The Right Route: re-invent yourself

I don’t always blog about patents and trademarks. Sometimes I like to share “interesting stuff” such as the inspirational story of my cousin Sam Burruano’s treck to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro the summer of 2012.

There’s more to the story than “just” walking up the side of a big hill.Sam Burruano

Sam reinvented himself this past summer both physically and mentally. He met the extreme challenges necessary to physically prepare himself to check off one the items on his bucket list.

I bet he understands now that he can expand his list to include almost anything.

He prepared by walking hundreds of miles uphill with a 50 pound backpack in addition to completely changing his diet and eating habits. It was a complete lifestyle change for Sam.

Take a look at the before and after pictures posted here. And scroll down to my favorite picture of Sam above the clouds.

Sam’s reinvention of himself is testament that where there’s a will there’s a way. What should be taken away from this story is that at any age, at any time, if you set a goal for yourself you can accomplish anything.

Sam shared with me the actual story of the trip up the mountain that was posted on “The World of the MountainVision” blog by motivational speaker and mountain climbing guide Jeff Evans.

I asked Jeff if it was okay to repost the story published in that blog here. It truly was a great ending to a fantastic journey:

Sometimes The Wrong Route Turns Out To Be The Right Route

It’s been a couple weeks now since I came down from my 12th ascent of Kilimanjaro…literally and figuratively.

You’d think after a dozen trips up the same hill one might not have much original to report on. Well… the mountains remind me again that we are merely passengers on the kinetic train that is the alpine landscape and we should never forget to listen to the lessons they provide.

This trip started like any other as my 17 new friends (clients) and I arrived without much ado into Arusha, Tanzania. I always love the excitement amongst the group just prior to jumping into a new and challenging adventure. Over the course of a few meals, team meetings and gear check the anticipation builds until we are finally on the trail.

The first three days moving up the flanks of this magnificent volcano were smooth and easy…like the other side of the pillow. Everyone finding his or her groove and pace.

I’m still amazed at how this mountain invites you to experience her moods and stages of emotion.The World of the MountainVision

One moment you are swaddled in dense cloud layer down in the jungle and the next moment the clouds break and you are treated with a panoramic vista of deep valleys and rugged ridgelines. And then the summit shows its face…tempting, almost palpable…but yet, still a lifetime away.

I had built in a rest-day on Day 3 of our journey on the immense and beautiful Shira Plateau at around 12,000 ft. This would be a nice location for the crew to relax and give their bodies an extra day to acclimatize to the ever-burgeoning altitude. In the world of mountaineering, a “rest-day” is actually a misnomer. Laying flat on your back during a scheduled rest-day is counter productive. The idea is to get up, walk, take photos, get you’re blood flowing.

After a pleasant walk over to a smaller satellite camp our expedition team was treated with one of the most meaningful events I have ever experienced in my years on the flanks of mountains. Two of our team members, Robin and George had decided that they wished to express their commitment of love to each other by exchanging vows on Kilimanjaro while in the midst of their grand climbing adventure.

And guess who they asked to perform the service?

I have done a lot of things in my life…acting as a “stand in preacher”…now that was a new one. I was honored and humbled to be asked to be such a big part of this special event, so of course I said yes. Now I just had to figure out what to say…I decided to stick with what I know…teamwork, allies, seeking out your bliss and dealing with adversity.

It was a beautiful ceremony complete with champagne (non alcoholic of course…better for acclimatization!), a personalized cake and best of all…lots of singing and dancing with our African staff of sixty. Everyone on the team participated and added their personalized wish to the new couple (who by the way had been a couple for 13 years…but had waited until the “right” moment to seal their love with a ceremony).

“By the powers vested in me…by the majesty and brilliance of Mt Kilimanjaro…I now pronounce you…”

The next couple days we slowly cruised up the mountain to higher elevations…getting in position for our ultimate summit push from Arrow Glacier Camp at around 16,000 ft.

Prior to embarking on this particular trip I had explained to the newly minted clients that we would be attempting a route on Kili that is undoubtedly a bit harder on summit night than any of the “standard” routes.

The Western Breach provides a more direct access to the crater rim at around 18,000 ft. By ascending this more direct route, one is required to do a few “scrambly” moves up several chest high rocks.

I had done this route 4 times in the past and consistently got great feedback from clients as they descended the “normal route” that they were so glad we had chosen the steeper, more involved summit route.kilimanajro

The Breach had been closed down in recent years following a tragic rock fall incident that occurred down low on the route, which killed and injured several climbers. All reports were that this particular group was traveling in the most dangerous of areas in the heat of the day, which put them in a marginal situation. Years later it became clear that groups traveling through the fallout zone in the cold of the night would be “relatively” safe from rock fall. I decided it was time to start taking groups back up the Breach.

As we were getting settled into our high camp at around 16,000 ft, it was brought to my attention that there would be a German team ascending the Breach the same night we were.


Should point out that only a couple dozen groups attempt the Breach every year since the rock fall incident. OF COURSE a group of Germs were headed up the same night we were. I so desperately wanted to holler out across the camps something about Normandy and kickin ass…but I thought the better of it.

More in the role of the consummate guide, I headed over to chat with the team leader for the Germs…who happened to be Tanzanian. We discussed the need to keep a solid distance between us as the potential for rock fall was noteworthy and dangerous.

He agreed to have his team leave at midnight and we would leave at 1am. What I would realize 24 hours later was this Tanzanian guides’ curious omission that they were actually attempting a much more technical variation of the Breach…one that would be made much safer with items such as crampons, harness, ropes and helmets. Seems logical that it might have occurred to my new Tanzanian friend that we would actually not be close to each other due to our route variations and we could depart camp anytime either one of us wished. Well…that information wasn’t shared, so I retreated back to my camp confident in the distances we would maintain throughout the night and therefore a solid safety buffer.

One of the first things I noticed as my alarm went off around midnight was how ridiculously warm the ambient temperature was. Couldn’t have been lower than 40* F. Crazy warm. Balmy, if you will. On summit night my mood always changes from jovial and perhaps even likable, to downright militant and sharp. Things get a lot more serious on any mountain for summit night. It’s game on. I feel it and want my clients to know that chinstraps need to be buckled and I expect focus.

Prior to our departure I had established “teams within the team of 17”. Groups of 2 and 3 would be cruising together on summit night to ensure a buddy system for both safety and cheerleading effect. I then separated my staff of African guides within the small groups to provide some local support throughout the night. I placed my second-in-charge African guide Dustin out front. I have done at least 10 Kili expeditions with Dustin and trust him immensely with my people. He is solid for sure. I knew that he would set a good pace and provide front-of-the-line confidence for the folks as the night slogged on and folks got tired. I kept my head guide Godlisten towards the back with me as a “floater” should someone need additional assistance during the night.

I watched as the German team cruised by silently at 12:20am… they build some pretty awesome fast cars, but punctuality…not so much.

An hour later, we headed out from camp with Dustin out front… the German’s headlamps flickering well ahead on the upper flanks of the Breach. Dustin headed us up the same path that the headlamps had taken. Far left of my previous approaches to gain the Breach…but I thought nothing of it.

Two hours into it and all was going well. The air remained warm. The wind calm. My people had started out of camp a bit chatty and excited and now the expected quiet had taken over as everyone realized around the same time that this was going to be a very long night and they should conserve their energy.

Then I began to notice a bit of a traffic jam forming up in our group of 23. It seemed as though the solid pace my group was maintaining had come to a stop to navigate over some harder terrain. As I got closer I saw that folks were justifiably slowing to gingerly traverse across a fairly tilted snowfield.

Well, this was interesting. I’ve never encountered snow on the Breach. Guess it’s a variation in the trail to avoid that historically dangerous rock fall out zone.

As I got in position underneath the middle portion of my group to spot them as they made their traverse, I took a gander down the slope to see where we would end up should one of my pals take a slide right into me. We were looking at least a 70ft slide down into a rubbled up choss pile. The resulting carnage would not have been a pretty sight. Not good. I was concerned.

Well, OK. Get that out of the way and we will be clear and free. I thought to myself how strange it was that the new route would direct folks through such a potentially dangerous section. At our next group dog pile, I assured my peeps that it would be OK and that we were done with all that mess. Hydrate. Nutrition. Back up at it.

An hour later…an identical snow slope with a left to right traverse. Again. Same potential outcome.

We were off route and this was serious.

I huddled up with my African guide team and tried to figure out what was happening. They agreed with me that we were not on the conventional Western Breach Route.

Now that we are in agreement…

Dustin then admitted to me that he had been following the Germans up to that point. It appears they were taking a different route and now we were up in it. No shit.

I did think about turning around. Then thought the wiser of it. Down climbing is significantly harder and more dangerous than ascending. Not an option. Up it is.

Over the course of the next 4 hours, my new friends charged hard like I’ve very rarely seen in the mountains. Most of these good folks had never experienced any terrain like this in their lives. They did not sign up for this terrain and yet here they were, being asked to traverse and scale sketchy, hard 2,000-year-old ice with life threatening consequences.

Not one of them froze. None of them complained. They got their asses kicked and they kept forging on. I was so ridiculously proud of each of them.

I could finally breath again once we arrived on the crater rim at 18,000 ft. No one had fallen. We had all arrived, albeit just a bit worn out. I had some tired folks on my hands but they were all alive and thrilled to be done with the most challenging section of earth any of them had ever encountered.

Another hour slog up a slope put us all on top of Uhuru Peak together…unified…as a team. We hugged, laughed and cried on that summit… all of us knowing we had just shared something remarkable. It was my 12th time to stand there on that 19,340 ft summit but I have to say, it was the most remarkable. The pride and relief I felt were deep and fulfilling. I took in the images with my new friends and we began the 6,000 ft descent to our last camp.

We arrived to camp around 4pm (15 hours after we started), completely gassed, but over the moon excited about our experience.

That night at dinner, I owned what had happened. I explained in great detail how the night had gone down. I described exactly how each of them was put into such a challenging scenario. I told each of them how proud I was as the emotions surfaced up from me in front of the group. I felt a deep sense of appreciation for the character that was called from each of them. People stepped up in a way that neither they nor I could have probably ever imagined.

It is because of scenarios like this that I seek to take groups out into the mountains. We go on a journey together where the alpine world requires each of us to pull from something primal…perhaps go to a place that we have never been. This place is sometimes dark when you are in the middle of it…but more times than not it is replaced with light in the end. A realization that we as individuals can access physical and emotional strength from deep inside… from a place that perhaps we have never pulled from ever in our lives.

If you canvassed each of the folks that were on this trip if they would electively choose to do that same route again, I’m sure you’d receive a resounding “Hell no!”. But I’m guessing if you followed up that question with a “Would you have done it any different?” I’m confident each one of them would proudly say “Hell no!”

I found out later that day that the German team had with them the necessary gear to do the route…crampons, harnesses, etc.
Ultimately, as a leader…this one is on me. A leader has to own his management team’s decision making.

My guys made some bad decisions that night, but ultimately it all falls on me. We are all fortunate it ended the way it did…with all of us finding our bliss.

Folks ask me from time to time…”Don’t you get tired of doing that same mountain over and over again?”

No way. The journey is always different and the experience is always precious.

Sometimes winding up on the “wrong” route is often times just the route you were looking for all along.

Climb High!