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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

They say the air gets thin when you climb a mountain or are as tall as Zdeno Chara.

So what happens when the tall man climbs one of the world’s most prominent peaks? Well, sign up to accompany him and you could witness it first hand.

The Boston Bruins defenseman will be climbing Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro the first week of July for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. And he’s leaving open a spot on his climbing team to be taken up by the highest bidder in an eBay auction. Check it out now at and you might turn out to be his lucky climbing partner. Bidding ends on Thursday.

Chara is challenging hockey fans everywhere to raise $5 for every foot he climbs in support of his fundraising goal of $100,000 for Right to Play programs. Kili rises 19,340 feet off the plains of Tanzania. All proceeds from the eBay auction to join Chara benefits Right To Play, which uses sport programs to aid the development of children and youth in underprivileged areas of the world.

Having been fortunate enough to climb Kilimanjaro with my wife in 2001, I have two words of advice for Chara and his climbing partners: Poli, poli. That’s Swahili for ‘slow, slow.’

Chara will come to realize climbing Kili is a journey, not a race or a conquest. It takes four days of climbing (five if you take a well-advised acclimatization climbing day on Day 3). It’s all about getting the body adjusted to the thinning air at higher elevations. It’s not about getting there first.

I remember seeing the climbing distance on the first day and thinking it could be done in two hours at a torrid pace, three hours at a very comfortable pace. Luckily, our guides hit the slo-motion button and we didn’t arrive at first camp until almost six hours later, getting passed by other groups along the way.

Same thing on the second day. Our guides pointed at a couple of experienced buff climbers from Colorado who were doing a day’s climb in two hours and reassured us they would suffer later. They bypassed the acclimatization day and attempted to fast-track to the top. It turns out one guy made it to Gillman’s Point, the first peak still one hour from the summit, while the other guy was sick with altitude sickness and had to be assisted on the way down.

Also climbing on similar days as us was a large family that included a 21-year-old university rugby player and his 65-year-old grandmother. As fit as he was, the student didn’t make it to the top, but his grandma did. Her body adjusted better to the thinning oxygen.

I’m told only about one third of the climbers who attempt Kili make it to the top (Uhuru peak), while another one third make it to Gillman’s, lower down on the saddle. While the first four days are no more difficult than a moderate hike, it’s the evening of the fourth day that punishes the body.

Climbers wake up at 11:30 p.m., push down some food, then climb through the night wearing headlamps. Breathing breaks were needed every seven or eight steps to suck in air along the steep switchbacks.

To borrow a line from Mark Twain, the coldest winter I ever experienced was the August day I climbed Kili in minus-20 Celsius temperature and howling winds. I made it to the top for a spectacular sunrise, but I wasn’t well and didn’t stay too long.

What saved me was going poli, poli the first few days. Taking it slowly gave my zero-altitude body a fighting chance.

Perhaps the best edge Chara will have on the climb is that he’s travelling with Mark Brender, my former associate at The Hockey News. Brender is now deputy director, Canada of Right to Play and one of the world’s great slow-walkers.

Zdeno, let Mark lead the way and you’ll surely become one of the tallest men ever to scale Africa’s tallest mountain.

Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to You can read his Top 10 list on Wednesdays and his blog each weekend.

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