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Pinned at the peak: Sailors take ceremony to Africa's tallest mountain

Jun. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Chief Intelligence Specialist Neal Polk, left, and Gunner's Mate 1st Class John Valenzuela shake hands after Valenzuela received his expeditionary warfare pin atop Mount Kilimanjaro. Far left, a view from atop the mountain.
Chief Intelligence Specialist Neal Polk, left, and Gunner's Mate 1st Class John Valenzuela shake hands after Valenzuela received his expeditionary warfare pin atop Mount Kilimanjaro. Far left, a view from atop the mountain. (Courtesy of of Chief Intelligence Specialist Neal)
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Pinning on a warfare qualification is a milestone for any sailor, but most don’t do it 19,341 feet above sea level.

Gunner’s Mate 1st Class (EXW) John Valenzuela did just that May 23, after reaching the top of Africa’s tallest peak alongside Chief Intelligence Specialist (EXW/AW) Neal Polk, who pinned the expeditionary warfare device onto his chest after a three-day climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

“It was once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Polk said in a June 4 phone interview. “This is something he’ll probably remember for the rest of his life. I know I will.”

Polk is the lead chief petty officer for the intelligence department at Naval Special Warfare Unit 10, based out of U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany. He’s also the unit’s expeditionary warfare program manager, and Valenzuela is one of his sailors.

“He had just finished one of his practical exercises for his pinning, which finally qualified him to be EXW,” Polk said. “He said he was willing to go, so I said, ‘Why don’t we just wait to do the pinning until we get to the top?’ ”

The two braved a steady downpour and temperatures 10 to 15 degrees below freezing to make it to the summit of the dormant volcano, where Polk geocached a chief’s anchor after the pinning.

Polk said he got the idea from Geocaching.com, a worldwide scavenger hunt where players post coordinates or descriptions of places where they’ve hidden treasure.

Now, Polk said, anyone else climbing Kilimanjaro can check the site and see where he placed the anchor. They can even keep it as a souvenir if they replace it with something else, he said.

The climb

The two sailors decided to climb the mountain in May, without any training beyond their regular workouts, Polk said. The only major physical challenge turned out to be altitude sickness, which Valenzuela suffered from even after medication.

“John started showing signs of altitude sickness about Day 3, and it continued on throughout the summit night,” Polk said.

The weather cooperated for the first couple of days, Polk said, until they reached Lava Tower, about 15,000 feet above sea level. Then it started raining.

With their clothes still damp, the group began the summit climb at midnight, on about four hours’ sleep.

“By about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, he was pretty delirious,” Polk said of his climbing partner.

However, Valenzuela kept hiking and perked up in the home stretch.

“Once we reached Stella Point, his energy level went from from about 30 percent to 100 percent, because he knew we only had about 30 or 40 minutes to go.”

After 15 minutes taking pictures at the summit, the group headed down to alleviate Valenzuela’s altitude sickness. The guides said they could make it down the mountain in just six hours, but that wasn’t to be. Heavy rain tacked an extra six hours on the trip.

Though it took him a few days to get over his “mountain cough,” from inhaling frigid air and dust at the top, Polk is already eyeing his next climb — hopefully Mount Everest, he said.

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