Diary of 49ers' Ben Garland: Learning my limits on Kilimanjaro

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Lamarr Houston reflects on his trip to Africa (1:08)

Lamarr Houston details his experience traveling to Africa and explains what he took away from the trip. (1:08)

Standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro, looking 19,341 feet down at the world below, San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Ben Garland had just made history.

Garland had become the first active NFL player and military reservist (Colorado Air National Guard) to reach Africa's tallest peak. But his thoughts weren't on his own accomplishment. Instead, they rested on what he and his fellow climbers had done to make the world below a better place.

Working with the Waterboys, the signature initiative of the Chris Long Foundation that helps to bring clean water to communities in need, Garland's climb to the top of Kilimanjaro was the culmination of a two-week trip to Tanzania beginning in mid-February in which he and a former NFL player, water advocates and military veterans raised more than $205,000.

That money goes toward the cost of the trip and climb and putting two clean water wells in Tanzania, the East African nation where roughly half of the population of 57 million lacks access to clean water.

During his trip, Garland formed bonds with former NFL defensive end Lamarr Houston, water advocates Christine Schwan, John Horack and David Williams, ESPN radio host Mike Golic Jr. and military veterans Bingham Jamison, David Rendon, Doc Jacobs, Todd Jones, Christine Weber, Kevin Blanchard and Matt Cook.

For the duration of his trip to Africa, Garland kept a journal.

Here are his experiences in his words:

Days 1-4: Serengeti safari and the Ngorongoro Crater

Within two hours of landing, we got up close and personal with a huge variety of animals.

We saw hippos followed by lions. Just being feet away from their presence and power, you look over and they lock eyes with you. It's just an incredible experience to be able to just be so close to a fierce predator.

Over the next few days, we saw every cat in Africa, including lions eating a buffalo, a different group of lions stalking and pouncing on birds, a cheetah with her five cubs and a leopard lying in a tree. We also found ourselves in the middle of a herd of elephants.

I never knew how beautiful of a country this was, lush and green. Meanwhile, Tanzanians have been so warm and welcoming.

We slept in the Serengeti in a nice tent and all night you could hear the lions and hyenas outside.

On the third day, we saw the great migration. We were in a herd of about a million animals with wildebeest and zebras as far as you could see in every direction.

The next day, we headed to the Ngorongoro Crater. Along the way, we stumbled on a female cheetah hunting and eating a baby gazelle. It was graphic but gave you a real picture of the harsh reality of life in Africa.

During the trip, we saw multiple herds of cattle being led by small children. Some looked as young as 5. I can't imagine my nieces, who are of a similar age, being on their own in the mountains, let alone surrounded by lions and other predators. We learned that the majority of a family's wealth is determined by the amount of livestock they own.

As the kids spotted us, they ran up to our vehicles asking us for candy. We happily stopped the car and shared what we had.

Going into the crater was like entering a whole new world. It looked like a scene from "Jurassic Park" but with African animals. Fifteen hundred feet into this perfect caldera was a beautiful lake with every animal living in harmony.

Day 5: Well ceremony and school visit

On our way to the school, we spotted a few women digging in a dry riverbed. We stopped to talk to them and learned they got up at 5 a.m. and walked 5 kilometers to this spot. The women dug large holes, by hand, that were about 4 feet deep. They were covered in bugs, which were also trying to get at the same small puddles of dirty water they had unearthed. The women then took a bowl and did their best to siphon the cleanest water to pour into their bucket. They told us they did this every day, and they didn't always find water when they dug.

The entire scenario was heartbreaking. It really put things into perspective for me. After losing the Super Bowl, I grieved. It hurt so bad. It was like having my dreams ripped away. But seeing the hardships these women go through on a day-to-day basis really made me appreciate what I have and made me grateful for all the wonderful things I take for granted.

Miles down the road, we reached our destination and were greeted by a group of women and children singing and dancing. The school was a total of five buildings, two of which were brick shells with no sign of that changing anytime soon. We are taken to the well the Waterboys just completed. It was impressive, powered by solar panels, industrial strength and built to last.

They held an opening ceremony where we filled buckets of water from the well and placed them on the heads of women as a symbol of the gift of water and the ease of access the well would provide. The women would then balance the water on their head with no hands as they took it to its destination. I wanted to try it for myself to understand better what these women had to do to provide water for their families. Balancing it without hands was impossible; the sheer weight of the bucket left my neck sore. The soreness was similar to the first few days of NFL training camp, when I wasn't used to wearing a football helmet. That soreness came from carrying the water a few hundred yards. Before the well was installed, women would walk for miles with the water on their heads.

Later, one of the teachers read us a list of their needs and informed us they had 160 students and two teachers. After that we played football and soccer with the kids, many with no shoes and ripped clothes but happy simply to be able to play.

On the way back to our hotel, I spoke with John Bongiorno from WorldServe International (the implementing partner for Waterboys) and learned more about the process of digging the wells. It was way more complicated than I had expected. It's a rigorous process, studying the land's topography for water and finding places that have the largest need. Getting the digging equipment to remote areas can be costly and difficult. Sometimes when they dig, they discover the water is contaminated and not safe to drink. Then they have to start the process all over.

With the Waterboys model, for $8 you can give someone clean water for decades. The thought of making a massive impact on someone's life with a gift of $8 was empowering. I love the metaphor of small donations or acts of kindness being like a drop of water. As the water collects, drop by drop, each individual drop doesn't seem like much. But as the drops add together, water is a powerful force that can carve through solid rock and reshape our world.

That night, when we returned to our hotel, I walked past the large swimming pool on my way to my room. I love swimming pools, but after witnessing the hardships those women endured, it felt wrong wasting so much water when so many are without.

Day 6: Elerai school

This was the best day yet, as we went to Elerai school, whose nearly 1,800 students couldn't have been more excited to see us. We spent a couple of hours playing -- running around, giving high-fives and fist-bumps and throwing kids in the air. We went to some of their classes and they practiced English by asking us questions.

We were given a tour of the school. A concrete basin in the corner of campus caught water runoff from the city. The kids would regularly drink the water, which was contaminated, dirty, covered with bugs. The kitchen was next to this water pit, just a couple of firepits.

The principal said when food was donated, they would make it for the kids; otherwise they wouldn't have any. Despite their ripped clothes, lack of supplies and overall living conditions, these kids seemed so happy. No entitlement, just happy to be able to go to school and learn. We made a genuine connection. It was fun to watch joy spread like wildfire, regardless of language barriers, cultural or economic differences.

Day 7: Simba Camp and the start of conquering Kili

We got the news the morning of the climb that we reached our goal of raising more than $200,000. Knowing we would put in a well for the kids we visited the previous day was special. Knowing exactly who we were about to help, knowing which smiles and faces we were about to impact meant that much more.

We spent the next five hours driving to Kilimanjaro. With the road conditions of Tanzania and the duration, I dreaded this drive. We spent the time getting to know each other and before we knew it, we were at the gate.

To be perfectly honest, I was dreading the long hike as well. Just coming off a long season, my body was still beaten up. But just like the car ride, we were at the first camp before I knew it. We just got lost in conversation. People with so many different backgrounds and incredible life stories had me hanging on every word. We were met by our porters, who greeted us with songs in Swahili and dancing. Five minutes in, I pushed Lamarr Houston toward them, telling him to dance. Before I knew it, our whole group was in an impromptu dance-off at Simba Camp.

Simba is Swahili for lion, so it was named Simba Camp due to the lions that sometimes roam through. The camp was in a tropical rainforest, but we knew at the top of the mountain we would face arctic conditions.

At dinner, Doc [Jacobs] said this was the anniversary of the day he lost his leg fighting for his country. He was brave enough to share with us how he lost more than just his leg; his closest friends were taken, and a part of him was ripped away. His vulnerability changed the group dynamic, giving us courage to share.

Days 8-9: Simba Camp to Cave 3

The air is getting thin but the conversations are better. It's great to be away from my phone and be in nature with friends. I feel like I'm getting a chance to really be in the moment.

I opted out of the second acclimatization hike so that I could do a workout and stretches to prepare for the upcoming season. I felt so selfish doing this, like I was letting the team down and missing out on bonding.

After dinner, Lamarr set up Super Mario for the group on a projector on the tent wall. It was a blast. Young to old, we took turns playing the classic, avoiding the Goombas and jumping over the turtles, laughing and cheering each other on.

Day 10: Cave 3 to Kibo hut

It was high energy the entire hike. People were dancing, singing, having a great time. Two-thirds of the way through we broke the cloud level and could look back and see the top of the clouds, like being on a plane. You could see the second volcano in the distance. It was smaller but with much more rugged features. And when you looked at Kilimanjaro's peak, it had an ever-changing halo of clouds. It really felt like we had accomplished something even though we still had a long way to go.

At the end of the hike, with the next camp in sight, our eldest member began to feel the effects of the altitude. Our team rallied around him, but after getting to base camp, he decided not to continue to the top. It was still a major accomplishment; base camp is higher than any point in the United States.

Day 11: Kilimanjaro summit

This was one of the longest and most challenging days of my life.

We woke up at 11 p.m. for a quick snack, a briefing and a midnight departure in headlamps. Walking out of the tent, on a clear night, I could see more stars than I have ever seen before.

With nervous excitement, the energy was high to start the journey, a ton of talking and laughing. And it took no time at all for the hike to hit a steep incline.

After being on the mountain for hours, you look up and still see tiny headlamps so far above you, indicating that you have a long way to go. The dark made the task even more mentally challenging. The only thing you could see was the steep incline illuminated by the few feet of light from the headlamp. The climb was cold to start, and the temperature dropped as we climbed higher.

Not long into the hike, Christine Schwan said her hands were freezing. She was making this climb at the age of 61, so I gave her my gloves knowing she needed them more than I did.

The first five-minute break came 2½ hours in. You could see how much of a toll the hike was taking on the team.

Knowing that everyone was hurting, I sang songs in an attempt to bring the group energy and provide a distraction from the pain. I poorly sang anything I could think of, from Disney songs to Christmas carols, until we reached the crater's rim of the summit.

By the second break, David Rendon, with a frozen beard, said he was going to turn back at the next stop. He had already thrown up seven times. He told me he was afraid he was going to cause permanent damage or lose his life because he was in so much pain. I encouraged him the best I could. But no one encouraged him as much as Kevin, who kept yelling: "You're good brother, keep going, we can do this!"

Kevin Blanchard is an amputee whose remaining leg was badly damaged in a blast while serving in the military. When I asked him to be honest with me about how he was doing, he told me there was some discomfort from his prosthetic but it didn't come anywhere near the pain in his right leg, which was completely rebuilt after the blast injury. It had very little range of motion in the ankle and foot, with nerve damage and terrible circulation.

Every step felt like an eternity. At times, he said he couldn't distinguish between what was real and imagined. The pain was so bad he said his heart started hurting, like each step was a bolt of lightning going straight to his heart. He said he started to see flashes of his 13-month-old son's face giggle when they played peekaboo. He said those images kept him going because he wanted to tell him his daddy summited Mount Kilimanjaro, and he can climb whatever mountain he wants to, so long as he never gives up.

Kevin never complained despite the pain. He instead encouraged others or offered thoughtful insights on life.

"Pole pole" was the constant chant from our guides. It meant to slow down and take one step at a time. Kevin told me it was a great mantra to live by: to simply slow life down and take things one step at a time.

Our guides also told us a mountain is a lot like an iceberg in the sense that only a small portion can be seen above the surface. Kevin and I discussed how this was the perfect metaphor for the struggles we all face. We are all climbing our own mountain and there are the struggles above the surface everyone can see you fighting through. Yet we all have so many more that are below the surface that no one or very few know about.

After we passed the 18,000-foot mark, the impact of the altitude seemed to magnify; some people were cramping, vomiting -- others had diarrhea. Many were dizzy and confused.

We reached the crater rim in the dark. It was a huge relief to see Gilman's Point, knowing we no longer had to deal with such an intense incline. What we failed to realize was how far away and how dangerous of a hike was left. We still had around a thousand feet to gain in elevation, traversing the rocky, icy rim. At times, either side was sheer cliffs.

As we traversed the rim, the sun began to rise, illuminating the grandeur of the volcano. A 360-degree view revealed the glaciers and allowed you to see all the way to Kenya. The beauty of the sunrise was in stark opposition to the brutality of the altitude. We saw three people being rescued and carried off the mountain. The first man was as white as a ghost, covered in frozen snot stuck to his cheeks and mustache, with his eyes rolling in the back of his head.

About an hour later we saw the sign at the summit. This image gave everyone a new burst of energy. When we reached the sign, it was like winning a big game. There were high-fives, hugs and tears as we took our victorious pictures.

I asked Kevin what he remembered when he summited, and this is what he told me:

"When David [Rendon] and I were within sight of the sign at the summit, David became overwhelmed with emotion. I tried to hold back, but the truth was I was bawling in silence. The tears were rolling faster and faster under my sunglasses until we both touched the sign at the same time. At that point we both lost it. We hugged and said we loved each other.

"I don't think I've ever done that with another man, but in that moment, it felt so normal. It took me two hours longer to come back down the mountain than anyone else on the Waterboys team. I could barely walk without help from the porters when I got back to base camp. The team had been resting for a couple of hours once I arrived, and we still had to hike to the next camp that afternoon. Although we were at lower altitude and the ground was flat to the next camp, I could not walk any further. I couldn't even stand up. I had found my limit. I was medevaced to the next camp. Two of the greatest things happened to me that day: I summited Mount Kilimanjaro and I found my limit. Finding my limit is a great achievement because I know at what point to go beyond next time and that I will become even more resilient."

We summited the mountain on a leap year, on a day that only exists once every four years, a unique date to always remember a once-in-a-lifetime memory made with friends.

Postscript

A few weeks after returning to the United States, Garland re-signed with the 49ers. With the 2020 trip complete, the Waterboys organization has now raised more than $4.9 million and provided clean water for more than 360,000 people.

As of late May, the Conquering Kili project, which raises money through donations in support of the climbers, has raised more than $870,000, with $205,710 of that coming from this year's group.

The goal is to provide clean water to more than 1 million people. To help reach that goal, Garland says he would "definitely" return to Africa.

"That combination of, like, reaching the summit, reaching our goal, doing it together with a group that you became really close with those five or six days," Garland said. "I loved it. It was a life-changing experience."