It's a long way from stone mountain (elevation: 1,683 feet), Ga., where Cathy Griffin was raised, to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro (19,342 feet). But that's where Griffin, SI's director of sports management, recently traveled to take part in the Kilimanjaro Confidence climb, a 32-person expedition up the tallest peak in Africa, which is the highest mountain in the world that can be climbed without specialized equipment. Occasional girlhood forays to the top of her hometown mountain scarcely qualified her for an assault on Kilimanjaro, but Griffin, 33, has always enjoyed a challenge. This one turned out to be particularly rewarding. "It revived my ability to dream," says Griffin, who is the magazine's liaison to athletes and teams for promotional purposes.
She and 19 other volunteers acted as coaches to 12 mentally handicapped climbers from California. The privately funded trip was the brainchild of Jim Benson, a board member of the California Special Olympics, who is no stranger to quixotic quests. Three years ago he led 25 mentally handicapped riders on a bicycle tour across the U.S.
Benson met Griffin when she introduced herself to him during the cocktail hour of a sports-marketing seminar in New York City last August. "I find that a cocktail party is a wonderful place to make friends," says Griffin.
When Griffin found out about Benson's plan, she volunteered to help coordinate the trip, and shortly thereafter she was asked to be a coach. To prepare for the climb, Griffin undertook a training regimen that included 30 minutes a day pedaling a stationary bike and another 40 minutes hiking to nowhere on a StairMaster at her health club. "People gave her strange looks when she worked out in hiking boots," says Benson.
On Feb. 15, Griffin and company started their ascent. Five days into the climb, the snows (and other forms of precipitation) of Kilimanjaro conspired to defeat most of the party. First came three days of hail and rain, followed by a mild blizzard at Arrow Glacier, 15,700 feet above sea level. Because of the dangerous conditions and a shortage of food, only six of the mentally handicapped athletes, accompanied by five experienced mountaineering coaches, continued to the summit. Alas, Griffin and her charge, Gary Stubblefield, did not make the cut.
Although Griffin was disappointed, she considers the real summit of the experience to have been her work with these athletes. "They not only are able to do what ordinary people do," she says. "Sometimes they can do more. They're an inspiration."
Griffin and Stubblefield: out of Africa.