The cheers were loud as the photograph flashed on the screen in the gymnasium of Star of the Sea Elementary.
Asked by parents Justin Malczewski and Vern D’Souza if they recognized the flag clutched by a small group of nine climbers, heavily clothed in protective gear, at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, some 300 children broke their respectfully attentive silence and responded with a full-throated roar.
The flag, bearing the name of the school covered in student signatures, returned to Star of the Sea last month, as Malczewski and D’Souza shared the story of their early October climb with students and staff, headed by principal Lesya Balsevich.
Not the least of accomplishments of the friendly rivals – they’re both executives for different telecommunications companies – is that, by climbing the highest mountain in Africa, through the non-profit Summits of Hope organization, they successfully raised more than $20,000 for B.C. Children’s Hospital.
Not only is the climb famously arduous, there were other challenges, Malczewski related before the presentation.
“I suffer from altitude sickness, which is something I didn’t realize before I made the climb,” he said. “As a result I was massively dehydrated, but still I had to climb.”
But he and D’Souza’s message of teamwork and perseverance was an important reason for coming back to talk to the children, they said.
“Educating them makes the accomplishment of reaching that goal a little bit sweeter,” Malczewski said.
“When I was a kid waking up every morning, all I wanted to do was go back to bed,” D’Souza told the students.
“My parents said ‘think about what you can do at school to make yourself feel better and make others feel better.”
This kind of spirit got them past a rainy welcome to Kilimanjaro, Malczewski said.
“When we got to the base of the mountain, it was raining as hard as it does here,” he noted. “Even though you’re on the equator, in Africa, it’s not necessarily warm.”
Although sunshine of the second day of the climb, and the astounding scenery of the mountain – including a glacier wall as tall as a three storey building – cheered them, other problems became more apparent.
“What happens when you get higher up is that the oxygen that fuels our bodies gets thinner – our hearts started pumping faster to create the energy for climbing.” Malczewski explained to the children.
“Every time you take a step, it’s a little bit harder – you use up five times as much energy when you get to the top.”
“I had to ask ‘is it normal for my heart to be beating that fast?’,” D’Souza said.
No wonder that the 30 experienced African guides and bearers that accompanied their group to the top cautioned them to forget competing with other teams making the climb with repeated admonitions of ‘Pol-e, pol-e, or ‘slowly.’
“We wanted to get to the top of Kilimanjaro as a team,” D’Souza emphasized. “For every 10 who attempt the climb, only four make it to the top. All nine of our group made it. That was huge and teamwork was an important part of that.”
The six days of their climb tested each of them in many ways, they recounted.
One of the members of their group, a former professional footballer from Winnipeg, was having real struggles with sore and injured feet during the second to last day of the climb.
“He stumbled, he didn’t fall, but he stumbled,” Malczewski said. “Our team leader asked him, ‘what do you want to do – do you want to go back down the mountain?’ But he said ‘I didn’t come all the way to Africa to turn around now.’”
The team leader put the determined climber in the lead position, Malczewski told the children, and the man led the rest of the team to the top.
Both Malczewski and D’Souza said personal prayer helped them keep taking “that next step.”
“God’s always there with us,” D’Souza said. “You just have to ask for the help.”
But with the picture of them at the summit on the screen, the pair acknowledged the prayers of others – including the students – helped.
“We were really grateful for all the prayers and good wishes of all the students and teachers and families of Star of the Sea,” Malczewski said.