Into the Unknown
Into the Unknown
Laurie Normandeau '94 Climbs Kilimanjaro to Fight Breast Cancer
Mount Kilimanjaro, the extinct lava and snow-capped volcano of Tanzania, near the border of Kenya in east Africa, has long been a goal for climbers.
For the past seven years, Kilimanjaro has attracted adventurers -with two objectives in mind – reaching the 19,344-foot summit of the mountain and, somewhere in the near future, finding a cure for breast cancer.
This past August, Laurie Normandeau '94, of Cummington, Mass., climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and raised $16,000 (and a further $6,000 for her traveling and expedition expenses) for the "Climb to Fight Breast Cancer," organized by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC). Each year, people from across the United States unite under the FHCRC banner and climb peaks in North America and around the world, annually raising more than $400,000 for cancer research.
Some of the climbers are cancer survivors; others, like Laurie and the many supporters of her fundraising campaign, have lost relatives or friends to the disease. On her climb, Laurie carried a banner in honor of those relatives and friends. Among the names embroidered into the banner were those of her mother, Loreen Mae Woodward, and her father, Hugh Charles Combs. Her grandmother, Dorothy Woodward, is a breast cancer survivor.
Laurie joined the FHCRC campaign after reading an ad in Climbing magazine. With the help of her husband, Brett, she sought support from friends and businesses throughout the Northampton area, easily exceeding her $10,000 fundraising commitment. Laurie, a rock climber of 16 years, trained for many months through her job as a fitness instructor at the Northampton Athletic Club and by hiking Mount Monadnock several times a week. She has shared her journal entries of the climb with the hope of inspiring Keene State graduates to join the fight against breast cancer.
– Dave Orsman
I view the process of climbing a 19,340-foot mountain as somewhat parallel to those who battle cancer. Support from friends and loved ones is critical. Having the right resources is crucial. The physical and mental challenges of the struggle are fatiguing. You are taken out of your comfort zone into the unknown, and maintaining hope, even without guarantee of a positive ending, is imperative.
The Climb to Fight Breast Cancer was an adventure of a lifetime for me. From fundraising over $22,000 to reaching the highest point of Africa, the experience was profoundly rewarding.
I feel honored and grateful to be able to push my physical abilities for such a worthy cause. Any worries I have about the expedition are put into perspective when I think about the fact that the challenges and fears faced by those, and the families of those, who have cancer are greater than anything I will go through. At the end of the two weeks, for me, it will be over.
The fund-raising is going well. I feel confident that the goal of $10,000 will be achieved and exceeded. I am amazed at the generosity and support of the community.
August 7, Northwest Airlines, Boston to Amsterdam
Well, here goes. I'm on my own now and I feel like I want to cry. I'm not sad, I'm not scared, just overwhelmed and emotional! [A bus ride, where the 15 participants of Laurie's climb meet for the first time, takes the group from Tanzania Airport to Arusha, near Kilimanjaro.]
August 9, the logistics tent, Arusha
We gather under a large tent and review our gear needs with our guide, Allan, from Alpine Ascents. I feel confident that I have brought all the tools for the job with the exception of my trekking poles, which still have not arrived. [The trekking poles were a gift from Laurie's mother-in-law, Carole Normandeau, who climbed Kilimanjaro 40 years ago while serving in the Peace Corps.] On a jeep drive through Arusha National Park we get our first hazy glimpse of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
August 10, Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park, Machame Gate
After a bumpy, dusty ride to Machame gate, we register at the park and collect our two additional guides and 42 porters. My poles arrive! We hike through dense jungle to the Machame Camp at 9,800 ft.
August 11, climb to Shira Camp, 12,500 feet
For the most part, we hike single file on the narrow trail, with a guide in front, setting the "pole, pole" pace [pronounced pol-lee, meaning "slow" in Swahili]. I stay behind the guide as I find I can focus better, looking at the slow shuffle of his boots. I think about my breathing, the depth and the quality of each inhalation and exhalation.
That evening, in my tent
I take two excedrin, anticipating an altitude headache, drink my purified water, and lie in my tent listening to the chatter of the porters speaking Swahili. I listen to my heart and breathing for signs of altitude sickness. I start to think about the banner I am carrying to the summit and about the other members and their motivations. Then I try counting. I get past 1,000 before I doze off.
August 12, climb to Barranco camp, 12,800 feet
We hike through dusty boulder fields strewn with volcanic rock, with views of snow and glaciers on the summit. Feeling great!
Friday 13, climb to Karanga camp, 13,500 feet
Start the best climbing day so far with overhanging scrambles and great views. Should have worn a cap and bandana as a dust mask, but go with just a bandana and SPF 45 sun block. Flushed and slightly burned when we reach the camp, which sits in a sea of clouds with a view of our summit route. Can't eat lunch and lie down. I drink some Emergen-C replacement stuff – gross! Don't sleep well, headache and feeling uncoordinated. In the morning, puffy eyes, congested, headache.
August 14, Barafu high camp, 15,700 feet
We trek across a barren land with volcanic boulders around us. Windy, dusty, cold! Patty, Kristine, and I all feel hot, flushed, chilled, congested, and tired. Our team and guides debrief; our summit attempt begins at midnight.
In my tent, 8 p.m.
I feel lousy! I can't breath the thin, cold air. Congested with a drippy, burning raw nose. I feel nauseous and shaky. I cry. I pray. I decide I can't do the summit.
I can breathe a little and finally I am warm. I take two excedrin, two pepto bismol, my malaria pill, and water. I will try for the summit!
August 15, 1 a.m.
We have our backpacks and trek poles, three liters of purified water, down jacket, extra gloves, and extra energy food. Trek poles on the packs, headlamps on our heads. I wear my balaclava around my neck with the mesh nosepiece near my mouth to help warm the cold air. Looking up the mountain, I see lines of headlights from the other teams also making summit attempts. The sky is clear and the stars are bright. [Summit attempts on most mountains begin in the early morning so that climbers have enough daylight to reach the top and then descend to, or below, their summit camps.]
I am anxious to get going before I change my mind. I fall into my usual spot behind Fongee, the guide. It is very cold and the thought of hiking fast to get warm sounds good! I don't want to know what the terrain looks like – just keep a rhythm with Fongee's steps. The ground is steep and gravelly, an unstable surface to trek on.
I can feel my heart pounding and breathing becomes more difficult. I am trying to pressure-breathe (slow, deep, full breath and forceful exhalation), but the tendency is to breathe fast. Our pace seems fast, which I attribute to the idea that we want to quickly get to the summit and down.
At our first break, I pull up my jacket hood and exchange my gloves for mittens and shells. I can feel my toes going numb. My pack feels heavy, pulling my shoulders back and creating pain between my shoulder blades. My neck also aches, as I strain to keep it lifted. No one talks. I can only hear breathing and I sense that all are focused on the increased demands of the hike.
I try to stay relaxed and focused on my breathing, which has become labored and shallow. Time and distance becomes irrelevant. Just placing one step in front of the other and controlling your breathing matters. I feel as if I am being stalked by my own feelings, which I know can prey on my strength, my attitude, and my ability to continue. Focus! Watch Fongee's feet and carefully step forward.
Finally, another short break. I look for a rock to collapse on, lean back, and open my chest to make more room for air. I remember that there are other team members and I look around.
I only see Patty, Charles, Rich, and Kate. I am reminded by the guide to drink water. But the pack with my Nalgene bottle does not feel accessible. My movements are awkward, as if I were throwing my limbs in the direction of my pack. I get the pack off and sip from my bottle.
To distract myself from my cold fingers and toes, I count my steps. I listen to the sound of my boots grinding down onto the lava rocks. How long have we been climbing? How much longer to go? More time passes; we take another break. I nearly fall this time and my head is spinning. A porter has to take my pack off for me. He lifts my water bottle to my mouth, but it has iced over. He shakes it and we try again. Fongee flashes his light in my face and asks the porter to carry my pack for me. It occurs to me that I might not be able to finish. I'm trying but it's just too hard. I lean forward, dropping my head into my mittens, and cry.
We are urged to push on and I take a trekking pole off the pack, which my porter is now carrying. I make three steps, maybe four, and stop to try to get a full breath. The ground is moving, but I haven't taken a step. I blink hard and try to refocus. My porter whispers to keep moving as he tries to steady me, holding me by the elbow.
Hours go by and the work continues to grow more difficult. I remember the banner with the names on it. I feel recharged for a few more steps. Another wave of dizziness and I have to catch my balance. I drop to my knees and my porter takes my arm to lift me. He holds the bottle to my mouth again but now the water is completely frozen. "We go now, we're close," he whispers.
As we near the summit at 6:30 a.m., the scene unfolds into a surreal landscape. The deep black volcanic rock contrasts with the pink, blue, and purple that is reflected off the huge glaciers from the glow of the morning sun. The immense blue shadow of Kilimanjaro creeps across a sea of clouds to meet with Mt. Meru to the west. We are standing at Uhuru peak, just at the edge of Kibo crater. This could easily be another planet.
A wave of relief and accomplishment comes over me. I've done it!
The first few to reach the summit hug and share tears of joy. We recompose, get some photos, and prepare for our long descent back to high camp.
September – Cummington, Mass.
I hope that others will feel inspired by this climb to give what they can to the fight against breast cancer: by sharing time with someone who has cancer, or, if possible, by financially supporting such events or research centers committed to finding cures and providing hope and resources for cancer victims.
I am forever indebted to the porter who believed in me, who shared his strength and encouragement to see that I reach the summit. I believe we can all be porters for someone else.
People who know me well know that I am an eternal goal setter, always looking for a challenge. Having been involved with the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer has brought new meaning to my physical endeavors. I have learned that I can satisfy that need while helping others. So, my next adventure: The 2006 expedition to Mt. Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Russia, to raise funds for breast cancer research.