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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 7 years ago

Mountain men

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A trio of close friends went for the biggest physical and mental challenge they had ever experienced: To climb one of the highest mountains.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Executive: Evan Berlin, founder of Berlin-Patten, a law firm with offices in Sarasota, Venice and Lakewood Ranch; Jesse Biter, co-founder of Dealers United, a Sarasota-based auto industry buying group; and Jamie Ebling, a partner with Berlin-Patten.

Diversion: Berlin, Biter and Ebling, close friends for 10 years, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in September. Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, Africa, is the highest freestanding mountain in the world, at 19,341 feet above sea level (Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, stands 29,029 feet above sea level). The trip, booked by Ryan Hilton at Sarasota-based Admiral Travel International, was a 16-day journey. The climbers flew from Sarasota to New York on Sept. 21. The next day they flew to Tanzania. Then, after a rest and a day to get acclimated to the heights, the real fun began. They went five days up the mountain, two days down and spent four days on an African safari. Then they headed home. “I don't think any of us realized how tough this would be,” Berlin says. “I don't think we can ever do anything else in our life like this.”

Life challenge: Biter read Zappos founder Tony Hsieh's book, “Delivering Happiness,” in which the celebrated entrepreneur writes about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and other experiences. Biter and Hsieh later met for dinner in Las Vegas, where they talked about the journey. “That's what made me want to do it,” Biter says.

Tough training: All three climbers kept up their workouts at the gym and with personal trainers. They also added a wrinkle: anything with elevation. That meant climbing stairs in Biter's high-rise downtown Sarasota condo building and hiking at Celery Fields, a wildlife preserve in Sarasota, east of Interstate 75. They carried backpacks with 30-pound weights on the walks, which sometimes lasted several hours. Still, Florida isn't great training ground to simulate mountain climbing. Says Berlin: “There was very little we could do to prepare for it.”

Little help: A crew of 20 or so porters joined Berlin, Biter and Ebling on the climb. Porters, local residents familiar with the terrain, are paid to help people up the mountain. The porters included one chef, two guides and plenty of people to help carry gear. “Their goal,” says Biter, “is to get you to the top.”

Head games: On one of the days, when the team was around 15,000 feet, Biter started to get massive headaches. “It was so bad it could kill a cow,” says Biter. He drank more water and the pain started to subside. But the higher the team got, the harder it became for Biter and his friends to drink enough water, given the height, the cold weather and how tired they were.

Happy days: They reached the summit Sept. 30 — the day Berlin turned 45 years old. It was a surreal and fantastic moment. For one, they hit the summit (fantastic) at nighttime after a seven-hour climb. “You had no clue where you were,” says Biter. “You can't see anything.” The porters baked Berlin a birthday cake (surreal). And Biter called his wife, Katie, back home in Sarasota, on a satellite phone from the summit (surreal and fantastic). The trio stayed on the summit for about 20 minutes, exhausted yet thrilled. Says Berlin: “It was the best day of my life and the worst day of my life all at the same time.”

Surprise surprise: Everyone expected mental and physical pain, says Berlin. Pep talks were common. “Our goal was to summit together,” Biter says. “That's what we all set out to do.” Other aspects of the adventure were a surprise. Like how they discovered cell phone reception, not just satellite phones, worked pretty well on the mountain with nothing to block signals. Another surprise, not pleasant, was how bad the three climbers smelled. They couldn't shower for seven days. Says Biter: “You could smell us coming.”

Warm beer: The trek back down was an adrenaline-filled rush. On the last part of the last day, the friends even ran ahead of the porters. “They told us to slow down,” says Biter, “and we said no way.” A beer — warm, Kilimanjaro brand — awaited the climbers when they hit the bottom. Says Berlin: “It was the best warm beer we ever had.”

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