by Ashley Cogswell: “My idea of an adventurous vacation meant a beach, good wine, and luxury shopping…”
I was never an outdoorsy person, and my idea of an adventurous vacation meant a beach, good wine, and luxury shopping. But for one week last May, I strapped on a heavy backpack and endured blinding snow and rugged terrain while trekking to the top of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. And I couldn’t have felt any happier, stronger, and more inspired.
My journey began in October 2015, when a colleague told me about a trip he’d taken to Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, Africa. His trip was sponsored by a nonprofit group called Radiating Hope, which raised funds to donate cancer-fighting equipment to hospitals in developing countries. As the software sales director for Elekta, a company in suburban Boston that manufactures radiation machines, this cause really resonated with me.
Surprisingly, the idea of going to Mount Kilimanjaro also struck a deep chord in me as well—even though I’d never camped or hiked before, and my most grueling physical activity was spin class at my gym. Hiking up a mountain was totally out of the realm of who I thought I was. But as my colleague spoke about how incredible his trip was, it hit me: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro while raising money to tackle cancer was something I wanted to do, too.
I was so excited about the trip, it took me until the following January to realize that I had to start preparing for the physical challenge. The first thing I did was ramp up my spin workouts and actually commit to doing them at least three times a week. I also started going on two-hour walks with my baby niece on my back, like a backpack.
I felt myself getting stronger, but I knew I needed to train harder. Mount Kilimanjaro isn’t a technical climb, meaning I wouldn’t be tied in to a harness or ropes. It’s more of a grueling uphill hike in rough conditions. So even though I’d never finished a 5K before, I ran three to four miles a couple of times a week. And I also started doing body resistance exercises recommended by Radiating Hope to build arm and leg strength. At first, I could barely do one set of each move! Three months later, I was doing three sets. Not only did I get in shape, but I went down two sizes from a 12 to an eight. By the time the trip arrived, I felt ready to take on Kilimanjaro.
There were 24 climbers in our group—19 guys and six women. We flew into the airport in the town at the base of Kilimanjaro and began the trek two days later. I remember riding in the bus, heading to start day one on the mountain, when I saw it for the first time in the distance. I couldn’t believe how huge it was! And my next thought was, what had I gotten myself into?
The first days were probably the easiest. I was mentally psyched up and part of a very supportive group ranging in age from 14 to 68. Accompanying us on the trek were local guides, and they helped carry our tents and other gear. On that first day, the climate of the mountain was warm and damp, like a rainforest. But the higher you go, the colder it gets, and the landscape changes significantly. On day two we were already above the clouds, with temperatures plunging to below freezing. I started out in shorts. Soon I was bundled up in my parka, mittens, and winter hat.
Three days in, the trek became more grueling. Almost all of us suffered from altitude sickness, which causes nausea and headaches and makes breathing difficult because of the lack of oxygen. I had injured my foot on the first day, and that combined with the altitude sickness made keeping up rough for me. I wanted to chat with the other members of the group while we climbed. But I really had to focus on endurance rather than conversation. When we’d finally stop, eat dinner, and then get in our tents for the night, I’d be so exhausted, I’d wish that I were in my own bed with Netflix.
On day six, with the summit in sight, we all woke up at midnight and began the last leg of the ascent, climbing eight hours until we reached the top at sunrise. One of the guides tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Sister, you made it.” The view from the summit was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The clouds were below us, so it was hard to tell where the snow ended and the sky began. It was magical. I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I began to cry.
We weren’t done with Kilimanjaro yet—we now began our descent back to base. But going down was different because I felt so inspired. Not only had I pushed the limits of what I could do, but our group collectively raised $100,000 by asking friends and family members for donations or using crowdsourcing sites such as GoFundMe. That money allowed Radiating Hope to buy two radiation machines for a hospital in Tanzania, a country that had previously had none.
Pushing my boundaries and helping to raise money toward fighting cancer and made me feel so gratified that I’m doing it again. In April, I’ll be on another trip sponsored by Radiating Hope—this time to Mount Everest, in Nepal. We’ll be raising funds for a cancer hospital in Katmandu and doing a two-week trek around the base camp. (Six members of our group will attempt to climb the summit.)
When my colleague described his climb to me, I was struck by this feeling that I had to do it, too, and I’m glad I didn’t talk myself out of it or listen to anyone tell me how hard it would be. I wasn’t an athlete and I had no hiking experience, but I wanted to do it and I made it happen. I think we set limits for ourselves, and taking chances and risks is more mental than physical. If you put the work in and do it for a cause you believe in, you can accomplish anything.