September 25, 2008

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Catherine Hanlon ’79 reaches summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in celebration of her 50th birthday

At 8 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 25, Catherine Hanlon ’79 was enjoying the sunrise. Six months to the day from when she had celebrated her 50th birthday, Hanlon was taking in that sunrise through three layers of clothing at 19,400 feet atop Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“I’ve dreamed of doing this for the last ten years,” says Hanlon, an emergency physician at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, N.J. “What better time to do it than when you turn 50? You actually begin the summit climb at night and hike from midnight to 6 a.m. They do that so you can summit and get back down to base camp in the same day. It was spectacular to see that sunrise; it’s something I’ll never forget. You’re tired, cold, and all you can focus on is putting one foot in front of the other, and then you see this thin strip of red on the horizon and you realize, ‘I made it.’”

Hanlon points out that Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in the world where a person can “walk” to the summit. Known as high-altitude trekking, the climb took seven days to complete with Hanlon and her team hiking six to eight hours a day over boulders and debris with the final ascent up a 45-degree slope. The northern side in Kenya is closed because the country is politically unstable, so her team entered on the southern side in Tanzania.

After doing meticulous research on the web, Hanlon decided on a local company with over 30 years’ experience, including guides who had successfully reached the summit of Mt. Everest. She also liked its reputation for treating its Tanzanian guides well, noting that some companies exploit local guides. After flying in, her team members – all hailing from the Jersey Shore at sea level – began the acclimatization process at an old African coffee plantation converted into a lodge. After spending two nights there at 5,000 feet, they began the ascent slowly in the low foothills and slept at altitude each night. Using the entire seven days was a key to success.

“Some 30,000 people a year attempt Kilimanjaro,” she says. “More people climbing Kilimanjaro have altitude sickness than on Everest because the ascent [up Everest] is so slow, you have to acclimate. Kilimanjaro is much faster, so more people succumb to altitude sickness. It was definitely cold – it was four degrees below zero at the summit the day we made it.”

When word got around at the hospital that Hanlon was going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, friends and coworkers expressed interest in joining her. Some companies have a policy of taking groups of six, so with five doctors and one EMT, they could do their own climb.

“You could tell people had been there by the debris, which was disappointing,” she says. “The scenery in terms of the mountain and the surroundings is breathtaking. We timed it so we could summit with a full moon so there was a fair amount of light at night. There was nothing so physically demanding that we couldn’t surmount it. It was more of an endurance episode. As long as you could keep going, you’d make it. The altitude was difficult so you had to get acclimated and you can’t really train for that. Five [of my group] had minimal or no problems and were able to reach summit.”

Another important aspect the company provided was fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the climb and a careful water purification process. The climbers got water from the runoff streams as they ascended. Each person drank three to four liters of water and got another liter from food per day.

“Kilimanjaro is covered with glaciers, which are melting not so much due to global warming but due to volcanic activity,” says Hanlon. “It has numerous creeks and streams where we got the water from. Staying hydrated was important.”

A climber can do high-altitude trekking in certain parts of the Himalayas and Rocky Mountains. Hanlon would like to attempt a climb in the Rockies, but she has a host of other places she wants to visit as well.

After attending medical school on an Air Force scholarship, she served several years as an aerospace specialist, studying altitude physiology, flying aircraft, and coordinating helicopter search-and-rescue missions. She says she’s been fortunate to have been able to combine work with travel throughout her career. As a child, she read adventure stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, and Mark Twain, which inspired her love of travel. She also has been diving for over 25 years.

“I remember as a kid, I read so much about faraway, exotic places and I always wanted to see them,” she says. “Whether it’s skiing in the Rockies or the Swiss Alps or diving in Indonesia and the Red Sea or being able to stand on the acropolis in Greece or look at the Pyramids in Egypt, it’s all overwhelming in its own way. I don’t want to lose the appreciation for any of it. The hard part is the places I loved and want to go back to versus the allure of the places I haven’t been yet. I want to stand on the Great Wall of China and see where the Mongols invaded, I want to go salmon fishing in Alaska, I’ve been dreaming of going to Israel and exploring the ruins of Petra, and I want to go back to Africa and do the safari which I haven’t done.

“I wanted a challenge at 50 and to stay active. Hopefully, God willing, I’ll get a few more years to see some more places.”

Hanlon has served as a guest speaker on campus for Lafayette Leadership Institute, the psychology department, and Women in Leadership at Lafayette (now Council of Lafayette Women). Captain of the women’s lacrosse team, she earned varsity letters in lacrosse and basketball as an undergraduate.

“The great thing was that Lafayette gave you the opportunity to get involved in different things so you could see where it would take you,” says the biology graduate. “There was never a sense of ‘you can’t do it.’ My time there challenged me, and I felt confident in myself as an athlete and a student, which allowed me to stand up for myself in other situations later in life. If I wasn’t so aggressive on the lacrosse field or allowed the freedom in the classroom, I wouldn’t have had the confidence I needed in the emergency room. It gave me the backbone to live the life I have chosen.”

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