Lawyer “work(s) the fat off his soul” climbing Kilimanjaro

Friday, July 7, 2017
David McKenzie poses at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro for a photo.
Photos by Barbara Harmon

David McKenzie sits behind a large mahogany desk, a mass of organized folders and papers, his professional distractions, covering most of the surface.

The phone rings. A secretary adds to the paper mass. This is what life is like for a busy criminal defense and personal injury attorney who has two offices in two towns, Lewisburg and Fayetteville.

Weekends for the 36-year-old lawyer are in anything but an office setting, however.

“I just find when you are in a quiet place, things come to you, and you can recharge your batteries to be able to handle life.”

McKenzie has a significant love for nature, a desire to be outdoors, and tries to spend 80 to 90 percent of his weekends under the great blue sky.

He is an experienced hiker, climbing mountains in Tennessee and Colorado for the past seven to eight years.

“I just think being in nature, working hard, trying to accomplish something that is physically demanding just makes you a humble, caring, kind of nicer person,” McKenzie explained.

“I’m in the criminal defense business, so being humble and being caring are things that generally don’t go into that business. So that’s why I like getting out there.”

And that’s how a little more than a month ago, this Tennessee attorney who loves adventure found himself at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, 19,341 feet above sea level.

But that’s the short version.

The longer version involves melting glaciers, an innate need to challenge himself and the death of a friend.

McKenzie graduated from Tullahoma High School, then Motlow and East Tennessee State University for college. After his undergraduate years, he went to law school at Regent University in Virginia Beach. He returned to Middle Tennessee to open a practice because of his love for the region. This is his 11th year practicing law.

Due to his love of music, he originally went to law school in hopes of working in the entertainment industry.

“I always dreamt of being an entertainment lawyer and working with creative people to put something together that would make the world a better place… make people happy.”

But along the way through law school he was attracted to criminal defense and personal injury representation.

McKenzie has been interested in physical fitness for many years and enjoys endurance events.

“Whenever you can go and test yourself, and see what you are made out of, and make it through it, then you face those challenges when it really matters with a different perspective, with much more confidence, knowing what you can do.

“Apart from the experience is the personal growth.”

McKenzie said a podcast got him thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro. The podcaster had climbed the seven summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents, with Kilimanjaro saved for the last climb. McKenzie said she told of being surprised at how much of the glaciers, tens of thousands of years old, were drastically shrinking due to climate change.

McKenzie said there was an urgency in this podcast to go see these glaciers before they are gone. He took the podcaster’s message to heart.

“I can open up my eyes and see that the world is changing, and it is changing faster than it should be.”

Another reason Kilimanjaro was on his mind was the death of a friend Andrew (Andy) Rambo, a lawyer from Shelbyville who passed away last year.

Rambo’s funeral left an impression. His friend was eulogized not for his accomplishments in the courtroom, but the places he had visited, the people he had met, the experiences of a man who explored the world.

One of the places that made an impression: Mount Kilimanjaro.

A photo of Rambo at the summit was on display at the funeral.

“The perspective that he gained by going to another country, by climbing to the top of this place and looking down, and what he went through in order to get there was something that I really wanted.”

So McKenzie started planning his trek to Africa at the end of last summer.

McKenzie was already physically fit, hiking, climbing, trail running. Often, to make it interesting, he’d carry weights as he hiked or ran. It was not uncommon for him to cover 20 miles, camp out and do it again the next day.

“I’m pretty used to doing long, heavy, difficult grade terrain, but you cannot train for altitude.”

“So, you just try and make your body as physically fit as possible.”

McKenzie added even more to his rigorous routine. He lost about 25 pounds, regularly ran up and down bleachers at an athletic field, ran hundreds of miles carrying weights. Thrown in for good measure were hikes of seven or eight hours at a time several days in a row.

He was not going to be climbing this mountain alone, though. Matthew Maust, a 35-year-old friend from law school living in Richmond, Virginia, joined the expedition. At the mountain, 15 porters and guides would also be with him.

McKenzie and Maust texted and emailed each other on a daily basis to keep each other accountable for their training.

They expected the climb would take six days up and two days down, but they finished in seven days. McKenzie offered these glimpses into his time on the mountain.

Day 1: You start in a tropical rain forest, densest vegetation you can imagine, very damp, showers throughout the day, very hot, somewhere around 90, 95 degrees…pretty close to 100 percent humidity.

It’s incredibly beautiful—birds, insects, beautiful flowers, and amazing trees like we just don’t have here in the states.

Colobus monkeys were running through the trees and making all kinds of noises.

Day 2: You emerge from the rainforest into a less dense vegetation system (grass steppe) with higher grasses, like 10 feet tall. There are no longer trees, and you don’t really see any life—no more monkeys, no insects or birds.

Day 3-4: You leave the grass steppe to the alpine deserts—small shrubs, very tropic. All the sudden, the humidity has dropped to like 5 or 0 percent and your skin reacts to that. You stop sweating.

Temperatures drop at night. It is common to wake with ice on your tent. It is common to be 10 below at night. There’s the African sun during the day, but if you step into the shade it is very cold. The sun is intense. You are constantly putting on sunscreen, wearing a wide brimmed hat and wearing gloves to protect your skin.

And, it gets dryer and colder as you go up.

Day 5: After you leave the alpines, you have a limited time until you summit. You are in glacier fields. It is basically like being on the surface of the moon—very dry, no grass, no plants, lots of rock hazards, lots of things to climb.

It’s different. I can’t tell you it’s beautiful, but it’s very exotic.

Then, when you get to the very top, when you are walking around the rim of the caldera (top of the volcano), that is when you start to see the glaciers.

That was amazing to see. They are a beautiful white-blue color. You know they’ve been there a whole lot longer than we have, and to see that was pretty inspiring.

One of the greatest challenges of the climb was trying to stay clean. The final climb to the top was like “dust bowl,” where they were constantly pelted with grit, sand and dirt. His clothes were persistently covered in dust, he said.

The biggest challenge, however, was altitude. McKenzie suffered from altitude sickness, manifested as extreme lethargy—getting confused, mind not as sharp, not being able to speak clearly. He had a difficult time making decisions about small matters.

“Should I put ketchup on my potatoes or should I not? Do I have the right socks on? And, you have to think about it. You lose the ability to make decisions quickly. You have a headache. Your body is very tired—telling you it is in an unnatural state.”

There is a process of acclimatization. For several days, the group climbed high during the day but returned down to sleep at a lower elevation. He said it takes six to seven days for the body to adapt to the altitude.

Not going through this process would not be healthy.

“If not, you would have a hard time sleeping at night. Your body would be fighting itself, trying to adjust,” he said.

The training on the mountain is important because the walk to the top and down again would be an 18-hour energy-sucking slog.

McKenzie noted there was a loneliness factor, too, a worry that could not be cured by a call home.

“Even though I was with one of my best friends, you miss your family.”

His wife, Emily, of 11 years and Ethan, their 4-year-old son, were cheering for McKenzie from their home.

“You say to yourself, ‘I’m out here suffering. This is fun, but it is a lot of work and a lot of misery, too.’”

On some nights, McKenzie awoke long before dawn and not be able to go back to sleep. He’d take a walk, look up at a sky full of stars in a configuration that you don’t see back in Tennessee and listen to Pink Floyd albums on his iPhone while everyone else snored.

“It is a very tough physical challenge, but it is very difficult mental challenge.”

Above 18,500, the oxygen is half as dense as it is at sea level, so to breathe the same amount of air, the lungs are breathing twice as much.

“You throw exertion on top of that, you throw lack of sleep, poor diet, stress, anxiety, adrenaline—things like that—you can see that your body is just breathing like crazy, your heart is beating like crazy,” he said.

But it’s worth the pain, the attorney noted.

He explained why:

You start opening your eyes up more. You start seeing the experience. You start sending more time with your guides and learning about who they are and where they are coming from.

You begin learning their language and about all their experiences and why they are doing what they do. You hear about the people they have met.

You really start taking it from being well, this is an athletic thing, this is a physical challenge, and you start seeing it as a great immersive cultural experience—where I get to see where people half way around the world send their days.

The day his party climbed the summit was very difficult.

“The air is pretty much nonexistent. As we get close to the top, we start seeing the glaciers. It is leveling off, because we are walking around the base of the volcano at a very low grade. So, we see the sign, it is right there, we are going to make it.”

At the top, they play “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake. “We are dancing. It is unbelievably emotional. You have gone through so much to get there. You’ve gone through this experience with strangers that have now become friends and a friend that has now become even closer. You get up there, and you just start crying. It is impossible not to cry. I don’t know how you make it through that and not be overcome with these different emotions. It is not the same feeling of holding your child for the first time, but it is close.”

Barbara Harmon is a journalism student at Middle Tennessee State University. She was one of several students who spent a week in Marshall County writing stories for the Marshall County Tribune.