Updated: Dec 16, 2022
Three friends stood at the bottom of Mt. Kilimanjaro one September morning, staring up at their 19,341-foot goal. A long, six-day journey stood before them, but they were ready.
“We had a pact,” Mary Reinhard said definitively. “We were making it to the top.”
About 30,000 people try summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro annually with a 65% success rate. It’s the tallest peak in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Climbing it can only be attempted with a guide service.
Some don’t make it to the top because of altitude sickness. For others, it’s brain edema or heart attack. Sometimes the weather can derail a trip, and so can hypothermia and rock falls. Being in your mid-60s certainly doesn’t improve your chances either.
But when Jo Murphy, 68, of Lexington saw a program on TV about Mt. Kilimanjaro, she said it was just the challenge she was looking for.
“I thought I would do it to honor my daughter who had Wegener’s Granulomatosis,” Murphy said.
Reinhard, 63, lives in Lexington near Murphy and said the two would often cross paths while on walks in town. When Reinhard and her boyfriend Joe Ryan, 64, were making plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro this summer, she said she heard about Murphy’s desire to attempt the feat.
“When I heard Jo Murphy wanted to climb Kilimanjaro, we both said we need to bring her, or talk to her at least and see if she wants to do it with us,” Reinhard said.
Murphy agreed to go less than two months before takeoff. While Ryan spent his time training in a gym, Murphy and Reinhard started walking together–boots, backpacks, and all.
“She and I were the crazy ladies going around town, up and down hills,” Reinhard said. “We used our beach to our benefit. If you go up and down the hills beginning at Lake Street and heading north and coming back south, and you do it several times, you can get a pretty good workout in.”
“Jo was the perfect partner on this trip,” Ryan said. “We were doing it for the challenge and the experience, but Jo was doing it for that, plus.”
Murphy’s daughter, Amy Lawrence, lost her battle with Wegener’s Granulomatosis in February. She was 38 years old. Murphy said the Vasculitis Foundation was a great resource for their family as they navigated treatments, and so she wanted to make the climb to honor her daughter and raise $19,341 for the foundation.
“I wanted to raise a dollar for every foot. I ended up raising more than $22,000 for the Vasculitis Foundation, which I’m so, so happy and thankful for. That was really great,” Murphy said. “I know Amy’s smiling.”
With money raised, bags packed, and training complete, the three arrived in Tanzania, ready to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. They would pass through five different climate zones, starting in the rainforest and ending in the arctic.
“The first day you’re thinking, ‘That was was walk in the park.’ It literally looked like a park,” Reinhard said. “It’s beautiful and you’re in the rainforest, but you’ve gained 4,000 feet of elevation in one day.”
Their trip, however, almost ended in the rainforest.
“There was torrential rain. Some of the guys said it was the biggest rain they’d had in months,” Murphy said. “Everybody at camp was wet.”
Fortunately, Reinhard, a self-proclaimed germaphobe, put all of her gear in a black garbage bag, and so did the others.
“We were the ones who ended up with dry clothing or it would’ve ended our trip because [the duffles] weren’t waterproof,” Reinhard said. “They were waterproof for a sprinkle which would’ve been what was going through that time of year, like a 20-minute sprinkle, but not for a 5-hour downpour.”
That night as temperatures dropped to 40 degrees, the group talked about how fortunate they were to have supplies dry enough to carry on up the mountain. Each day they were led by their two guides, James and Emon, while several porters would race ahead to set up their nightly camps and prepare dinner.
“We had day packs, but the porters carried our duffel bags. They worked so hard. They carry it on their heads and these large baskets of food that they get the day of the climb,” Murphy said. “They go to the market and get all these fresh vegetables and a big ole hunk of meat and eggs…They were all really, really wonderful.”
Porridge was a staple, and so was soup.
“They told us, ‘We will give you the necessary things...vegetables, carbs, protein…You just need to make sure you eat,'” Ryan said. “Soup was a biggy, and the soups were wonderful. I thought that was the best food ever.”
On the fourth night, they had finally made it to base camp at about 15,000 feet. They settled into their tents tucked away in the rocky terrain as 40 MPH gusts of winds blew and temperatures dropped well-below zero.
“The wind was blowing so hard and it was so cold that the tent was shaking,” Ryan said. “I thought it was going to go off the ledge.”
“Later we asked our guide and he said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve lost some pop tents, but none with people in them,’” Reinhard said.
That fifth day as they began their summit to 19,341 feet, they passed several people who had to be taken off the mountain. Altitude sickness was kicking in.
“When you read accounts, everybody describes [the ascent] as, 'You can hear the retching,' because people start to get altitude sickness,” Reinhard said.
“They were bringing kids who were 30 years old back down who were sick,” Ryan said. “Our guide said, ‘Don’t look at those people.’”
“The one girl’s eyes were rolling back in her head, she couldn’t have been more than 30,” Murphy added.
Whether it was their preparation, competitive spirits, or outright determination, they didn’t let that discourage them. They finally reached Uhuru Peak.
Standing well-above the clouds on a beautiful day, surrounded by a sunny blue sky, they looked out and could see three countries: Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. They could also see the rims of nearby volcanoes.
“You can take all the pictures in the world, it just isn’t going to cut it,” Murphy said. “You have to be there to experience being on the mountain and the sky and everything all together.”
For Murphy and Reinhard, however, the experience was more than just seeing beautiful landscapes and achieving big goals. It was emotional, meaningful, and in some ways, healing.
“When I got to the top, I took a picture of my daughter and I left it there. And Mary has also lost a son, and she had a memorial handkerchief that she left,” Murphy said. “We said, 'We’re closer to them in Heaven now, and until we get there, we’re pretty darn close.' We got as close as we could get.”
They said it was like a ceremony, one they were grateful to have, but they soon had to return to base camp. The guides had come looking for them, worried because they had taken so long. They had to get back before dark.
“Once we got to the top, we thought it was fantastic, it was beautiful,” Ryan said. “Little did we realize what the descent was going to be like. The skree was about six inches deep and every step you took was like being on ice skates. If underneath that skree a rock is hidden and your boot hits it, you’re going over.”
They said that was the most exhausting part because they were tense the entire time, trying not to fall–although they each took a tumble at some point. Fortunately, they all returned to base camp uninjured.
“Time was flying by because you were so focused on that next step,” Ryan said. “Toward the end you kind of mentally check out. Your body just takes over and you keep walking.”
After their fifth and final night on the mountain, they woke with the sunrise to begin the 15,000-foot descent.
“We did 17 miles by 3 o’clock,” Reinhard said. “They needed to get us off the mountain. They were like, ‘Chop chop, let’s go.’”
“We had to be off the mountain by 4, otherwise we were violating a permit,” Murphy said. “They could've just said, ‘We’ve got some old dudes with us, we had to break some rules here.’”
“We were competitive. We were kind of like the older ones on the mountain. There was no one else our age,” Reinhard said. “I think when our guides got stuck with us, they probably said, ‘Oh great, we’ve got the old people,’ but they were so proud of us.”
After they returned to sea level and were awarded their certificates, they went out to dinner that night with their guides-turned-family to celebrate, however exhausted they may have been, before they journeyed home.
And while none of them said they would do it again, they did say they enjoyed the trip and were grateful for the experience.
“It took a lot out of me. When I got home it took me like three weeks to really get myself back. I lost a lot of weight and I couldn’t eat. It was a lot,” Murphy said. “I’m just so proud of all of us for getting there.
“I've got my certificate framed and my granddaughter made me a painting of the mountain and she put all my family in there with cut-out pictures, and I’ve got that framed too. Some day when they’re older they’re going to be like, ‘Oh grandma, that old woman got up there at 68 years old, I can do anything.’ For them, that’s why I’m happy.”
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