The Agony and the Ecstasy of Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro at Age 69
Donna Hamill, 69, wanted to raise funds and awareness for organ donation in Canada. The only obstacle between her and her goal: one of the tallest mountains in the world.
Tucked away in a tent on the side of Mount Kilimanjaro – the world’s tallest freestanding mountain – 69-year-old Donna Hamill admits she considered quitting her climb. It was hard enough staying mentally focused in the days leading up to the attempt. “I started to think, ‘What have I done?’” she remembers. During the ascent, a seven-day journey more than 19,000 feet above sea level, the “day-to-day gruelling hiking” and increasingly thinning air brought Hamill’s doubt to a head.
“There were two times that I can recall vividly when I wanted to quit,” she says. “So many people back (home) had been so supportive I just thought, ‘I can’t come all this way and not do it.’ That was the thought I really hung on to.”
Kilimanjaro was the farthest thing from Donna Hamill’s mind in 1995, the year her critically ill husband, Andy, received the liver transplant that saved his life at Toronto General Hospital. Along with affording the couple more than a decade of life together following the procedure, it also opened Hamill’s eyes to the dire need for organ donation.
Fuelled by her gratitude for Toronto General’s Organ Transplant Unit, Hamill arranged to scale Mount Kilimanjaro with U.S.-based Tusker Tours in October 2012. For eight months leading up to the climb, she upped her regular workout routine, focusing on cardio, leg strengthening, squats, exercise bikes and hiking. Meanwhile, the pledges started rolling in. “People were extremely supportive,” Hamill recalls, noting the outpouring of encouragement allowed her to quell her self-doubt as the climb date grew closer.
“There (was) no backing out, so it was only going forward and doing your best,” she says. “If you have the attitude that you’re going to push through, then that’s what it takes because there’s really not much left in the tank at the end.”
And that was just the training. She still, very literally, had a mountain to climb.
Hamill and her six fellow climbers – none of whom she knew – were joined by three guides and 32 porters who carried the food, utensils, tents, a portable toilet and other equipment up the mountain. The team took the Lemosho route –the longest of multiple routes up – which meant seven days of hiking toward the peak and two days back down.
“It’s just a very tough mountain hike,” Hamill says, “through about five different geographical regions,” including conditions that resemble anything from an African plain to rain forests to a peak crowned with glaciers and snow.
Ultimately, it came down to intestinal fortitude: “You kind of go through a wall and you come through on the other side … and if you can just get through the hard part – the being tired part – and get your breath, then you’re good to go.”
And she did go, all the way to the summit where she experienced “the ecstasy.”
“It’s unforgettable, it’s unbelievable. You’ve been thinking about this for a year and you know what the sign looks like at the top and it’s just taken so much effort to get there,” Hamill remembers. “And everybody’s so happy. The guides are happy for you.”
Fatigue, however, caught up to Hamill on the way down. When she reached the base of the mountain – the conclusion of her nine-day journey – she was so tired, it took her about a month to recuperate fully.
One thing that helped get the spring back in her step was the amount of money her climb raised. Hamill’s original goal was $25,000. Her final tally: $110,000.
“I was absolutely shocked,” she says about her fundraising success. The money allowed Toronto General Hospital to purchase a Fibroscan machine which, by measuring liver functions in potential transplant recipients, eliminates the need for unpleasant and possibly risky surgical biopsies. “Plus,” Hamill adds, “it’s very educational. They can see things through this Fibroscan that are going on in the liver to help them do diagnosis.”
As for possible future fundraising mountain climbs, Hamill, who turns 70 in June, says she’s packed up her tent for good. “I jut feel content with what I’ve done. It’s just a tremendous amount of energy that it takes, and I’m not so sure I want to put myself through that again.”