After a six-day trek, the crew reached Kosovo Camp, their last stop before the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. They were only an hour climb from the peak, where they planned to launch their paragliders. A few members of the crew, including a veteran climber, the pilot and the DP of their documentary, went ahead to prepare the launch site at the summit. The next morning, they returned. “It’s a fucking death march,” they warned. Extreme weather conditions were blocking their path, and at over 18,000 feet, many of them were hypoxic, but the climbers were determined to keep moving.
The air was thin, and the glaciers in the distance were capped with a slight crown of snow. The landscape was rocky and gray, resembling the surface of Mars. In order to successfully launch at this altitude, there are two steps to getting off the ground: the pilot and passenger first need to sprint down the include of the launch zone, then a strong wind cycle has to push and lift the glider into the air.
“This was when I felt fear for the first time,” said photographer Clay Cook, who was flying tandem with Howie Tarpey, a well-respected paragliding pilot. The duo ran full-speed toward the edge of the summit. They tumbled to the ground, slamming into the rocky surface and shredding the top of Cook’s right knee. By their second attempt, Cook realized the synchronization needed to fly could be better achieved if he looked out at the horizon instead of down at his feet. Again, they ran at full-speed. In that moment before takeoff, Cook wondered if they would accomplish the record-breaking, high-altitude launch they were chasing.
Wings of Kilimanjaro—or WOK for short—is a not-for-profit organization that raises money for a variety of charity projects within Tanzania, such as building schools, delivering clean water, and other environmentally restorative activities. Each year, participants in the WOK event ascend Mount Kilimanjaro’s 19,341-foot peak, then paraglide back down for about 20 miles. For the vast majority of people, there is no other way to legally paraglide from Mount Kilimanjaro—the Tanzanian government strictly polices and prohibits flying from the mountain. WOK, however, was granted exclusive paragliding permits in exchange for the relief they bring to Tanzanians; so far, the organization has raised over seven hundred thousand dollars. Even more, what sets Cook’s expedition with WOK apart is that it was the first to paraglide from the summit of Kilimanjaro—in the past, every WOK trip has flown from Stella Point, located about an hour and half hike below the top of the mountain.
Cook’s involvement in WOK all started with a warm beer. Back in summer 2015, he was stationed in Tanzania for his work on Waterboys, a non-profit foundation lead by Chris Long of the New England Patriots that brings life-sustaining well water to East African communities. Cook was contracted to produce a short promotional documentary on the organization in partnership with Nadus Films, NFL Network and Worldserve International. While working on the film, he and his crew met WOK leader Adrian McCrae over Kilimanjaro Beers at the Mount Meru Hotel bar. In short, the group hit it off, and Cook proposed an extensive documentary that covers the expedition from beginning to end. It tied in perfectly to his “Give a Story” project, in which he and Nadus Films provide a grant to an international foundation such as WOK.
Yet to successfully complete the WOK expedition, Cook had to be in excellent shape—at the time he met McCrae he was 311 pounds with 50 percent body fat. His heart rate was a staggering 100 beats per minute, his blood pressure was dangerously high, and he could barely do 10 push-ups. Cook was on the verge of a heart attack, and had just recently began taking his health into consideration. “I was in denial and the hardest part of anything is realizing you’re in trouble and reaching out for help,” he said.
“When my career started really [taking off], I was like, ‘I’m all over this thing, I’m taking this all the way, and I’m going to put everything I’ve got into this,’”
Cook’s career as a creative began long before his life as a photographer. At 18 years old, he was a founding guitarist of intheclear, a rock band that toured with Myspace-classic acts such as My Chemical Romance and Thursday. During that time, Cook designed the band’s flyers, which became his gateway into the world of graphic design. In 2010, after seven years of touring, the band broke up. Cook, then 25 years old, started a freelance graphic design company, Dirty Cheese Design & Development, and worked for various record labels and clients. “I started getting more and more clients with crazy requests for original photography; things I couldn’t even remotely find in the stock photo world,” Cook said.
This was when he began experimenting with photography—and he remembers his first shoot vividly. For an album cover, a band asked him to create a scene of a 1950s “happy-go-lucky” family on a beach with oil pouring over the frame. To accomplish this, he brought in a green screen, 100 pounds of sands, models and actors for a shoot in his own backyard. Cook then borrowed a friend’s camera to capture the shots. “From that point on I was hooked,” Cook said. “I was fortunate enough to receive a camera as a gift in 2010 and it snowballed from there. I was pretty good at guitar and graphic design, but felt super comfortable with photography. I knew I was onto something.”
Since then, Cook has earned a respected name in the photo world, shaping creative projects with brands such as Livestrong, NFL, Dillard’s, Red Bull and Vince Camuto. He has also worked on worldwide assignments for publications such as Forbes, USA Today, ESPN, Comcast, Modern Salon, Popular Mechanics, Inc. Magazine, and more.
“When my career started really [taking off], I was like, ‘I’m all over this thing, I’m taking this all the way, and I’m going to put everything I’ve got into this,’” Cook said, which meant sacrificing relationships, friendships and his health. Like many passionate creatives, Cook was a workaholic, and it took the prospect of a once-in-a-lifetime paragliding adventure from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro for him to realize the severity of his issues.
“I just ended a pretty serious relationship due to the fact that I’m a workaholic—and I knew it,” Cook said. “That was the moment I realized that something’s gotta give; something’s gotta change.”
Soon after, Cook reached out to Sol Perry—a successful fitness trainer in the Louisville area and a friend he met through the music industry—for a health consultation. For years, he considered asking Perry for help, but would always back out in fear of discovering how poor his health had become. “That initial consultation was an insane wake up call. He told me I could die of a heart attack any day,” Cook said.
Cook then began working one-on-one with Perry. The first month of his regimen consisted of a vegan-detox diet where he cut out dairy and alcohol. He lost 30 pounds. Next he implemented the Sol Food Diet—a low-carb diet developed by Perry that focuses on carb-cycling and adjusting fat and protein intake, depending on a person’s needs. “We gained inspiration from the Paleo [Diet] a little bit, but it’s not exactly like it,” Cook said. “It’s much more of a carb-cycling version of that. My thing was to always lose the carbs and just stick to meats and vegetables, whole foods, and stuff that doesn’t have starch or any sort of sugar.”
In addition to the diet, he started a fitness program and began taking metabolism-boosting probiotics and supplements. His workouts were a combination of strength training, metabolic training, tempo training, suspension training, volume training, density training, yoga, and martial arts. Cook says this program placed emphasis on improving his mobility, core, and general wellness. At first, he trained only once a week, which increased when the Kilimanjaro trip was locked in.
“I lost most of my weight by just dieting,” Cook said. “Then I went to India for three weeks and lost another 15 pounds. It was an intense trip and really difficult to stick to a low-carb diet. In Third World Countries, rice and bread are huge because they’re filling, and you have to be careful when refusing it because that may be insulting to some people.”
Despite the extreme lifestyle change—in hindsight, Cook admitted to devouring Arby’s minutes before his consultation with Perry—Cook enjoyed the transition, especially the dieting. At that time, he had never cooked anything aside from eggs, pasta, and Spaghetti-O’s. Entering this new world of food quickly became a passion, and he even started an Instagram (@primaryplates) with a friend, Chris Miske, in which they showcased their Sol Perry diet meals, expanding his palate both literally and creatively.
“It opened me up to a whole knew world of food that was sort of like a hobby, but could also take my mind off work,” Cook said. “I sort of get obsessed with things. I get overly passionate, especially about work and creativity. So I found this creativity in cooking and food, and started enjoying food like I never had before.”
Exercise, however, is one aspect of fitness Cook continues to struggle with. Even today, he doesn’t enjoy training and sees it as an action he must take to reach a goal—not an activity that brings him pleasure. “I lost 60 pounds within the first few months and felt great,” Cook said. “More importantly, I felt like I looked great, which was directly reflecting my businesses. I felt more confident, which was where everything started changing significantly.”
For working, professional photographers, the job is often long and grueling. Ten-hour days are the industry standard, and photographers are always on their feet, squatting for the right angle while focusing their attention on directing the model, talent or other members of the crew. On shoots, Cook was always drenched in sweat, and when you don’t feel good physically, it’s impossible to feel good mentally. This reflects on the overall morale of the shoot and crew, which is harmful for business and affects clients’ enthusiasm to work with you on future projects.
“When I lost my weight and started being healthy, looking good, and feeling great, it had a direct a role in gaining clientele,” Cook said. “People respond to that—being healthy and representing yourself in a good-looking persona—especially in a business where, as photographers, our goal is to connect with people and establish a human connection. If you don’t exude any sort of confidence in what you’re doing both personally and professionally, I think that will even reflect in the final photograph. Just in the past year my clientele has started to become higher caliber. My health and wellness has completely changed my life for the better both personally and professionally.”
By summer of 2016, the WOK climb had been in the planning stages for about a year. The climb was scheduled for September, despite the journey constantly being called off and back on. Finally, Cook got the call confirming the WOK climb a few weeks before they were scheduled to fly out to Tanzania. He gathered his crew, all of whom had no mountaineering experience, and started assembling climbing gear. To help acclimate his body to the conditions he would be facing, he incorporated hill sprinting, resistance training, and altitude training into his workouts.
Overall, the ascent and descent down the mountain took eight days. Throughout the journey, the climbers experienced four different ecosystems, moving from one extreme weather scenario to the next in a matter of minutes. They started in the rainforest in 70-degree weather, for example, and by the time they approached the summit it was negative 30. Since Cook was shooting during the climb, that meant he had to double his pace in order to shoot various angles. Even on the first day several climbers were experiencing altitude sickness.
“You start slurring your speech and forgetting things,” Cook said. “The best way to describe it is feeling drunk but you’re sober. It feels like you’re breathing into a plastic bag, but at times it’s like the bag is physically in your mouth because you can’t get any air.”
This also dramatically slowed the climbers’ pace—they would take a step, breathe, take another step, then repeat. There were points where their Camelbacks froze and they used hand warmers to thaw the ice. Some of the climbers were so cold that they had to warm their feet by taking them out of their boots and place them on another person’s stomach. “I had on three pairs of gloves and couldn’t feel my hands,” Cook said. “Shooting was difficult—I basically just had to put pressure on where I thought the shutter was.”
By Cook’s second attempt at paragliding from the summit of Kilimanjaro, several of the single gliders had achieved lift-off, but the tandem gliders were failing. This second attempt was again unsuccessful. His pilot called it quits, joining others in their descent down the mountain. But then Cook saw Coury Deeb of Nadus Films and his pilot launch successfully launch as a tandem, becoming the first Americans and the first to tandem paraglide off the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. A few others followed this record as well, and Cook was determined to join them.
Although his pilot had already left, Cook strapped in with another pilot, Rudi Van Der Walt, for a couple more attempts from a lower part of the mountain. In total, Cook made four attempts, and failed each time. Altogether, 18 pilots achieved lift-off, and only six did not, which were mostly tandems. Some of those who were unsuccessful decided to spend another night on the summit at Crater Camp, where they would sleep inside the volcano then attempt lift-off in the morning. But since Cook’s knee was injured, he had to make it back to camp before conditions worsened.
“That was a hard choice for me because I wanted to make it happen, but I couldn’t do another night after seven nights of sweating and freezing.” Cook said. “So I descended, and that turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
The descent is approximately 22 miles and should only have taken about 12 to 16 hours, but Cook was continuing to suffer from altitude sickness; he was hallucinating, and at one point was carried down a portion of the mountain by a crew member to speed up his descent. By the time he reached camp, his health started to improve, and for the next three days his body was so sore he struggled to walk or sit. When he finally returned to the U.S., he was sick for almost a month because his immune system was so weak from the journey.
“I didn’t want to interact with people,” Cook said. “It was an emotional ride for me, so I wasn’t sociable and I didn’t feel like being out. I lost almost 20 pounds just from being on the mountain. I felt weak. I was jetlagged and sick. It took me awhile to re-acclimate to life.”
Through this particular project, WOK raised over half a million dollars for clean water and charity in Tanzania. For Cook, this was the most rewarding part of the journey: saving lives through art. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of a lot of amazing opportunities. I mentor people and do a lot of things that a lot of people consider rewarding, but nothing compares to saving a life,” Cook said.
At the time he concluded the WOK journey, Cook had lost 130 pounds and half his body fat. It was then a question of what he would do next—what do you do after you’ve accomplished such a massive feat? Moving forward, he worked with FStoppers on a successful fashion and editorial portrait photography tutorial video and continued to shoot for clients. Today, in addition to his client work, Cook teaches workshops in various regions, as well as a number of non-profit initiatives throughout the world. Most recently, he has just returned from Iraq, where he was sent to document the aftermath of ISIS. The project focuses on one family’s harrowing return home after two years of abandonment and ISIS control.
“The biggest part of accomplishing a goal is taking the first step,” Cook said. “You’re always your own worst enemy and the biggest hurdle you face in anything you do. It’s up to you to overcome that fear—you’re fearful of what people think, you’re fearful of what you’re going to hear, and you’re fearful of finding out how bad you are. If you’re unhappy with your lifestyle, health or the way you look, the only way to surpass it is to be open to change. I don’t necessarily think you need to go on an insanely strict diet or do something drastic that completely alters your life. You just need to alter a few things.”
“You’re in it for the long run,” he added, “and moving gradually into something that’s realistic to stick with is a key part of making the change digestible.”
This story was originally published in “The Fitness Issue” of Resource Magazine. Visit the Resource Shop to pick up a copy.