Peak Performer

A Southwest teacher sets out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with some help from her students

Carol Chase likes to set ambitious goals — for herself and for her students.

This year, the Minneapolis physical education teacher challenged more than 300 K–2nd graders to climb the highest freestanding mountain in the world. They did it on stairs. She’ll be doing it on Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Chase, a 1981 graduate of Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis and 19-year veteran teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools, will board a plane later this summer for the United Republic of Tanzania, East Africa, where she hopes to fulfill a dream she’s had for more than a dozen years: Summit the fabled mountain and stand atop Uhuru Peak — Africa’s highest point at just under 20,000 feet — then descend to enjoy a safari on the Serengeti.

The students at Lake Harriet Community School’s (LHCS) Lower Campus spent the last several weeks of the year helping her prepare.

“The enthusiasm of the students has been wonderful,” Chase said. “I’ve had several kids show me pictures they made and research they did on their own, and many parents have told me how excited their children are about my climb. It’s made me even more excited about the trip.”

Starting in mid-April, students from every class in the school began counting their steps, tallying them on their official climbing slips and submitting them to Chase to mark on her altitude chart. Originally, she had planned to simply combine the steps climbed by all classes, but “they reached the summit in just a few days,” she said. “I had to start marking individual classes independently, and some classes worked hard enough to reach the summit by themselves.”

An innovator

Chase is known by students, parents and colleagues alike for the passion and creativity she brings to physical education.

Within the first week of school, kindergarteners learn from older kids about the magic of “Scooter City” — a tradition Chase initiated shortly after joining LHCS in 1989.

The school’s precocious “drivers” are issued licenses, which entitle them to maneuver their vehicles (scooter boards) to the car wash, health club, restaurant and other points of interest, negotiating Chase’s carefully plotted gymnasium grid. It’s an event that has grown more elaborate — and beloved — every year.

This year, Chase brought the themes of mountain climbing, adventure and geography into her physical education classes. In addition to the Kilimanjaro Climb, she created an “African Adventure” Field Day event, which included stations like Goin’ on Safari, Monkey Business and
Cheetah Chase.

“Carol brings excitement to her curriculum by connecting it to real-life events and experiences, and she gets the students totally engaged,” said Anne Wade, LHCS assistant principal. “Her Kilimanjaro Climb activity generated much conversation and learning as children checked every day to note the climb. It was absolutely a phenomenal activity.”

Chase’s peers even got into the spirit, often without her prompting.

“Kay Knight [a media specialist] introduced a few lessons on African geography and history, and I learned that several teachers began assigning spelling words related to my trip,” Chase said. “I even noticed classes climbing stairs during breaks. It created a kind of immersion for the kids.”

Despite all the fun and games, Chase understands that mountain climbing, particularly on Kilimanjaro, is not child’s play. Although the climb is not considered “technical” — and severe injuries or fatalities from falling are quite rare — approximately 10 climbers die on the mountain each year, usually through some combination of “altitude sickness” and hypothermia (with temperatures near the summit frequently dipping below zero).

Nearly all climbers experience some symptoms of altitude sickness as they approach the peak, which manifests itself in the form of headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness and sleep disturbance. Extreme cases can lead to what’s known as pulmonary or cerebral edema — fluid accumulation in the tissues of the body — a condition that places extreme pressure on the heart, lungs or brain, which can be lethal. Once severe symptoms occur, the only effective cure is a rapid descent to lower elevations.

Well aware of these risks, Chase is still quietly confident. Her previous climbing experience includes reaching the summit of Mount Rainier, a difficult climb requiring wilderness travel skills and experience on glaciers. Still, Kilimanjaro is nearly 5,000 feet taller than Rainier, and more than 3,000 feet higher than she’s ever been.

“I’ve reached 16,000 feet before, traveling by vehicle in Nepal and Tibet, and I definitely felt the effects of altitude there,” she said. “So Kilimanjaro will be a new experience for me in terms of oxygen deprivation. This is why we intend to climb slowly and carefully.”

Chase and her climbing partners — two close friends from her church — plan to take adequate time to acclimatize, knowing that those who try to reach the summit in four or five days are often the ones that get sick and have to quit, or worse. Chase’s party will take seven.

So, if she’s not overly concerned about altitude sickness, hypothermia or falling, does she have any fears about taking on Kilimanjaro?

“My main fear is not meeting the challenge — I would be extremely disappointed if I didn’t make it,” she said. “I love to set big goals for myself, but I don’t like to fall short. Only about 40 percent of climbers reach the summit . . . I want to be in that 40 percent!”

In an effort to improve her odds, she’s stepped up her already-ambitious fitness regimen. An avid cross-country skier with seven Birkebeiner ski races under her belt, Chase also regularly runs and bikes. Recently, she could be seen training on local ski hills — hiking up and down the slopes at Hyland Hills Ski Area in Bloomington.

In the end, while Chase acknowledges that the trip is primarily a personal quest, she hopes the activities she integrated into her curriculum will have lasting effects on her students.

“I had a wonderful physical education teacher myself who inspired me when I was in grade school,” she said, who recalled telling her parents at a very young age that she wanted to teach physical education, “like Mrs. [Nancy] Ostmoe.” When Chase finished her degree in physical education, she had the opportunity to student teach with Ostmoe, who became her mentor and friend.

“I want kids to learn what I learned from Nancy: that exercise is not a chore and that each of us can find our own favorite and creative ways to enjoy physical activity,” said Chase.

Ostmoe retired in 2003 after 34 years in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

When asked what her next big goal is, however, she looked stymied. She paused. “What should it be?” she mused. “I’ve been so focused on Kilimanjaro, I haven’t thought much about it. Perhaps I’ll know by the time I reach the summit.”

And this is a place Carol Chase said she loves to be. On top of a mountain, where she feels both big and small at the same time. Where the physical, natural and spiritual worlds meet for her. It’s a place she wants to help each one of her students reach for themselves.

Contributing writer Fred Mayer lives in Linden Hills.