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Kilimanjaro one of teen's many heights

Porters accompanied Nico Calabria, 13, of Concord, and his party up Mount Kilimanjaro. The teen wore gloves and had extra padding on his crutches but still got bruised palms. Porters accompanied Nico Calabria, 13, of Concord, and his party up Mount Kilimanjaro. The teen wore gloves and had extra padding on his crutches but still got bruised palms.

CONCORD - Ask Nico Calabria how he handles the challenges that are inevitable when you're a 13-year-old boy with one leg, and you get an answer of Zen-like simplicity.

"I challenge the challenge," he says.

Translation: He refuses to acknowledge that it is a challenge at all.

Even by those lights, climbing on his crutches to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro - about 19,340 feet high - would seem an unlikely ambition. Yet, that's what he did last month, becoming the youngest disabled person to reach the mountain's summit, according to a spokesman for Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania. In the process, Nico raised more than $53,000 for a nonprofit organization that provides free wheelchairs to disabled people in developing countries.

To scale Kili, the tallest mountain in Africa, the slightly built seventh-grader had to endure a 5 1/2-day ascent during which he battled subzero tem peratures. Though he had two layers of padding on his crutch handles and wore thick gloves, the boy's palms, still bruised during a recent interview, showed the toll of his trek up Kilimanjaro.

When he got his first glimpse of Kilimanjaro, he admits: "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. The pictures don't show how big and terrifying it is."

He fell once during the climb and struggled at high altitude, forced to stop for breath every 10 steps because of the reduced level of oxygen. "It's pitch-black, it's cold, you can't see 5 feet in front of you," he recalls. Yet, Nico consistently rejected offers to be carried by the Tanzanian equipment porters who accompanied him and his father, Carl. The only time he felt like turning back, he says, was when his father developed acute mountain sickness and had to halt his ascent a few hundred feet from the summit.

"I didn't want to continue," Nico admits. "Summiting without my dad felt like abandoning him. But he said: 'Summit for both of us.' "

So Nico forged on without his father, and reached the top. It was a feat of tenacity and endurance that may surprise others, but not his parents. "When he suggested he wanted to do Kilimanjaro, my reaction was: He can do it," says Carl Calabria, who is vice president of engineering at Tewksbury-based Avid Technology. "I know how strong he is."

That's not apparent at first glance - the tousle-haired youngster sprawled on his living room couch does not match the image of a rugged mountaineer - but clues soon emerge to the strength of his will.

Nico looks a questioner in the eye during an interview, not appearing nervous in the least, and considers each query at length. When he answers, it is in complete sentences that contain words like "acclimatize," and that are devoid of the standard teenage "like," "um," or "you know."

His general air of confidence may stem from the fact that his record-setting Kilimanjaro climb is not the first time he has set himself apart: When he was 5 years old, Nico's skill at chess earned him a No. 2 national ranking in his age group by the US Chess Federation.

His Kili climb was part of a rite of passage that the Calabria family calls the "coming of age adventure," undertaken when one of their children turns 13. (Nico's older brother Kyle, now 15, chose to explore caves in Belize two years ago, and his 8-year-old sister, Maya, says she plans to ride horses in Ireland when she turns 13.)

As Nico pondered his own choice this year, he saw a "NOVA" program on PBS about Mount Kilimanjaro titled "Volcano Above the Clouds," and the notion of climbing the peak took hold. He thought back to "Emmanuel's Gift," a 2004 documentary about a one-legged man in Ghana who championed the rights and abilities of the disabled in a country where they have long been treated as outcasts. "He rode his bike across Ghana with one leg," says Nico. "He raised money and awareness, like I'm doing now."

Nico decided, he says, to use the climb to help "people with disabilities who have more needs than I do." So he turned the trek into a fund-raiser for the Free Wheelchair Mission, a Christian nonprofit organization based in California and founded by Don Schoendorfer, who earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from MIT.

Nico asked friends and family to pledge a penny for every foot of the mountain he scaled. From their pledges and his ongoing fund-raising efforts, he has raised $53,700 so far, more than double his original goal of $25,000.

But then, Nico Calabria has been surpassing expectations all his life. Born with only one leg, he was fitted with a prosthetic leg as a toddler. At age 5, the boy switched to crutches.

Since then, he has used them to, among many other things, play soccer. Nick Miller, director of the Concord-Carlisle Youth Soccer In-Town program, still recalls the day four years ago when he first saw Nico play. "He was very fast on his crutches," says Miller. "He could move as fast as any of the other kids. And he never used [the crutches] in a way that was to give himself an unfair advantage in terms of blocking or tripping.

"It seems like his attitude is, 'There isn't anything you guys can do that I can't do,' " Miller adds. "And he does it pretty much with a smile on his face. I can't say I've ever seen him not with a smile on his face. This is a very determined, happy kid."

Nico says: "I try to be as normal as possible. I try not to let my disability hold me back." In fact, he says, "I don't think of myself as having a disability."

Still, when Nico announced that he wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, his mother, Jeanine, a veteran hiker, was dubious. She told him she would not allow it unless he first climbed three smaller mountains. So he climbed Mount Wachusett in Massachusetts, and Mount Monadnock and Mount Kearsage, both in New Hampshire. "I always thought after Nico was born that we wouldn't be able to hike," says Jeanine Calabria, adding with a laugh: "But he's proving me wrong."

Mount Kilimanjaro is six times higher than any of those mountains, but it is considered accessible to less-experienced climbers, including physically impaired climbers and children as young as 10 (the minimum age set by the Kilimanjaro National Park authorities). The trails are well-maintained, meaning fewer technical challenges for climbers, though would-be trekkers must be fit and prepare for fluctuations in weather, from 90 degrees at the base to subzero temperatures near the summit. The Calabrias were accompanied by three guides, a cook, and 11 porters, who carried food, cooking supplies, water, tents, and other provisions. (One guide carried Nico's backpack).

The boy and his father kept a daily video journal of the climb, and - although a notoriously picky eater at home - Nico found himself enjoying the food prepared by the cook. When he called home after the climb, Jeanine Calabria says, among his first words were: "You won't believe it, Mom, I ate leek soup!"

His cultural explorations went beyond food. After he and his father descended the mountain, they traveled to the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. While passing through an impoverished village, they saw some boys playing soccer. "I'd like to go and play soccer with those guys," Nico told his father, as if he were home in Concord. He walked over to the field, where two dozen youths immediately clustered around him, gazing curiously at the American boy with one leg.

"I said 'futbol,' " recalls Nico. "They passed me the ball, and we started to play." News spread quickly in the village, and soon adults were streaming to the soccer field to watch the game.

All in all, the trip was a journey of discovery, for son and father alike. "I left for Africa with a boy, and I came back with a young man," says Carl Calabria. Nico puts it in more immediate terms: "I'm really glad I got to the top. And I'm really glad I got to spend two weeks with my dad."

Might his climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, while undoubtedly a test of endurance, also be an experience that reverberates for a lifetime? He considers the question carefully, and concedes that it just might.

"Maybe when I'm older," he says, "I'll look back on this and say, 'I can do anything, if I could do that as a kid.' "

Don Aucoin can be reached at

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