By Michelle Pena | Courtesy Photos
Tyler resident Michelle Brookshire set her heart on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest free-standing mountain, after climbing a smaller mountain in high school. Mount Kilimanjaro, located in Tanzania, Africa, sits south of the equator and stretches 19,000 feet into the sky. More than 25,000 climbers per year make the trek to the summit, Uhuru Peak, to mark personal accomplishments or to draw attention to a worthy cause or charity. Suitably, Uhuru is the Swahili word for freedom.
Michelle’s dream became reality through Young Life Africa. Tyler residents Tom Ramey and Rick Rogers are members of Young Life Africa’s Regional Committee, and they rotate every year as leaders of the Climb for Change fund raising outreach, which began in 2008. Climb for Change raises money to send African high school students to a Young Life Africa summer camp, where they are introduced to the love of Jesus and are given hope for their future.
Participants of Climb for Change take a two-week trip to Tanzania, Africa, where they work and serve in a Young Life Africa camp for three days, then take a seven-day Mount Kilimanjaro journey.
Due to the ravaging effects of war and AIDS, 75 percent of the population of the African countries below the Sahara Desert is under the age of 21, making Africa a continent of young people. Young Life impacts the next generation of Africa by utilizing African leaders who show interest. The Mount Kilimanjaro climb is strategically tied to the Young Life Camp experience. The trip is much more than an expedition or vacation; it marries the harsh reality of pain and struggle to the possibilities of freedom, allowing the climbers to catch a glimpse of unlimited beauty and the promise of hope.
Michelle and her two children, Emma, 17, and Bruce, 15, decided to participate in last summer’s Climb for Change trip, after hearing about the Ramey and Roger’s previous three year’s experiences. Michelle dreamed of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as a teenager, and now the opportunity was tangible. The fact that she could climb it with close friends and her children made the decision simple. Michelle, Emma and Bruce embraced the spiritual, physical and mental challenges before them and embarked on a life-changing journey.
In preparation for the mountain climb, Michelle walked the trails at both Tyler State Park and The University of Texas at Tyler. She exercised at a local health club and also ran up steep hills near her house to prepare her ankles and condition her heart. Mount Kilimanjaro’s terrain does not require mountain tools. However, muscle and cardiovascular endurance is needed to make reach the summit. Climbers will encounter diverse terrain, including grasslands, jungle, snow and ice.
Michelle described the trip to Africa as two mountain top experiences. Incidentally, the three days they spent serving at the camp took precedence over Mount Kilimanjaro.
“We thought we were going to climb the mountain, but the thing that was the most valuable for us was seeing Young Life at work over there. I was completely and totally amazed at what’s going on in Africa as far as the Lord and what Young Life is doing with its ministry. It is so powerful.”
Tanzanian tour guides and porters helped Michelle and the team make the seven-day trip up and down the mountain. They cooked, carried backpacks, set up tents and campsites, ultimately ensuring everyone was well and safe. Michelle enjoyed learning about the Tanzanian people and their culture. She pointed out “the songs they would sing kept everyone’s morale up and inspired momentum during the climb.”
Tom Ramey, the leader of this year’s trip, described it as being much harder than previous years’ because it was much colder than normal, with temperatures at 10 degrees below zero.
“If you are in moderately good shape you will make it to the peak. One of the dangers of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is altitude sickness. It is not a respecter of persons. If you get it, your trip is over,” Ramey says.
The last 3,000 feet of the ascent was the most challenging, Michelle says. The trek began at midnight to allow the climbers to reach the peak at sunrise. Headlamps were attached to everyone’s heads, and a single file line was formed. “You could only see right in front of you. It took seven hours to make it to the peak,” Michelle recalls. “ Many times I thought, ‘Am I going to make it to the top?”
Her body was working overtime trying to stay warm and alive in the subzero temperatures and high altitude.
“It’s as if you have everything fighting against you,” she says.
Her desire to reach the mountain top partnered with a favorite scripture gave her the strength and determination she needed to keep going.
The sun emerged with perfect timing as they reached Uruhu Peak. Although tired and fatigued, the team paused for reflection and photos as they basked in their accomplishment. After about 30 minutes at the top, they headed back down the now familiar path. The three-day journey down was ironically as hard as the ascent.
Michelle and her two children share special memories that hold an arsenal of life lessons. Headed home, leaving the great continent of Africa, their airplane flew by Mount Kilimanjaro, and upon seeing the vast mountain from a higher perspective, Michelle, thought, “Oh, I can do anything.”