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In 2017, what ‘mountain’ will you climb?

Sisters (from left) Mabel Nash, Lisa McGrath, Laurie McGrath and Jacinta McGrath hold the provincial flag at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Sisters (from left) Mabel Nash, Lisa McGrath, Laurie McGrath and Jacinta McGrath hold the provincial flag at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

The new year has a tendency to prompt new goals, travel plans — promises to yourself to do something that will make the coming year particularly memorable.

And if you’re one of those people with an idea and you’re spending your evenings scrolling through websites and weighing your options, Laurie McGrath has some advice: “Stop second-guessing. Stop doing too much planning. Should we go? Should we do this? Should we do that? … Just go!”

In July, McGrath and three of her sisters were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, having decided to make the trip only a few months earlier. They watched the sunrise from about 5,900 metres above sea level.

Laurie McGrath, 42, Mabel Nash, 44, Jacinta McGrath, 38, and Lisa McGrath, 36, held up a Newfoundland and Labrador flag and smiled for photos.

“It was breathtaking. And to do that with my three sisters was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,” Laurie told The Telegram.

Three of the sisters are teachers and the fourth, Lisa, is an orthodontist. They were not experienced climbers, though they had done some backpacking in Costa Rica a couple of years’ previously, for Laurie’s birthday.

“Last February or March we had gone skiing for the day over at Pippy Park, and we were back at my younger sister (Lisa)’s house, and she looked around and she said, ‘All right by’s. Where are we going the summer?’ That’s really how it began,” Laurie said.

“We tossed around a few ideas — Norway, Ireland, a couple of places like that. And then my youngest sister said, ‘Why don’t we do Kilimanjaro?’”

An older brother and sister opted not to make the trip and, at first, it looked like the travelling group might end up even smaller than it was, there were so many unknowns.

Jacinta McGrath is a physical education teacher and had some relevant experience in her back pocket. A former student of educator, author and adventurer TA Loeffler, she went with Loeffler to the Everest base camp in 2010.

So the family turned to Loeffler as a resource.

“I hadn’t met (Jacinta’s) sisters until we got together at Coffee Matters,” Loeffler said this week.

“She had one who was already way on board with Kili and two that were pretty filled with trepidation. They wouldn’t believe Jacinta, so they wanted to hear it from me that they could do it.”

Loeffler tried to make clear the challenge of the climb, answered questions and offered tips on next steps and preparation.

“I just tried to go into the meeting very even and just give them all the facts so they could decide, because I’m a big proponent (of) challenge by choice,” she said.

Loeffler said she gets two to four groups a year coming to her for similar guidance, in addition to email inquiries and questions from friends and acquaintances.

For Laurie McGrath, the coffee talk was ultimately inspiration, as much as a means of getting information.

“She gave us some things to think about. You know, things we should start doing: training, hiking and getting the equipment we need and those sorts of things. We booked a company down in Tanzania, the same one TA recommended to us, who were going to be our guides. And we spent all winter hiking — three or four days a week,” she said.

The group racked up miles and miles on the East Coast Trail.

“We never told our mother about it until June. We knew the prayers and the rosaries would start way too early, so we never told her about any of it,” she said, with a laugh.

“In June we told Mudder. ‘Mudder, we’re going in July.’ And her response was, ‘What do you need to be at that for? Why can’t you go to Florida like everyone else?’”

But the sisters were looking for something different. And Florida wasn’t the goal they’d set.

They flew from St. John’s to Toronto, from Toronto to Ethiopia, and from Ethiopia to Arusha, Tanzania. There they jumped on a short safari and, after a solid sleep, headed with their guides to the mountain.

They chose the Machame route to the top, which is said to be the most scenic.

They moved from hot and sticky weather on the first day to mixed temperatures, with a slight chill on the second day. By the fourth day, the altitude had them in temperatures dipping below -20 C.

The entire group started to feel the altitude, with headaches and lightheadedness at times, especially after any quick movements. They started to lose their appetites, wanting to eat less even as their bodies needed more energy.

They scaled a steep wall of rock on that day and Laurie vividly remembers her body shaking at times, her muscles strained.

“That was the hardest part of the climb, physically. Most days we’d climb between six and 10 hours, so it was a lot of hiking,” she said.

The fifth day was the summit day. They hiked until about 2 p.m. and were then told to rest.

“At 11 o’clock at night, we were in our tents. Very windy on the side of the mountain. Freezing cold. And our tents used to come down on top of us with the wind. And we had hot water bottles on our bodies to keep us warm,” she said.

“The porters and the guides came over and said, ‘You’ve got to get up, we’ve got to start.’ So it’s pitch black and the only thing you can see are the headlamps of all the climbers.”

They started to climb again at about midnight, reaching the top before sunrise.

“It was all worth it,” she said of the experience, including the two-day descent. “When you’re in a tent with someone for seven days, you see the best and worst of each other. But it brings you closer. It was the trip of a lifetime. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.”

McGrath and Loeffler — with the latter planning skiing and hiking adventures in Mongolia, Sweden and Iceland this year — both said not everyone will want to jet off to Kilimanjaro, but they probably have a personal “Kilimanjaro” or “Everest” for 2017.

Maybe it has nothing to do with reaching the peak of a mountain, or landing in an exotic destination. It might be related to the arts, maybe a promise you’ll finally write that book, or audition for a play. It could be a plan to get in touch with friends or family after years apart, finish a home reno, volunteer more or get your personal finances in order.

Whatever your desire, they said, start now. Because there’s no time like the present.

 

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

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