- Success Stories -

An Uphill Climb

One Plano, Texas, family overcame sweat, tears and 19,340 feet to conquer the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.

family hiking

Though all five members of the Kanaley family belonged to a gym, the girls, Jorden, 25, and Hollen, 24, worked out most regularly. The other family members — matriarch Dina, 49, her husband, Scot, 48, and son, Dagen, 18 — took a less organized approach to exercise. Dina, who owns her own embroidery and monogramming business, puts it bluntly: “We weren’t in terrific shape.”

The Kanaleys knew they needed some real-life motivation to get fit. Most people choose to set small, achievable goals when embarking on a new fitness routine. The Kanaleys, however, decided to chart a different course — they set one really big goal: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro — the tallest freestanding mountain in the world — as a family.

A Lofty Vision

The Kanaleys’ decision to climb this soaring African mountain was a confluence of many factors. They all liked the idea of achieving a difficult goal, of seeing a dramatic destination, and of getting fit and spending time together as a family. Plus, Jorden, an Internet planner for J. C. Penney Company, had sworn she would climb the mountain by age 25.

But climbing Kilimanjaro was even more about Africa and its place in the Kanaley lifeblood. Dina grew up in Kenya with her missionary parents, and Scot, now a sales analyst for a global technology company, met his future wife in high school when his parents taught in Africa for a year. The Kanaley kids grew up learning bit phrases in Swahili and lived in a home decked out in all things East African: ostrich eggs, zebra-skin rugs, photos of Maasai warriors, and images of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Dina’s dad, Dallas Bateman, an agriculturalist and missionary, always talked about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, a mere 200 miles away from the town where he lived with his wife and daughter. “He always said we were going to do it — you could even see the mountain from our house on a clear day,” Dina says. But when Dina was 19, Dallas died suddenly after routine back surgery, when a blood clot formed in his leg and traveled to his brain. The family never got the chance to make their planned ascent.

Training Days

In mid-2004, Jorden started to put on the heat about the trip, but it wasn’t until late 2005, when plane tickets were finally booked, that the Kanaleys realized they likely wouldn’t make it up the mountain if they didn’t train.

Prior to making plans for their big climb, Dina and Scot worked out — though not as consistently as Jorden and Hollen — going to the gym about three times a week and spending 30 minutes to an hour doing some combination of cardio and weights. While they weren’t in peak condition, says Dina, they also weren’t in “totally embarrassing” shape. The bigger issue, as she saw it: “We aren’t outdoors people at all. We’d never climbed a mountain in our lives!”

Mount Kilimanjaro isn’t a technical climb, but the family needed to build up enough stamina to be able to walk uphill at a 45-degree angle for 10 to 12 hours a day, for seven days. Since practice mountains are few and far between in north Texas, the Kanaleys focused on the next best thing: the climbing machines and treadmills at the Life Time Fitness in Plano, Texas. They went to the gym almost every day for nine months, working out for one to two hours at a time. As the trip neared, they added hiking boots and weighted backpacks to their workouts. Over the course of nine months, they each lost about 5 to 8 pounds and noticed increased muscle tone.

A Rocky Start

In early September 2006, the Kanaley family met Kilimanjaro, the “shining mountain,” with an army of support — 18 porters, two guides and one cook, plus Dina’s 22-year-old second cousin, Keenan, who also came along. At the northeastern corner of Tanzania, near the Kenyan border, the mountain stands 19,340 feet, offering one of the most unique experiences in the world: the chance to walk from lush mountain rainforest to glacier fields within the course of several days.

Like the more than 15,000 people who attempt to climb the mountain each year, the Kanaleys trekked 9,000 feet above sea level through the rainforest on their first day, with its muddy trails, steep climbs, and tribes of black-and-white colobus monkeys relaxing in the dense tree cover.

Their second day brought them up more than 12,000 feet to the moorlands, with its surreal landscape of hanging mosses and twisted trees. Keenan was the first to experience the most common Kilimanjaro affliction: altitude sickness. His lips and fingernails turned blue from the lack of oxygen, he got a pounding migraine, and he was vomiting — a lot. The guide told him to think about turning back, but he shook off the illness and continued.

On the third day, just as the family was crossing into the spare, lava-rock-dotted alpine desert, Jorden became constantly nauseated and had a horrible migraine.

The following day, Hollen fell victim to shooting back pains — a flare-up from an old athletic injury — and lay weeping on a rock. Nevertheless, they both gathered their determination and trekked on, navigating through the brown, plantless desert and the sedimentary rock fields.

View From the Top

At 11 p.m. the next night, by the light of the full moon, the family started their move toward the summit, hoping to reach it at sunrise.

They climbed steadily in the darkness, and finally, just after sunset, they reached Stella Point, the first summit, at an impressive 18,652 feet. Collapsing to the ground from exhaustion, they told each other this was far enough.

“Even though it’s not the highest point, Stella Point is still technically considered summiting,” says Dina. But then Deo, their guide, paid them an unexpected compliment, telling them he’d never seen a family that was so united. “That went straight to my heart,” says Jorden. “And I said to myself, ‘Yeah, we are a strong family, and we can finish this.’”

They set off for Uhuru Peak — the spot that more than 60 percent of those who attempt the mountain never see — at a snail’s pace. When they did finally reach Uhuru (which means “freedom” in Swahili), they found three-story-tall glaciers across the rocky terrain, like a moonscape littered with ice sculptures. The sky above, unhindered by pollution or clouds, was shockingly blue. They were all stunned by the scene. Down below, through a screen of clouds, lay the plains of Tanzania, just waking up in the early hours of the morning and washed in the reds, golds and oranges of the African sunrise.

Scot grinned from ear to ear. Dina kept saying how proud her parents would’ve been to see them all there. At the mountain’s summit, all the blisters, migraines, nausea, pain and sleep deprivation seemed worlds away. It had been one of the most strenuous adventures of their lives, but, says Dina, “It was worth every step.”

Alyssa Ford is a writer and editor in St. Paul, Minn.

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