My recent trek up Kilimanjaro came to an end halfway up the Marangu route due to a reaction to malaria and altitude medication. Waiting for my Friends of Access (FAISR) Israel Kilimanjaro 2020 family to summit and return five days later was one of the most humbling and thought-provoking times of my life.
Soon after FAISR was established, the goal was to aggressively raise global awareness on the vital need of accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities. We wanted to do something that we felt would make it clear that a group of people with different abilities could conquer mountains together. That is what we literally did. For several months, we researched the most accessible routes, kosher food availability, tefilla options and the weather in and around the Mount Kilimanjaro region. Based on the information collected, we then proceeded to use social media and circle of friends to recruit people who wanted to participate while bringing awareness and doing some fundraising for the organization. After approximately 50+ interviews, 25 people joined our FAISR Kilimanjaro 2020 family, including 4 with paraplegia, 2 with 2 with leg injuries and several with PTSD. The 26th was a man from Tanzania, who was struck with an illness in his teens and became paralyzed. He lived at the base of Kilimanjaro with a constant dream of making it to the top.
The team was in place. We had a firm belief that all people, regardless of ability, have similar dreams, desires, hopes, and aspirations, including completing ‘bucket list items.’ We at Friends of Access Israel were confident that the group of individuals with different abilities would be able to use our collective physical strengths, mental toughness, and diverse skills, to make each inch of Kilimanjaro accessible together.
Never did we think that we would have a group of 27 caring individuals from all over the world, with a bucket list item of climbing to the ‘Roof of Africa’… a group who were each able to give physically and mentally of strength and inspiration to help others so the team could reach its goals of 19,341 feet.
From the balcony of ‘The Summit Bar’ at our hotel some 20 kilometers away from the majestic beauty and expansive view of Mountain Kilimanjaro, I felt confidant that because we had trained, we were hydrated and we were taking our altitude and malaria medications, that we were going to rock this trek. Then, reality strikes when you arrive at the entrance gate. The route is steep, difficult, rocky, and well, ‘not a walk in the park.’ It forces the individual to take a deep breath and extract the reserves of physical and mental strength from within and then some. While I had to stay behind because of sickness, I would look up at the mountain each day and night and think about each of the climbers as individuals and as a family. It was the highlight of my day to hear the updates from the radio chatter at the tour operator’s office and learn that all were advancing.
I was super focused on my 26 brothers and sisters on the mountain with different abilities. An immediate lesson, was that those with mental and/or physical disabilities scale countless mountains a day, often hidden from view, rarely having a moment to ‘escape’ their disability. While it is extremely difficult for them to ignore the hurt, they dig deep, very deep, within themselves to outwardly show their forward-thinking and uplifting persona.
This ‘bucket list’ experience has enhanced my efforts to appreciate the small parts of my God-given life. I will remain in constant awe of those who pick up their heads and moved forward with a focus view on what is ahead, often with a shinier smile despite the stumbling blocks in front of them.
The knowledge that I gained from my FAISR Kilimanjaro 2020 family and the lessons learned for my own medical mishap has made me more resilient, a bit wiser…and possibly more meshuggah.
Who knows–maybe one day, I will try again and learn from that experience, too.
James A. Lassner is the Executive Director of Friends of Access Israel.