Reaching The Peak
Local Man Climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro to Raise Money for Lifewater
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Lifewater International is an organization that is all about providing sustainable water sources for people who don’t have clean, disease-free water sources — places like Africa, Cambodia and Mexico. In the past 35 years, Lifewater has served roughly 2.5 million people.
Bill Macgregor, an electrical technician at Bio-Response Solutions and Captain of Decatur Township Fire Department, first learned about Lifewater’s mission several years ago and was pleased to learn that they don’t raise money to simply drill a well and walk away. Instead, they find a community or village, determine those people’s needs and educate them on how to prevent and eliminate disease transmission by teaching proper hygiene and sanitation practices. Once Lifewater helps provide that water source, they teach a committee to maintain that sustainable water source, showing them how to maintain, repair and clean it.
Though MacGregor became a regular supporter of Lifewater, it wasn’t until this year that he stepped it up a notch — or, more specifically — climbed it up 19,000-plus notches when he committed to raising $6,000 to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest volcano outside of South America and Africa’s tallest mountain.
For several years in a row, his buddy Daren Wendell had invited MacGregor to join him on the expedition, but it was never the right time. This year, however, MacGregor’s heart had softened to the idea and he agreed.
They started by traveling to Tanzania, Africa (30 hours of flying). He spent a day getting to know the 22-member group that was going to participate in the climb — demographics ranging from males and females 16 to 75 years old (the median age was mid-30s Bill is 56).
The next day they hopped on a bus with their gear and headed towards the entry gate to Kilimanjaro National Park, starting their trek at around 4,500 ft. above sea level and gradually climbing for six days until they reached the 19,345 ft. summit.
“It was six days of hard climbing — not rock climbing,” says MacGregor, who trained for the grueling endeavor by running with his wife Millicent as she prepared for the Indy Mini Marathon. “It was very rugged terrain with lots of loose, sandy gravel and huge boulders sticking out of the ground from where the volcano erupted.
“I’m an avid backpacker and also a firefighter so I was already in pretty good shape,” he adds.
The biggest thing was getting adjusted to the change in the altitude and the amount of oxygen in the air. Since MacGregor is a paramedic, he monitored himself as well as his group members. As everyone adjusted to the altitude, the guides kept repeating, “polepole,” a Swahili phrase that translates to “slow, slow.”
There were a couple of teens on the hike, whose dads brought them along. They experienced some nausea and headaches because they were hyperventilating and not getting carbon dioxide out of their bodies. Therefore, MacGregor coached the teens on how to employ proper breathing techniques.
“Basically, when you stop, you should take in some slow deep breaths and when you exhale, let that air out as much as you can,” MacGregor says. “Do that five times and then go back to a normal breathing cycle.”
The trek is no joke. One woman suffered severe altitude sickness and had to be taken off the mountain.
“On day three, my heart rate was 120 when I was moving, which is double my resting heart rate,” MacGregor says.
Each day was different. Some they hiked for five or six hours. Other days they went longer. The fifth day, which also included the summit day, was the longest (10.5-11 hours of climbing).
“Everyone was pretty exhausted,” MacGregor says. “We got to base camp at 2 p.m., rested, ate dinner, rested again, then rose at 11:30 p.m. to climb in the dark up the side of the mountain. We’re already in the arctic zone by then so there was snow all around us.”
On summit day, once the group got to the highest point, MacGregor kept stopping every 10 feet or so because his heart was beating irregularly. He never did have chest pains, however.
Ultimately, 17 members of the group finished the 19,345 ft. climb to the very top of the summit. Three made it to the crest of the mountain but could not make it any further to the summit. As for MacGregor, though he sustained no serious injuries during the climb, he did fall and dislocate his thumb.
“As soon as I took my weight off of it, I popped it back into place,” MacGregor says. “My whole hand swelled up and bruised, but I’m not complaining.”
The oldest gentleman, Neal, who did the trek with his son, didn’t fare so well. At 75, his knees were worn out, but he powered through.
“He was a trooper,” says MacGregor, who adds he would do the climb again at some point in the future.
On top of the $6,000 MacGregor raised that went directly to Lifewater, he also had to come up with an additional $6,000 to cover his own expenses.
“I was blessed because within eight months I was able to raise all that money,” MacGregor says.
Friends, businesses and total strangers all donated to the cause. His employer, Bio-Response Solutions, contributed $1,000. In addition, the owner of Los Patios Mexican Restaurant in Danville offered to contribute 10 percent of their sales for an entire day to Lifewater. McAlister’s Deli in Brownsburg also held a fundraising evening.
“I love giving money to various charities and organizations, but I don’t like asking people for money,” MacGregor says. “My lovely wife says all you have to do is ask, and she was right.”
The total amount raised for Lifewater International from their entire group was $167,000, which will serve more than 4,100 people in Ethiopia and Uganda with sustainable water, hygiene and sanitation education.
“I’m proud of myself for having climbed one of the seven top peaks in the world, but ultimately that’s not what this was about,” MacGregor says. “Here in America, we don’t have to walk five feet for fresh clean drinking water, but over there people have to walk miles with a 5-gallon canister to collect swamp or pond water, which is highly contaminated.”
MacGregor notes that all of the 40 villages that Lifewater is working within Kaliro, Uganda have now been verified Open Defecation Free (ODF) by the national government’s Ministry of Health. This means that thousands of people have a safe, sanitary place to use the restroom.
“The ripple effects of safe restrooms are enormous, making kids more confident, increasing class attendance and giving every family member a sense of pride in the health of their community,” MacGregor says.
For more information, visit lifewater.org. A $40 donation will provide sustainable water to one person for life.