In July, the Journal featured a story about Carol Chase, a physical education teacher at Lake Harriett Community School’s Lower Campus. At the time, she was preparing to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro — the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Following her successful trip to the summit, we wanted to hear about her experience, how she plans to incorporate it into her teaching and what’s next for this ambitious Southwest educator. Excerpts of the interview follow.
First of all, welcome back and congratulations on your successful climb. When the story about your trip came out you were already on the mountain, but can you take us back to the beginning of your trip and tell us what it was like arriving in Tanzania? After 20 hours in the air were you really prepared to climb a 20,000-foot mountain?
Carol Chase: Actually, at about the time the article came out I was reaching the summit! We arrived in Arusha on the evening of July 23. I was definitely tired after the long flights. It was so good to see Innocent’s smiling face at the airport (Innocent Lyimo was their tour guide). He took us to our lodging for the next two nights. The following day we met with him for our orientation. We discussed our itinerary, medications, what to use, when, and what not to use, the importance of good communication on the mountain and many practical do’s and don’ts. That afternoon we each had to have everything — and he stressed everything — laid out for him to see so he could make sure we were prepared with all we needed on the climb. We all passed inspection. We tried to get a good night’s sleep before getting up and heading to the trailhead. It took a total of about four and a half hours to get to the trailhead and we started our climb at about 12:45 p.m. on the 25th.
Did you have any moments of panic as your first climbing day approached? How about your two friends who joined you on the climb?
CC: Not panic. No. I just wanted to get going. I was excited! I think that Janet and Cindy felt excitement also. Cindy had spent a few days hiking in Colorado with me last summer and experienced what it feels like to be at altitude. I think that was invaluable for her, though none of us knew what it would feel like above 19,000 feet. Janet, on the other hand, had not had the opportunity to feel the effects of exertion at high altitudes so I knew even though she was strong she’d be in for a new experience. You can’t adequately explain that feeling to people. They need to experience it for themselves.
I understand the climb itself took place over eight days. Can you describe a typical day of climbing? Was there such a thing as a “typical” day on Kilimanjaro?
CC: No two days were the same, but there were some things that were similar each day. A typical day would begin around 6:30 a.m. Our porters would “knock” on our tent and serve us a hot drink of tea, cocoa, or coffee. They would also leave a basin of warm water and soap for us outside of our tents. We would pack up our personal belongings, meet in the mess tent for breakfast, then be on the trail by about 8 or 8:30. We would hike until we arrived at the designated lunch stop, where our porters were ready and waiting for us. We’d have a good lunch, either at a table outside or in the mess tent, depending on the weather. We would then hike to our camp for the night. We averaged six or more hours on the trail each day. Upon arriving at our next camp, our tents would be ready for us. We had two tents, a tent for two of us and another for one. We rotated each night. We would organize our gear and tents for the night and then would be called for “tea” in the mess tent. It usually included hot drinks and a snack like popcorn and crackers. We had a couple of hours to relax before being called back for dinner. I have to say that our cook was outstanding! I only wish we’d had more of an appetite so we could have enjoyed his food more. After dinner, we would pretty quickly wind down and hit the sleeping bags. My journaling in my tent each night did not last long. I was too tired.
What was the weather like during the climb? I imagine there was quite a change in temperature from base camp to the summit.
CC: Overall, we had good weather on the climb, and I’m thankful for that. We started our climb in shorts, hiking up through the rainforest. It was a sunny day and it was beautiful. We ended our climb in our rain gear on a wet, soggy day back in the rainforest and it was beautiful again. In between, the terrain changed dramatically. This is one of the great things about climbing Kilimanjaro. You travel through six climate zones. It’s like traveling from the equator to the arctic in six days! What is consistent is that, as you climb higher, the air gets thinner and the breathing gets more difficult. Everything becomes hard work.
Can you tell us a little more about your guides and support crew?
CC: They were outstanding. There were two guides, 18 porters and a cook, so we felt a bit spoiled, though we certainly didn’t complain about all they did to help us. Our porters would break down camp after we left each morning, hit the trail and soon pass us with heavy loads on their heads and backs. They were amazing! I was very impressed by them and by their humble attitudes. They work extremely hard and always do it with a smile. They definitely were a huge part of our positive experience on the mountain. Our guide, Innocent, and assistant guide, Justin, were the best. Their company, Destination Tanzania Safaris (www.detasa.com), is actually based in Gibbon, Minnesota, with a presence in both the U.S. and Tanzania. That made them very easy to work with.
How closely did you follow your itinerary? In other words, did you meet your daily goals and make it to each camp? Were there any unexpected changes to your plan?
CC: For the most part we followed the itinerary, but we did make a couple of changes while on the mountain. The night prior to Lava Tower Camp, there was an earthquake. My friends and I didn’t feel anything but our guide told us about it the next morning. Because there could be another quake or aftershock we camped about a half hour shy of Lava Tower that night, rather than camp next to a large rock formation that could fall or bring rocks down on us. Fortunately, there were no more earthquakes.
The second deviation was a change regarding the summit. The original plan was to camp in the crater on the sixth night, then climb the last several hundred feet early the next morning to be at the summit at sunrise. Instead we camped about a 1,000 feet higher than planned on the fifth night, then climbed all the way to the summit on the sixth day, reaching it at about 3:45 p.m. The reason is that people often get sick when staying overnight at the high altitude of the crater, which is at an elevation over 18,000 feet. If a person gets sick in the crater before trying for the summit, the opportunity to reach the summit may be gone. The way we did it, if we were to get sick camping in the crater, we would have already made it to the summit. Also, Janet had gotten sick the day we hiked to Lava Tower and was fighting the added fatigue and dehydration. So, the decision was made that after summiting, she, Innocent and most of the crew would immediately descend back to high camp, or even lower, giving her a chance to recover. Cindy and I camped in the crater, as planned, and met her the next day at lower altitude. That turned out to be a good plan. By the time we met up with them the next morning Janet was already feeling a lot better.
So, what was it like to stand on top of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world? Was it everything you expected it to be?
CC: I have to say that standing on the summit was a bit surreal after dreaming about it for so long and having certain expectations of what it would be like. The summit day was a very hard day. I was completely exhausted for much of that day. We climbed for about nine hours, including short breaks. Our pace for much of the day, given the elevation and lack of oxygen, was only about one step for every two seconds. I can say that confidently because I tend to count those kinds of things. I was having a difficult time staying awake. I was so sleepy that I felt almost sick. That was the most difficult aspect of that day. My tired legs weren’t the main problem. I imagine this feeling was due to the combination of lack of sleep, lack of energy from not eating much and lack of oxygen. When we finally trudged our way to the summit sign, I felt a little boost of adrenaline, but I know that I was not thinking as clearly as I normally do. It was definitely a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction to be there, and amazing to be standing next to the Uhuru Peak sign I had long seen in photos. At the same time we felt somewhat rushed to start heading down, since it was getting late in the afternoon. One of my favorite things about being on the top of a mountain is just being there for a while and soaking it all in. I don’t feel that I did that, in part because of just not thinking clearly and in part because our guides were encouraging us to start heading down. Still, reaching the summit was still the “peak” experience of the trip for me. It had been my dream and I accomplished it and that felt great.
If standing on the summit didn’t exactly match your expectations — even though it was still a highlight — were there other experiences that really stand out that you didn’t expect?
CC: Watching and relating with the crew throughout our time on the mountain turned out to be one of the special memories for me. They worked so hard on our behalf. They sang for us a couple of times. The first time was when we gave them each a gift that we had made prior to coming on the trip. It was just a washcloth hooked to a carabiner. They truly appreciated the gifts and sang for us as a thank you. The second was when we approached high camp — the last camp before our climb to the summit. As always, they were there waiting for us. They sang us into camp and hugged us and gave us high fives as we arrived. It was a great feeling. I think that all three of us got emotional and pumped up by that. Also, finding a geocache on the mountain was a fun side venture for me and a real highlight (a geocache is a hidden object tracked and located using a handheld GPS device). Prior to looking for the cache, we had stopped for lunch and our lead guide, Innocent, explained the whole process in Swahili to Justin and several others of the crew. They looked mesmerized by it all. When Innocent finished, Justin said, ‘I won’t believe it until I see it!’ And then ‘let’s go find it!’ Justin came with me to look for it on our way to high camp, and he was the one who actually found it. He was so excited to find his first cache, and I was excited to find one on Kilimanjaro.
I understand that Kilimanjaro is a mountain that doesn’t require ‘technical’ climbing per se, and well-prepared, fit climbers expect to make it. Even so, there are climbing deaths on the mountain every year. How hard was it, and were there any moments you had where you were really scared?
CC: I don’t know that I had any personal moments of real fear. I did have a few minutes of concern. I have a low back problem, which isn’t normally affected by hiking. The night we camped at Lava Tower, the same day that Janet got sick, I was lying in the tent relaxing, waiting for dinner. When we were called for dinner, I couldn’t move. Any movement I tried to make brought piercing pain to my lower back. It was several minutes before I was able to make my way out of the tent using a combination of sliding, crawling and rolling. I had to be lifted to my feet by Cindy and a porter. I’m sure that Cindy was having some doubts about the rest of the climb at that point, with Janet sick and with me unable to move. After being vertical for a while, though, and eating something, my back felt much better. I was a little stiff waking up the next morning, but that’s normal for me!
Was it exciting descending the mountain, having achieved your goal, or a let down knowing you had to return to your “regular” life?
CC: It was definitely exciting to be descending, having been on the summit. At the same time, I was a little disappointed that it was now just a memory. I think when you plan something for so long it becomes a part of you. I did feel, and still do feel, a little bit of a letdown now that it’s over. We were all very glad we organized our trip the way we did, doing the climb first and then the safari. I know that I enjoyed the safari much more than I would have if I had been anticipating the climb the whole time. The safari was a completely different experience and just as memorable for its own reasons. We definitely were not roughing it on the safari portion of our trip. We stayed in beautiful lodges in or at the edge of the national parks. It’s also been fun to return to school this fall and share my experience with my students and families. With the start of the school year being so full, I haven’t yet done any formal sharing or presentations but I have posted a number of photos from my trip in the hall and on the school website, which has prompted many informal conversations with students and their families. I have been trying to weave my experiences into my teaching every chance I get, sharing anecdotes with my classes. I’m also looking forward to doing a presentation at one of our PTA meetings this winter.
I understand that you left something on the mountain, something special. I think most people are under the impression that you always take out what you bring in. Can you explain?
CC: I brought with me what’s called a ‘travel bug,’ which is a geocaching term for a trackable item like a dog tag with an official tracking number. A travel bug is often attached to an object of some kind, and given a goal by its owner as it travels from geocache to geocache. My travel bug is called ‘GP Climbing Kitty’ and its goal is to travel around the world, climbing mountains — particularly summits. It will allow me to travel vicariously to places I may never see. As it travels, people log its progress online and can take pictures of it, uploading them to the website for its owner and others to see. I took mine to the summit of Kili for its first adventure and then actually left it in a cache in Serengeti National Park. Its log shows that it’s already traveled more than 4,000 miles and is now in the Netherlands, though it may be headed to Switzerland soon to see the Alps! So, my geocaching in Africa made for some fun side adventures while we were traveling.
What advice can you give someone preparing to climb Kilimanjaro? Is there anything you would do differently?
CC: Definitely be in good physical shape. Do a lot of cardio work and a lot of leg work. Hill climbing and doing steps with a weighted pack is great. For the most part, I wouldn’t change much. I would warn people about how they will probably feel on the summit. If I had been told that I would feel a little out of sorts when I got to the summit, I might have been able to prepare myself for that and consciously make the decision to stay longer and take it all in. I would certainly recommend taking the longer route like we did. I think it’s more enjoyable and gives you a better chance of reaching the summit than the shorter routes, which don’t allow you to acclimatize. What else would I do differently? I would bring less. For example, I didn’t need the two books that I brought or the deck of cards! We had no energy for either. I would make every effort to journal every day to get my thoughts down on paper while they were fresh.
So, you’ve just achieved a goal you’d had for more than a dozen years. What’s next? Do you have another big goal you can tell us about?
CC: I don’t have any definite plans at this point, but I do know that I want to start dreaming and planning for another adventure. In the back of my mind, I’ve thought of checking into Mt. Aconcagua, in Argentina. It’s another of the ‘Seven Summits’ (the highest mountains on each of the seven continents) and it also is not technical. It’s higher than Mt. Kilimanjaro though. At this point, it’s only something I’m wondering about. It has a place in my mind like Kilimanjaro a dozen years ago. I certainly don’t want my next adventure to smolder for a dozen years though. In 1999 I traveled to Tibet and Nepal but I didn’t do any hiking on that trip. I’ve had a desire to return to Nepal and do some trekking in the Himalayas. There are so many places in the world that offer great experiences, it’s hard to know where to go next.
And finally, what’s next for the students at Lake Harriett’s Lower Campus? They ‘climbed’ 20,000 feet on stairs with you as you prepared for your trip. What can they look forward to this year?
CC: That’s a good question. One problem, if you can call it that, is that I want to continue to add to these fun challenges for the students. That calls for continued creativity. Each year I do a week-long ‘jungle’ activity with the students at the end of a body management unit, involving basic gymnastics principles like balancing, rolling, jumping, and landing, and the use of equipment such as ropes, ladders, balance beams, the cargo net, etc. The Jungle is an opportunity for students to use all of these skills and pieces of equipment in a creative way that also challenges their imagination. This year, I plan to somehow incorporate a safari, and possibly a mountain adventure theme into the whole thing.
Contributing writer Fred Mayer lives in Linden Hills.