Curry Talks About Challenges of Nearly Conquering Kilimanjaro
“Today’s” Ann Curry has bungee-jumped for charity from a British bridge. She has reported from the Congo and Darfur, among other hot spots. Last year, she battled the cold from the South Pole.
Her most recent challenge was perhaps her most extreme yet: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as part of “the NBC morning show’s second “Ends of the Earth” environmental live-apalooza.
Just shy of 16,000 feet, after nearly a week on the mountain, Ms. Curry and her equally intrepid crew, all suffering from acute altitude sickness, exhaustion and other ailments, made the wrenching group decision to head back down the mountain, rather than try to summit.
Last week, after Ms. Curry had returned to the air with another of her exclusive interviews with Brad Pitt, TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi talked to the “Today” show adventuress. The topics ranged from the reason she’s taking heavy-duty meds to how she managed to look good in spite of feeling, literally and figuratively, cruddy. The chat also covered the conveniently timed death of her BlackBerry and the post-climb showers that were at odds with water-conservation practices. Ms. Curry also explains why she wants to be “a journalist for this time” and why she feels like a Masai warrior.
TelevisionWeek: How are you doing?
Ann Curry: I picked up a terrible amoeba from the water. It’s so embarrassing to even mention it. Here I am reporting about water, there not being enough water as a result of climate change, whether it’s historical or man-made there is definitely climate change and people suffering and having difficulty. Then I get stuck with drinking bad water. The reason I’m embarrassed is that I get to come back and I get all these medicines and I’m going to be fine, with no negatives, and there are people, there are kids out there who are dying of diarrhea because they’re getting bad water. It really puts things in perspective.
TVWeek: On the worst day, what did you feel like?
Ms. Curry: On the worst day, I had a headache that stretched from the top of my skull all the way down to the back, almost to my neck. My ankles, my legs, my hands and my face were bloated, so that I looked even more Asian than I am. We had a degree of nausea. We were climbing—it was just when we had reached just under 16,000 feet when I was feeling this badly.
We had been climbing for eight hours, a steady up climb, [when] not only I, but other members of my team as well, hallucinated for a few moments. We had been told that we were almost at camp, almost at camp, almost at camp. We thought we actually saw the camp. In fact, what we saw was a bunch of rocks in the mist. Two of the members especially got very discouraged at that point, because it was another 30 minutes past that.
I’m in moderately good shape. It’s not like I work out like a fiend. I was sore, but I wasn’t that kind of sore where you can’t walk, which you might imagine. I think my body, all of our bodies, were in a kind of an emergency mode. There was so much going on, with the altitude sickness, two of us had deep chest colds, because of the severe cold—November’s the worst month to climb, it turns out—and just the mental challenge of going live. No one’s ever done this, gone live, we’re told. There were so many challenges that I think the soreness was the last of my problems.
I also think my amoeba was the last of my issues until I got down. That’s when I started feeling my amoeba and everything else. We were in emergency mode.
TVWeek: There were also blisters.
Ms. Curry: I have one the size of a golf ball on my heel, and you know what’s funny? The blister has popped and what’s left of it is the shape of a heart. What’s funny about that is that we climbed with little or no training, certainly with no expertise, trying to do something that had never been done before, and I’ve got to tell you we were all heart. That’s all we had. That is what makes me giggle when I look at it.
TVWeek: Was the swelling partly to blame for the blisters?
Ms. Curry: No, the blisters came from wearing boots that I hadn’t been able to break in. You need to break them in for several months, and I just got the assignment three weeks before I was supposed to go. That’s kind of common, getting blisters.
The issue really was the swelling comes from altitude sickness. Your body’s not getting enough oxygen, your brain is not getting enough oxygen. Your body compensates and everything, I mean my legs and everything–I thought, “Wow, am I gaining weight and muscle?” In fact my legs were significantly swollen. My ankles were swollen. My hands were swollen.
I thought about cutting off my wedding ring. I wasn’t wearing my—I don’t wear a lot of jewelry, but I have this little thin travel wedding ring that I wear whenever I go into these tough places and my fingers swelled up so much that I actually was starting to ask whether I could cut it off my finger, because I didn’t want to go blue and have worse problems.
But we were in bad shape. I have to tell you, I’ve never really said this, but it was 24/7 suffering. Twenty-four hours a day, every moment we had was suffering, because we’d wake up and there’d be ice on our tent, on our sleeping bags, because it was so cold. You’d get out and your head would be throbbing. One guy, he was heroic, really, one of our engineers, should have been lying down. He could barely think, move, talk, but he insisted that he was going to make it to 16,000. We kept an eye on him. He got up there to 16,000 having that morning been exceedingly sick. I was really very proud of them, working so hard.
TVWeek: Who had you talked to before you went? How hard did they stress how bad you could feel if you fell prey to altitude sickness?
Ms. Curry: We had our producer vetting all of this and she had checked with and done a lot of research with the people who are—there are numerous climbing groups. They’re the real experts.
I think the dilemma really was that because of the nature of the entire project, which was all four of us going to the ends of the Earth, and there were a lot of things being weighed about how much we should do, in what way we should do them.
Look, it is not easy to get a live signal, so we had people actually going to these places, not going to the top of the mountain, but going to these locations, to see: Can we get a signal? So I was actually supposed to go to the Great Barrier Reef, to be out on a platform in the water, but we went out with our technical team and tested it and in fact it didn’t work. There was a real problem trying to go live.
So that’s why everything was delayed in terms of letting me know ahead of time. I would have loved six months’ notice, at least. Our entire team would have loved that, but the nature of figuring out whether we can get a signal from one place that goes to all the way to Iceland where Al [Roker] is and goes to where Matt [Lauer] is is a grid of research.
And there’s enough of a time delay. You don’t want to be in a situation where you have several hops on a satellite.
So, yeah, we knew that there was a potential for altitude sickness. Eighty percent of the people who climb Mount Kilimanjaro get altitude sickness. Ten percent get a degree of altitude sickness that is life-threatening and causes brain damage—you gotta get down the mountain now.
TVWeek: But getting down is not easy.
Ms. Curry: No, it’s not easy, but I want to tell you it’s a helluva lot more fun than going up.
TVWeek: Did the amoeba attack while you were up there?
Ms. Curry: I believe the amoeba was tagging along while I was up there and it wasn’t until I got down that I noticed it. When I started going down, I almost immediately started to feel the swelling going down. I almost immediately felt the headache going away. I could almost immediately feel myself not being nauseous anymore.
I’m not talking just me. I really want to say this. It really was the entire team. Some of us had extreme illnesses at different times. It was kind of this constant everyone of us getting sick. We all felt better coming down. So it’s at that point I started to notice that I’m, “Gosh, what is this other part? Maybe I got some water.” It wasn’t until I got back to New York City that I was diagnosed. And this thing is a bad sucker. It attacks your liver in a kind of internal-bleeding way. It is not a good thing. At least two of us got that.
To me the upshot is this: We thought, as we were planning, “Look, I can produce, so I could pick up if a producer got sick.” We chose an audio man who could be an engineer. We chose a cameraman who could do his own audio. We chose our team so [there was redundancy]. But when push came to shove, what we realized was that we were facing a degree of physical suffering and concern for each other’s welfare that was so heightened, it really became an “all for one, one for all,” “do not leave a man behind” kind of thing.
That was something we hadn’t planned. We were planning for how do we get to the top, how do we get to the greatest glaciers. The goal was to talk about climate change and get as close to the glaciers as we could, and we did get really close. We were on a glacier. But there was one more glacier we would have liked to have gone to, and then, of course, there was the possibility of going all the way to the top.
I called everybody into my little tent, because we wanted to make the decision away from the guides and away from the porters, and those who were really ambitious to get to the top put aside those wishes. Two of them, who were suffering, who wanted to see their kids, looked at me and said, “Ann, despite this, we will go all the way to the top with you.” I said, “How can I ask you to do this?”
What I’m trying to say is there was a great deal of loyalty, a great deal of character, a great deal of, I thought, courage. I thought the one guy who was sick and kept climbing was valiant.
TVWeek: It had to be so present in the conversation and in the back of your minds that you couldn’t know what another few hundred feet might mean in terms of real personal damage. You can’t gauge the odds.
Ms. Curry: That’s absolutely true. What we did know was if we climbed higher we were going to feel worse. And what we did know is that we were in bad shape.
Ultimately it just came down to this: It was not worth it. We had done our job and I treasure these people and nobody can pay you enough to suffer that much. It was not acceptable. Like I said, some of us felt that we could have made it, based on what we knew, higher, and even to the top. But what we all decided was to never leave somebody behind and we were worried about some of the other members. Making the right decision isn’t always easy, but we made the right choice.
TVWeek: You were saying that you’re at about 85% of your normal self. Can you remember the moment at which you thought, “OK, I know I’m going to be feeling much better”? When if someone asked you a question you could give them a rational answer?
Ms. Curry: I think probably that night, when we got down. We were still adjusting. All the way down, we did some work to report to everybody that we were fine. Then we kept going down and kept going down. It took a long time to get our gear, to drive, to finally get to a shower. When we finally were able to clean up and sit down and have a real meal—we did have meals up there—but to sit down and not be under stress.
Most people who climb Mount Kilimanjaro or any mountain, they climb and then they sit down and rest. We didn’t do that. We climbed for six to eight hours and then we worked for hours and hours and hours, and then it got dark and we had to write the script for the next morning. It was a never-ending struggle. And in the middle of the night, you’re so cold that you’re waking up.
But let me say this—because it was brutal—every one of us, after we’d had a good meal and were able to rejoice in hearing that people were reacting to the work and little kids were telling their parents to turn off the water while they brushed their teeth, we felt at least some hope that it had been worth it. Every one of us came back better and proud and had experienced something extraordinary.
There was the extraordinary experience of having traveled through five eco zones. There was the rainforest, which, by the way, killed my BlackBerry, because I was wearing a Wal-mart raincoat, because I forgot to bring a raincoat. Wal-mart is going to kill me. I had my BlackBerry in my Wal-mart raincoat because I thought it was going to keep it dry. Well, it turned into a little pool inside my pocket and my BlackBerry was basically sitting in water for hours. It lasted through the next several days but finally died when I got back down. The timing was good.
We went from that to the heather zone to the semi-desert to the desert to the glaciers. It was beautiful and a stunning experience.
But even more was discovering our own humanity for each other.
TVWeek: With all due respect for the accomplishment and the content, I want to know how rank was the group as a whole by the time you got into the shower? Did you conserve water? How long were those showers in order to get your basic hygiene back?
Ms. Curry: I don’t think one of us conserved water, because he told us afterward he took a shower and then he took a bath and then a shower.
TVWeek: There must have been some crust that there are still signs of.
Ms. Curry: Thank goodness when you’re in a glacial temperature you don’t tend to smell yourself very well, because my good lord, on the way down, as we got into the warmer and warmer parts of the mountain, I couldn’t stand myself, much less sitting next to me in the car. I was as filthy—I put all my clothes in a plastic bag, two of them, actually, and wrapped it tight. Yes. As bad as you can imagine we smelled and looked, it was worse.
TVWeek: Then what was the secret, because when we did see you, even though we could tell at times that you were suffering, you looked mahhhvelous.
Ms. Curry: Oh, stop it. I put blush on. A little bit of lip gloss. I wore my sunglasses a lot because I didn’t want to scare people with how bloated my eyes were. We carried a lot of wipes and sort of wiped our faces every day and tried to brush our teeth in the frozen friggin’ water. It was ridiculous. What you need to do when you’re climbing with altitude sickness is drink a lot of water. Our water bottles froze.
Look, at one point, I would like to climb Mount Kilimanjaro again. My husband has climbed it and gotten to the top, and it has always been a wish for him that we would climb it together. This assignment was dropped in my lap, and I was excited about doing it, but I remember when I said goodbye to him he looked at me, he was very worried. I knew, based on the look and the concern he expressed, that I didn’t fully know what I was getting into.
I’d like to not climb it in November. I’d like to climb it in a warm season. And I’d like to climb it slower. I think one of my mistakes, I climbed very slowly for a period, but there was a point where we went from 1,300 feet to 1,600 feet in one day. That was when the symptoms appeared significantly. We took the hardest route. It’s called the Western Breech. We took that route specifically because we wanted to get to those glaciers. I think we were ambitious.
TVWeek: So you really would consider tackling it again?
Ms. Curry: Maybe slower, in a warmer season, and when I wasn’t having to be on TV.
TVWeek: What is the most strenuous thing you’ve done since you got home, and don’t say it was keeping your heart under control while interviewing Brad Pitt?
Ms. Curry: That certainly was a good cure for altitude sickness, I will say. But today was the first time since I got back that I actually felt good enough and strong enough to do something strenuous. What I did, as kind of an homage to Mount Kilimanjaro, I got on the Stairmaster. I climbed for about 20 minutes. I went very slowly. I’m not normally a Stairmaster chick.
TVWeek: Do you get first dibs on the location for the inevitable third “Ends of the Earth”?
Ms. Curry: Ah ha ha. I don’t know if I will get first dibs, but somehow I think, based on the reaction I got from the staff, including the warm hugs I got from [executive producer] Jim Bell and Matt and Al and Meredith [Vieira], just too incredibly kind and sweet, that they’ll maybe next time let me make a choice. The crew I went with this time would really like a warm environment … with a little beach … and a mai-tai.
Here’s the thing about me. I care very much about that whole friggin’ make-a-difference thing. It’s kind of my problem. So when someone dangles that in front of me, it’s hard for me to say no. I want very much to do the right thing by the story.
But I think I learned a little bit of a lesson on this one, I think we all did, and that was not to underestimate Mother Nature. Determination can have you rise above many challenges, but certainly not all of them.
TVWeek: Is there a list of challenges—
Ms. Curry: Oh, no. I don’t have a bucket list yet, honey. It’s not so much I’m looking for challenge. I’m looking to do important work that needs to be done. I don’t want to be the correspondent who ever looks back on a story and has to feel that I failed to cover it.
I want to be a journalist for this time. I want to be one of the great journalists of our time. When I see that something’s happening, I want to do it. If that means it’s going to present physical challenges and be dangerous, well, why are they paying me the money? Why do I earn this salary? How I earn it is being the kind of journalist that this time demands?
Climate change is one of those stories. Having an opportunity to talk about climate change and bring attention to it the way that live television can do, and this live TV show, the “Today” show.
Just yesterday we did some reporting about these women in Rwanda who are survivors of genocide and making these baskets. For a fourth year in a row, those baskets sold out before the show was even aired in Chicago. Because of this show’s reporting of that story, those women have bought land. Their children are being fed and can go to school. This little show is so incredibly powerful. I am reminded every day of how powerful it is.
We have power and I want to use it. Not just to sell Viagra. I want to use it to do good. And the American people, I believe, want that too, or they wouldn’t watch Darfur, and they did and they do. And they wouldn’t watch Congo, and they did and they do.
TVWeek: One last question: about the birthday cake and the blanket presented to you on Mount Kilimanjaro.
Ms. Curry: That is a Masai warrior garment. Made of wool. There are different plaids for different families. They were saying, by giving me that, that I had the heart of a warrior, of a Masai warrior.
TVWeek: Where is that going to go?
Ms. Curry: I’m not sure yet. I have unpacked it. It’s in my dresser drawer. Maybe I’ll put it on. I’ll wear it to a party. I’ve been thinking about creating some sort of charity effort for people who need help, like that school we reported about [on the Kilimanjaro trek] that may close in five months if they don’t raise enough money to pay for plumbing so those 900 kids can go to school.
TVWeek: Was that a regular cake?
Ms. Curry: The cook made a beautiful cake and they carried it all the way up there, or they may have made it up there, but there wasn’t an oven. I never figured out how they got the cake up there. He decorated it with “Happy Birthday Ann,” unbelievably, and presented it on a fake silver tray, which was also unbelievable. But when they wrapped me in that Masai fabric, I was so moved with what they were telling me.