Like many great adventures, it all started at a bar. Clay Cook was stationed in Tanzania working on a promotional documentary for Waterboys; an NFL charity focused on providing access to clean drinking water to villagers. As he enjoyed a drink with his colleagues & friends at Nadus Films, he got to talking with an Australian mining company owner, Adrian McCrae. As it turned out, Adrian was the founder of Wings of Kilimanjaro, a yearly hang gliding expedition to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. As part of this annual adventure, their team raises money for charity projects, which improve the lives of Tanzanians – from digging wells for fresh water to building schools. Although Adrian had been promoting the expedition (it had been featured on 60 Minutes and many talk shows) there was no full-length documentary covering the journey from start to finish. It was here that Clay and his team saw an opportunity and began negotiating the terms of a production.
A free-standing mountain, much of Kilimanjaro is surrounded by Savanna bushland.
When Clay met Adrian, he had just begun his quest to lose weight. Rising 16,732 feet from the Tanzanian plains, Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain on earth. Clay knew he needed to drastically transform himself if he hoped to climb that peak.
Kilimanjaro had really set a beacon and sparked a fire. It was a gift which solidified my wellness journey and provided a new sense of strength. I guess you could say it saved my life.
Clay began an aggressive diet and training regimen. Being the photographer for an expedition like this, Clay knew he’d need extra endurance and strength to be able to stay ahead of the group to capture imagery throughout much of the climb. In all, Clay lost one hundred and twenty pounds and gained lean muscle mass.
All of this preparation and training was tough as nails, but having witnessed the ongoing water crisis is Tanzania, Clay was motived to make it happen, not just for himself, but for those in need.
The early stages of the climb included dense rainforest.
On September 16th, 2016 the team set out for Tanzania to meet their mountain. The expedition itself was going to take seven days with a possibility of nine if the weather took a turn for the worse.
When It came time for the climb, Clay was nervous but excited. Beginning in the rainforest, the team traversed four distinct ecosystems, heath, moorland, and alpine desert.
Clay, Adrian, and their team hiked with the others participating in the Wings of Kilimanjaro program and since it’s required by law to use a guide, they received support from guides at Tusker Trail. Although the altitude and vertical rise made the trek difficult in itself, the temperature became increasingly colder as they inched towards the summit.
Every morning we arose in a frozen “mummification,” our equipment and clothing covered in frost. Breaking out of a warm sleeping bag at sunrise was no easy task.
Perhaps Clay’s most trying experience on the mountain was the night he and the team made the final push for the summit. Starting out from camp at 11 PM, they hiked all through the night. The mountain was pitch black and frigid – the only light came from their battery-powered headlamps. Clay recounts the final moments climbing towards the summit as one of the most difficult, but rewarding moments of his life.
After a grueling eight hours we reached the last stop before the summit. I gasped for air and would catch myself stumbling over loose rock next to an 800 foot cliff. I had to continually focus my breathing and shake myself out of an altitude coma. Once the sun rose over the peak, our adrenaline kicked in and our spirits began to warm. At 6:55 AM, we finally reached Uhuru Peak. The emotion was indescribable.
The Wings of Kilimanjaro team along with Adrian’s company, GBTK in a group photo at the summit.
Even as Clay felt an overwhelming sense of joy and accomplishment, he knew his work was not done. On top of the staggering climb, Adrian and the Wings of Kilimanjaro team had planned to paraglide from the mountain summit. After they got to the top, the paragliding pilots broke out their equipment and prepared to fly. To get the gliders off the mountain in such thin air, both the pilot and passenger needed to sprint straight down the face of the summit for about 400 feet.
Clay made several attempts – running down the mountain, trying to take off. After his fourth attempt, Clay made the wise decision to cut his losses and head down the mountain that day. Although slightly disappointed, Clay felt no less diminished in his accomplishment of hiking the highest freestanding peak in the world.
Although the trek to the summit was difficult, the descent proved to be just as challenging, if not more so. The standard descent takes eight hours and Clay was in a rough state.
At the start of the descent, I have never been more fatigued in my life. I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. I was cold, crushed with a headache from hell, hallucinating and my body was wrecked, but somehow I made a quick pace at a 5.5 hour, 22-mile descent.
One of the guides, Stanford, had called for an ambulance that was waiting for Clay when he arrived. After a quick checkup with the medic, Clay was deemed dehydrated and exhausted, but stable. He promptly took the best shower of his life.
After exuberant celebrations with his fellow climbers and some much-needed rest, Clay headed to a Maasai village in Longtido, Tanzania where the Wings of Kilimanjaro had officially funded the completion of a running water well. They were given a warm welcome that included a massive celebration. In all, they had raised over half a million dollars for the people of Tanzania. Clay cautions against too much self-congratulatory behavior, noting that “it’s only a small dent into solving the overall clean water issue in the country.”
As Clay returned to the US, he experienced a mix of emotions. Having prepared for this trip for the past year, it was finished in just eight days. Not only had he just climbed a physical mountain but he felt he had climbed a mountain of personal growth.
Although the journey had been a physical and emotional test that had raised money for African villagers, it was also a photography job for Clay. Usually working commercially, Clay felt blessed he was given the opportunity to pursue non-profit humanitarian work like this project.
I’ve always had a massive respect for photojournalist world…now I’m able to explore that realm myself and impact the world. When I left the United States for the first time, I couldn’t have possibly imagined how it would forever change my life for the better.
The documentary resulting from the trip will premiere this summer. You can watch the trailer below:
Wings of Kilimanjaro-Documentary Trailer from Nadus Films.
See more of Clay’s work at claycookphotography.com!