Emile Hirsch: My Harrowing Journey Up Mount Kilimanjaro

Emile Hirsch First Person - H 2012
Michael Muller

Emile Hirsch First Person - H 2012

He rose to fame playing a man who faced the elements and lost; now, the actor and activist reveals how he was nearly done in trying to conquer one of the world's great peaks.

Emile Hirsch first commanded Hollywood's attention in 2007's Into the Wild, playing Christopher McCandless -- a college student who abandoned the comforts of modern life to conquer the American wilderness, with tragic results. Some years ago, Hirsch's own foray into the great outdoors -- hiking up Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro in support of international clean water campaign Summit on the Summit -- resulted in its share of hair-raising moments, too. Hirsch grew seriously ill during the trip and made it to the peak only thanks to "a cocktail of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory steroids." But the 27-year-old actor's commitment to the important cause is unwavering. As Summit on the Summit sets out onto its next excursion, Hirsch reflects on that life-altering journey.

Here in the United States, it's easy to take water for granted. We shower, flush toilets and water our lawns with the only worries usually centered on the cost of a utility bill. But 2.5 billion people around the world live without basic sanitation; and every 20 seconds a child dies from a preventable, water-related disease. I've seen overrun sewers in refugee camps in Congo that would make the hairs stand on the back of your neck. But the key is that these illnesses and problems are preventable.

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A couple years ago my friend, the spirited musician and activist Kenna, invited me to participate in Summit on the Summit -- where several different types of people including doctors, educators, as well as musicians and actors, would all climb to the top Mount Kilimanjaro in an effort to raise money and awareness for the international water crisis. Kenna wanted a broad range of people from different walks of life and occupations, with the goal of getting awareness on the single subject of water to a broad and diverse audience all at once. And it worked. The YouTube channel had a million-plus hits; Summit was trending on Twitter; and due to a smart and aggressive social media campaign, the climb was known by millions of people the world over. Once Kenna sat me down and explained his passion for the subject, and how the water crisis contributes to 3.5 million deaths a year, I found it more than enough of a reason to conquer my vertigo and go for a hike.

Before the climb, we went to several villages around Kilimanjaro and learned just how important clean water is; many of the villagers we spoke to showed us the water they removed from their local wells. Some were truly disturbing sights -- water murky and filled with particles and parasites. It wasn't surprising when we then heard stories of sickness, dysentery and cholera that can come from contaminated water. What became clear, though, is that as a crisis it isn't unsolvable. The technology is there for state-of-the-art yet affordable filters for villages. It just needs to be a priority for people to make it happen. After the climb, Kenna, myself and several other fellow climbers visited Washington D.C. and Capitol Hill to show our support for the clean-water cause. We were happy to contribute our part, however big or small, to influencing Congress to increase appropriations for the Water for Poor Act.

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Part of what Kenna did so ingeniously on that first climb was use social media and his connections to different types of celebrities and academics to make Summit on the Summit "cool" to people. Often, with different organizations, it becomes easy to find oneself bogged down in depressing statistics or become numb from the sheer size of the problems we as a world face. But Kenna brings a personal touch to the causes he believes in and an ability to excite people and make them interested in a subject that they otherwise might not find themselves attracted to. Like the incredible humanitarian work Bono has done, Kenna possesses that same drive to do right and create a global movement. And with Kenna's father being raised in Ethiopia and growing up in conditions where the water was unclean and knowing many people falling ill as a result, he knows the price of doing nothing.

Now, Kenna and his team at Summit on the Summit are at it again, with a new group of faces ready to climb to the top of that mountain to raise awareness for the clean-water crisis. My advice to the climbers? Stay hydrated, eat as much as you can (you'll still come down pounds lighter), and remember what the guides will continuously tell you: pole, pole -- which means "slow, slow." And hopefully, you won't do as I did and get dangerously sick on your way up, finding yourself limping to the top on a cocktail of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory steroids.

Ah, memories. Good luck!