CCU student sets sights on heightsby Corrie Lee Lacey
A Chanticleer sticker is stuck to a wooden post atop the highest peak in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro. Wedged between Aspen Brewing Company and Stumriders stickers, the rooster’s teal feathers stand out against the weathered wood and faded gold letters.
The logo sits atop the world’s highest freestanding mountain, thanks to Coastal Carolina University senior Derek Frimpong, who climbed all 19,340 feet this past January.
Frimpong's hike was punctuated with intense migraines, mountain sickness, hallucinations and extreme mental and physical exhaustion. Temperatures reached 10 degrees below zero, and 75-degree inclines stretched on for days. But Frimpong was the only one in his five-man group to push through the exhaustion and make it to the top.
The idea started in a dorm room at Harvard University last June. Frimpong was taking a few summer courses when a friend from Boston, Nate Herpich, suggested that the economics major “challenge himself.” Frimpong was already enrolled in three courses at Harvard, working at Bank of America and interning for the governor’s office. But he agreed it wasn’t enough.
“Being surrounded by people who had accomplished so many things – Facebook was created just down the hall – made me feel like I hadn’t done much,” says Frimpong. “When I got to Harvard and hung out with some of the people there, I realized why they got in. The average Harvard student isn’t just smart; there are tons of ‘smart’ people with a 4.0 GPA in the U.S. What differentiates these kids is that they do great things.”
Frimpong spent most of his time with graduate students – undergrads were either abroad or at internships. One of the students Frimpong met had earned graduate degrees from NYU and Columbia, and was working on his third at Harvard.
“He produced the 2004 NBC Olympics, had won an Emmy, played on the football team as an undergrad and traveled to France to watch the Tour de France. He had written a book and was working on his second, and was leaving for the summer to study Islam and Arabic in Jordan. The guy was only 28,” says Frimpong. “The more amazing people I met, the more amazing I wanted to be.”
So Frimpong started brainstorming.
“I was looking for something that was extremely hard and that I'd never heard of anyone doing,” says Frimpong. “I could have done something a little easier or more fun, but I figured anything of that nature wouldn’t be extraordinary. I wanted to do something that was near impossible, something I could use as a point of reference for future challenges in my life – ‘I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro; I can get into Harvard Business School.’”
One month before winter break, Frimpong’s plan was in effect: He would travel to Tanzania, Africa, and climb the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Three weeks into the break, on Jan. 13, 2011, he was on a plane headed toward Uhuru Peak, where Kilimanjaro rises to its highest at 19,340 feet.
The hike would take six days – something Frimpong hadn’t exactly trained for. He ran regularly, usually three miles a day, but only increased his routine a mere week and a half before the climb.
“I hadn’t seen a hill in months,” says Frimpong. “And the climb was like going up stairs that never end. I wasn’t prepared. But it’s something no one can really prepare for.”
The group consisted of three male hikers – Frimpong from Virginia, a climber from New York and another from Florida – and two guides. Eleven porters rotated in and out of the group, taking turns carrying the 60 pounds of equipment, such as tents, sleeping bags and cooking supplies.
The hike started easy, says Frimpong; the weather was perfect, the forest scenery was beautiful. But as they ascended, temperatures dropped, forests turned to rock, and by day three, the group was amid the clouds. Day three also brought mountain sickness, and the climb started to affect Frimpong physically.
“Our brains were swelling due to lack of oxygen, which caused awful headaches,” says Frimpong. “And the air’s little oxygen and heavy moisture caused our lungs to fill with liquid each time we inhaled. Each breath burned.”
The group hiked an average of 12 hours a day, carrying a daypack and talking as little as possible. “You didn’t have the energy to talk,” says Frimpong. “You didn’t have the breath to talk.”
By day four, Frimpong came face-to-face with an 80-degree incline that stretched 300 yards and a decision whether or not to turn back.
“The air was so thin and so cold,” he says. “I was wearing $40 gloves, two jackets, a sweater, three pairs of pants, two pairs of socks and Timberlands. I was still freezing.”
But Frimpong wasn’t just cold; he was sick.
“I wasn’t thinking right,” says Frimpong. “I couldn’t focus. It’s a feeling I can only compare to being intoxicated.”
The other two members of Frimpong’s group, who had trained for the climb for months, were suffering from hallucinations. Both had reached physical exhaustion and were unable to continue. One of the guides escorted the two back down the mountain.
But the peak was in sight, so Frimpong pushed on – basically rock climbing another 300 yards before stopping to sleep. By 10 p.m., Frimpong and his guide had started climbing again, hiking all through the night. By daybreak, Frimpong was within a half-mile of his goal. “The last few hundred yards was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Frimpong. “I thought I was going to die.”
Frimpong’s body had reached complete exhaustion. He couldn’t take more than 15 steps without taking a break. He had been too weak to eat – too weak to open a Ziploc bag, too weak to remove the shell from a hard-boiled egg. Each time he sat down, he drifted to sleep – a risk of slipping into a coma.
“I was so frustrated because my body just couldn’t take anymore,” he says. It took him two hours to walk the half-mile stretch.
With only Frimpong and one guide left, the two were within feet of the peak.
“I wanted to go back down. I told my guide I was dying,” Frimpong says. “But he told me to keep going. So I accepted that I was going to die and just kept climbing anyway.”
By 7 a.m., Frimpong stood atop Mount Kilimanjaro. He pulled the Chanticleer sticker from his backpack and slapped it to the marking post – a vision Frimpong had dreamed about. He was the third-youngest person to climb Uhuru Peak.
But after only about five minutes at the top – and meeting a 65-year-old man who had no problem taking on the mountain – Frimpong faced his biggest challenge: getting back down. Due to his physical and mental state, he was carried down the mountain for an entire day. And with a lot of help from his guide, he managed to make it to the bottom. Within five hours, he was on a flight back to the U.S.
Frimpong says the trip took a lot out of him. Two months later he is still dealing with sore muscles and frequent headaches. But he also gained something priceless.
“I know now that I can do anything,” he says.
Although Frimpong gained a lot of confidence, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is something he says he will never do again.
“Maybe I’ll write a book or a script,” Frimpong says. “Or go to Rome and meet the Pope.”
Whatever he plans to do, his plate is pretty full his last semester at Coastal. He is vice president of SGA, a member of Pi Kappa Phi and Campus Democrats, a volunteer at the Conway Hospital and a mentor at Black Water Middle School – all while maintaining an 3.5 GPA.
“I want to do big things,” he says. “And I know nothing is impossible.”