Diverse Group of Nebraska Senators to Tackle Mt. Kilimanjaro

Oct. 7, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·

Sen. Tom Brewer standing in front of a screen with the title "Moving Mountains" on it.
Sen. Tom Brewer discusses plans to ascend Mt. Kilimanjaro. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Five Nebraska state senators who are often on different sides in the Legislature are working together on at least one project: climbing Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The idea started with Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon planning to hike up the 19,000 foot mountain in Tanzania. It’s the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, meaning it’s not connected to a mountain range. It’s a kind of physical challenge that’s nothing new for Brewer – a 36 year Army veteran, twice awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded in Afghanistan.

But then another senator mentioned the trip to Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, who’d dreamed of making the trek since childhood.

Sen. Ben Hansen
Sen. Ben Hansen (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

“And so then I go up to Tom – Sen. Brewer – and I say ‘Are you going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?’ He said ‘Yeah – you want to go?’ And so I’m like ‘Yes, I do,’” Hansen said.

Other legislators joined in as well: Sens. Justin Wayne of Omaha, Anna Wishart of Lincoln, and Dave Murman of Glenvil. It’s a group with a wide range of backgrounds and political orientations. Brewer, the Army vet, Hansen, a chiropractor, and Murman, a farmer, are all members of the Republican Party in the officially nonpartisan Legislature; Wishart, a consultant, and Wayne, a lawyer and contractor and part, are Democrats. Wishart, Murman and Hansen are white, Brewer’s a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and Wayne has an black father and a white mother.

Sen. Anna Wishart
Sen. Anna Wishart with some of the gear needed for the mountain trek (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

The five senators and eight others in their group have been training for the trek. Over Labor Day, Brewer led them up Bomber Mountain, about 13,000 feet, in Wyoming. He described the climb.

“We took some breaks along the way. But we went at a much faster pace than we will on Kilimanjaro. We fed them much less in the way of food. So I abused them as much as I could and they still made it. So I guess that’s a good sign,” Brewer said.

And he draws an optimistic conclusion about the teammates’ prospects on Kilimanjaro, which he, like they, hasn’t yet climbed.

“As hard as I tested them on Bomber Mountain, they didn’t die there. They’ll be fine on Kilimanjaro,” he said.

The climb isn’t a difficult one, technically. Unlike Mt. Everest, for example, you don’t need supplemental oxygen. But it’s the range of climate and altitude that’s the challenge, as Wishart explained.

“We start in rainforest, and we end in basically (a) glacial-type of setting. So we go from temperate to very cold,” Wishart said.

Temperatures could range from 80 degrees at the start to 15 or 20 below zero at the top during the seven day round trip. And experienced climbers say being in good shape carries with it no guarantee of how a body will react to high altitudes.

Sen. Dave Murman
Sen. Dave Murman (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

All this is new to flatlanders like Murman, who farms near Glenvil. But Murman said he was intrigued by the idea of climbing a mountain starting in his childhood growing up on a dairy farm.

“As a dairy farmer when we were kids, we didn’t go on many vacations. And I remember going to the Black Hills and like staying in a motel there, and there was like a small mountain in the background. And we drove around, looked at the buffalo, looked at the mountains, and I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be fun just to climb that mountain,’ because where I live in Nebraska, it’s flat as a tabletop. So it looked like that’d be a lot of fun,” Murman said.

Similarly, Hansen said he’s never done anything like this before.

“No, no. I’m a Nebraskan. I climb a hill. That’s the highest I’ve been. I’ve been to Colorado but nothing like climbing it or hiking a mountain,” he said.

Sen. Justin Wayne
Sen. Justin Wayne (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Wayne said he’s looking forward to different aspects of the experience.

“I think it’d be a good time, just to have some good conversation, see the vistas, and push myself to the limit, too,” he said.

But Wayne said his main motivation for the trip involves his relationship with Brewer.

“I’m going for Sen. Brewer. It’s on his bucket list or whatever, and he’s a good friend of mine, and I know he’s going through a lot, so, I’m going,” he said.

Brewer was diagnosed with leukemia this spring, and is in the midst of chemotherapy. But he says that won’t stop him.

“Chemo does run a guy down, and it makes things more difficult, but it doesn’t make it impossible. The experience in Wyoming kind of helped us to realize that you’ll have good days and bad days, but just keep focused and moving forward and plan to make it. I’m kind of one of those guys where, even if I break a leg, I’m probably going to crawl. But one way or the other we’re going to make it to the top,” he said.

The team’s effort will be recorded by a documentary crew headed by filmmaker Jeff Bolton. Bolton said he hopes the example of the diverse group of lawmakers working together toward a common goal will inspire other Americans when he says the nation is being challenged by China and Russia.

“We are living in an unbelievably dangerous time. And if we can’t figure out who we are as people in the greatest nation the world’s ever seen, then we’re done. And the effort to do that has to start somewhere. So maybe it starts with five people who are in the only unicameral in this country who go ‘You know what? We’ve got to find a better way to work together,’” Bolton said.

Hansen was asked if a documentary about the trip could help bridge the country’s political divide.

“It could. It depends on how that put the documentary together, right? If they make that the appealing factor and they make that interesting for people in different areas of the country to look at, you never know, right? You don’t know until you try it. And so, maybe the ‘Nebraska nice” pays off, and people see us and (say) like ‘Oh gosh, they actually get along,’” he said.

Brewer said members of the expedition will leave for Africa Nov. 9, and are scheduled to return home Nov. 23rd.