Ann Curry’s mission to document the dramatic retreat of Mount Kilimanjaro’s glaciers —part of TODAY’s globe-spanning Ends of the Earth special report — has been accomplished. But she and her team will not be pushing on to the 19,000-foot summit of Africa’s highest mountain.
“We had a unanimous decision to stop our climb at 16,000 feet and start back down,” the TODAY news anchor told her colleagues in New York Thursday. “There is disappointment involved. Some of us would have loved to summit. But most of us are real proud of ourselves.”
Wrapped in a down parka and wearing sunglasses against the glare, Curry said that the five-person team decided together not to push on to the summit because some were still suffering from altitude sickness.
Turning back is not without its rewards, though. “We haven’t had a shower in nine days,” Curry told TODAY’s Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Al Roker. “It’s getting kind of ripe.”
The TODAY team had reached Arrow Glacier Camp Tuesday. On Wednesday, Curry had reported, “We’re all feeling a lot of pain right now.”
As evidence that she and her team had completed their assignment, part of TODAY’s globe-spanning Ends of the Earth special report, Curry displayed pictures of glaciers taken 22 years ago and compared them to pictures her team took of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers today. The pictures show the ice cap on the verge of extinction and confirmed what researchers have been saying: More than 80 percent of Kilimanjaro’s famous ice cap has disappeared in the last 100 years.
Lauer returned Tuesday night from his Ends of the Earth mission to Belize, where he had reported on the threat to coral reefs and marine life. Roker also returned Tuesday, from Iceland. Meredith Vieira, who reported from Australia, was back in Studio 1A on Thursday.
The team consists of a producer, videographer, an audio technician, an engineer and Curry. On Tuesday, they had been experiencing intense headaches and lethargy as well as edema, which made their faces and fingers swell.
“Basically, your brain is swelling; it’s hitting up against your skull and it hurts,” Curry explained then. “If it swells too much, you get disoriented and have trouble thinking.”
The recommended treatment is to drink plenty of water, get a lot of sleep, and wait for the body to adjust to the extreme conditions.
Curry said it’s been hard for her expedition because they took the more difficult route up the mountain — known locally as “the whiskey route” — instead of the easier climb that most tourists take, the “Coca-Cola route.” They took it because it was the only way to show the retreat of the glaciers that Curry had come to report on.
Adding to the team’s suffering, they came up in the rainy season and had to endure subfreezing temperatures at their high camp.
Go up or turn around?
During one of Curry’s Wednesday reports, TODAY brought in expert mountaineer Ed Viesturs via satellite from Sun Valley, Idaho. “They did the right thing,” he said then of the TODAY team’s strategy. “Stay put at that altitude to see if they can recover. In 24 to 36 hours, if the symptoms haven’t gone away, the best thing to do is go down.”
“What is the one symptom we don’t want to see?” Curry asked Viesturs on Wednesday.
He replied that any symptom at all is reason not to go on. “You might want to wait another day,” he said. “My advice is to go down: Err on the side of caution.”
Curry’s epic trek had begun the week before, in a tropical rain forest that is growing smaller because of deforestation. Climbing through five different climate zones, she reached 13,000 feet on Monday. After an eight-hour climb on Tuesday, she and her support crew had camped at Arrow Glacier Camp, with a spectacular view of the mountain’s rapidly shrinking ice cap.
A birthday surprise
Curry and her team have been supported by more than 100 Masai porters who have lugged thousands of pounds of food and equipment, including generators to power all the electronic gear, up the mountain.
The Masai showed no signs of distress at the altitude. While Curry was reporting on Wednesday, Dudu, the expedition’s Masai chef, and a large group of Masai danced up behind her, carrying a cake and singing.
Wednesday was Curry’s birthday, and Dudu had baked the cake for the occasion — a daunting challenge at an altitude where water boils at a lower temperature than at sea level. As the porters sang “Happy Birthday,” they wrapped a colorful Masai robe around Curry’s parka.
Curry was delighted by a compliment that came with the birthday greetings: “They’re doing me a great honor by telling me I have the strength of a Masai warrior.”
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