On Top Of The World
A five-day trek up Africa's mount Kilimanjaro helps a son learn so much more about his father
The things you learn about yourself at 19,336 feet above the world are the things my father, Carlos Moleda, has been chasing his entire life. A five-time Hawaii Ironman world champion and laurelled para-athlete, his wheelchair had never gotten in his way before.
So when he was asked to climb Mount Kilimanjaro — the highest mountain in Africa — in his mind, the act was already done, and all ensuing effort was nothing more than picking out the details.
It all traces back to when eye surgeon Geoff Tabin, who has been frequenting the mountain for decades, invited Sarah, Carlos’ wife, to take part in his latest climb. Once asked, Sarah knew she had no choice but to invite Carlos. It would have been cruel not to.
Once Carlos was on board, a support crew soon followed: Joe Larkin, Carlos’ best friend for nearly 30 years; Paul Tharp, friend and fellow Navy SEAL; Julia Tharp, Paul’s wife; Jeff Waddle, Carlos’ and Sarah’s neighbor, who’s been wanting to climb the mountain for 15 years; Dean Cardinale, our indelible guide; Linc Jolly, an extraordinary photographer who couldn’t accept fast enough the offer to commit the whole trip to images; and me, Carlos’ and Sarah’s son of 22 years.
Artery Of Ambition
To complete the climb in a wheelchair, Carlos co-designed a handcycle specifically for off-road performance. The thing weighs like it’s made of lead, and with shocks and massive all-terrain tires, it more closely resembles a three-wheeled ATV than a nimble racing bike. Joe and Paul, with the assistance of some of Geoff’s trainees, pulled Carlos up the mountain with ropes attached to the front of his handcycle while he cranked away. I envied none of them.
Day one of the climb was all jungle, with six hours of steady elevation shaded by a canopy of trees and overcast. The air itself was almost mossy, as if our environment was telling us, “Lap up the oxygen, because six days from now, you’ll be sorely wishing you had.”
Sure enough, on day two, all that plant life receded to reveal a more desert-like expanse, with yellowing grass and dried-up shrubs lining a stony path that disappeared into a low-hanging fog. It seemed to go on forever, and the mist stymied any chance of looking ahead to gauge your progress or even determine where you were.
Every 10 minutes or so, Carlos would stop to rest — even as he was being pulled up the mountain, it was still the most taxing thing he has ever put himself through — as Joe and Paul dispensed stories about getting brutally assaulted by sloths, blowing up dead cows with dynamite and tossing cats
off roofs with parachutes; classy,
The longer we walked and the higher we ascended, the longer the stops became and the more frequently they were made. There were no objections, least of all from me. These breaks took me out of my own mind long enough to tune into the absurd reality with which I was suddenly entwined.
A mix of world-class athletes, Navy SEALs, experienced mountaineers, porters and a wrestler-turned-photographer were all making their way up one of the most legendary rock faces in the world, and in the middle of all of it was me, a scrawny film critic from Los Angeles.
Paul Tharp, right, assesses the bumpy road ahead as the group stops for a rest. Every step of the climb is governed by pace and strategy. Photo by Linc Jolly.
I looked at my father, nothing but glassy-eyed forward momentum, and wondered just how much of such a singular person was truly in me.
The man is an artery of drive and ambition; cut him open, and it’s all that spills out. That need to push beyond himself didn’t start with the chair, either; it’s as old as he is, and it’s what saved his life.
A Little Bit Of Help
Born in Brazil to a life of poverty, Carlos spent much of his childhood hopping from house to house and town to town, with most of his younger days passed checking empty refrigerators to see if anything had mercifully materialized. If he and his three siblings got one full meal, he considered that an A-plus day.
In 1983, Carlos finally left Brazil with a dream of pursuing pro skateboarding and $100 in his pocket to make it come true. When it didn’t, he joined the Navy SEALs, where he met Joe and Paul. In 1989, Carlos became part of a unit that was responsible for keeping then-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s plane at bay during the Panama invasion, a mission that ended in ambush and disaster. When he woke up, he realized shrapnel had pierced his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down and confining him to a wheelchair.
Since then, Carlos’ life has been devoted to trumping assumptions about what he’s capable of. No chance to best himself or show up the world is ever passed by, even when it borders on dangerous or, at worst, ridiculous.
I recall so vividly one instance seven or eight years ago wherein Sarah asked him to hire someone to professionally — properly — rewire our home entertainment system. For Carlos, this was a concession of inability and therefore wasn’t happening.
As he dragged himself up the stairs into the stuffy attic to fix it by himself, he called me up to help him, something I’d grown accustomed to by that age. But this time was different, as he told me something that day that I’ll never forget: “You can never let anybody tell you what you can and can’t do.”
The whole thing was a totally over-the-top exercise, but in that moment I felt like I was understanding who my father was for the very first time. After a life of moving ahead on his own, help was something that was beneath him now, and if he alone had gotten this far without the chair, he would get just as far with it.
I’ve been trying to keep up with that determination ever since, but it’s often a struggle; it simply isn’t in my design, nor is it in most people’s. It’s a product of desperation and survival, and once those instincts are in you, I imagine it’s difficult to downshift. But any idea of going through life alone without any help is pure fantasy.
Everything Carlos has ever accomplished has found his loved ones right beside him, Sarah most of all. She is always the first to encourage his every new idea, however foolhardy. If Carlos is nitroglycerin, Sarah is a blowtorch without an off switch; the two feed into each other’s crazy to explosive ends, yet in their own unique way, they’re made for each other.
At age 53, he’s finally able to see this and acknowledge how invaluable it is. There’s no such thing as doing things alone, especially not when you’re in a wheelchair. And for the first time, he’s realizing that is not a dishonorable thing.
Reaching The Peak
Once day four of the climb came around, a particularly chilly night (leaving your water supply exposed meant waking up to a frozen bottle), I noticed that Carlos was spending progressively less time outside his tent after we’d reach camp every afternoon.
The stubbornness of his body was no longer equal to that of his mind, and despite his po-faced act, it was beginning to show. By his own admission, he ended every day feeling like he’d raced five Ironman triathlons. To his credit, so did everyone else.
Of all the days of walking and barely hanging on, none compared to summit day. It featured the steepest incline and the least stable footing. The ground was all loose rock at that stage, with every step forward dislodging a slither of pebble and dust behind you; it was the day that felt most like a real, qualified climb.
We were all delirious from headache and exhaustion, and the air was so thin that no breath ever came close to feeling deep enough. But Carlos barreled on without a moment’s hesitation, and so the pressure was on for the rest of us to follow suit. When the landscape turned too rocky to use the bike, the porters carried Carlos piggyback to smoother ground, and they were proud to do it.
After five days of pain and cold, all it takes is one view of the world from atop Mount Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak to melt it all away, as joy takes hold and carries you to warmer mental climates. That was a privilege earned by every last person in our group.
We’d made it to the top, and every one of us shamelessly collapsed into a teary mess upon seeing the sign marking the summit. After a life stubbornly embedded in the moment, with his entire life up on the mountain with him, reaching the top felt like the end of something for Carlos and everyone who’d accompanied him.
Or perhaps that’s wishful thinking. As soon as we returned from the mountain, my father announced plans for his next adventure, a 156-mile race through the Sahara Desert called Marathon of the Sands. We were all flabbergasted, and yet we had no right to be. That’s Carlos.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Looking back on my father’s history, one gets the impression he feels the same way about his own life — no matter how many triathlons he completes or obstacles he overcomes, he’ll never reach any kind of satisfying end, only a point at which he’ll be forced to surrender to reality.
But as long as there’s a mountain to climb or a race to win, he will do everything in his power to push that day further into the future.
To see a video of highlights from Carlos’ climb, visit youtu.be/dHCr7C5cmAQ.
On Top Of The World
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