Published February 8, 2019
The Boy Scouts brought them together years ago — via their sons’ troop or their own — but it’s the mountains that have kept four men with UB connections close for more than a decade.
A. Scott Weber, vice president for student life, and UB alumni Jim Eaton (BS ’81, MS ’93, MBA ’01), John Sexton (BA ’80, MBA ’96) and Bill Sullivan (BS ’78) have climbed more than 300 peaks among them, and several together, including Mount Kilimanjaro this past fall.
Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, Africa, is the stuff of legends: It is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world at 19,340 feet above sea level, is classified as a dormant volcano, and includes several different climate zones that climbers experience along their hike, from lush rainforest to alpine desert to snowy arctic.
“It’s also one of the Seven Summits (the name for the mountaineering challenge that involves reaching the summit of the highest peak on each continent),” explains Sullivan, now CFO at CCMA, a global metal trading company, “so that’s definitely part of the appeal. Plus, it’s in Africa, where many of us haven’t been before.”
Weber adds: “And…Ernest Hemingway.” He also cautions that “the snows of Kilimanjaro” — a reference to the short story by the famous author — are retreating significantly, so it’s best to get out there and experience this striking landscape now.
The group was led by Andy Polloczek from International Mountain Guides (IMG), as well as porters and guides Dennis, Kasim, Robinson and Thomas from the Chagga tribe, who reside at the base of Kilimanjaro. “It was fun to get to know the guys from Tanzania,” Weber says. “They’re very well educated and have incredible aspirations for their country. Thomas, for example, is interested in helping young women attain an education.”
“One of the things you realize,” adds Sexton, a program manager for M&T Bank, “is that ecotourism is a real thing. It’s a huge driver in the local economy. People rise up out of poverty by (visitors) supporting that.” He explains that the guides are living well relative to the economy, and because of the whole hierarchy of roles one can play, a person can make a career out of guiding tourists. “So people shouldn’t underestimate the desire to get out into nature.”
Their journey, which lasted seven days, had its ups and downs. Altitude sickness was one of the low points of the trip for Weber, but he was determined to plant the UB flag on Kilimanjaro’s summit, which, happily, he did. “As challenging as (the climb) was for me from that perspective, it was still awesome,” he says.
Sullivan also enjoyed his time in Tanzania, in particular, the safari the men took through the Serengeti. The group saw hippos, lions, elephants, baboons, crocodiles and several other native creatures. “One of my hobbies is photography, so being able to photograph all those animals … It was like a two-for-one with the climb and the safari. It was a really memorable experience.”
The men also discussed several of their other mountaineering challenges. For example, all four of them are 46ers, meaning they have climbed each of the 46 peaks in the Adirondacks. One is on his way to having completed the challenge four times, while two others are nearly through their second round. Three of the men are Winter 46ers.
As a self-proclaimed “peak bagger” — a climber who aims to complete a list of summits — Weber is currently working on the “high points” challenge — climbing the highest peak in each state in the U.S. He plans to conquer those in the lower 48 states, and mentions that all four men have climbed several of these mountains already, including Mount Rainier in Washington, Mount Whitney in California and, of course, Mount Marcy in New York.
And speaking of lists, Weber is the “historian” of the crew, with a 24-page climbing summary spreadsheet that includes elevations, climb dates, trail names, weather conditions and climbing partners. Four other hikers complete their usual group, including another UB alum, Marty Doster (BS ’82). Weber also keeps meticulous journals that reveal the main reason why these guys get together and trek thousands of feet above sea level: the stories.
“Every hike is a montage of stories,” says Eaton, process safety manager at Praxair. The group then throws out shorthand for tales from the trail. “Bag lady!” (About a young woman who sported a garbage bag in place of proper rain gear.) “Klondike bar!” (Based on the ice cream treat’s famous tagline.) “The Matrimonial Diner!” (Where Weber realized marriage counseling was not a strength.) Eaton admits that while these stories may be a bit odd to an outsider, they get funnier to the four of them each time they’re told.
“We all feel very fortunate to have the camaraderie and fellowship that this group represents over a long, sustained period,” says Weber. “It’s like a family.” He explains that since they all have followed different career paths, hiking also gives them time to explore a variety of fields. “John will chat about acquisitions at the bank. Jim will discuss where the future of chemicals and gas is going. Bill’s talking about metals. And I’ll bring up the university.
“It’s just been an amazing group, great fellowship,” Weber continues. “We’re all so appreciative of the opportunity to be friends, to hike together, to share countless stories that have been forged over many perilous — and not-so-perilous — journeys. It’s an amazing gift to be able to have.”
So what’s next for the quartet? Eaton says they’re looking ahead to the summer. That’s when they’ll add the high points in Idaho (Borah Peak) and Montana (Granite Peak) to the list — and live through the experiences that will become material for dozens of future stories.