By Scott Prater
People often ask mountain climbers why they do it. Why risk life and limb, brave extreme elements and suffer through some of the harshest conditions on Earth just to reach the top of a mountain?
For Capt. Rodrigo Ocampo, 4th Space Operations Squadron spacecraft engineer, that question can be answered simply: to experience adventure.
Early in 2014, he received a request from his good friend and former college roommate, John Gaebler. Gaebler was about to turn 30 years old and wanted to say goodbye to his 20s in dramatic fashion.
“Strangely, I too had been considering tasking myself with a huge challenge,” Ocampo said. “I had been researching Mount Aconcagua in South America. I like hiking mountains and have reached the summit of several 14,000 foot peaks both in Colorado and California, but I wanted to climb something bigger. I learned that Aconcagua was a challenging climb and at more than 23,000 feet, it’s the tallest peak in South America.”
During his research Ocampo learned that many mountain climbers make a goal of attempting to climb the highest peaks on each of the world’s seven continents. He found that idea interesting and soon adopted it as one of his life’s dreams as well. Once he learned that Gaebler desired to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, his attention turned toward Africa.
“I figured I could start my seven-continents goal there,” he said. “My first measure of business was to help Gaebler get into shape for the climb. He is an athletic guy, but he needed to raise his fitness level to ensure he could complete the climb.”
Gaebler, a NASA scientist, started his Ocampo-led fitness regimen in January. He made several trips to Colorado to train at altitude and Ocampo took him to some of his favorite spots, including the Manitou Incline. But, Ocampo also sent Gaebler to train in California’s Sierra Nevada range.
“We’re fortunate in Colorado that we can drive to a good many of the big-mountain trailheads,” he said. “In California, however, you have to hike for a day and camp before you can attempt some of the high mountains there. Hiking there allowed us to simulate the Kilimanjaro trek, which ultimately required four days to reach the summit and two days for the descent.”
Following more than eight months of training, the pair felt ready to attack Kilimanjaro, something Gaebler credits solely to Ocampo.
“I’ve known Rigo since 2005,” Gaebler said. “He has a great attitude for life. He never gets down. He always livens things up, makes things fun and is open to new experiences.”
They flew to Tanzania on Oct. 2 and were at the base of the mountain the morning of Oct. 3.
Surrounded by a pine forest, Ocampo, Gaebler and a group of five others began their trek up Kilimanjaro along with two guides and several porters, who carried the group’s camping gear, food and other necessities.
“You don’t go straight up,” Ocampo said. “You have to hike in big switchbacks to allow your body to acclimate to the altitude change. The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere gets exponentially lower as you climb. At 19,000 feet, air at the Kilimanjaro summit contains roughly half the amount of oxygen as the air at sea level.”
Despite hiking all day, they spent their first night still surrounded by pine trees. At that point, Ocampo struggled to hold back his enthusiasm.
The guides and porters kept saying, “Polay Polay,” which means, “take it easy, don’t rush” in Swahili.
“For people who are in shape, it’s kind of frustrating. You feel vibrant and alive and you want to go as fast as you can,” he said. “But, when you start rushing at altitude you start using more oxygen and your heart draws blood away from your head. Then you suffer from the resulting headache and stomach cramps.”
Along the route to the summit, the hikers transitioned from heavy forest to smaller trees and shrubs, then finally to bare volcanic rock. They passed grand glaciers, sculpted caves and lava tubes.
Ocampo looked on in awe as the group hiked past a carved rock formation left behind by an ancient glacier.
“It leaves a mark like a highway,” he said. “We couldn’t believe the landscape at that point. Slowly, we left vegetation and hiked into what seemed like the surface of the moon.”
They also endured an entire day of rain, which served to dampen their spirits, but not their resolve.
“We left our last ascent camp at midnight on the fourth night so we could reach the summit near sunrise,” Ocampo said. “Being that high up with no other mountains around meant that we could see super far in the distance. You could see the Tanzania side as green and the Kenya side as mostly yellow.”
As their hike progressed, they began realizing just how high they had climbed. Clouds had produced a floor below them.
Ocampo reached the top of the climb just as the sun poked over a distant horizon.
“I reached the top and saw a sign that said 18,000 feet,” he said. “I was confused, but then I remembered that Kilimanjaro is a volcano and is ringed at the top, the summit is the highest point of the ring.”
Though he was the first of his group to reach the top, he still had some hiking to do. Facing temperatures in the teens and strong wind gusts, he hiked along the rim while looking down at a thousand of foot drop on both sides. Roughly half way around the rim, one of the British hikers in the group caught up to him.
According to Gaebler, there was no way Ocampo was going to let anyone in the group beat him to the summit.
“He’s in great shape,” Gaebler said. “But, the guides kept making us slow down, so for fun, he started hiking backward up the mountain to make it more of a challenge.”
Once the British hiker caught up to Ocampo, he started running.
“He was tall too, and me being short (about 5 feet 5 inches) I had to run extra fast just to keep up with him,” Ocampo said. “Ultimately, he had to stop because of the resulting headache, and I kept going. So I got to the summit first, but I paid for it through my own excruciating headache.”
Gaebler arrived at the summit a mere 15 minutes later and relished the moment.
“It was a culmination of almost 10 years of friendship,” he said. “We both love to travel, explore the world and share our stories, but we never were able to synch up our trips until then. I’m glad we were able to tackle the mountain together.”
Ocampo explained that descending Kilimanjaro was almost as fun as climbing it.
“There’s a side to the mountain that’s composed of pulverized rock,” he said. “So it’s like you can ski down in just your boots. “I thought I was going to make it down in half a day, but it’s lot further than you think.”
Two days later, Ocampo was back in his 4 SOPS office.
“Thanks to a scheduling conflict, I had to get back to Schriever quickly,” he said. “But, Kilimanjaro is a memory that’s going to stick with me for a while.”
For now, he’s unsure of what’s next on his bucket list, but at more than 23,000 feet, Aconcagua is looking mighty enticing.