Seeing the sunrise from the top of Kilimanjaro

Category:  News
Thursday, January 31st, 2019 at 5:34 PM
Seeing the sunrise from the top of Kilimanjaro by Shayma Musa

Wind wips her hair, her lungs burn for oxygen, and her legs, arms, her entire body, ache after the grueling trek; but still Dr. Irene Fiala grins. 

She is atop the “roof of Africa” and staring down at what seems like the entire continent laid out before her. 

She has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. 

Amazing is an understatement

Fiala, a professor of sociology at Edinboro, spent about a week over winter break climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, which is in Tanzania, and at 19,341 feet is Africa’s tallest mountain. 

“To say it was ‘amazing’ would be an understatement,” said Fiala. “Going through five climate zones with seven others whom I just met and created new relationships with, sleeping on a mountain and seeing Moshi from the highest point in Africa at night, and seeing the sun rise from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro was awe-inspiring.” 

Kilimanjaro is far from Fiala’s first encounter with mountain climbing. Her first climb was Mount Fuji, which she decided to embark on spur of a moment. While on vacation in Japan one summer, she spotted a sign that read, “Climb Mt. Fuji,” while on a train. The next day — outfitted in shorts, a tank top and her ever-present Cleveland Indian’s ball cap, she showed up ready to climb. It took her seven hours to get up and then back down the mountain. She learned many important lessons from that trip — don’t try and climb a mountain in seven hours, for instance — however, she was hooked. 

In the years that followed, she trekked the Mount Everest base camp and Mount Tai in China. And this year, in May or June, she plans to trek Machu Picchu. She hopes to climb Mount Elbrus in Russia, and then Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, at some point. 

 “Like many things for me, I make spur of the moment decisions that seem to set the stage for something later down the road,” she explained. 

This philosophy has moved Fiala to do things that many can only dream of: she’s been to all the continents and visited over 60 countries. 

Impossible to prepare for

Fiala makes an important distinction very early on in our correspondence: trekking, climbing and hiking are three very different outdoor pastimes. 

“Walking is what a person does on artificial surfaces, hiking is what a person does in one day on natural surfaces, and trekking is a series of day hikes connected by camping, going from one camp site to another,” she said. 

But whether it be trekking or climbing, getting to the summit of Kilimanjaro is still a punishing endeavor. “You are hiking five to seven hours each day, with the summit day being 13-16 hours (ascent and descent), for eight days at an incline of about 20 percent while going through five different climate zones. [These zones are] largely over rocks and scree and eventually at 52 percent of oxygen being available (relative to what is at sea level),” explained Fiala. 

“You are hiking, and sometimes scrambling at ‘extreme altitude’ (over 18,000 feet); there is a section right off the Baranco Camp that is called the ‘Baranco Wall’ and it has a section that is referred to as ‘the kissing rock’ because of how close you have to hug the rock to get around the bend on the wall.” 

And it’s not just the climate that is taxing, each climber carries up to 30 pounds of food, water and other gear in their personal backpacks, 

“My personal backpack weighed between 25 and 30 pounds on any given day, with 8.8 pounds just in water,” said Fiala. 

Those conditions, according to the adventurer, are almost impossible to prepare for. In fact, one of her group members, an athlete who had participated in Ironman events, had to be escorted down the mountain in a rapid decent because he was not able to withstand the thin air near the summit of the mountain. 

While the difficulties connected to air pressure are impossible to prepare for, Fiala did say that her physical endurance was aided in part by her active lifestyle: “I go on annual research expeditions that involve back country backpacking, carrying upwards of 45-50 pounds of gear in the summer.” 

“Growing up, I was also always quite athletic and have maintained an active lifestyle my entire life. For instance, in the winters, I snowshoe and ski. In the summers, I bike, hike or trek, kayak and scuba dive,” she continued. 

Growth comes from challenge

Now, nearly two weeks after her descent down one of the world’s tallest mountains, Fiala is back in the classroom teaching — and connecting her experiences from the climb to concepts her students learn in her courses. 

 “Growth comes from challenge and one of my philosophies is that there is no growth without challenge. I want my students to feel challenged in the classroom, but I also want them to know this is a challenge that can be met with work and determination. I never doubted I would summit Mount Kilimanjaro once I got on the mountain. I think setting an example of ‘taking on challenges’ is one of the roles of faculty. You don’t have to succeed — you just need to give it a real try. You learn from failure as well as from success,” said Fiala. 

“I like to practice what I preach.” 

Shayma Musa |

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