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Excerpt from the Mountain

Gisèle’s oxygen level was at 65% and her pulse was racing at 155. Terrified that the guides would turn her back, Gisèle could no longer contain her streaming tears. After coming so far, the idea of descending without reaching Kilimanjaro’s summit left Gisèle feeling numb. The team had already agreed that in the event of an early evacuation, the rest would continue to the summit. Gisèle was devastated that the person being evacuated might be herself.

The Dream

In Gisèle Lalonde Mansfield’s wildest dreams, she had never imagined that she would climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak, as a 55-year old grandmother.

Gisèle’s brother, Michel, had died of AIDS in 1995 and in his memory she decided to climb Kilimanjaro to raise funds for those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Within a week of making her decision to climb, the Stephen Lewis Foundation launched its Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, with a charter to “mobilize support in Canada for Africa’s grandmothers.” The AIDS epidemic has left countless orphans in Africa and grandmothers have emerged as the unsung heroes, raising their orphaned grandchildren. Gisèle had found her cause.

The Team 

Gisèle began to broadcast news of her upcoming adventure, and before long, there were five Canadian “grannies” ready to climb Kilimanjaro. These strangers, all women of a ‘certain age,’ were to become known as the Kilimanjaro Grannies.

African Arrival

After months of fundraising, the Kilimanjaro Grannies had already raised $78,336.50 for their African counterparts, and on October 3rd, 2007 the team boarded a plane bound for Tanzania. “We had the right team, we had the right climbing company, and we had the right motivation. Everything was in place to make sure we succeeded,” Gisèle recalls.

Upon their arrival, the team met their head guide, Tanzanian-born Saimon Minja, who has been a Tusker Trail mountain guide for over 10 years. “Saimon was fabulous,” says Gisèle, “he seemed to know us better then we knew ourselves.” Keeping the unique capability of the group in mind, Saimon took pains to adjust the trek to ensure that each climber had the best chance of success.

The Trek

The danger in climbing Kilimanjaro is that it looks easy. In reality, there is absolutely no way to foresee how an individual will react to the altitude. The Kilimanjaro Grannies chose to hike the longer Lemosho route, a trail that generally allows for proper acclimatization, and has the best summit success rate.

Before they had even arrived in Africa, the women had major fears about crossing the Barranco Wall, a near vertical 650-foot rock barricade that obstructs the trail. Gisèle remembers their initial apprehension, saying, “the Barranco Wall; we all dreaded it.” Finally, the moment of truth arrived on the morning of October 10th, when the team stood in front of the unyielding obstacle and sized up their nemesis. It seemed impossible. A misting of wet snow had made the wall particularly precarious that morning. Slowly maneuvering from rock to rock, it took most of the morning for the women to carefully make their way up and over the difficult wall and continue onwards.

The Final Push

On the final day of the climb, when the team hiked from Barafu Camp (15,000 ft.) to Stella Point (18,700 ft.), the altitude began to take its toll. The team left camp at sunrise, and Saimon, who was equipped with oxygen tanks and state of the art gear (link), kept a hawk-like watch on his team.

Around 2 p.m. on summit day, after already hiking for 8 hours, the guides called a halt. It was time for a medical check. While taking Gisèle’s vitals it became clear that she was showing signs of acute mountain sickness (AMS). Hooking her up to oxygen, the guides were able to reduce her symptoms and monitor her as they watched her normalize within 15 minutes of treatment. The guides took detailed note of her condition before giving her the green light to continue the climb.

After reaching Stella Point, continuing 2 hours further to the summit seemed inconceivable for the exhausted team, but Saimon encouraged the Grannies to keep moving. Saimon knew that if they did not push forward, they might not summit. Saimon also knew that his team could make it physically, if they pushed themselves mentally and emotionally. In retrospect, Gisèle says, “I understand why Saimon pushed us, but at the time we were very angry because we felt like he was pushing us and we couldn’t continue. Little did I know, but that was our altered mental status at altitude.” Gathering their final reserves, they continued to inch up the mountain. Their tenacity paid off, and late in the day on October 12th, 2007, the five teammates hit the summit of Kilimanjaro on a glorious, sunny afternoon.

Gisèle recalls their triumphant moment –“By the time we reached Uhuru it was pure joy; euphoria washed over us. I just bathed in the moment, hoping I would remember it.” Uhuru Peak is the highest point on the African continent, and awards those who summit with breathtaking views of the lands below. As the shadows grew long, the team stood on the crown of Africa, grateful, fulfilled and depleted.

The Aftermath

Since their return, the Kilimanjaro Grannies have published a collaborative coffee-table book, Kilimanjaro: A Purposeful Journey. The book describes their journey on the mountain. With all the proceeds from the sale of the book going to the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign and the Snowy Owl AIDS Foundation, the team continues to make a positive impact for those affected by HIV and AIDS.

Ultimately the story behind the Kilimanjaro Grannies is a story of inspiration. A group of ordinary women accomplished something extraordinary through perseverance, dedication and determination.

The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign

Since the launch of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign in 2006, over 220 groups of Canadian grandmothers have taken on the challenge and the women involved with the campaign have succeeded in raising over 7 million dollars, providing much needed support for their African counterparts.

To purchase the book Kilimanjaro: A Purposeful Journey, contact Gisèle at [email protected].

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