Ain't No Mountain High Enough
Jeff McKenzie conquers Kilimanjaro for charity
Published in 2007 Kentucky Super Lawyers magazine
on May 25, 2007
Updated on October 2, 2019
Jeff McKenzie has a thirst for adventure. He’s always looking for a new experience––“something completely different from the practice of law.” Well, you can’t get much farther away from a law office than the majestic 19,000-foot peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. Three years ago, the Louisville corporate attorney was one of approximately 15,000 climbers to challenge the world’s tallest freestanding mountain—and one of only about 6,000 to reach the summit.
To prepare for the expedition, McKenzie, then 44, scaled a few of the Colorado Rockies’ 14,000-foot peaks with friends Jim Creely, Dennis Medley, and Tom Birchfield, a colleague at Greenebaum Doll & McDonald. “We’d do three climbs in the space of a week at a good, hard pace,” McKenzie says. “But we knew the Colorado mountains would be nothing like Africa.”
When the team landed in Tanzania in September 2004, “our first steps were in a rainforest,” he says. “It was 90-degree weather in an absolute downpour in the jungle. Although there was plenty of oxygen, it was one of our hardest days.”
As they ascended into thin air, the pounding headaches, nausea and nosebleeds set in––not to mention the pure exhaustion that comes from burning 8,000 calories a day in frigid conditions. “It’s a hereditary roulette wheel,” McKenzie says of the physical ailments that can plague climbers. “Some people are affected more than others.”
Luckily they had “the very best guides,” two local Tanzanians who led them up the slower, longer route—“also the most challenging, with the most vertical face”—which required more stamina but gave their bodies time to adjust to the altitude. “They kept track of our pulse-ox [pulse to oxygen ratio] with a pulse meter,” he says. “You’re pumping more blood and don’t want your heart to race too much.”
On the ninth and final day of their climb, they woke up at 4 a.m. and reached the summit by 8 a.m. “There’s nothing like it,” McKenzie says. “Energy comes from nowhere when you’re at the top of the mountain and you’re worn to your last nub.”
McKenzie had ample motivation. Back home, friends and family had pledged $6,000 in his name to the Bellewood Presbyterian Homes for Children, a nonprofit that helps abused and neglected children in Kentucky. “[Their donation] was contingent upon me reaching the peak,” says McKenzie, who is a former board chair of the organization. “That was a true motivator.
“We’re so lucky to be in a profession where we are very well compensated for very interesting work. We need to give back.”
To top it off, his adventure enhanced his law practice. “It was the best break so far in my career because you could truly clear your head,” he says. In November 2006, McKenzie was promoted to CEO of Greenebaum.