Twelve Texarkanians tackle the weeklong trek up Mount Kilimanjaro with tenacity and valor.
by ELLEN ORR
Thirty thousand tourists, ages 7 to 87, hike Mount Kilimanjaro every year. Their journeys are made possible by the 80–120 thousand Tanzanian workers who ascend alongside them, carrying the visitors’ luggage, equipment and food. Among those numbers are a group of 12 Texarkanians, comprised of Patti Finley, Cheryl Kite, Melinda Krueger, Ann Mancheski, Cathryn Payne, Dr. Christy Payne, Dr. Todd Payne, Dr. Jennifer Thompson, Deirdre Smith, Dr. Malcolm Smith, Carla Thibodeaux and Scott Thibodeaux, who recently made the weeklong trek. They were accompanied by 55 mountain professionals, who set up and tore down camp, checked everyone’s oxygen saturation and heart rates daily, monitored fluid intake, cooked all meals and provided practical and moral support.
“We hardly roughed it,” said Dr. Christy Payne, a pediatrician and the primary coordinator of the trip. She explained that one’s perception of the hike conditions might be skewed: “You would think the food would be limited and prepackaged fare, but we ate healthy, fresh, farm-to-table meals rivaling many back home,” she said. “To our amazement, the porters carried fresh eggs without breaking them, fresh produce, milk unspilt, and an iced and decorated birthday cake in a bakery box [for hiker Anne Mancheski’s birthday], up steep terrain and uneven ground.”
None of this is to say that the trek up Africa’s tallest summit is unchallenging or risk-free, even with government-required facilitation from a hiking guide service. While completing the hike requires no “technical skills” like bouldering or climbing, the extreme altitude presents a challenge and is arguably the most difficult aspect of the journey.
“Even though I have a medical background, I was still amazed to witness firsthand the physiology of how our bodies react to the altitude and low oxygen concentrations in the air, how they can adjust over time, and how they can compensate with the help of fluids and rest,” Christy said.
The group confronted the realities of the altitude head-on the day they summited. Most of the hiking was done during the daytime, with many long breaks, under sunny skies, with temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees. However, on the “day” of the summit, the group began at 11:30 p.m. “The plan was to be one of the first groups up the mountain, avoiding the crowds and to get to the summit by sunrise,” said Christy. The temperature was well below freezing. Water supplies turned solid. “The combination of the darkness, the stinging cold air and the altitude made me uneasy and worried,” she continued. “I was breathing so fast, like I was running at top speed, but I was actually standing still.” The darkness made it impossible to visualize how far they had gone or had to go. Cathryn, Christy’s daughter, described it as a “mind game”—advancing slowly, struggling for air, trying to avoid frostbite, motivated by a goal which, in the dark, timeless morning, seemed entirely abstract.
But even this test of mental strength was mitigated by the expert help of the porters and guides, who sang Tanzanian and American hymns as they led the tourists to their continent’s highest point. “Watching them climb that mountain with ease and such joyful spirits rocked me to my core,” Anne Mancheski said, describing their guides and porters as “kindhearted, tough-as-nails humans.”
Having now returned home, the group members resoundingly point to two key takeaways from their Kilimanjaro experience: the benefits of slowness, and the necessity of interdependence. “Pole, pole”—Swahili for “slowly, slowly”—is a common refrain on the mountain, as moving at a slow pace is the best way to minimize altitude sickness. Especially for a group of high-achieving career people, this approach requires immense patience and perseverance. “We’re usually so busy being busy,” said trip-goer Patti Finley.
“I am always in a hurry and often lack patience,” continued Christy. “That wasn’t possible in this situation. You had to go ‘pole pole.’ A lesson for this hike and for life.”
They also fully lived the common maxim “Nothing great is ever accomplished alone.” “My insight going into this climb was that I alone, alongside my 11 friends, would be responsible for achieving this goal,” said Patti. What she discovered instead was that completing the hike required the group to rely on one another and especially on their guides and porters.
Parting ways with the Tanzanians who facilitated their survival and success was bittersweet for the hikers. “It is so wonderful and sad at the same time to have such special people come into your life and make such an impact and then be gone, half a world away,” Christy said. “They stay in our thoughts and prayers with the hope our paths will cross again.”
While the hikers have returned to their lives as doctors, accountants, students, parents, runners, and more, the guides and porters have likely summited and descended Kilimanjaro multiple times since; many seasoned professionals have purportedly made the trip up to 600 times, often with inadequate gear and clothing, earning at best humble wages. Their daily work, performed with generosity and care, allows travelers from the U.S. and beyond to experience what they will surely remember as momentous and life-changing for the rest of their years.