In September 2019, two athletes with Down syndrome, a runner with cerebral palsy, and a boy from an orphanage climbed Africa’s highest peak — the volcano of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. They ascended to 5,000 meters, pushing their limits and raising a considerable amount of money for children from similar backgrounds. This all became possible thanks to the dedication of coaches, a doctor, and the organizers of this unconventional charity expedition. Many of their friends and acquaintances watched the live broadcast of the ascent. Eventually, two of these four heroes reached the top, and the other two came very close.
The expedition was a joint project organized by Kaspersky and the Sindrom Lyubvi ("Syndrome of Love") Foundation, a charity supporting people with Down syndrome. Since you’re sure to have some questions, let’s dive in and find out more.
Why we took climbers with intellectual disabilities to the mountains
The Kilimanjaro: I Can! expedition was launched with several goals in mind, all revolving around the concept of support and teamwork. The first goal was to help the participants fulfill the amazing, unattainable dream of climbing an immense mountain and looking at the world from its summit — a dream that became possible with the right levels of support alongside them.
The second goal was to help families that are raising children with Down syndrome. The Syndrome of Love Foundation raises funds to offer such children free educational and development programs. They also offer psychological counseling and support to parents who are expecting a child with such conditions. Further down the road, specialists from the foundation’s partner organizations support these parents throughout their child’s birth, upbringing, school education, coming of age, and first steps towards an independent life.
The third goal of the expedition — a very symbolic one — was to allow our athletes to help other people with the same challenges. To that end, the foundation is running a fundraising project called Athlete for a Good Cause, and the expedition team set up a page there to receive donations.
"I know for sure who benefited the most from our climb: the parents who are raising these children. We wanted to show that the future of a child with any syndrome can still be very bright," says Anastasiya Marentsova, Kaspersky’s CSR & Internal Communications Manager, one of the visionaries behind the expedition.
"It was for them that we made the ascent and it was for them that we launched the fundraising campaign. We’ve raised money for educational programs for children with Down syndrome, so that in 10 years we will have helped lots of young people to conquer their own summits."
Why Mount Kilimanjaro?
Climbing this spectacular five-thousander does not require any mountaineering skills. What’s more, it’s accessible to anyone, including novices and seniors. All you need to do is spend about two months preparing for the ascent, in order to boost your stamina and increase your fitness. In 2015, for instance, 86-year-old Russian national Angela Vorobyova conquered the peak.
The only quality you need is a desire to test your strength and to experience the accomplishment that happens when you reach the top. As they say, whenever you go to the mountains, you return as a better version of yourself.
Below, you can learn how to prepare for an ascent of Kilimanjaro if you are new to the idea but willing to try.
Who climbed the mountain?
The team bound for Tanzania included 13 participants
Stepan Bezrukov, 38
A swimmer with Down syndrome from Arzamas, a town near Nizhny Novgorod >>. Stepan is a professional athlete who has been swimming since he was young and takes part in international competitions. He has won 36 gold, 25 silver, and 27 bronze medals. Most of them are for swimming, but his achievements also include horseback riding, bowling, and even hiking.
Stanislav Bogdanov, 23
A footballer with Down syndrome from Moscow >>, who has represented his city in tournaments, he is also an endurance runner (distances of five kilometers and more) and an actor in the Vzaimodeystvie ("Interaction") inclusive theater project.
Pavel Krysanov, 48
A runner with cerebral palsy from Moscow >>, Pavel has run a total of 17 marathons, 35 half-marathons, a cross-country ultramarathon, and over 130 park runs. This means 2,500 kilometers of runs and 8,000 kilometers of training. Just a week after the descent, he also ran his 18th marathon in Vladivostok.
Alexander Lebedev, 20
Alexander grew up in an orphanage in the town of Udomlya, near Tver in Russia >>, and had never previously left his small town, apart from visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Kaspersky team, which has been supporting his orphanage for a decade, really wanted to show him the world. The trip to Africa was a pleasant shock and the adventure of a lifetime for him.
Stepan Bezrukov’s coach >>. Ekaterina trains athletes like Stepan and can take care of a 50-strong team of intellectually disabled athletes on an international trip!
A seasoned mountain guide and instructor and "the most patient man on earth" >> Anton assisted Stas Bogdanov during the trek. Moreover, he effectively headed the expedition, supporting each participant along the way.
Head of the Syndrome of Love Foundation >>, Irina made the Kilimanjaro expedition possible in the first place. She did not participate in the ascent, instead staying behind in case some of the participants needed to turn back.
CSR & Internal Communications Manager at Kaspersky >>, ideologist and partner of the Kilimanjaro: I Can! expedition. It was Anastasiya’s idea to combine the mountains and a good cause.
The expedition doctor >>, Alina was responsible for monitoring the health of the entire team. Luckily, no one required serious medical assistance, but having Alina around was very reassuring.
A Syndrome of Love Foundation employee >> who ensured the participants packed all the essentials, while taking care of the organization process.
Safron is a photo editor for the Kommersant Publishing House and a keen traveler and mountaineer >>. During the ascent he was the photographer and cameraman.
PR manager for the Syndrome of Love Foundation >> or, as the team nicknamed her, the "ascent coverage manager".
A popular travel blogger, also known as @travelmaniac_ru >>. He told the story of the ascent through Instagram stories and ended up releasing an entire documentary. He has been to 68 countries and completed a trip around the world. This was his second ascent of Kilimanjaro.
The Syndrome of Love Foundation serves two meaningful purposes. The first and foremost is collecting donations to provide assistance to families raising children with Down syndrome. Specialists teach parents to better understand their young ones and help children and teenagers with their studies, sports, creative activities, and even employment.
The latter often includes roles in coffee shops, kindergartens, pet shops, and animal shelters, as well as taking care of plants in public parks and gardens, or helping out in offices.
The second but equally important purpose of the foundation is to raise public awareness about people with intellectual disabilities and gradually change attitudes towards them. To that end, Syndrome of Love publishes Termos, an educational online magazine dedicated to the life stories of such people in Russia and ways of helping them.
The foundation does all of the above and much more in cooperation with Downside Up, the charity that established it before going on to become its partner, subsequently helping thousands of families.
Not so fast, please!
The expedition had to cover a distance of 34 kilometers from the hotel at the foot of the mountain to Uhuru Peak, which is the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, before descending again. It took the team four and a half days to reach the top and another one and a half to return.
Most of the way, the trek was bearable, and the team covered around 10 kilometers a day, in a gradual ascent. As they walked, the climatic zones around them changed, treating them to breathtaking views and exotic, indigenous flora.
For the first 36 hours, their route took them through the jungle, with monkeys swinging on lianas around them. The rainforests then gave way to groves and alpine meadows. All the way, local guides encouraged the hikers with songs and dancing and kept saying: "Pole, pole!" ("Slower, slower!") It is thought to be easier to reach the summit if you do not walk too fast.
They spent the first night at an altitude of 2,700 meters in special cabins with bunk beds, where guests use their own sleeping bags. There is no electricity in the cabins, so the team had to carry a lot of power banks to recharge their mobile phones and to stay in touch with the world outside. The food was supplied by professional cooks, who also accompany groups along the route. According to the participants, the food was more than ample. So were the drinks, with each climber needing three or four liters of liquid over the duration of each day.
The mountain is Tanzania’s economic mainstay, so each group of tourists is accompanied by dozens of local assistants who carry food, water, and equipment and encourage hikers with their friendliness, songs, and smiles. For locals, tourism is the primary source of income.
Each morning, the guides provided tea and coffee, before treating the team to sandwiches and a big highland breakfast that included porridge, fried eggs, and vegetables. The lunch was smaller, as the participants had to carry it in lunch boxes. In the evenings, another feast awaited them.
As the team approached 4,000 meters on day three, the landscape changed from green into a more sparse, sandy and stony terrain, and the team were greeted with new wildlife such as chipmunks. The main objective at this point was to adapt to the altitude. No one can predict how their body will react to low-oxygen conditions. Some adapt to the altitude gain relatively easily, while others struggle with symptoms of altitude sickness — acute fatigue and nausea caused by a shortage of oxygen.
One-day acclimatization hikes that include a brief ascent and a descent to your campsite make this adaptation easier. The team made one such hike along the route, from 3,700 meters to 4,000 meters. With a height gain of only 300 meters, the hike was about 10 kilometers long. Such hikes are not a universal cure for altitude sickness, however.
By the third night, which was spent at 4,700 meters in Kibo Hut, almost all of the participants had developed symptoms. One of the athletes was so unwell that he had to turn back.
for a 12-strong expedition: porters to carry equipment and food, guides, and cooks.
covered in six days: 34 km to the top and the same distance back.
at 2,700 m, 3,700 m, and 4,700 m
above sea level. The total altitude gain on the route was 4,095 m, from 1,800 m at the start.
4,700 meters: the first marker on a special map
Sadly, one participant only made it to 4,700 meters. Stepan found it difficult to take on enough oxygen, which led to him reluctantly ending his climb at that stage. He was sad to end his journey there, but in no way did this undermine his determination and achievement.
"Participating in an inclusive ascent turned out to be both harder and easier than climbing a mountain on your own," says Anastasiya Marentsova. "It was easier because a sense of purpose gave us extra energy on our way to the top, and the athletes were an inspiration in themselves. It was harder because you had to take care not only of yourself but also of others. You couldn’t help worrying about them more than about yourself. During the expedition, we carried out health check-ups twice a day, making sure everyone had an appropriate number of clothing layers, and sunscreen. It was a bit like summer camp — but with altitude sickness."
In the mountains, it quickly became clear that we had a perfect team, with each participant like the missing piece of the puzzle for the rest of the group. As a result, the team developed a special atmosphere, with everyone taking care of one another, staying mindful of others’ needs, and doing all they could despite fatigue and sickness. This was despite all expedition members, including the guide, the doctor, and the cameraman, working on a voluntary basis. Some of them even took time off work to spend 10 days with our athletes.
It’s hard to say who was a better example for whom: we for them, or they for us," continues Anastasiya. "I think the latter was more the case. Stas, one of the climbers with Down syndrome, kept offering our guide Anton one of his trekking poles to make it easier for him, saying, ‘Anton, you’re breathing so hard, shall we slow down?’ Stepan, the other athlete with Down syndrome, also approached us after the descent and thanked his coach Ekaterina, saying: ‘I wouldn’t have made it without her.’"
The last minutes before sunrise
Soon after Stas left, the group split up, with some of the participants picking up the pace to reach Uhuru Peak — the coveted 5,895 meters.
"We stayed with our participants to help them climb as high as they could," recalls Anastasiya. "At about 5 a.m., I turned to Alex Lebedev yet again to find out how he was. Alex was fatigued, saying he had a headache and that he was tired and would never set foot in the mountains again. I had a headache and was dizzy too. I couldn’t help thinking about turning back. At that moment, one of the guides approached us, covered our head torches with his hands, and pointed to the sky behind our backs. We turned around and saw the horizon light up — the first sign that the night was about to end. It was still very dark and cold around us, but that thin strip of light restored our faith in ourselves. I looked at my companion: ’So, what do you say, Alex, shall we climb some more? Let’s hold out at least until sunrise.’ Alex nodded in agreement."
The team watched the sunrise at an altitude of around 5,500 meters, above the clouds at Mount Mawenzi, a smaller neighboring peak. They made a stop for hot tea, looked at the long way down, and tried to comprehend how high they had climbed.
They then spent two more hours climbing huge rocks to get to 5,685 meters, their record altitude. Despite both guides and athletes struggling to overcome the climb and the bouts of dizziness, at 08:07 a.m. everyone was able to hug each other at the top of Kilimanjaro.
Three more participants — Alexandra from the Syndrome of Love Foundation, the blogger Sergei and cameraman Safron — raised the project flag at the highest point of the crater, Uhuru Peak, at 5,895 meters.
Pavel, the ultramarathon runner with cerebral palsy, Alex, the boy from the orphanage, expedition doctor Alina, and organizer Anastasiya reached the edge of Kilimanjaro’s crater at an altitude of 5,685 meters. This counts as conquering the mountain.
4,700 mKibo HutStepan BezrukovEkaterina Molotkova
Stepan Bezrukov, a swimmer with Down syndrome, reached an altitude of 4,700 m with his coach Ekaterina. This is a great achievement considering the extremely challenging conditions of the ascent and Stepan’s health status.
5,300 mStanislav BogdanovAnton BrichevskyYulia Agapova
Stanislav Bogdanov set a new record for people with Down syndrome at Kilimanjaro: with his companion Anton he reached the 5,300-meter mark. This is almost the summit.
5,685 mGilman’s PointPavel KrysanovAlexander LebedevAlina SeninaAnastasiya Marentsova
Pavel Krysanov, the ultramarathon runner with CP, Alexander from the orphanage, expedition doctor Alina and organizer Anastasiya reached the edge of Kilimanjaro’s crater. This counts as conquering the mountain.
5,895 mUhuru PeakAlexandra BugrovaSergei AnashkevichSafron Golikov
Alexandra of the Syndrome of Love Foundation, the blogger Sergei and cameraman Safron raised the project flag at the highest point of the crater.
Has the ascent changed the participants’ lives?
This experience is likely to have sown seeds that will hopefully bear fruit in each mountaineer over the course of their lives. For some of them, this was the first journey outside their home towns, the first glimpse of the huge and diverse world we live in. Some of them set personal records that they can tell friends and family about for years to come. For others, it was the first experience in an inclusive environment and the first chance to get to know people from similar backgrounds; to share their dreams, aspirations, and challenges and to learn to interact and make friends with them.
Have you set your heart on Kilimanjaro too? How to prepare for an ascent
If you want to follow in the steps of our team and conquer Kilimanjaro too, here is a brief guide for you. Gather a group of at least four kindred spirits. The entire preparation process can be divided into four stages.
1. Take a medical check-up to measure your blood pressure, pulse, and blood oxygen level. Ask your doctor what other tests you should take to make sure you are healthy enough to adapt to high altitudes and to cope with altitude sickness. On the way to the top — Uhuru Peak — you will need to survive huge altitude gains, to traverse several climatic zones, and finally, to make the assault on the summit, which is the hardest part.
2. It is best to start training two or three months before the ascent, especially if you are not a professional athlete or a sports enthusiast. Instructors recommend running short distances of two-three kilometers several times a week, gradually extending the distance to 10 kilometers. The guide from the Kilimanjaro: I Can! expedition recommends combining running and climbing stairs.
3. Another mandatory part of the preparation includes vaccinations against yellow fever. Some also recommend taking anti-malaria pills as a precaution, but with very few malaria mosquitoes in the mountains, it is usually enough to use repellents while in town.
4. The final part is to pack your equipment. Our heroes have a life hack: it’s better to bring your own trekking poles, even though local guides will offer you a pair of theirs. Professional gear is much more convenient than the wooden sticks used by locals.