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Head and Shoulders Above the World

Lee planning commissioner climbs Mount Kilimanjaro.

Some people go to the beach during their summer vacations, spending their time lounging around on warm sand enjoying the sunshine. Rodney Lusk, on the other hand, decided to trek up a 19,000 foot tall mountain.

"This is not something I'd normally do," said Lusk, the Lee District planning commissioner. "I'm usually very comfortable on the ground."

Lusk said he was invited to visit the tallest free-standing peak in the world by a college friend, James Watson, who is working for AID in South Africa. Along with a third University of Virginia classmate, Pyush Kumar, the three men decided it was time for another adventure, to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

THE LAST TIME the three friends traveled together, it was on a tour of Greece, Italy and Hungary in 1993.

"That was before we all grew up, got old and got married," Lusk laughed.

Part of the inspiration for the trip, according to Watson, was that all three of them turned 40 this year.

"That helped ensure that all three of us did this together," he said via e-mail from his current home in Pretoria, South Africa.

Watson said he's also tried to convince Lusk and Kumar to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain before, but to no avail.

Kumar described himself as an adventure seeker, having made a trip to the Annupurna region of Nepal in 1998.

"I also did a two-week Outward Bound mountaineering trip in Colorado in 1997," Kumar said. "With three kids now, it's more difficult to get away for trips like this."

While he was initially hesitant, Lusk said after doing some online research, he decided to trade in tennis shoes and shorts for parkas and layers of thermal garb.

Once in Africa, he and his friends joined a tour group of 12 people, which was divided into two groups of six. The hike, which took six days and five nights, was challenging, but Lusk had spent several weeks training for the trip.

"I was really committed to the trip, so in preparation I started running and lifting weights. I think I was in the best shape of my life before I left," he said.

Although the three men began their trip up the mountain together, Watson and Kumar did not reach the summit with Lusk.

"I was really surprised that I couldn't breathe at just over 17,000 feet," Watson said. "I've lived overseas for most of my professional career and in Africa for the last five years."

"At about 15,000 feet, it becomes clear if you're going to be able to make it up to the top," he said. "In some cases, your body literally starts to rebel. You're getting less oxygen with every step you take above that level and the temperature starts to drop pretty severely too."

Kumar said he was disappointed to not make the summit as well.

"My sons made a bet with me about the trip," he said. Thinking their father was overweight, they began calling him "Oink-oink" prior to the trip.

"The deal was if I made it to the top, I would call them and say 'oink-oink no more," Kumar explained.

THE LACK OF OXYGEN can make some people suffer from terrible headaches and dizziness, which Lusk and other travelers were able to combat with anti-altitude medication.

Lusk said he asked a lot of questions of a physician in his group, to make sure he knew what to expect and how he might prevent getting sick to get the most of his trip.

Aside from encountering snow and -13 degree wind chills at the summit, Lusk said the weather during the hike wasn't all that bad.

"By the time we reached the summit, I was wearing two layers of underarmor gear, a fleece, a large wool sweater, a ski suit and parka, plus a head covering, ski cap, fleece cap and hood on my head," he said.

The longest single portion of the trip was the last 1,000 meters, which took over nine hours.

"We were literally going one step at a time," said Lusk, who added that the trip was made by going a few steps up, then 100 yards over, in series of switch backs to accommodate the altitude and snow.

Lusk was accompanied by Rebecca Oehrig at the summit, who made the trip with her younger sister, Sarah.

"We were both born in Kenya and decided to come back to the 'homeland'," she said of their trip. They had agreed years earlier to climb a mountain together when Sarah graduated from high school, which she did in June.

Although she enjoys outdoor activities, Oehrig said this was her first major mountain climb.

"I was surprised by all the different eco-zones we went through on one mountain," she said. "Every day the terrain was different — we went through farmland, moorland, forest, rainforest, high desert and then just rock and snow. It was beautiful."

Oehrig agreed with Lusk that the view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking.

"We were higher than the sun and the clouds at the top," Lusk said. "You could see the horizon and the curvature of the earth in the distance. Earth is round for sure at that elevation."

Oehrig said the end of the trip was rather bittersweet, since her sister didn't complete the hike, getting altitude sickness at 5,000 meters.

"Standing on the peak of such an incredible mountain was exhilarating, but I had the deep sense that something was lacking since the whole point of the trip was to reach the summit together," she said.

LUSK DID NOT brag to his friends after he reached the top and rejoined them further down the mountain, he said.

"I've learned that in life, it's not always by choice that we accomplish things," he said. "Sometimes it's just by circumstance and luck. I got lucky that I didn't get sick. I got lucky that I was born here and was able to get the education I have."

On the descent, Oehrig said she found herself reconsidering making the trip again in the future.

"About six hours into doing the arduous switch-backs in the bitter cold and dead of night, I distinctly remember thinking I will never do this again," she said. "But after having reached the summit and descended to an altitude that allowed more oxygen into my aching body, I thought, well, maybe ..."

Watson said he hopes to bring his friends together again in a few years, joined by their families, for another adventure.

"We've agreed the next trip will be in five years," he said. "I think it's important to share life's experiences with the people who are close to you."

No matter how tired he felt, how strained his muscles or how easy it would have been to give up, Lusk said he was inspired by words his grandfather spoke.

"He always used to say if you start something, you should finish it," Lusk said. "When I was climbing, I kept repeating that to myself. It was almost like I was talking to my grandfather."