Climbing to the ‘Roof of Africa’

Lyme Man, Teen With Cystic Fibrosis Reach Continent’s Highest Peak

Lyme resident David Jopp at approximately 12,500 feet, while hiking Kilimanjaro last month. (Clay June photograph)

Lyme resident David Jopp at approximately 12,500 feet, while hiking Kilimanjaro last month. (Clay June photograph)

Lyme — Standing at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro last month, Lyme resident David Jopp felt tears running down his cheeks.

After five nights on the tallest mountain in Africa, Jopp, his longtime friend John Gallen, and Gallen’s 15-year-old son, Nat, had made it.

The trio climbed Kilimanjaro to honor a dream that Nat, who has cystic fibrosis, had when the Reading, Pa., boy was in second grade and saw a picture of Kilimanjaro in a schoolbook.

That planted the idea of summiting the mountain himself.

On Aug. 4, the trio stood at 19,341 feet, on the “Roof of Africa,” and embraced. Nat’s dream was realized.

“You’re so many days working on this adventure,” said Jopp. “Reaching it was one of the most emotional experiences of my life.”

“The last couple hundred yards were very emotional,” said John Gallen, 49, who led the group to the summit. “Nat had achieved his goal. It was a real happy, genuine, proud moment for all of us.” Nat is both the first American with cystic fibrosis and the youngest cystic fibrosis patient in the world to summit Kilimanjaro, according to Jopp and Gallen.

Cystic fibrosis is a chronic, genetic disease that affects the respiratory and digestive systems, with no known cure. Nat was diagnosed with a mild case of cystic fibrosis as an infant. “Receiving the news was gut-wrenching,” said Gallen. “We were told that the average life expectancy at the time was in the mid-20s.”

“A person with cystic fibrosis is supposed to have difficulty breathing, so to climb the highest mountain in Africa and have that as a goal is pretty lofty,” said Gallen.

But cystic fibrosis doesn’t slow Nat down. “We told him very early on that we would not hold him back because he had a disease,” Gallen said. “He has always been a go-getter.”

Nat wakes up at 6 every morning to complete chest exercises and nebulizer tests. He plays “every sport there is,” according to his father — soccer, golf, lacrosse, swimming and tennis. Last year, as the only freshman player on his high school varsity golf team, Nat held his own in a sudden-death playoff that led the team to win the Pennsylvania state championship.

At the top of Kilimanjaro, Nat unfolded a banner: “Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: Adding Tomorrows.”

The trip came to Jopp, who is a mathematics teacher at Oxbow Union High School in Bradford, Vt., as a 50th birthday present from Gallen.

“We always bonded in the mountains, so it was very natural for me to call him up for this trip,” said Gallen.

“We’ve been talking about this trip for five years,” Jopp said. “But this gift was the real impetus to go.”

Like the Gallens, Jopp is an avid hiker. He has climbed in the Sierra, Rockies, Cascades and across the Northeast. But even with his experience, he said, the climb was a struggle.

“The guide said that mountaineering is suffering,” Jopp said. “I’d never heard that before and I didn’t understand what he meant until we were on the mountain.”

Over the course of the six nights, the three dealt with altitude sickness symptoms such as headaches, exhaustion and shortness of breath.

“I kept waking up out of breath because my body wasn’t getting enough oxygen,” Jopp said.

One of the high points of the climb was a surprise 50th birthday celebration for Jopp at 12,800 feet, complete with shortbread cake and a candle, dancing and singing.

“It was one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had,” Jopp said.

But the climb was difficult and long. “There was a little bit of doubt for me,” Jopp said, adding that it was Nat who brought him to the top.

“I was doing it for him. I was there as support for Nat, but really he was support for me,” Jopp said. “Nat reaching the summit was a high point, pun intended, of the trip, and Nat helped me to reach the summit.”

Nat said he never had any doubts about reaching the summit.

“I was just thinking about my goal and achieving it,” he said. “I had no negativity in my head.”

Nat cited the Barranco Wall e_SEmD a two- to three-hour trek on one of the steepest and most challenging sections of the mountain — as his favorite part of the climb.

Now back at work at Oxbow, Jopp said he carries the climb with him.

“The experience has given me a valuable perspective that I will bring to the classroom,” he said. “It’s taught me that we have to take advantage of the opportunities we have and that life is short.”

He continued: “We all made the summit together for a 15-year-old teenager with CF who read a book as a child and has dreamed of climbing to the highest point in Africa.”

“I had achieved a lifelong goal,” said Nat. “That’s been my one big goals for my entire life. Right away, when I got to that summit post, I thought, ‘What’s next?’ ”