Ann Melim, HBHS teacher first to reach summit of Kilimanjaro on Christmas morning

Editor’s note: In December we brought you the story of Ann Melim, an English teacher at Hollis Brookline High School who planned to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for her cousin Calvin Todd, an Army specialist who lost his left leg below the knee in Afghanistan and needs to build a handicapped accessible home. This is the story of her journey, based on interviews, her blog and a presentation she gave at HBHS earlier this month.

HOLLIS – Ann Melim has been climbing mountains since 1997, including annual hikes up Mount Washington to raise money for various charities.

This year, she decided to dream big and cross a huge item off her bucket list: She would climb Mount Kilimanjaro. She had been putting money aside for several years to make the trip to Tanzania, Africa, and finally had saved enough.

A December trip would minimize the amount of school the Hollis Brookline High School English teacher would have to miss, although it would mean spending the holidays away from her husband and young daughter. She left on Dec. 17, and after a day of travel and a day of rest, began a six-day ascent that – if all went as planned – would find her at the summit on Christmas morning.

The challenges begin upon arrival

It took more than 24 hours for her to arrive in Tanzania and upon arriving, she discovered that her luggage containing all her carefully selected hiking gear had not arrived. Because she spoke no Swahili, Melim faced an enormous language barrier in trying to communicate with the agent at the lost and found counter at the airport.

“I knew there would be numerous life lessons to be learned on my trip,” she wrote in her blog. “I didn’t know that I would learn my first lesson within 45 minutes of landing.”

She found herself in tears as she left the airport in the wee hours of the morning with two men whose only English phrase was “climb Kili” and began to have doubts about what she was about to undertake.

The men drove quite fast along this dark, desolate highway before stopping abruptly and motioning for her to get out in a small ditch. The driver pointed to a far off place: Mount Kilimanjaro.

“In a darkness I’ve seen only a handful of times in my life … I see the snow-capped peak glowing in the night and say, ‘No way,’” she wrote. “I am struck by the glow and size of the mountain, but I’m also so thankful to be alive. A survivor of a sort of ignorance. Was this an adventure born from braveness or stupidity?”

Following a day of rest in the hotel, it was time to begin. Much to her relief, her luggage arrived just in time and she would not have to rent gear at the last minute.

Porters and guides and cooks

Everyone who climbs Kilimanjaro is accompanied by local guides and porters. Melim calls the porters the unsung heroes, because they carry 70-90 pounds of gear, including tents and portable toilets, and earn about $6 a day. Melim said the porters had their own sub-culture and hung out together. The cooks were at the top of the pecking order, and her cook in particular seemed to be “the man” because others gathered at her tent to visit him.

Because she chose a budget American-based tour package, she had to share quarters with the crew.

There was one other hiker in her group, a man from New York.

“Only when we were on the mountain did I see how the other people lived,” she said. “They had their own dining room and deep fried fresh fish, and here we were eating rice for the seventh day in a row.”

Making the climb

The hike began at Machame Gate, where the porters are assigned what they will carry. Day 1’s hike consisted of 3.7 miles of climbing during a five- to seven-hour time frame, before camping at Machame Camp, with an elevation of 10,600 feet.

It typically takes six days to climb Kilimanjaro. Each day, the hikers progressively advance to higher elevations to get acclimated. Altitude sickness is common, so the group ascends to 15,000 feet but will descend to camp at 13,000 feet.

The climate at the lower elevations is like a rainforest, with temperatures in the 70s. There were monkeys there and Melim said the crows were the biggest she’s ever seen. She described the scenery at the higher elevations as being desolate and foggy, like something from a “Mad Max” movie.

She said it was warmer than she expected and she was lucky to have nice weather and no rain during her trip.

Because the weather was so favorable, Melim was able to enjoy breakfast outside her tent each morning. Breakfast consisted of hot coffee, porridge, toast and fried eggs without the yolks. Lunch usually was a sandwich of tomatoes and peppers or peanut butter and toast.

Melim said the most challenging part of the climb was the Barranco Wall on Day 4. The 2.2-mile route begins at the Barranco Camp and goes along the south circuit path through Karanga Valley to an elevation of 13,200 feet.

“It was incredibly steep, literally straight up,” she said. “I remember telling the guide I would go around, and he said, ‘No, climb up. No think.’”

She felt a climb that steep should have been done with ropes, but managed to make it without any.

Celebrating Christmas alone

Melim spent Christmas Eve alone in her tent, missing her family. She had been given a pair of gifts by a parent from school just before she left, one for her and one for her daughter. The two planned to open them at exactly the same time. Melim took one of her wool socks and hung it from a pole inside her tent and placed the small gift box inside her “Christmas stocking.” It was a bracelet inscribed “Mother” with a matching “Daughter” bracelet back home.

The entire timing of the trip was planned so that hikers would reach the summit at sunrise on Christmas morning. The final ascent from Barafu Camp generally takes about six hours, so that meant leaving camp at midnight rather than sleeping. The last leg is 13 miles and is considered one of the steepest, non-technical routes. Melim left camp at about 12:20 a.m. as one of the final groups in a long line of climbers, in the dark of night.

“It was a really cool thing to see all those headlamps just inching their way up the mountain,” she said. “This was the closest thing to a Christmas tree I would have on this trip. I knew it would be a test of endurance like a marathon and not a sprint. I kept my head down and concentrated on each step. I knew to never pick up my feet fully to make a step just graze the ground enough to move your feet forward, a lot like scuffing a floor while wearing slippers. This was a small act of trying to conserve energy.”

Mountain goat reaches

summit

The other climber in her group had to stop several times because he was suffering from nausea and altitude sickness, but Melim continued on with Nelson, her guide. By about 4 a.m., they reached a ridge, and he began to run, telling her, “You make record.” Melim kept pace and soon found herself standing at Uhuru Peak, the rooftop of Africa, holding on to a wooden sign, thinking of all the people she had lost.

“When we finally made it to the much-imagined sign, I grabbed a piece of the sign at eye level, bowed my head to below my elbows and couldn’t believe I had made it to the top of a dream that seemed so distant for so long,” she wrote. “What is it you do when you have achieved it? Once I had made it to the summit, the dream didn’t seem so big any longer.”

Nelson interrupted her thoughts to ask the time: It was 4:37 a.m. She had reached the summit in only four hours and 17 minutes, the second fastest ascent in the guiding company’s history, thus earning her the nickname “Mountain Goat.”

Robbed of a sunrise

She spent some time alone at the top to reflect on her journey and those she hoped to honor, but the weather was too cold and windy to stay long enough for what was supposed to have been the highlight of the trip: the sunrise. She was quite cold, and noticed Nelson was wearing only a hooded sweatshirt and sneakers and sunrise was still an hour and a half away.

With a combination of elation and disappointment, they began their descent. At one point, the other guides asked Nelson to take her down by an alternate route so as not to discourage the people who were still attempting to reach the summit by sunrise. She had to settle for seeing the sunrise over Mount Meru in the distance, the fifth highest peak in Africa.

Reflections on the experience

Back home, Melim had the chance to reflect on her trip and the accomplishment of a dream.

“It was great,” she said. “It was everything I had hoped for. At times, it was more challenging than I would have thought, and at other times, it felt like it was pretty easy. The biggest challenge of the trip was missing my family. I was really homesick. The biggest thing I learned is there is no place I’d rather be than here with my family.”

Through the generous support of family, friends and especially the HBHS community, Melim raised about $3,800 for her cousin Calvin to put toward building a handicapped accessible house.

More info

To see additional photos and read her blog entries, go to http://kili4calvin.wordpress.com.