2017-06-01 / ReBooted

Mountain Girl

Jill Gleeson

“Anytime you climb a mountain you must be prepared to die.” I was in the passenger seat of an SUV, barreling down a highway in Ecuador, when my guide, Pablo, announced this from his position behind the wheel. Pablo, as he was explaining, was a former amateur mountaineer who used to scale peaks in the Andes. When he made this rather grim pronouncement I told him I planned to climb Kilimanjaro this summer.

He responded by informing me that he loved climbing until he started to feel ill one day when he was very high up. So ill he had to be carried down the mountain and taken immediately to a hospital, where doctors discovered his liver was failing due to some kind of extreme altitude sickness. He was in the hospital for weeks. He almost died.

When I told him that Kilimanjaro wasn’t that intense — that 25,000 to 30,000 people climb it every year (even if only 66 percent make it to the top) — he just repeated, “Anytime you climb a mountain you must be prepared to die.”

I won’t deny that this conversation might have temporarily dampened my enthusiasm for the Kilimanjaro venture. But I don’t concede defeat easily, especially when I’ve staked my reputation on something. Last year I pledged that in 2017, somewhere around the time of my birthday on July 23, I would be climbing Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain on the African continent.

So, even if the shine on the idea had dimmed with Pablo’s declaration, there was no way I was backing down. By the beginning of April I’d found a guide company, Explore!, that I trust to get me up the mountain. Come July 27, I’ll be putting my boots on Kilimanjaro, and I won’t be coming down until I’ve climbed all 19,341 feet of it.

It actually makes me a little queasy to think about what’s ahead... Summit day, for example, begins at midnight and continues for 14 hours. That’s 14 hours in the freezing cold, at an altitude higher than some planes fly, with an ascent of 4,084 total feet. Actually, if I think about those particular stats for too long I start to whimper.

As stubborn as I am, that whimpering might turn to quitting if it weren’t for my trainer, Steve Jury, at Victory Sports & Fitness. The truth is that when I booked my climb with Explore! in late April, I hadn’t trained since January. Before I made the decision I asked Steve if he could get me in shape to summit Kilimanjaro in three months. He replied simply, “If you TOTALLY commit to it.”

Steve, who summitted Kili himself a year ago, is a man of few words, though he smiles rather wickedly when I ask him how difficult Kilimanjaro will be. I call him Mr. Miyagi.

I go into Victory every day now. I work out for an hour, lifting hand weights and a kettlebell, doing pull-ups and lunges. I use what looks like a giant rubber band, one end anchored to something sturdy, the other around my thigh, to stretch my hips. I’ve started doing planks, too — holding my body in a push-up position to work my inner core. It hurts. A lot.

And when I’m done I get on the elliptical, set it for interval training and sweat and pant for 40 minutes. When I make it to the top of Kilimanjaro, Steve and the team at Victory will be a huge reason why. I never feel intimidated going into that facility — just welcomed. I’m actually enjoying what I once would have considered torture.

I’m climbing local mountains, too, trekking my beloved Pennsylvania Appalachians. I’ve been hitting up Musser Gap Trail, and its beauty and solitude never fail to soothe me. These mountains — my mountains — will also be responsible for getting me up Kili. They are gentle where Kilimanjaro is brutal, lush and green where it is hard ice and bare scree. Before I begin hiking I’ve taken to doing what Pablo told me I must do before I climb Kilimanjaro: I ask the mountain for permission to ascend it. It sounds strange, but there is peacefulness to the moment. And I need all the help I can get. •SCM

For more information about Victory Sports & Fitness, visit

Jill Gleeson is getting set for the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at and via her column at

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