Taking the high road
Lori Melchi’s summer adventure involved an athletic endeavor like no other she’d ever attempted.
The 53-year-old Savoy woman -- who’d never been on a mountain before -- began training last fall to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. She planned to climb Africa’s tallest peak, at 19,340 feet, to raise money for the American Cancer Society after losing six friends to cancer in two years.
Lynn Wachtel of Champaign joined her, to mark her 60th birthday this year and her 14th year as a breast cancer survivor.
The two began their seven-day round-trip climb July 14 just outside Mount Kilimanjaro National Park. The first day was a warm, humid hike through rainforest. As they climbed, the hikers passed through alpine desert, then a “moonscape” of volcanic ash and rock.
Wachtel said Kilimanjaro is the only one of the seven highest peaks on each continent that can be climbed in a nontechnical manner, without ropes, ice axes or crampons -- “everyman’s Everest.”
But you can’t climb it alone. Wachtel and Melchi’s group of 14 climbers was supported by 72 people, including their guides, porters who carried most of their gear and set up the tents, and cooks.
When the climbers came into camp each day, the porters greeted them with songs of their native tribes. For Wachtel, it was the most unexpected and delightful part of the trip.
To prepare for the climb, Melchi worked out with a trainer at iPower, took up running, and trained at Memorial Stadium, hiking up and down the ramps.
Wachtel has experience trekking in the mountains, including climbing Mt. Ranier. Her training included walking for several hours on a treadmill set at a 12 to 15 percent grade, with her backpack and boots, hiking in the mountains during a June trip to Colorado, and long bicycle rides on the roads.
On the third day of hiking, one of the group’s longest days, Melchi hit the wall after falling down several times in a row. A guide sat her down and gave her food and water, and she recovered and continued hiking.
“I’ve never been that physically active before to expect I would run out of calories and not be able to walk,” she said. “I’ve never pushed myself to that point before.
“It was so much more difficult than I was even able to guess. But it was incredible too,” Melchi said.
The climbers reached the summit of Kilimanjaro on the sixth day, leaving their camp at midnight to begin climing with head lamps. They started together, then split into groups according to their hiking pace.
Melchi said her pace was very slow on summit day. She and her fellow climbers stopped frequently to do “power breathing.”
“You just really suck (air) in and push it out, so it forces oxygen to your brain,” she said.
She was surprised to find the summit was busy. There were about 30 people there when she arrived with her close friend Nancy Fahnestock, who also climbed with Melchi and Wachtel. They had just a few minutes for photos in front of the sign at the top, and about a half-hour total to look around.
Melchi unfurled a banner at the summit with the names of cancer victims and survivors. Wachtel climbed with two bandannas. One was embroidered with the names of friends she’s lost to cancer, the other with the names of cancer survivors.
Wachtel said the sight from a mountain summit is always beautiful and awe-inspiring. This one, though, didn’t offer the serenity she’s found on others because of the crowd on top. But she loved the experience.
“It was very much what I expected. I was thrilled I was able to acclimate so well,” Wachtel said. “I loved it, and I would do it again tomorrow.”
“It was actually gorgeous,” Melchi said. “We walked across a glacier part of the way. It was really neat, this blue-white. I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life. You look the other way and there’s an expanse of clouds and land. It’s like being in an airplane.”
It was the trip of a lifetime for her, one that won’t be repeated.
“There were times I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this was so hard.’ But in the back of my mind was, all my friends went through chemotherapy and it was so much harder than this. That kept my feet going,” Melchi said.
“If I’d known how difficult it would be, if I’d really known that and been able to wrap my brain around it, I still would have done the climb for my friends. But I’ll never do it again,” she said. “It was the most this woman could do.
“There will be other adventures, but nothing of this magnitude.”
How to donate:
The fundraising goal for Lori Melchi and Lynn Wachtel’s climb up Mount Kilimanjaro was $100,000. They’ve raised more than $30,000 for the American Cancer Society, and are accepting donations through Aug. 31.
To donate, go to the Relay for Life’s Champaign County homepage and click on “Mountain Climber” under the link for Top Teams on the right side of the page.
Photos below: Lori Melchi and Nancy Fahnestock on Mount Kilimanjaro, with the summit in the background to their left; Lynn Wachtel on the third day of the climb toward the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.