Our 1996 Mount Kilimanjaro Webcast Revisited

MountainZone’s 1996 webcast from Kilimanjaro was a minor miracle. Scott Fischer and his Mountain Madness guide company helped a group of Seattle executives climb to the Top of Africa, elevation 19,341. The climb benefited the Care Foundation, a humanitarian agency delivering emergency relief and development around the globe. And MountainZone provided the historic online coverage via satellite. Sounds straightforward, but this epic webcast was anything but.

At MountainZone we had a “leap before you walk” mentality and so, we committed to webcasting this climb 45-days before our website MountainZone.com was to launch. My co-founders, Greg Prosl and Todd Tibbetts, somehow pulled it off. And that’s what makes start-ups so special. Satellite technology was still in its neanderthal period and we had to haul a 48 lbs B-Satellite unit up Kilimanjaro with three car batteries to power it. And then there were logistical arrangements with the INMARSAT Satellite network to be made. And we had to find a sponsor to pay for the outrageously expensive satellite time. There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle. And no guarantee it would work.

Back in Seattle, we needed Real Networks to sign on as our technology partner to get our webcast out to the masses. Streaming content over the internet in the early days was like funneling a river through a straw. It was painful and slow. Real was located near us in Pioneer Square and had made great strides in bringing multimedia to the web. If we could pull this type of cybercast off, it would be a history-making accomplishment for us all. Our first webcast using Xing Technology was less than ideal and so we were hoping Real Networks’ improved technology was ready.

The Seattle team was sent off to Africa. Scott Fischer and Mountain Madness were to guide the group up Mount Kilimanjaro. The group included Dave Olsen, senior vice president at Starbucks; Menno van Wyk, CEO of One Sport boots and footwear; and Catherine Walker, Westin Hotels senior vice president. King County Councilman Ron Sims was scheduled to make the trip, but was replaced by UW engineering major Akil Washington. Besides donations to CARE, One Sport brought footwear to Africa for the nearby villagers and Starbucks sent coffee. Reports were that Starbucks sent too much coffee and nearby villages were bouncing around for weeks afterwards.

One special morning I walked into our Mountain Zone headquarters to hear Scott Fischer’s voice via satellite coming in loud and clear over the speakers. “Hi MountainZone, we’ve made it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro!” Greg Prosl was asking questions on our end and Scott would respond from Africa. Literally chills went up and down my spine. Was this really happening? After reporting on their status at the summit, Scott went into biology mode and talked about Kilimanjaro, its ecosystems and some of the aspects that made this mountain so unique. Scott was a former instructor at the famous NOLS outdoor leadership school in Wyoming, and he was educating us that day. Making history wasn’t enough. It had to include a greater appreciation for this blue planet we all orbit on.

After everyone was safely back in Seattle, we threw a big party at Mountain Zone offices to celebrate. It was great meeting everyone. Starbucks, of course, brought the coffee. It was great meeting Scott Fischer in person. He was a climbing superman when he needed to be, and in “Clark Kent” mode, an educator and mentor. We looked forward to a long partnership with Scott and his company, Mountain Madness. When Scott left that day, I never dreamed it would be the last time I’d see him. He was a chiseled mountain man. He was invincible. But, as we know, he departed shortly after for Nepal and on May 11, 1996, vanished “into thin air” on the summit of Mount Everest where his body still remains until this day.

Kilimanjaro, Scott Fischer and Mountain Madness had their influence on MountainZone for sure. What a rush! Certainly one of my greatest business experiences to this day. It’s great to make history, but it went much deeper than that. It changed my vantage point forever. And my instincts were right. Our partnership did continue, as I was later an Advisor for Mountain Madness for many years after Scott’s death and was involved in several positive campaigns in the Everest region and with the Sherpa people.

I’d like to thank my MountainZone.com co-founders for being so daring, our partners Mountain Madness and Real Networks for making it possible. And the CARE Foundation for being willing to take a chance. And of course the that great volcano, the summit of Africa, Kilimanjaro. In the end, it was a history-making victory for us all.

Skip Franklin, Co-founder/former CEO of MountainZone (@sxfranklin )

[Authors note: Mountain Zone went on to webcast over 100 events around the globe from skiing in Whistler to snowboarding in Vermont. From mountain bike championships in Hawaii to the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics in Japan. We webcasted from the peaks of every continent including Antarctica. The satellite technology quickly evolved and only two years after Kilimanjaro, we were using laptops (Mini-M units) and solar panels. Mountain Zone was sold in 2000 to Quokka Sports for $25 million. The site was repurchased in 2001 by a group of us and sold again in 2007. It is now about to relaunch in Seattle as Mountain Zone Part V …so stay tuned. The Mountain shall rise again! More info at: http://www.mountainzone.com/]

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