David Pergolini didn’t expect to start at the top. But he came close—19,341 feet above sea level on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, to be exact.
With a fresh BA in communication, Pergolini’s first job was one of mountainous proportions —as a camera operator for director Takashi Doscher. The film, a documentary of “Mission Kilimanjaro,” focused on Kyle Maynard, a motivational speaker and author born a congenital amputee—with his arms ending above the elbows and legs ending near the knees. Maynard’s mission? To “bear-crawl” to the summit. Pergolini’s challenge: Film it.
Not that this opportunity came magically knocking at Pergolini’s door. “I got the job through a friend who knew Kevin Cherilla, the mission’s leader,” he says. “I kept haggling them for seven months until they finally said ‘All right, you can come along.’
Everything was good to go. Then reality set in. Trekking through the rainforest on the first day, his camera got so wet it stopped working. “That was the most miserable day of my life.” They buried the camera in a bag of rice, which absorbed the water and got the camera working again. “I breathed a sigh of relief.” But that’s when the going got tough.
“We were originally doing the longest routes; but you could see it was taking its toll on Kyle, physically hurting him with all the pressure on his shoulders. Then Cherilla suggested climbing the western breech, the most dangerous route on the mountain. Other than slipping and falling to a near certain death, the number one danger of that route is rock-avalanches, which had caused the deaths of three Americans a few years earlier.”
Fortunately, thanks to Maynard’s tremendous conditioning, climbing was easier than crawling. So much so Pergolini could barely keep up. “His back is so strong in his core, he can just pull himself up these massive boulders. There were points where it was literally vertical, and I’d never done any climbing.”
Maynard and Pergolini et al. did reach the summit, and the documentary achieved its own pinnacle of success, premiering on ESPN’s “Outside The Lines.” It also helped Maynard earn his second ESPY award as “Best Male Athlete With A Disability.”
These days, Pergolini’s work schedule has returned a bit more to earth. “Kilimanjaro was my first job out of college. Once I got that on my résumé, it opened up a floodgate of opportunities. But my No. 1 priority is to be a writer. That’s what I want to do.”
And he’ll go wherever it takes him.
“We’ve talked about climbing Everest,” he says. “I said, ‘Throw me six figures and I’ll climb it.’”