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Journaling to the Top: Follow Dr. Harmody to Mt. Kilimanjaro's Summit

| Date Posted: 4/28/2022

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Matthew Harmody, M.D., is an emergency medicine physician at FirstHealth of the Carolinas, but he wears many hats in his personal life. He is an endurance athlete and also an anonymous kidney donor, and in March 2022 he combined those skills and joined a team of donors to climb the world's largest freestanding mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, in Africa. 

 

Dr. Harmody and the team of One Kidney Climb athletes made the journey to raise awareness about organ donation, reaching the summit on March 10, World Kidney Day. Below, you will find excerpts from Dr. Harmody's journal, which he kept throughout his life-altering climb. He arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport at 3 a.m. on March 3, taking multiple flights to reach Africa and his base camp by March 3. The hike began on the next day. 

 

March 4

Day 1. Moshi, Tanzania to Londorossi Gate on the western base of the mountain. Gate elevation is 7,100 feet. Hiked 3 miles to MTI Mtubwa Camp. Took approximately three hours. Pulse check afterward was 91% and heart rate 71 resting. Great food to eat. Drinking plenty of fluids. The weather was perfect. Hiked in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Group split in two for practical reasons. A very diverse group with a wide variety of backgrounds, though united by one common cause.

 

March 5

Day 2, morning. Mtubwa Camp to Shira I Camp, which is 11,200 feet in elevation. Slept reasonably well last night. Porters/cooks were up at 3:45 a.m. preparing breakfast. Many strange noises throughout the night. One of the guides stated that is mostly monkeys. I had three sets of eyes staring back at me early this morning as I was coming out of my tent. They were probably within 100 feet. They likely were monkeys. Looking forward to breakfast. This will be a much more difficult day both in elevation and distance. AM health check: heart rate 70 (low 50s at home), Pulse at 85%.

Day 2, afternoon. Shira Camp I. Elevation approximately 11,200 feet. It took us approximately 5.5 hours to reach this camp, including a break for lunch. We had beautiful weather until approximately the last 30 minutes when the clouds moved in and there was a steady light drizzle, calling for rain gear. We are able to see the summit from this vantage point, except that the cloud cover was making it unviewable at that time. For lunch, the sun was out. It’s quite warm. Hiking in shorts and a T-shirt until the clouds rolled in. Feeling very well. Had some mild nausea at lunch, but eating took care of that. Attempted to obtain cell service at the highest point on a trail today. Couldn’t find any. Some others were successful. We are provided a large bowl of hot water in our tents. I actually took half of a bath this afternoon as it probably will be the last time it will be warm enough to wash my hair and strip down and wash somewhat head to toe. It was very refreshing. The simple pleasures in life! Afternoon health check: heart rate 71, pulse ox 84%. Pulse ox is considered normal at this altitude. Concerns would develop below 75% or significant symptoms.

March 6

Sunday morning. Day 3. Shira I Camp. Beautiful sunrise. Perfectly clear skies. Awesome view of the summit. The breakfast was excellent as usual. Frost overnight. Temperature probably was down to the low 30s. The sun has warmed up the temperature dramatically. Relatively flat day today. Approximately 6 miles. Hopefully, the sun is out all day. We will not stop for lunch. We will arrive at camp at about 1 p.m. and have a late lunch. Rumor has it there will be decent cell service at Shira Camp II. I miss the lack of any communication with family. I don’t miss the daily avalanche of emails! Morning health check: heart rate 99 (I had just climbed out of my tent. Even that’s an effort at 6’3” and at altitude),87% pulse ox.

 

March 7

Monday morning. Day 4. Shira II Camp. The plan is to climb to Lava Tower, then down to Barranco Camp for the night. Acclimatization day with 2500 feet of elevation gain. Very windy last night. Beautifully sunny this morning.

Monday evening. Day 4. Shira II Camp to Barranco Camp. Stopped at Lava Rock, which was approximately 15,100 feet in elevation. We are now down to 14,200 feet. The general principle of acclimatization is to hike high and sleep low. We actually had some snow for approximately 30 minutes while having lunch at Lava Rock. The rain gear had to come out as it was more sleet than snow. It has been relatively quiet all day until arrival at camp. The clouds are beginning to clear. We have nearly perfect views and now finally can see the summit which was completely blocked the entire day. Another great breakfast and lunch. The food has been absolutely outstanding. A wide variety, as much as you want. Relatively bland. Able to eat a full meal even before heading out to climb. My years of adventure racing experience, which requires eating on the move, are paying off. Feeling well. Had some lightheadedness a dinner last night which passed within 10 minutes. No further symptoms. Normal blood pressure. My pulse ox was 85% this morning, heart rate was approximately 77. Oura Ring indicates a resting heart rate of approximately 52–55 for the last few nights so recovery seems to be going well. Sleeping relatively poorly, waking up frequently because of needing to urinate as well as the uncomfortableness of sleeping on the sloped ground in the cold. Wearing a winter hat and sleeping bag zipped up all the way.  I have a mummy bag. I’ve been told that they make a “side sleeper” sleeping bag. Wish I had known that before the trip as I only can sleep on my side. I’ve had no cell service since we started and hopefully will have some tonight.

March 8

Afternoon. We are at the Karanga Camp. Approximately 13,400 feet. We just finished lunch. We do not have significant elevation gain today. We did however go up and down through some very steep valleys so it certainly was not an easy climb today. It is cloudy, unfortunately. We are hoping for the sun to break through. The views must be spectacular here. We have approximately 2 miles and 4,000 feet to the summit over the next two days, actually more like 36 hours. We are unable to see the peak because of the cloud cover. Feeling well. Pulse ox was again 85% this morning. My heart rate was approximately 66. Cold has not been a factor for me. The biggest challenge is the change in temperature as the clouds move in and out and we go from climbing to descending. Requires frequent clothing changes. Trying not to sweat excessively to keep from getting chilled from being wet. Everyone is keeping up. No significant illness. Hope to have some cell coverage. I was able to get some texts and actually a phone call with my wife Susan out yesterday at the previous camp, Barranco. The Barranco Wall (see picture below) we climbed today was unbelievable. It was technical and a lot of rock holding and very slow progress. Far more than hiking this morning.

March 9

Day 6. Karanga Camp. Beautiful sunrise. Mount Meru is easily seen in the distance. The summit is also clearly visible. Packing bags and awaiting breakfast. Today’s climb is approximately 2.5 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain. It is relatively straight up. Everyone is anxious about summit night, which is tonight. More on that this afternoon. Feeling well. Pulse ox this morning was I believe the highest since we have been at altitude at 94%. Heart rate at its lowest at 64. Must be acclimatized!

March 10

Summit day. We had a planning meeting and we were able to take a short two-hour nap before leaving at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday night to reach the Summit. The goal was to be there at sunrise. It was a very difficult climb. We went from proximately 15,400 feet to 19,341 feet to the Uhuru peak. I felt very poorly from the start. I considered turning around multiple times. In this case, they would send a guide back with me. I paid no attention to the route as it appeared to be complicated. The weather was cold. Most people had multiple layers of clothing, arctic gloves, and heavy winter clothes. Two people started the night’s climb but turned back and did not reach the summit. (One climber did not attempt summit night.) We reach the summit at approximately 7 a.m. today. First, we went through Stella’s Point. We had a quick cup of tea that was brought up by the guides. It was very windy. We then went on to Uhuru peak. I felt so bad for that distance, likely not more than 1/2 of a mile, that it required me to stop approximately 20 times just to catch my breath. The views were unbelievable. Pictures were taken at the signs. I called my wife Susan but got voicemail. (I left a mumbling, emotional voicemail. It turns out that she thought I had said that I did not make it. She went to bed with that thought. Our boys informed her the following morning that I had in fact made it.) Because of the heavy winds, we had a short visit. This was followed by a several-mile descent straight down to the Karanga Camp. This time it was hot. Three hours of mostly scree, very slippery. After falling a few times, one of the guides assisted me down and allowed me to use his adjustable trekking poles as we could make them much longer than my nonadjustable poles for the downhill descent. I returned to Camp proximately 10:30 a.m. Breakfast was to be served at 11 a.m. I simply changed clothes and got cleaned up a bit. We set out on a 10K descent in the afternoon to the Mweka Hunt Camp, which is at 10,170 feet. The “trail” was essentially dried out riverbed. Rocky with many steps down. My quads and knees were killing me at the end of the day. This camp appears very lively.

March 11

Day 8. Mweka Hut Camp to Mweka Gate/finish. The Kilimanjaro National Park rangers greeted us. Local Tanzania media interviewed some in the group. Lunch at an outdoor restaurant. Beer, wine, champagne, even whiskey! on tables. Certificates awarded. Gave my poles to Goudance, who was the guide that assisted me down. Music, porter/guide staff dancing. Very emotional. Dinner at a local Moshi restaurant.

Dr. Harmody welcomes the opportunity to share his story and knowledge of living kidney donation and can be reached at mharmody@gmail.com. “When I donated my kidney in 2017, I didn’t really share with many people what I did because it sounded to me like bragging. However, I began to see the importance of advocating and sharing my story. If I’m going to create change, I must get out there and spread the word.”

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