There will be times during an 80-mile mountain climb that Zack Ralphs will have to worry not just about himself, but also about the woman he is helping to carry up to the highest point in Africa. It turns out, however, this is not nearly as hazardous to his health as smoking a pack a day for about 15 years.
Ralphs is headed to Mount Kilimanjaro this month, as part of a charity project in which Utah-based company Overstock.com is sending an employee to assist a disabled climber. Which brings up two pretty basic questions: Why on earth, and how?
Ralphs turned 29 in July 2009, and four months earlier, quit a smoking habit that dated back to junior high school. During a physical, a doctor told him he had the body of someone twice his age—except his blood pressure wouldn’t last even that long. He hooked a couple of interview panels for the Corrective Holistic Exercise Kinesiology (CHEK) Institute’s “Fit 4 Kili Climb Project” with his nicotine-huffing lifestyle, convincing doctors that his 215pound frame—which had already shed 18 pounds—could drop another 30. Out of 240 entries, the 5-foot-9 Ralphs is the guy who has gotten to do the rigorous training for a rare opportunity.
Ralphs has since dropped below 200 pounds, and is in the final stages of hardcore training. His workouts were derailed some over Labor Day weekend, when he crashed a dirt bike in Moab and needed eight stitches. He says training is intense almost every day of the week, as CHEK hooked him up with myriad ways to prepare, from nutrition to training. He has been doing yoga as well, promoting a different type of inhaling and exhaling than the kind he grew up with.
CHEK’s project is a cross-promotion of companies and organizations that try to advance awareness of disabled athletes. Ralphs will be joined by California resident Erica Davis, who is a paraplegic, and Tara Butcher. Butcher, who lost a leg below the knee after a car accident four years ago, grew up in Salt Lake City and went to high school with Ralphs. Davis—who will be fit with a customized wheelchair that will allow her to do most of her own work—will be the first paraplegic woman to summit “Kili.”
It will be the last haul which will be the hardest on the group. Ralphs and six others, in lung-squeezing elevations, will take turns carrying Davis and her wheelchair with two long poles. They’ll go as long as they can, then rest. That part of the journey is expected to take 14 hours—about four hours longer than just climbing without such a challenge.
“It’s going to be an amazing experience for all of us,” Ralphs says. “I think all of us will benefit by being a part of it. A big factor could be the altitude. We’ll get to 18,000 feet. I think I have some advantage because I’m used to training in altitude, but then you hear stories of people who get really sick but just have to keep on moving.
“But it’s such a cool group. I think we’ll be laughing the whole way up. That’s when we’ll really feel the lack of oxygen.”
It’ll be a 15,000-foot hike in elevation from the base to the highest peak in Africa. Ralphs said he’s been told that at the top, one can see the earth’s curvature. He’ll be on Facebook and Twitter, documenting his extraordinary accomplishment (keyword: Zackamanjaro), including reaching the summit Feb. 1. An accompanying film crew will be producing a documentary called “Through the Roof.”
Ralphs has been training several days a week in Park City, while also watching his caloric intake at home. He cut out fast food, energy drinks and most of what used to make up his diet, and is constantly monitored so trainers can have him in peak condition when the hike arrives. In San Diego for some last-minute instruction, the former Boy Scout prepared himself for a different kind of honor—not a bad badge to earn by a guy who estimates he had gone 12 years without working out.