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King of Kilimanjaro

Incline’s Eddie Frank prepares for his 50th Mt. Kilimanjaro trek
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The first time Eddie Frank set off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world, he had no idea what to expect. Wearing steel-toed work boots, Levi’s, a cotton army jacket, and a rented pair of gloves, Frank was underdressed, unprepared, and unaware of the challenge ahead of him. His group got hit with a blizzard at 17,000 feet, and they were forced to turn around in a whiteout, shy of the 19,341-foot summit.

Frank could not have imagined at the time of that failed attempt just how much that mountain would come to mean to him. But now, nearly 38 years later, the 61-year-old Incline resident is set to make his 50th trip up Kilimanjaro in January as one of the mountain’s most renowned trekking guides.

Born for Adventure South African born and raised, Frank grew up idolizing explorers and craving adventure, and had always dreamed of a trans-Africa trip. So when that opportunity came to him, at age 24, he happily left his job as a photographer in Los Angeles and hit the road.  

“[A friend] came to me and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ and that was all I needed,” Frank said.

Using two Land Rovers they’d bought from the British Army, Frank and his travel partner set out on the adventure of a lifetime. Their trip across Africa took six months, culminating in Tanzania for Frank’s first Kilimanjaro trek.

But that was only the start of what would come to be a lifelong love affair for Frank, who now owns Incline-based Tusker Trail, one of the world’s premiere adventure travel companies.

“That was the beginning of this life that I embarked on,” Frank said. “So in reality this wasn’t really a career choice. I didn’t say, ‘Well I’d like to do this for a living.’ I just went for the adventure. And I’m still on this ride.”

From then on, Frank was hooked, and his passion for adventure and travel quickly evolved into a career.

Frank spent several years leading expeditions and safaris, finishing each one with a trek up Kilimanjaro. But as he gained more experience and expertise on the mountain and found himself increasingly captivated by it, he decided to focus his business on mountain trekking, particularly at Kilimanjaro.

“I saw an opportunity,” he said. “In those days when people climbed Kilimanjaro it was usually an extension of a safari; more of an aside. I flipped that idea on its head and turned Kilimanjaro into a destination.”

Frank built his business around elevating the standard of climbing using quality gear and trained guides, and ultimately “dealing with Kilimanjaro as a proper mountain climb.” Safety is paramount for Frank. Each Tusker mountain guide is required to take a rigorous 50-hour High Altitude First Responder medical training course, which they must re-certify each year.
The course is world-renowned and is popularly attended by medical experts from across the globe. In fact, because of his expertise, Frank is a consultant to both the US Army Special Forces and US Marines in high altitude techniques and strategies.

“I wanted to be the best, and I think I’ve done that,” Frank said of his company’s evolution. “We seem to have found the right recipe that people wanted, and the company grew very fast.”

Frank now climbs Kilimanjaro four to five times each year, guiding groups of 12 to 30 people with the help of fellow Tusker mountain guides and local porters. With roughly 100 departures each year, most of the company’s Kilimanjaro trips are led by its team of Tanzanian guides. Through their education and experience, the Tusker team has distinguished itself on Mount Kilimanjaro with a 98 percent summit rate.

Tusker mountain guides — including Frank’s wife and business partner, Amy — also lead trips in Mongolia, Nepal, and Bhutan. And the company has led more than 90 fundraising climbs for 43 charities, raising over $11 million in the past 12 years.

Despite his success, Frank said he still doesn’t think of climbing as a career but rather a lifestyle, full of challenge, excitement, and adventure.

“A lifestyle like that is hard to beat,” he said.

The Lure of the Mountain But why, of all the places to adventure, is Kilimanjaro so special to Frank?

“It’s a great equalizer, this climb,” he said. “It makes absolutely no difference what you do back home … Everyone is susceptible to what can happen to them on this mountain.”

While Kilimanjaro doesn’t boast much technical difficulty, the mountain is deceptively challenging because of the extreme environment and high altitude, Frank said.

On a Tusker expedition, groups typically spend nine to 10 days on the mountain, beginning around 6,000 feet and topping out above 19,000. They hike up to nine hours a day, all uphill, through ever-thinning air. Altitude sickness and hypothermia are very serious threats, and Frank has dealt with extreme cases of both while guiding.

“There’s this great myth out there that it’s a walk in the park,” he said of Kilimanjaro. “Yes, it’s a walk, but not a walk in the park. … This climb takes people out of their elements, into an extreme environment, and throws them into the deep end. It exposes people’s characters.”

As he prepares for his 50th trek up the mountain this January, when he’ll be teaching his high altitude course to a group of doctors, Frank reflects on what keeps him coming back year after year.

“It’s never the same,” he said. “There’s a new challenge every time. But the ultimate hook is when people are at the top. There’s this euphoria the group gets that’s infectious. It’s like they’re falling in love for the first time, and you made that happen. You see what it’s like to make people’s dreams come true in a moment.”

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February 14, 2019