Climbing Kilimanjaro: Local Women Conquer Africa’s Highest Mountain

By GINA G. SCALA | Apr 10, 2019
Courtesy of: Michelle Dempsey

“There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.” —William Butler Yeats

Michelle Dempsey’s biggest concern about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro wasn’t about the climb at all. It was the idea she wouldn’t know anyone, other than her travel companions, at the base of Africa’s highest mountain. She had no idea Kilimanjaro is a place where friendships are fortified among friends and born among strangers.

“I came home with friendships that will, hopefully, last a lifetime,” Dempsey, who lives in Surf City, said. “I met people from other states, from other countries.”

Dempsey, 50, her sons, Matthew, 24, and Sean, 23, along with local Rody Hickson, an EMT with the Surf City Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1 and Emergency Medical Services, took three planes and land transportation before arriving at the base camp in February. Dempsey met Hickson through a mutual friend when she moved to Surf City full time recently. When that friend mentioned Hickson was planning a trip to climb Kilimanjaro, Dempsey’s interest was piqued.

Hickson was recruited into the trip by Bob Martinelli, a long-time friend living in Florida. They once belonged to the same running club, trained for half-marathons, marathons and ultimate marathons together, anything for the next rush of adrenalin. Although, the running ran out more than three decades ago, the friends kept in touch and he knew, with some certainty, she’d say yes to climbing Kilimanjaro. This, Hickson said about herself, comes from someone with a self-proclaimed fear of heights who used to include saying a Hail Mary before traveling on the Causeway.

Kilimanjaro, from the base to the summit, at least following the route Hickson and Dempsey took with their companions and guides, is 46 miles. In Tanzania, it sits 19,341 feet above sea level with a climate that ranges from about 90 degrees in the rainforest to minus 20 to 40 degrees at the summit. There are five types of environmental terrain in between, Hickson said.

To prepare for their inaugural mountain climb, the women began training in the fall. They carried backpacks, weighed down by hand weights or other items, and trekked up to the beach and back, and walked for miles on the Boulevard.

“We went camping with my sons in Virginia,” Dempsey said, noting another way the four prepared for the trip was by taking medication to ward off altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness prevents many climbers from reaching the peak of Kilimanjaro and is why daily health checks are part of the journey to the top of the mountain, Hickson said. It determines whether a climber can make the trek on any given day, she said.

“At one point I thought my heart rate had reached its max,” Hickson, who is 64, said, recalling how the lead guide stopped while someone took her vital signs. Then, in a show of solidarity, he had his own vitals taken so she could see she was OK.

With that behind them, the group of 16, along with their guides, continued to zigzag their way to the top of the mountain. The final ascension began at night.

“They woke us at 10 p.m.,” Hickson said, adding the guides told them to dress in arctic gear, including a head lamp to light the way up the final slope of the mountain. “My light went out on the way up.”

She reached the peak in near darkness as the dim lights of others ahead of her and the full moon illuminated her way. She also had the help of a guide.

“He just always seemed to know when I needed him,” Hickson said, recalling the wicked wind on the last leg of the climb. “I’m sort of foggy about being at the top.”

What Hickson does remember is the full moon in front of her and the colors from the rising sun behind her.

“It was hard to know where to look first,” Dempsey added. “There was the full moon, the sunrise and the glacier. I was laughing (one minute) and crying the next. It was so beautiful.”

The women have only one regret: not having a picture of their team of 16 – from Jersey, Florida, California, Kansas City, Minnesota, Chicago, Atlanta, Canada and the United Kingdom – in front of the sign congratulating them on reaching the summit.

“It’s the hardest thing I ever did,” Hickson said. “I had to dig deep for so long but, yes, I am glad I did it. If I was 30 years younger I would definitely do it again.”

She said mental toughness was just as important as being fit physically. There were times, especially as they neared the peak, she played mental games with herself to help occupy her mind with something other than the task at hand.

“The hardest part (for me) was the summit,” Dempsey noted. “About three-quarters of the way into the climb my breathing got heavy. I stopped to take a break, but it was so cold I couldn’t just stand around.”

Adrenalin, the women say, was high on the descend from the summit, which took only a day. In some ways, it was more difficult than the days it took to ascend the mountain. Using walking sticks and with the help of a guide, they made their way back to base camp by lunch time.

It took a week for Dempsey and Hickson to do what 50 percent of Kilimanjaro climbers never accomplish: reach the peak.

“Sixteen out of 16 made the summit in the early morning of Feb. 20,” Tony Martinelli, who traveled with his dad, Bob, from Florida, wrote in a social media post about the accomplishment. “We will never forget how the Steep 16 became family over the course of 9 days, 46 miles up into the sky and touched the roof of Africa.”

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