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Overcoming Mountains

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Being addicted to drugs is a
destructive addiction that leaves you desperate and helpless, and often without
any friends and family. But sometimes, something inspirational is born from
these times of hardship, and that is exactly what happened to Marco Broccardo, CEO
of Eurocom, a communications and digital strategy company in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

 

Whilst in rehab in 2001, Marco felt
he wanted to give something back, and it was in the rehabilitation centre that
the concept of Mountain
Heights was born. His
journey of addiction and recovery has now led him to the 7 Summit Challenge, of
climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents, in order to
achieve the goal of funding a self-sustaining drug rehabilitation centre that
will give addicts who truly want to recover the gift of hope and the chance of
leading a successful, fulfilled and normal life.

 

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“I know
this all might sound very rosy and structured, but believe you me, the journey
to get where I am now, to acknowledge and make this dream a reality, has been
messy, violent, lawless and deceitful,” says Marco, adding that he believes
that through this challenge he can bring a message of hope to users and their
families. “There is hope and recovery for every addict if they are truly
committed to a drug-free life,” he says.

 

THE START OF IT ALL

“My story
began like any other addict’s story. Picture it: Joburg, the early 90s, an
athletic young boy from a loving home starts dabbling in a little weed here, a
cheeky line there, and quickly my using got out of control, the lights went out
and my dark path through the belly of Joburg’s underworld and full-blown
addiction began. I did my first line of coke when I was 15. Scary, huh? The
crack cocaine and heroine days were particularly fun… my life was a smorgasbord
of drug cocktails and using opportunities. But it’s this resolute tenacity and
commitment to my addiction that was the same strength I drew on in my recovery.
That and my faith in God,” says Marco.

 

Marco hit rock bottom in 1999 and
began rehab. He has always been fascinated by mountains and whilst in rehab he
decided to use the mountains as a metaphor for the same mental and physical
challenges it takes to overcome addiction. “We all have a mountain in our
lives, be it an addiction, a bad relationship or an eating problem,” says Marco,
who in 2010 won the title of Top Young Entrepreneur in South Africa at the
African Access National Business Awards.

 

VIRGIN CLIMB

The first step in his
three-and-a-half year campaign to climb the highest mountains on all seven
continents was in 2010 with Mount Kilimanjaro.
In preparation for this, Marco met up with extreme athlete Alex Harris,
one
of the first South Africans to conquer the seven summits as well as walk
unassisted to the South Pole. “I learnt that one can
only be so fit to climb a mountain.
What gets to you in the end is altitude sickness and your body shutting down in
wild temperatures that drop well below double negative numbers,” says Marco,

 

That first summit was quite a shock
for someone on their virgin climb, but after Kilimanjaro, Marco was hooked and
determined to do more. He and his team members, many of whom are former
addicts, now follow a vigorous training programme. “Training is pretty hectic,”
explains Marco. “We run 4km a day, five times a week, and for that extra bit of
stamina training, we climb the Westcliff Stairs in the North of Johannesburg twice
a week, doing ten sets up and down at a time. And then for a real taste of
pain, we’ll do an eight to 10-hour cycle in Magaliesburg or climb the ridges of
Joburg from Fishers Hill, Primrose, to the Walter Sisulu
Gardens in Krugersdop. That’s
66km in a day.”

 

And if that’s not enough, the team
does a stretch exercise once a month and will, for example go to Sabie in
Mpumulanga and do a 120km ride the one day and then the 50km Fanie Botha hiking
trail the next. “This stretches you mentally and physically, and leaves you
crying for your mom!” says Marco.

 

MOUNTAIN SKILLS

However, it’s not only fitness that
is core to summiting, it’s skill as well. To make sure the team is
mountain-ready, they go rock-climbing and hone their rope skills and harnessing
techniques. Before Marco and his team climbed Mount
Kosciuszko, the highest mountain in Australia, in May last year, they practiced
these essential elements in the Blue Mountains
to ensure that nothing was left to chance.

 

Altitude sickness is a reality and
Marco got his first taste of this in South America
last year. Symptoms include nausea, dehydration and shortness of breath. “What
people don’t know is at that altitude, other than your body performing its
essential functions, everything else kind of shuts down. We attempted Acongagua
in Argentina
in December and that quite honestly was the most physically challenging and mentally
daunting experience I’ve ever been through. The temperature at the top of Kilimanjaro
when we climbed in 2010 was -22 degrees with a serious wind chill factor. The
base camp temperature at Acongagua was -12. It was intense and everything slows
down as your body uses all its energy to keep you warm!”

 

UNPREDICATABILITY

It was Acongagua that really woke
Marco up to the reality of climbing mountains, which are largely unpredictable.
After reaching 5500m, Marco developed what was thought to be a cerebral edema,
a swelling on the brain caused by high altitudes and he had to be airlifted off
the mountain. “Alex warned us what we were in for, but I don’t think anything
could have prepared me for that. You only realise what you have got yourself
into when you are sitting on the side of a mountain, frozen to the bone and
moving tents and food and gear to the next camp, not sure if you’re going to make
it, or how you’ll make it. What started off as a tummy bug eventually took me
out and my body just didn’t want to comply.”

 

The rest of the team had to turn
back 700 vertical metres before the summit, as conditions were simply too
dangerous. It was a huge disappointment after the distance and training and
expense it took to get them there, but in true Marco form, he just saw this as
a lesson in personal growth. “We never made it to the top, but it’s important
to look at it in terms of the bigger picture. When we didn’t summit, we were a
bit down and out, but the reality is, like the road to recovery from addiction,
there are hiccups you’ve not accounted for. Things don’t go your way up a
mountain… much like recovery, mountains are unpredictable.”

 

FUTURE CLIMBS

Marco and his team are planning to
climb Everest next year as their 7 Summit Challenge swansong. He realises there
is a very real likelihood that his whole team won’t make it up, possibly him
too. But Marco embraces the challenges ahead of him.

 

So what keeps him going in minus
temperatures, up a mountain, miles away from civilization, hospitals and a
decent meal? “My faith in God and my family, and the core reasons I decided to
climb mountains in the first place. Life’s not easy, nor is climbing, but how
will we ever achieve anything if we don’t give it 100% effort and dedication?
That’s what keeps me going.”

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