Tuesday, March 08, 2016
by Kathryn Holleman
BJC BEHAVIORAL HEALTH | Colleen Smithson was not having fun. Just a few hundred feet beneath the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Smithson had been climbing since the middle of the night. She battled freezing temperatures, a fierce wind and a case of bronchitis that made breathing a struggle.
But Smithson pushed on. She had committed to climbing Kilimanjaro — the highest mountain in Africa — to raise money for research into multiple myeloma, the disease that had killed her mother. She had pledged to carry a banner of cancer patients’ names to the top of the mountain. And as personal inspiration, she carried photos of her late mother and aunt.
Smithson wasn’t about to stop.
A mountain and a mission
Smithson, lead clinical case manager on the children’s team at the BJC Behavioral Health North campus, participated in the Jan. 17-28 climb as part of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation’s Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma team to raise awareness and funding for multiple myeloma research. The team of 15 people included multiple myeloma clinicians, patients and patient family members from across the U.S. Each team member pledged to raise at least $10,000 for research.
Peggy Walsh, Smithson’s mom, had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma in July 2012 and died of the disease in October 2014 (see story here). Looking for a way to help, Smithson found Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma online and signed up. Fund-raising events, including a trivia night, and donations from friends and co-workers helped her raise more than $11,500 for the cause. In the meantime, she trained for the climb on hills and trails around St. Louis.
Most other Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma team members lived on the East Coast, so they gathered in New Jersey for a weekend in September to get to know each other before the climb. The team bonded quickly, says Smithson.
On Jan. 16, they met up again in the Amsterdam airport to fly together to Mount Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania. After a nine-hour flight, they landed at the tiny airport. In the distance, the mountain loomed.
Preparing to climb Africa’s highest peak
The team started their climb with a group of about 100 people, comprising the 15 Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma members, photographers and videographers, a U.S.-based guide, and the local guides and porters required by Tanzanian law. Porters, born and raised near the mountain, carry the climbers’ gear, set up camp and cook meals — because the altitude prevents most climbers from doing it themselves.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano and the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Climbers can take several routes to the top of the mountain — the volcano’s rim. At 19,341 feet, Uhuru Peak is the highest point on the rim.
Though the climb up Kilimanjaro isn’t technically difficult, just over 60 percent of those who attempt the climb make it to Uhuru Peak. Altitude sickness stops most of those who don’t. The oxygen-poor air above 8,000 feet can cause mild symptoms like headache or nausea, or potentially deadly fluid accumulation on the lungs or brain. A climber’s fitness level has nothing to do with it. But taking eight days to make the climb, like Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma, helps climbers acclimatize to the altitude and ups the chance of success.
Still, the altitude’s effects were noticeable almost immediately, says Smithson. Even dressing took more effort, and some team members complained of headaches and forgetfulness. “Until you do it, you don’t realize how much of a difference altitude makes,” she says.
The plan was for Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma to hike about four to eight hours each day, taking lots of time to eat, rest and acclimatize. Each morning and evening the team doctors did wellness checks, looking for early signs of altitude sickness.
Before the trip, Smithson had stocked up on medications for travel-related digestive issues. “I had tons of GI stuff in my pack, but no cold medicine,” Smithson says. That became a problem on the third day of the climb when rain soaked the group. Cool temperatures, wet clothes and heavy exertion were “the perfect recipe” for getting sick, she says. Smithson soon developed a respiratory infection with a hacking cough.
A team physician gave her antibiotics and steroids for the cough. But the higher she climbed, the more exhausting the effort was.
On the sixth day of the climb, at about 16,000 feet, team members went to bed at 6:30 p.m. Four hours later, guides woke them for the push to the top of the mountain. In the frigid cold, climbers had just their headlamps for light. With the respiratory infection, Smithson had to forego the ski mask that would protect her face. The harsh wind reddened her face and lips in minutes.
The trudge to the top
Altitude and exertion had taken a toll on all of the Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma team members. Three members had already turned back, including one who experienced a sudden bout of altitude blindness. So guides kept up with a constant stream of encouragement.
But thinking of the banner she carried with cancer patients’ names, seeing other team members and, most of all, remembering the photos of her mother and aunt reminded Smithson that she was there to make a difference. So she trudged painfully on.
Finally, Smithson saw a sign: “Congratulations. You are now at Stella Point.”
“You’re here,” a guide told her. “The top. You get a certificate to prove it.”
At 18,885 feet, Stella Point, known as the “second summit,” is the first place climbers step onto the top of Kilimanjaro — the volcano’s rim.
Several other team members continued on to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the rim, but it was another
45 minutes away, at least.
“I was spent physically and emotionally,” Smithson says.
She took photos with the banner and her mom’s and aunt’s picture, and upon her team members’ return, started down the mountain. She was so exhausted that guides had to piggyback her at times. By the time she reached the bottom of the mountain, the Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma team had been awake and hiking for 19 continuous hours.
After a hotel rest day and a three-day mini-safari, Smithson returned home, where she “crashed pretty hard for about a week.”
Now back at work, healthy and regaining her strength, Smithson is proud, not only of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, but also of raising money and awareness for an important cause.
She even thinks she might undertake another climb — although one not as high or strenuous.
“I think I could do Machu Picchu (in South America), someday,” she says. But not for a long time.
One night on Kilimanjaro, some of the Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma team members talked about climbing to Mount Everest’s base camp as their next adventure.
“I just said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. I can’t even talk about that now.’”
Kathryn Holleman, email@example.com
Number of views (3002)/Comments (12)
3/8/2016 10:02 AM
Good story. My brother and nephew made this trek a few years ago.
3/8/2016 11:06 AM
Yeah Colleen! What an amazing thing you did, and what a tribute to your mom.
3/8/2016 1:47 PM
Thank you for the awesome story Colleen!!
3/10/2016 3:47 PM
Wow!! I know you!! Awesome accomplishment!!
3/11/2016 10:03 AM
Habari gani Coleen?
What an amazing story. Very proud of you. Actually I am from Tanzania and my father is from Kilimanjaro region.
3/16/2016 2:37 PM
Hello Veronica. I am Veronica too from Dar- Es Salaam.
3/11/2016 12:47 PM
Wow ! great job.
3/11/2016 12:54 PM
What a brave person you are. My mother died from multiple myeloma when she was only 57. It took 7 years to kill her. She was a trooper and fought the entire 7 years. I wish and pray that researchers will find a way to stop this horrible disease. God Bless you for your efforts.
3/13/2016 4:04 PM
Yippee!! I just returned from Kili March 2. Yes, it is tough. It is also the most rewarding thing I have done. Happy to hear you made it to Stella. Congratulations on your accomplishment. Be proud!
3/15/2016 9:00 AM
Congrats to you on your accomplishment!
3/15/2016 10:37 AM
Thank you all for your kind words!
3/16/2016 2:36 PM
Very impressive. I am originally from Tanzania but have never climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Great work Collen.