PARK CITY, Utah — Rob Sergent, co-owner of award-winning Alpine Distilling, was out with friend Dr. Robert Masson when he was asked to join something called Survivor Summit, a Livestrong Foundation event to bring awareness and raise money for research and educational support of victims and affected families. The task Sergent signed up for over dinner: climbing 19,341 frozen feet to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in eastern Africa.
At the time he agreed to the climb, he had about three months to train. Sergent made use of the summits around Summit County, including Kings Peak, Utah’s highest peak at 13,528 feet, and used training as a great excuse to spend time with friends.
“This is a pretty easy place to decide to get in shape enough to climb those 20,000 feet,” he said. “Certainly, my home state of Kentucky would have been much more difficult.”
One of the Seven Summits, Mount Kilimanjaro is famous as the tallest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain above sea level in the world. Although Mount Kilimanjaro is considered an easier mountain to climb due to its walkability (no need for ice axes, ropes, or harnesses), its altitude is a significant obstacle.
So, in February 2014, Sergent and 15 other participants, some in the throes of cancer and some survivors, from around the country, flew to Tanzania. The journey would be documented and turned into an Emmy-nominated film, Conquering Kilimanjaro, picked up by NBC and broadcasted nationally.
“We were in Tanzania for nine days,” said Sergent. We knew we wanted 100% success, which Chris Warner, our guide, had set us up for from the very first meeting that we were all going to make it or no one was going to make it. We all agreed that it was worth it. It was hard, especially for some of the people fighting cancer and then some of the survivors; it was definitely a challenging hike.”
The group did just that and summited the peak together.
“What Chris Warner really emphasized, and Wendy [Chioji] lived this every day, was it’s nice to get to the top, but the journey is what you end up remembering,” he said. “Every night, we were at a new camp. We had porters, but we still carried backpacks with food and safety equipment. The most memorable part of the journey was the food tents. The tents at night were cold, and we were all huddled together and just the storytelling and humor and just the camaraderie and the joy of 16 people making this decision to be miserable together. It was pretty special.”
The National Cancer Institute estimated in January 2022 there are around 18 million cancer survivors in the United States. Conquering Kilimanjaro was immeasurably important to the participants, but the film aimed to support cancer survivors, remember those whose time was cut short by cancer, and fundraise.
“The money matters, but for me personally, it was going with Wendy to yoga twice a week. It’s the hikes with Robert Masson and the work that he does with his clinic in town. Those little moments right after you’ve got that connection with somebody you love. I mean, these are the things that ultimately matter.”
Through Survivor Summit and Dr. Masson, Sergent met Park City personality and broadcaster Wendy Chioji, whom all represented Park City on the climb. Chioji passed away from breast cancer in 2019.