. At the age of 15 Cason was invited to climb Kilimanjaro by his mother Isabella, described by him as “a very adventurous woman”. The Kilimanjaro climb as, in Cason’s words, a mother-son bonding exercise, though they have always been a close family.

This was Cason’s first experience at mountaineering, and climbers often call Kilimanjaro an easy mountain to climb. Perhaps it is for experienced mountaineers, it’s all relative. It is the least technical climb of the Seven Summits, meaning you don’t need ropes or axes and people can usually manage the whole expedition in a week.

Being regarded as an easy climb has led to Kilimanjaro being the “celebrity mountain” – many celebrities have climbed up the mountain for charity, including Take That’s Gary Barlow, billionaire Roman Abramovich, and actor Jessica Biel. The lgbt community’s very own Martina Navratilova attempted the climb in 2010, but even though Kilimanjaro is considered easy it is not without its dangers, as Martina found out to her cost.

Being a popular mountain (over 1,000 climbers a year) Kilimanjaro also has a high mortality rate due to altitude sickness or hypothermia. Martina attempted the climb with a team from the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. It had been a bad year for Martina – she broke her wrist in January 2010 and was diagnosed with breast cancer in April. We all know of Martina’s great athletic prowess and stamina, but less than 5,000 feet from the summit she got a stomach infection and altitude sickness. During the nightly medical check on the whole team it became clear that Martina had to be taken to hospital. She was bitterly disappointed not to reach  the summit, but realised that if she didn’t get treatment she may not wake up the next morning, she could have died from a pulmonary oedema. She has no plans to go back.

But Kilimanjaro can inspire those who reach the summit. A couple from Colorado, Massimo Alpian and Brett Kennedy, are both keen mountaineers. It was after Brett climbed Kilimanjaro that the couple decided to attempt another mountain challenge – climbing 8-Thousanders, 14 mountains over 8,000 feet in height, all in the Himalayan region. As a gay couple they have experienced stereotyping and homophobia from some straight mountaineers who always presume they are brothers or friends. Most of them still cannot believe gay men can climb mountains.

Cason Crane was a student at Choate Rosemary Hall school in Connecticut when his mother Isabella invited him to join her on her Tanzanian trip during spring break. The trip started with a marathon – Isabel ran the Kilimanjaro marathon, and Cason ran the half-marathon. With hardly enough time to catch their breath the couple were beginning their trek up the mountain.

Choosing to climb the Machame Route, the most difficult of the six official routes up Kilimanjaro, the Cranes hiked across the Stella Ridge to the summit 19,341 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level. Cason found this first experience gruelling and wondered if he could make it to the top. With his mother’s encouragement and the support of the rest of the climbing party, Cason reached the summit on 17th March 2008. It was this struggle, which he equates with the homophobic bullying that resulted in the suicide of his school friend, which he uses to encourage bully victims that there is help and support for them if they find life a struggle.

It was an experience which changed Cason’s life. Standing on the snowy summit at Africa’s highest point he decided that he would climb mountains for the rest of his life. Cason believes the feeling of empowerment at completing the challenge of his first mountain, facing his own doubts during the climb and receiving support from those around him, can be an inspiration to victims of homophobic bullying as they face their own challenges in life.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you how Cason came up with the Rainbow Summits Project.

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