What do you say when your lifelong friend asks you to climb a mountain? Yes of course. Even if the mountain happens to be the tallest peak in Africa. And that’s exactly how two Olympia alums found themselves on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro together. But what you can’t see from their amazing pictures is the incredible journey and meaning behind this once in a lifetime trip.
Friends since childhood, Zack Forbush and Kris Ammons became close playing Olympia High School basketball together. “You’re seeing your teammates more than you’re seeing your own family really,” Kris explains to me. However, life took them in different directions after graduations, as it tends to do, with Zack landing in Utah and Kris in California. Although the two stayed in touch over the years, it still came as a bit of a surprise when Kris got the text asking him to go on this adventure.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was about something so much bigger than Kris realized. The two would be Climbing2Cure. Although Zack tends to be very modest, he is a leukemia survivor in the utmost meaning of the word. Age the age of twenty-nine, he found out ninety-six percent of his body had cancerous cells leaving him with an eight percent chance of survival. Yet somehow he miraculously beat the disease, something the friends he met along the way didn’t get the chance to say. That experience led Zack to get involved in the Leukemia Lymphoma Society to the tune of raising almost a $250,000 dollars in the last seven years. It’s no wonder he received the prestigious Man of the Year award from the organization.
So when Zack heard people would be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money to benefit the organization, he quickly made the decision he would be going. And who better to share this adventure with than one of his best friends. “We have such a cool friendship,” Zack tells me. “We could not talk for three years and I could call up Kris and say hey I’m going to Nepal now.”
“I learned a lot on this trip,” Kris says. “I knew Zack had been diagnosed, but I had no idea how close he had come to death’s door. I had no idea what he had went through.”
Their team of seven had a goal to raise $25,000, all of which would go directly to the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. The trip itself would have to be personally funded. With such a strong connection to the Olympia community, Zack returned to speak at an OHS basketball game, which also served as a fundraiser. Because even though he may live in Utah now, Zack is still very much an Olympia Bear, even returning every year to help coach summer camps. “My whole gimmick was every dollar you donate gets me a foot higher on the mountain,” he says. Of course with almost $50,000 raised, he’s going to need a plane to get that high.
With Kilimanjaro an actual reality and plane tickets bought, the two knew there was no backing out. But how do you train to climb a 19,341 foot mountain? Well if you’re Zack, you don’t really do too much. “You could be Michael Phelps, LeBron James or whoever and get to fifteen-thousand feet and your body could shut down even though you’re a supreme athlete,” he explains. Kris, on the other hand, tells me he purchased an elevation mask that allows you to restrict oxygen during workouts. “The climb was not as difficult as I expected it to be, but don’t get me wrong, it was the best of times and the worst of times,” Kris shares. “Coming down was absolutely one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done in my entire life.”
The climb itself took eight days total, with six of those spent getting to the summit and often experiencing every single season just in one day. “It was like you didn’t pack to go to Everest or to go to Cancun, you packed to travel the world all in this one climb,” Zack describes.
“Failure was never really an option,” Kris adds. “We couldn’t go back to these people that donated and tell them we got close.” And in true Olympia spirit the pair kept going by cracking jokes, singing and just basking in the face of what they were doing, together.
With just a mile and a half left to the summit, Zack took off ahead of the group at a jog, allowing him time alone at the top. “It was really great to have this moment by myself because I was emotional; one just being there as a survivor and two carrying the ashes of a friend up,” he shares. “I needed to have that time before I could celebrate with everyone else.”
When Kris and the others caught up there was a celebration complete with these two cranking out some push-ups. “This is what Olympia boys do at 19,341 feet,” Kris says laughing. “The face expressions of all the other people was just priceless.”
“It truly was the trip of a lifetime,” Kris tells me. “I’ve been many places and nothing can rival what we did in Kilimanjaro to be perfectly honest.” And Zach agrees. “People ask me how was your trip and I don’t know what to say,” he adds. “I’ll never be able to tell someone how amazing it really was. The people that I know who have climbed around the world say there’s just something different about Kilimanjaro. They’ve been all these places, but they remember this mountain. There’s just something very spiritual about being up there.”
If you would like to donate to the Leukemia Lymphoma Society visit Zack’s fundraising page.