Active ‘lifestyle’ leads Marsh to summit

Published 12:15 am Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bruce Marsh (left) unfurled a small banner from LifeStyles Medical Fitness Center with his son, Steve, when the pair reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro last year. (Contributed Photo/Bruce and Steve Marsh)

When Bruce Marsh reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro on Oct. 8, 2011, with his son, Steve, he unfurled a small banner from LifeStyles Medical Fitness Center to include in the photographic record of the ascent.

That’s because Marsh, 77, credits the fitness center with helping him maintain the physical fitness and active lifestyle he needed to make the seven-day trek up and down the world’s highest free-standing mountain.

Before leaving for the climb, Marsh asked for a small banner to carry to give credit to LifeStyles center and staff for the role they played in the climb, Marsh said in a recent interview after a workout at the center.

“It was appropriate that they are recognized,” he said.

Mt. Kilimanjaro lies in northern Tanzania. At 19,340 feet above sea level, the mountain is Africa’s highest peak and the world’s tallest free-standing mountain.

It was made famous in the United States, in part, because of a short story by Ernest Hemingway, “The Snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro,” first published in Esquire magazine in 1936. The story centers on the memories of a writer named Harry who is on safari in Africa. In the story, Harry has developed an infected wound from a thorn puncture, and reflects on his life as he lies awaiting his slow death.

Hemingway’s tale was later made into a movie that featured Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.

But it wasn’t the movie or the short story that inspired Marsh, who retired to Beaufort County some eight years ago from upstate New York, to attempt the challenging climb but a visit to a winery.

During a trip to the North Carolina mountains, Marsh and his wife, Frances, stopped at a winery in Banner Elk and discovered the book, “Climbing Kilimanjaro at 70,” by the winery’s owner, Richard Wolfe.

Marsh met Wolfe and talked with the author about his experiences on the mountain.

“I blame the Kili business on wine,” said Marsh, calling the mountain by a name only those who have reached its summit are authorized to use.

It was a health scare that led Marsh to adopt the healthful lifestyle and devotion to physical fitness that would enable him to attempt the climb.

When he was 50 years old, Marsh, a smoker, found himself in the intensive-care unit of a New York hospital. He suffered with atrial fibrillation.

“Since then, I have been aware that lifestyle is important,” Marsh said.

He decided then and there that he should change his lifestyle so he stopped smoking, joined a running club and started competing in races.

Marsh and his wife also spent time hiking in the Adirondack Mountains as part of their active lifestyle.

Not long after moving to Beaufort County, the Marshes joined LifeStyles, hoping that a gym membership would reinforce their physical fitness routine.

Typically, Marsh goes to the fitness center three times a week — spending about 20 minutes on weight and resistance training and then 35 to 40 minutes on a treadmill for a run of about four miles, including warming up and cooling down.

Between trips to the center, he usually runs about three miles from his house on the Pamlico River at a slower pace.

Since it was first climbed in the late 19th century, Mt. Kilimanjaro has become a major destination for mountaineers and trekkers from around the world.

Thousands of trekkers try the climb each year — including former President Jimmy Carter who reached the summit of the mountain in 1988 at the age of 64 — in part because it’s possible to walk to the summit without ropes or technical climbing experience.

But only about 40 percent of those who try the climb make it to the top.

Marsh, who spent 30 years on the physics faculty at the State University of New York in Albany, applied the same research techniques to the effort to reach the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro that he did to his research at the university.

He studied routes up the mountain, outfitters who would guide him to the summit and the best training methods to prepare for the trek.

Tour operators generally offer trekkers their choice of six routes up the mountain each with different characteristics, which may or may not appeal to a climber.

Among the factors Marsh was told to consider in choosing a route include the difficulty, scenery and crowds as well as age, fitness level, medical conditions, backpacking and hiking experience, experience at high altitude, degree of motivation and any other special considerations.

Marsh and his son chose the Machame Route, considered a challenging trek with stunning scenery through five different climactic zones. It is typically done on a six- or seven-day hike.

Despite it’s appeal, guidebooks about the mountain caution that the climb is a “serious undertaking” and “only worth doing with the right preparation.”

Though the climb is technically not as challenging as climbing Mount Everest or high peaks in the Andes, the high elevation, low temperature and occasional high winds make a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro a “difficult and dangerous trek” and all trekkers usually “suffer considerable discomfort,” including shortage of breath, hypothermia and headaches, according to one guidebook on the climb.

Because of these challenges, Marsh said, he and his son “approached the training seriously.”

Before the trip, the duo hiked up Mt. Mitchell in the North Carolina mountains to gauge whether they should attempt the trek.

And in the weeks immediately leading up to the hike, Marsh spent as many as four hours each day walking up and down the 50 feet of stairs leading from his home to his boat dock on the Pamlico River.

Once on the mountain, Marsh found the climb to be “about what I expected,” although because of the high altitude and lack of oxygen in the air, Marsh said, “I had to be very careful remembering things. I discovered that my mind was not working as well as it should.”

Judy Van Dorp, director of LifeStyles Medical Fitness Center, said Marsh and his trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro, are an inspiration to others who work at or use the center, either for physical fitness or to help them recovery from an illness or injury.
“He’s an inspiration to our staff and other members,” she said. “He’s the epitome of what we all should strive for as we age.”

But, she adds, it doesn’t take a trek up a mountain to benefit from exercise.

“You can always make improvement at any age,” she said.

In the coming days, the name “LifeStyles Medical Fitness Center” will change to “Vidant Wellness Center” along with the name change, effective Wednesday, announced by University Health Center of Eastern Carolina to Vidant Health.

When asked if he would make a second trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro, Marsh said, “I doubt it.”

But he wouldn’t rule out another hike up the mountain for his 80th birthday with his grandchildren.