Catherine Daw was just hours away from the most challenging stretch of her climb up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, when at 2 a.m. she was violently shaken off her sleeping mat by an earthquake. Camped at 15,500 feet above sea level, the terrified president of SPM Group Ltd., a management consultancy in Toronto, cowered in her tent listening to the crash of rocks tumbling by. Clearly, this was no leisure hike.
Shaken and weary but unharmed, Daw pressed on the next morning. For the two following days she wrestled her fear of heights, traversing sheer dropoffs and rocky shoots on her way to Kilimanjaro’s 19,340-foot summit, which she achieved on January 26, 2005. “It was amazing,” says Daw. “Very spiritual.”
Talk about adventure. Whether it’s crossing a glacier or navigating a sheer rock face, climbing offers thrills, chills and the opportunity to stretch the bounds of your mental and physical capabilities. Best of all, you don’t need years of training to participate. If you’re reasonably fit and know some basic skills, you’re ready to climb.
“No matter what your fitness level or interest is, there’s something out there for you in mountaineering,” says Dave Stark, a mountain guide and director of operations for Yamnuska Mountain Adventures in Canmore, Alta. “It can be as simple as hiking in the mountains where you have your hands in your pockets the whole time, right up to clinging to the side of a mountain face.”
In fact, there are many different types of climbing, including bouldering (lateral climbing over rocks found at the base of some mountains), rock climbing (up vertical faces), mountaineering and ice climbing; each has its own methods and equipment. Whatever type you choose, says Stark, you’ll need to be in good health and fit enough to walk uphill for five or six hours a day carrying 20 kilograms on your back. You can develop the necessary endurance, cardiovascular power and leg muscles by hiking, hitting the StairMaster or climbing hills and staircases at every opportunity.
Daw put climbing Mount Kilimanjaro on her life’s to-do list 10 years ago. But apart from hiking in the Rockies, she had no climbing experience before tackling Tanzania’s extinct volcano. So she paid about $9,000 to a guiding company that provided equipment, food and oxygen, and she selected a 10-day route, versus a four- or five-day trek, to ensure she enjoyed the trip and had a better chance of reaching the summit.
To prepare physically for her journey, Daw added weekend hikes on the ski hills at Blue Mountain resort in Collingwood, Ont., and climbed other hills and stairs whenever possible. “I wasn’t going for speed,” she says. “I was building strength.”
Despite its height and fame, Kilimanjaro is a relatively easy climb — which explains its nickname, “Every-man’s Everest.” But the rock and ice terrain of many other mountains demands technical skill and specialized equipment, ranging from ropes and anchors to strap-on spikes that provide sure footing on ice, called crampons. Most of this equipment can be rented, or it is often provided by professional guiding companies.
It’s also wise to take a few lessons to learn the terrain and its risks, which include falling, getting lost, rockfalls and predatory animals, says Stark. Yamnuska, for example, offers a one-week introductory course on mountaineering for about $1,200. You’ll also find lots of organized outings, camps and climbing-related activities through clubs such as the Alpine Club of Canada (www.alpineclubofcanada.ca).
Make no mistake: climbing can be dangerous. Even on Kilimanjaro, Daw contended with depleted oxygen and frigid temperatures. “The day we arrived in Africa, a woman died in her sleep from edema [swelling caused by excess fluid in the body],” recalls Daw, who herself suffered from the driving headaches and nausea of altitude sickness.
Eric Boyko has also been close to climbing’s perilous side. The 35-year-old president of eFundraising.com Corp., a Montreal-based provider of fundraising products and services, has navigated Kilimanjaro and Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua. While climbing Aconcagua’s 22,840-foot peak, two teammates were forced by edema to descend. Then bad weather and the news of a Brazilian couple’s deaths ended Boyko’s ascent just 800 feet from the top. “I didn’t take a chance,” he says.
Despite those challenges, in June Boyko and three entrepreneurial friends will tackle Alaska’s towering Mount McKinley (also known as Denali). A formidable “expedition” peak, Denali poses serious altitude and weather challenges, and demands excellent glacial travel skills. “It’s a very serious mountain,” says Boyko. The trip will take a month to complete. Unlike with his other two climbs, this time Boyko has purchased and will carry his own equipment up the mountain. The price tag: $25,000.
If you’re not ready to commit that much time and money, Stark says that for about $400 per day you can take a guided trip in Canada, including food, transportation and specialty equipment.
For Boyko, the lessons he’s learned have been as valuable as the memories. He enjoys climbing for the mind-clearing isolation and the challenge of working as a team. It also teaches you to focus and learn patience, says Boyko: “When I’m frustrated in business, I say, ‘It can’t be tougher than when I got stuck for two days on Aconcagua’.”