Ex-Navy corpsman and current Drexel student Chris Diaz, left, with his guide, Erick Ponera.
Chris Diaz’s plane touched down on the tarmac at Philadelphia International Airport at 8 a.m. the first Thursday after winter break.
By 9:30 a.m., he was in his first class of the term, ready to continue working toward his master’s degree in clinical psychology.
It was a fitting end to a winter break spent climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa.
“Things kind of fell into place pretty neatly, accidentally,” Diaz told DrexelNow. “I’m one of those people with a bucket list full of outlandish things. I just usually don’t plan how to do them. They just seem to fall into place.”
Diaz, a former Navy corpsman who was attached to the Marines in Afghanistan, was serving as the president of the Drexel Veterans Association last year when he met representatives of the Military Assistance Project at an event at City Hall.
The Military Assistance Project aims to provide legal and financial assistance to veterans and it just so happened that they were getting ready for their first charity climb.
Unfortunately, one of the members of the team set to climb Kilimanjaro couldn’t participate.
“A grant came through at the last minute and a spot opened up,” Diaz said. “I was put on it.”
Officially added to the climbing team in October, Diaz only had a few months to prepare for the climb as the team was scheduled to fly out the day after Christmas.
Diaz already had some experience in high altitudes. Around the time he was selected to join the team, Diaz had just been climbing in but the highest he went there was 12,800 feet at Independence Pass.
It’s 19,336 feet to the top of Kilimanjaro.
Chris Diaz, in the black hat on the right, with the Military Assistance Project climbing team on top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I knew how bad I felt at 12,000 feet,” Diaz said. “This was much more.”
Acclimating quickly is nothing new to Diaz, however. In 2012, he almost immediately went to school after getting out of the service.
“I was serving on Friday and in the classroom Monday,” he said.
With what time he had to prepare, Diaz did extra cardiovascular training and used kettle bell workouts to strengthen his legs. Normally, it takes a year to train for the climb.
On top of that, Diaz actually had knee surgery last February.
“The fact that I was able to do this at the end of the year is a testament to a lot of time spent in physical therapy,” he said.
When the time came, Diaz and the 13 others doing the climb flew to Tanzania, a process which took 26 hours of flight and layover time.
Still, Diaz stopped by a Tanzanian orphanage before the climb to pay things forward.
“My wife and I did some research before I left and one thing they’re always lacking in developing countries like that is shoes,” Diaz said. “My son, Rain, he’s 14, said, ‘Can I ask all my friends to bring some shoes into class?’”
Through that effort, Diaz was able to give two sea bags full of shoes to the children at the orphanage before he began the grueling climb.
A Tanzanian orphanage where Diaz delivered donations of shoes before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Not long later, Diaz and his group and supporting porters took to the slope of Kilimanjaro.
“You don’t have much time to acclimate,” Diaz said. “I’ve encountered altitude sickness before climbing at much lower altitudes. Anything over 18,000 feet they don’t distinguish it. They’re all considered high altitude.”
Something remarkable about Kilimanjaro is the variety encountered by climbers.
“You go through, like, five different ecosystems,” Diaz said. “Every day it feels like you’re in a different environment. At times, it feels like you’re in a rain forest and then it’s like you’re on the surface of the moon the next day.”
The group allowed for five days to reach the summit and two to descend. They used a technique referred to as “climb high, sleep low,” in which a trekker actually ends up sleeping a few thousand feet below the highest point they climbed in the day.
“It’s tough but it really does help our bodies mitigate acclimation issues,” Diaz said.
To reach the summit, Diaz said they actually woke up the night before, around 11 p.m., and began climbing at midnight.
“It’s the entire day and you haven’t slept much. It’s definitely something that took it out of me,” Diaz said. “The last 1,000 feet were tough because I was showing signs of altitude sickness.”
It was a strange position to be in because, as a former corpsman, Diaz knows the medical issues and could tell in real-time what was going on with his body. Still, he pushed on and was one of the 12 from his group to make the summit.
“It just comes down to you have to put one foot in front of the other,” he said.
In the end, each footfall led him to the peak.
“It was rewarding,” Diaz said. “I think it’s important to live life where you’re put in an uncomfortable position and this was definitely an uncomfortable position.”