Science teacher hikes Mount Kilimanjaro

By Kim Walter

STEPHENS CITY — Hiking to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro was never on Tom Carney’s “bucket list,” but now at age 53, he can add it to his list of accomplishments.

Carney, an earth science teacher at Sherando High School, has been hiking locally and in other locations across the country for less than 10 years. He enjoyed day trips, as well as a few over-nighters, mostly solo. He had never hiked outside of the country, though, and certainly not in Tanzania.

“I like to get out, and I like to see new things,” he said Monday in his classroom. “But it’s not like I grew up dreaming of climbing this mountain … I think the timing just finally worked out.”

Carney’s youngest son just graduated from the high school in June, and his eldest has been attending Shenandoah University for a few years. Carney considered waiting until next year to attempt the hike, but thanks to his wife, he decided to “just go for it.”

He had already made it clear in his mind that he was going, so the waiting wasn’t really necessary, he said. Carney, also an adjunct faculty member at Lord Fairfax Community College, was able to find a few weeks in his summer schedule to block out and dedicate to the trip.

To make the trip a reality, there “wasn’t much to it,” according to Carney. He was able to get plenty of information about travel arrangements, training and medical requirements from the Alaskan Mountain Guides, the company he went through to secure his trip.

Carney did as much training as he could in the seven months leading up to the trip. He continued hiking in his spare time, and did workouts with necessary gear and equipment on to get used to the added weight.

He even got a chance to try out some of his new hiking layers during baseball season.

Carney had to fill out an eight-page medical report to prove that he was a proper candidate for the excursion. Because of his chronic asthma, lung scans and a few extra trips to the doctor were necessary. However, his health checked out.

Mental preparation was an important piece as well, Carney noted.

“I hiked a little longer than I would’ve liked,” he admitted. “But I had to push myself, because I wasn’t really sure what to expect from something like this.”

The summit that Carney hiked to, Kibo, is the highest of the three volcanic cones on Mount Kilimanjaro, standing 19,341 feet above sea level.

The entire trip took 11 days, eight of them spent hiking. Carney said entering the gate to begin the hike was a little confusing, as he and his group of five were required to take a bit more equipment than they would’ve liked.

Carney carried a 15- to 20-pound pack on him through the whole trip. The pack held medications, a few extra layers and about five liters of water.

Other necessary materials for camping, washing and eating were stored on porters. Carney said he ate surprisingly well, though most of the food was fried.

“We were really encouraged to keep hydrated, and keep eating,” he said. “I was surprised to see I actually lost a pound after the whole trip the way they were feeding me.”

Carney enjoyed the first day walking through the rainforest, followed by a rockier trek through “scrubby trees.” Most of the hike after that, though, was spent above the clouds.

“That was really neat,” he said. “Just the atmosphere up there was so crisp and clean.”

It wasn’t until the day leading up to the summit that Carney began to experience a little dizziness from the altitude. His head began to ache so badly that he questioned his ability to reach the top.

Due to the group’s African guide, Carney was able to pace himself to the point of feeling well enough to continue. At one point, the group was instructed to take about two or three breaths for each step.

“That part seemed to take forever,” he said. “But you can’t rush it … it was too hard to breath.”

Carney eventually made it to the peak of Kibo’s crater rim, and took a moment to take it all in.

“There were craters on one side and glaciers on another,” he said. “That was a feeling like no other.”

Carney said the trip down the mountain only took about a day and a half — much faster than the ascent. He said he experienced some nausea for a half day after the trip ended, but other than that he was “just fine.”

Now that he’s back in the classroom, Carney is looking forward to weaving his hike into the curriculum. He teaches units on many of the things he saw and experienced — glaciers, volcanoes, the atmosphere, astronomy, erosion and more.

“You know, it’s kind of funny. Leading up to the trip, the summit, the top of the mountain was the goal,” Carney said. “But you kind of lose sight of that along the way. The peak was just part of the experience.”

Carney hasn’t figured out what his next move will be in terms of big hikes, but he said Mount Kilimanjaro has him feeling “quite jazzed about trying something else.” He said he hopes, if anything, his experience will prove that the hike is a reasonable goal for anyone who wants it enough.

“When I do things, I do them for me,” he said. “That hike isn’t out of bounds for anyone who’s willing to prepare, it really isn’t.”

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com