Not many people can claim that they have danced with an African tribe, climbed to the top of the highest peak in Africa and watched a sunset from above the clouds. But thanks to an adventurous spirit and a supportive workplace, Jeff Crow can make that claim.
Crow, a material planner in the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support’s Industrial Hardware supply chain and avid trekker from Colorado, decided he needed to take a trip to provide stability to his work-life balance - and a tropical vacation wasn’t going to do the trick. He needed a challenge. He was going to climb Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro - one of the “Seven Summits,” which are the highest peaks on each of Earth’s continents.
“If people aren’t challenged, they need to be presented with a challenge to build their confidence,” Crow said. “This was my challenge, and my supervisor [IH supervisory inventory specialist Gary Waltrich] knew it.”
Starting from the bottom
When a group of friends invited Crow to join their trek up Kilimanjaro, he was initially hesitant to accept the invitation.
“All I could think about at first was all the reasons not to go,” Crow said. “People die on that mountain every year.”
Then he thought about the time he had spent in the Peace Corps in the Philippines, a service to his nation that he performed as an alternative to military service. Crow missed the humility and diversity of other countries’ cultures – something he had grown an appreciation for from his time overseas.
And he thought about his benefits as a federal employee with DLA.
“Luckily, I have an incredibly stable job where I can take the time to do something like this,” Crow said. “And Kilimanjaro has always been on my bucket list.”
So he went to Waltrich and asked to take some time off for the trip before committing to his friends. Crow wasn’t sure how excited his supervisor would be to lose an employee for two weeks.
The response was something Crow said he won’t forget.
“[Waltrich] was enthusiastic because he knew how much I’d love this trip and how valuable this was to maintaining my work-life balance,” Crow said. “That understanding - it’s an element of management I want to have when I reach that level in my career.”
Waltrich’s philosophy is simple: happy employees do better work, and maintaining that balance is something he fully supports.
“You do what you can to ‘build the bench,’” Waltrich said. “If you want to go climb a mountain, go climb a mountain - and come back home in one piece, happier for the experience.”
So with a trip to plan, Crow started what he called one of the trip’s most difficult parts: packing for every climate imaginable. He compared the climate variations as being a “balmy rainforest” at the base of the mountain to it being so cold and desolate that “you may as well be on the moon” at the mountain’s peak.
With the packing complete and having checked DLA’s foreign travel policy for any cautions and the U.S. Department of State and Africa Command websites for travel advisories, Crow was on his way.
In a foreign land
When Crow arrived in Africa, he was reminded of the challenges posed by new and different cultures and languages, especially in a place like Tanzania. It wasn’t like the “home” he was used to.
“Being back in a developing country, you are reminded of things you really take for granted,” Crow said.
Things like cell phones and convenience stores are not a part of the daily routine in a developing country. People are more focused on caring for each other, community and their culture.
Exploring the foreign land, he had the opportunity to join the Maasai, an African tribe that spans from southern Kenya to northern Tanzania, in a dance – and he jumped right in.
According to several websites about the Maasai, the adumu, or “jumping dance,” is a cultural tradition among Maasai men. The adumu is part of the coming of age ceremonies for young boys in their transition to adulthood, and for them to prove their abilities to other warriors and potential mates. Crow was enthusiastic about jumping with the tribe and experiencing the cultural tradition.
“When you get in there and have fun with it, you know you’re not going to jump as high as them. But it shows respect for their culture and gives them a sense of pride in their ability,” Crow said. “It was one of the highlights of the trip.”
When it was time to start the 5-8 day climb, Crow wasn’t intimidated by the difficulty. He had gone on several long-distance hikes before and trekked through his native Colorado at reasonably high altitudes.
“Anyone that can walk at a slow speed on an inclined treadmill for six miles a day should be able to make the climb,” Crow said.
His first challenge came early in the journey.
“I like to move fast, but this was a gruelingly slow pace with no breaks,” Crow said.
The reason, according to Crow, was safety. Although Kilimanjaro is a “walkable” mountain, the altitude, weather and some of the coarse terrain pose challenges to climbers.
For example, while camping at 12,500 feet above sea level to acclimatize before reaching the summit, Crow’s only restroom was an outhouse approximately 150 yards away from camp. A misstep could result in a broken bone leading to a lonely, dangerous night with the chance of dying from exposure.
“We had to trust in the guide,” Crow said. “I wanted to move fast, but he was a 45-year-old local with more than 400 summit attempts – he knew what he was doing.”
After a few short hikes at 12,500 feet above sea level to make sure the group was ready, Crow began the final phase of the ascent to Uhuru Peak - Africa’s highest point at 19,340 feet, according to Britannica online.
Next came the caldera, a volcanic crater at the top of the mountain, before reaching Uhuru – or the Swahili for freedom, according to Crow. He considered this part the most challenging and normally it is a day of climbing unto itself.
The plan was to camp out overnight before attempting the summit, Crow said. But since weather is a major factor in timing a safe summit on this climb - and it was in their favor – they had a rare chance to see a view most tourists don’t get.
“We got to the caldera and the guide asked, ‘Would you like to do it all today?’” Crow said. “We would have to climb the caldera, reach the summit and then start the descent – but I was ready. It was a long day.”
Crow said the normal climb includes camping out the night prior to the summit to rest before ending with a summit the morning after reaching the caldera. Especially since an immediate descent is required to get back to a safer altitude. But their luck and willingness to keep going meant they would reach Uhuru at about 6:30 p.m. for a “sunset summit.”
“It was amazing,” Crow said. “From that altitude, you’re watching the sunset looking down on the clouds.”
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
His guide’s experience and safe pace proved to be good advice, Crow said. He got down safely, but the early summit and the need for a quick descent left Crow exhausted.
“We hauled down to get back to safety before it got too late,” Crow said. “I was really feeling it by the time we got back down to the bottom of the caldera.”
And the exhaustion followed him home from Tanzania.
“I got home and did nothing but eat and sleep for about 36 hours,” Crow said.
Crow was thankful for Waltrich’s supervisory philosophy and his ability to maintain a resiliency and balance in his life and work.
“Self-care is a discipline,” Crow said. “Thankfully [Waltrich] agreed and saw the value of letting an employee take time off to regroup and re-focus.”
Waltrich was glad for the trip as well.
“He was already a terrific employee,” Waltrich said. “And he’s been great since he got back. He’s teaching newer trainees how to do things and helping our training branch on a volunteer basis.”
Crow said the trip may not have been a tropical getaway, but it was just what he needed.
“I returned fresh for the fight,” Crow said. “Because of my trip, I am more appreciative of our U.S. mission and what we do here [at DLA Troop Support]. I’m a better employee for it.”