On Top Of The World

Reprinted from PN December 2016

A five-day trek up Africa's mount Kilimanjaro helps a son learn so much more about his father

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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.

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.

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, 
dignified stuff.

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. 

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.



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