With the Heart and Strength of the Leopard


"Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Ngaje Ngai,' the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." -- "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Ernest Hemingway.

Franklinville, New Jersey.

Tom Swank believes that nothing is beyond his reach, not even the summit of the legendary Mount Kilimanjaro. At age 31 and disabled from a motorcycle accident 12 years ago, Mr. Swank has organized a group of seven disabled climbers to attempt an assault on the mountain in Tanzania.

The group is currently in training for what has been dubbed the "Independence Climb." The expedition's goal is to reach Kilimanjaro's snow-capped twin summits on July 4, 1991. To Tom Swank's knowledge, the Independence Climb will be a first. His research has found that no other attempt on the 19,710-foot peak has been launched by a team of physically disabled climbers.

"We want to demonstrate that disabled people can do it," said Mr. Swank, a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. "We can handle challenges in school and in the workplace and be successful, and we can even climb mountains," he said.

Five of the seven climbers are now Temple undergraduates. Two members of the team are over the age of 50, including Isabel Bohn, 53, a mother of four who lost a leg in a trolley accident in her native Germany when she was 11. The other members of the Kilimanjaro expedition are: Glenn Gross, 31, who has cerebral palsy, Diana Ventura, 25, who also has cerebral palsy, Ling Ling Pan, 25, from Taiwan who has post polio, Jamal Albusaidi, 25, from Oman, who has post polio and Paul Sweeney, 54 and father of two, who is a quadriplegic.

Since early last spring, Mr. Swank and his teammates have been meeting regularly to research and plan the ascent. They are developing a training program and are assembling support personnel. Last summer, team members did practice climbs several times a week on the hills and rocks of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. Once a month, they come together for a group climb up and down the ski slopes of the Pocono mountains in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

"Our practice climbs give us the opportunity to do a lot of trouble-shooting," Mr. Swank said. "We push ourselves physically and learn how to conserve energy. It is also a chance to test out equipment."

The Independence Climb expedition will need plenty of rehearsal for the main event. Kilimanjaro and all of its lofty geography stands just 3 degrees off the equator. The terrain encompasses a tropical rain forest, where the team will start out, Scotland-like moors, an alpine desert with a landscape like the surface of the moon, and finally through the clouds, the ice and snow of the double peaks.

Mr. Swank says that it usually takes able-bodied climbers five or six days to reach the top and another day or two to get back down. However, his team will be using crutches, thus doubling that time -- 10 days to the summit and three or four back down.

"In one sense," Mr. Swank said cheerfully, "our disabilities may actually work in our favor. We can't exactly rush up the mountain. We're hoping that the effects of altitude won't be severe, since we are forced to go at a slower pace."

The team's volunteer support staff is comprised of a rehabilitation physician, registered nurses and a sports physical therapist. They have been helping the expedition train for the rigorous climb and will be accompanying them this summer when the group gives the mountain their best shot.

Before one disabled foot is planted on Kilimanjaro, however, Mr. Swank must raise the $60,000 necessary to finance the project. "Fund-raising is turning out to be as challenging as climbing the mountain," he said. "But even beyond the money, it's an even greater task trying to convince people that we can actually do it," Mr. Swank sighed. "We all want to show that when you set your sights on something, it's attainable."

For the Swank team, conquering Kilimanjaro will be the second greatest challenge of their lives. The first was calling up the heart and inner strength of the leopard.

Edward John Hudak is a free lance.

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