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Climbing Kilimanjaro | Trekking above the clouds

A one-on-one with Shaun Francis

Group of climbers on Kilimanjaro

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Why is climbing Kilimanjaro so good for the soul? I thought a lot about this over the summer, which saw me accompany my son, William, and 15 others on an attempt to summit Africa’s highest mountain. It was my second time, and this one was special for a number of reasons.

First, the trip allowed me to visit Naweza, Medcan’s humanitarian initiative that focuses on improving access to health care for those in rural equatorial Africa—particularly, by supporting the four clinics in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, about a 45-minute flight northeast of Nairobi. The goal this visit focused on strengthening the clinics’ capabilities to fight non-communicable and chronic disease. We also worked on developing the clinic’s electronic medical record system. (Read more at the blog my wife, Stacy, wrote to chronicle the trip.)

Next, it was off to Kilimanjaro, which meant eight days off the grid, without any cellphone service. I’m accustomed to staying connected at all times for work, so the electronic isolation provided me with uninterrupted time to think, which I relished, and with time to connect with other members of the climbing party. Particularly special was the time with my son William, who is 17. I have three boys, and family time can sometimes be a little cacophonous, so I tend to treasure one-on-one time with any one of them.

Kili’s the rare member of the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of Earth’s continents, that doesn’t require technical climbing skills. The altitude represents the major difficulty. At 19,341 feet, the climb can leave those attempting it at risk of developing altitude sickness.

But so long as you’re fit enough, and determined, you can basically walk up Kilimanjaro’s slopes. So every expedition attracts the most diverse group of people it’s possible to find attempting to scale one of Earth’s big mountains.

The result? Every climbing party features remarkable inspiration. The legendary example of this is Rick McGraw, who partnered with Medcan to get in shape to successfully summit Kilimanjaro in 2016, raising $335,245 as he did to fund a new, highly precise surgical tool for Sick Kids hospital.

This time, each member of our group used the climb to better their lifestyles. Take Elaine Kehoe. She’s done marathons and 10ks, but trainer Rob Turner told her that mountain climbing is a lot different from running along flat ground. So she did a lot of core work, and worked with our registered dietitians to develop an eating program that set her up for success. “I discovered that I really love challenging myself,” Kehoe observed the morning she summited. “I’ll tell you, there were times that I felt very tired. But the group was spectacular.”

We had a medic from the Canadian military who was back in Africa for the first time since he served in Rwanda. “I never thought I’d come back,” he said, and yet, the experience turned out to represent a catharsis for him—a way to deal with the traumatic memories from that period in his life.

Or take Jon Taylor, a senior partner at Govan Brown, a national interiors construction manager. Taylor had knee-replacement surgery two years back, and he used the challenge of Kilimanjaro to see if his new knee could manage the climb. “I wanted to test myself,” Taylor said. “That’s the simple answer.”

And test himself he did. Kilimanjaro is six days of trudging uphill, over loose rock and gravel, along paths that wind past steep cliffs, on glaciers, sometimes through thick fog. You’re sleeping in freezing conditions. A summit bid isn’t just a physical challenge—it’s mental as well.

But what helps you through it is the camaraderie of the climbing party. It’s inspiring to see people from all walks of life gritting their teeth, putting one foot in front of the other, to get that much closer to achieving the goal of the summit.

Taylor, for example, had been compromised for years in terms of the things his bum knee allowed him to do. After the surgery, he worked with Medcan trainer Matt Daher and Director of Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Dr. Andrew Miners. They did a lot of balance work, a lot of posture and a lot of strength training. “I haven’t been this fit since high school,” Taylor said as he walked up the mountain. “I feel better than I’ve felt in 20 years.”

Thanks to our training, our eating, our groupwide focus on improving our lives, every one of the 17 people in our climbing party summited Kilimanjaro, and when we did there were hugs and claps on the back, as well as some tears.

“It’s not the end of the journey,” Taylor said of the summit. “This is my first adventure among many.”

Taylor wants to do something like Kilimanjaro again, although next time he hopes to bring his daughter along. Having the experience of summiting Africa’s highest mountain with my son alongside me, that’s something I’d wholeheartedly recommend. At Medcan, we’re currently planning several new expeditions for 2019, so that many other clients can use adventure travel as an excuse to focus on wellness, to spur lifestyle change. Here’s hoping one of them is you.

Shaun is the author of Eat Move Think: The Path to a Healthier, Stronger, Happier You, which is available from Indigo, Amazon and better bookstores everywhere.

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