INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — This January, Eddie Frank will climb Mount Kilimanjaro for the 50th time.
Despite the milestone, the 62-year-old Incline Village resident isn’t planning anything big to celebrate his trek up the 19,000-foot African peak After all, 50 is just a number. A number after 49, before 51.
“Maybe I’ll kiss a glacier,” he said with a laugh. “They’re disappearing fast.”
To demonstrate his point, Frank compared the accomplishment of 50 climbs of the African peak to a company giving an employee a gold watch.
When you do it for a living, he said, the accolades don’t matter as much.
“This is my gold watch,” he said.
ON THE ROAD
From 1977 to 1980, Frank made his living on the road. The 25-year-old crossed the Sahara 34 times, driving surplus Land Rovers from Germany to West Africa.
It was during the years when he described himself as a “roads scholar” that the South African native first climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
“It was kind of one of these things you do — when you go into that area you climb Kilimanjaro,” he said.
Frank remembered being ill-prepared for the excursion — he wore army boots, Levis and a cotton shirt.
“You couldn’t just drop down to an REI,” he said. “But you’re young, you’re tough, nothing can screw you up.”
Frank’s adventure and exploration of the world’s second largest continent continued.
He began leading climbs and started his company, Tusker Trail, and quickly became a pioneer in the adventure travel industry.
“All it was back in the late 60s was just some guides who were going out enjoying the wilderness and taking people along,” he said. “We just were trying to follow a lifestyle that we loved doing.”
‘IT’S NOT JUST A COOL JOB’
Because Kilimanjaro isn’t as physically challenging as other peaks, Frank said many people attempt to fly up the mountain.
Extreme altitude and weather are underestimated, leading to 10-15 deaths per year during treks.
“Physically, it’s not too challenging,” Frank said. “It’s the cold and the altitude … to the point where only half of the oxygen is available.”
Frank has become fascinated with studying the effects of high altitude on climbers.
Eleven years ago, he created a high-altitude responder course for Tusker guides. The 50-hour course is dedicated to training and educating on the effects of high altitude on the human body.
“If you’re not looking after someone with acclimatization, they’re going to die,” said Andrew Springsteel, Tusker Trail Operations Director of North America.
Each client on a Tusker expedition receives two full medical check-ups daily. Tusker guides repeat the high-altitude course each year, and are personally trained by Frank.
“It’s not just a cool job, getting to travel, making some money,” Springsteel said. “We operate in a serious realm and it requires being safe.”
FROM BODY TO MIND
Over the course of 49 Kilimanjaro climbs, Frank said nowadays he climbs more with his mind, and wants clients to use more of theirs.
“I use their own strength against them,” Eddie said of top athletes who underestimate the mountain. “I know they want to go fast, but fast is your worst enemy. It’s not just punching through, it’s climbing smart.”
Frank has been leading trips for 37 years; each brings something new, in that every trek leaves the climbers changed.
“The clients are always different and the reason I keep finding every climb exciting,” he said. “Everybody is the same at altitude. From doctor to grocery bagger — how you see yourself in this world changes, it’s a real leveler.
“I see people’s pride and arrogance get left behind.”
‘ON A WILD RIDE’
Tusker Trail leads trips that change more than the lives of their climbers. Since 2001, Tusker has lead fundraising trips for more than 51 charities and raised more than $11 million.
“Climbing is a pretty selfish thing,” said Terry Soucy, a Tusker Trail client and avid Kili climber, who first climbed with Tusker to raise money for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation in 2007.
“You’re doing it for whomever you’re climbing for,” he said. “It brings a different dynamic to a climb.”
Francois Langlois, a seven-summit climber based out of Montreal, organized a fundraising climb for the Make-A-Wish Foundation with Tusker Trail in 2007.
“I can’t tell you how many wishes we granted on that first trip,” Langlois said. “You create a win-win-win situation.”
Perhaps one of the most important charity climbs for Frank was in 2007, when he met his wife Amy. The two fell in love near the summit, in what he calls truly “a fairy tale story.”
Frank’s life has been about getting out of his comfort zone, continually challenging himself, and learning along the way.
“You’re walking along and life says, ‘hey jump in,’ and then you’re on a wild ride, and that becomes your life,” he said.
— Jenny Luna is a freelance reporter for the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Sierra Sun newspapers. She may be reached at email@example.com.