A Mountain of Community and A Closer Walk With Thee: Climbing Kilimanjaro with Kerry J Haps (Web Exclusive)
As he prepared to celebrate his 50th birthday, Wheaton Event Producer Kerry J Haps knew he wanted to do something extraordinary. After consulting his wife, Jenya, a plan emerged. What could be a bigger accomplishment than scaling a stratovolcano in Tanzania while raising funds for their ministry?
Orphan’s Tree is Jenya Haps’ passion—she's served with the organization since 1994, the same year she and Kerry J met. Orphan's Tree works to help Russian orphanage graduates have a reasonable chance to succeed as independent adults in the real world, "but also find their own dreams and set about achieving them," says Kerry J, who adds that this climb was an opportunity to share this ministry opportunity more widely.
“I wanted to make this climb not just about me and my 50th birthday, but about something much larger, much more important," says Kerry J. “I wanted to raise a hill of money for Orphan's Tree and along with it a mountain of awareness about their amazing work and the wonderful young people they strive to help.”
In the end, Kerry J and Jenya hit the $21k mark for Orphan’s Tree. “We were shooting for $19,341, a dollar for every foot of the peak! Every naysayer (and there were plenty—“$20k via Facebook?”) served only to steel my resolve.”
Standing at almost 20,000 feet above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa.
Traveling to Africa fulfilled a childhood dream of Kerry’s. The couple embarked on a breathtaking seven-day climb and were able to witness the provision, strength, and love of God on a deep and intimate level.
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation Wheaton magazine editor, Charles Audino, and Kerry J Haps had in October 2018.
How did you prepare for the climb? Illinois is flat!
For physical prep, there’s nothing better than Mt. Trashmore in the Blackwell Forest Preserve. No, really! There’s no other choice here! I’m not a gym person. I’ve never been athletic. You won’t find me at whatever it is we call our gym, weight room…that place with the pool, track and other torture machines. The climbing wall starts to look more and more interesting, though.
A few years ago when my wife and I first started thinking seriously about climbing a Colorado 14’er, it happened to coincide with the renovation of the 5th floor of the BGC. My office being in the basement, I actually started taking the 150 stairs up to the restroom pretty much every day. The funny story here is that I came back from Grays Peak, my first 14’er, and reported to a friend on the 5th floor that my “workout routine” had paid-off, but had also resulted in having to use the restroom about every 150 steps!
We had our health (and were in training for more!). We had some gear we’d gathered from previous day-hiking, but of course had to up the ante a bit for this. We found a great guide. We saved up the money (and miles). We learned how to push ourselves by climbing a couple 14'ers and day hiking in our own National Parks.
But most importantly, we had support. We had friends and family at our backs, in our corner, rooting for us. We'd never done anything quite like this, never even been out overnight, but as we set foot on the trail, we knew we were prepared and not alone.
In fact, the most amazing thing we learned as we prepared for this journey was how inspiring it could be to others. It seemed like everyone we told turned immediately to tell another. They lit up, got excited, and wanted to encourage us! They wanted to know more and had to share. As we began to make plans and understand the scope of this undertaking, we began to think of nephews, nieces, and other family and friends who might be a little inspired by “Uncle Kerry and Aunt Jenya who climbed Kili!” There's something about reaching for something this high that stirs. We thought about our orphanage graduates, too, and realized it could be inspiring to them and even a fundraiser, so we set about planning how to make that work, as well.
How were your travels to Africa?
We left home early evening on a Thursday and arrived Saturday afternoon in Tanzania. Our most excellent guide, Mark Focus Urio, met us and helped with rest and final prep. 48 hours later we were on the trail.
After the climb, we had a little safari in the Tarangire and Serengeti national parks, a day in the Ngorongoro Crater, and then a brief trip to see Mountain Gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. It was epic, actually. The safari was actually the original idea before realizing Kili was right there waiting for us. But more than anything, more than this massive mountain, the sprawling Serengeti, that miraculous Ngorongoro Crater, and the gorillas we came face to face with, it was the wonderful people of Tanzania and Uganda that will leave the most lasting impression.
So, how was the climb up? Walk me through the days on the climb.
Up was slowly putting one foot in front of the other, pacing ourselves. “Pole, Pole!” (Slow, Slow!) as they say in Swahili. And they say it a lot! One of the joys along the way was getting to know our team and seeing how well they took care of us. We carried daypacks with our water, lunches, rain gear, extra layers, and cameras, while our porters carried our 20kg duffel bags with everything else (on their heads!) They went ahead of us and prepared camp, so each evening we arrived to our sleeping and dining tents already set up. We were greeted with hot towels and surprisingly good meals.
The first day, I’d have to say the dominant feeling was along the lines of “Are we really doing this? Is this crazy? What have we gotten ourselves into? Who are we kidding? How long can we last? And how embarrassing if we’ve come this far and don’t make it!” There was a lot of unknown to fear.
We were in this beautiful, lush rainforest, shrouded in mist and clouds, and as we waited to set out, I have to say most people looked a lot more in their element in their hiking and climbing gear. Most were younger, in better shape, likely not on their first serious mountain. Certainly not strangers at their local gyms! We were in strange territory but determined to surprise ourselves, even if not everyone else.
Day two. We’d never actually been out overnight! I’d never, yet, talked Jenya into anything beyond day-hiking. After overcoming that hurdle, we were really on our way. We climbed up above the tree line and the clouds, getting our first glimpse of the mountain and last contact with the outside world on our phones. We were still trying to keep our supporters posted, even as our porters led us higher.
Day three was all about wind and altitude. We thought we were going to be blown off the mountain! Lack of sleep, loss of appetite, and other altitude-related troubles began to slow us down, especially Jenya.
Day four began with The Barranco Wall, where we really felt like we’d become mountain climbers. Until we were steadily scrambling up, it looked impossible. It ended at Karanga camp, which really felt like clinging to the steep side of something huge, looking way down on the cloud cover below, and looking up at a most sublime volcano.
Day five started at sunrise and rolled straight through day six. We should’ve had a few hours of rest that evening at Barafu (the highest) camp, but Jenya’s altitude sickness took its toll, and we had to help her descend to a lower camp. I ended up with no rest before leaving for the summit at midnight. That decision, for her and half our team to descend, and for me and our assistant guide, Ernest Minja, to ascend—with the rest awaiting our return at this, highest camp—was painful. But, our wonderful team walked us through it. They were our support system just as they had been for every other step of the way, including radioing to let me know that Jenya was doing much better, smiling, laughing, and cheering me on from below.
Then you summitted?
Day six began at midnight (without rest) under a total eclipse of a full moon. This meant the first few hours of the hardest part of the climb were in darkness with headlamps. The view of fellow climbers’ headlamps switch-backing up the mountain was amazing. “Pole, pole” was replaced by “No stop ‘til the top!” because the shortest pause meant fingers and toes quickly freezing.
After the eclipse passed, there was a moment where everyone was switching off their lights, no longer needed in the clear night under the brightest of full moons. It was super cool to be there going for it under just pure moonlight.
Another crazy part of this night was that my guide started out at an extreme pace, almost running past everyone else. I kept up but wasn’t sure how long I could. Finally, there came a point where Ernest just hit a wall. I went from barely keeping up to catching him falling back on me. He was falling asleep as we climbed! I honestly think this “Oh my, am I going to have to take care of my guide?” served as a helpful distraction from my temptations to doubt my own next steps. Expressing my concern, he only replied “No sleep,” as he too had missed his chance for a nap while helping Jenya.
A juice box and some chocolate helped us both, and we found ourselves on the crater rim right at sunrise, right on schedule. The true summit was just an hour beyond. At 7:42 a.m. on July 28, we made it.
Minutes before, mere meters from the goal, I had been seriously doubting. I could have collapsed in sight of the summit sign for Uhuru peak. But we somehow pushed through. The moment I stood there, on top of Africa, well, I choke up a little now just thinking about what it took to get there and how much support I felt every step of the way.
I got a flag out of my pack, that I’d had made with Orphan’s Tree’s logo surrounded by our fundraiser slogan: “(Almost) $20k (for Orphan's Tree) for (almost) 20k' of Mount Kilimanjaro” framed by ice axes, while another climber took our photos. I also made sure to get another shot alone with an obvious place where Jenya should’ve been in the picture with me.
What happened on your journey down the mountain?
The thing about down is…It’s by far the hardest part. Every step is more and more painful. It’s repeatedly pounding on every joint. Ankles, knees, hips…Every part of your feet is just tortured (I haven’t been able to wear shoes since returning!). You’re exhausted too. It was 38 hours without sleep between waking Friday morning and walking into camp the next evening.
Coming back to that final stretch around the crater rim is just plain fun. It’s virtually level, and you’re surrounded by such rare beauty: The glaciers, crater, strange ice formations, and the view out across Africa (with Mt. Meru, near Arusha, popping up out of the clouds). Nearby Moshi is for some reason graced by a break in the cloud cover. From Stella Point, where we had earlier reached the crater rim at sunrise, we’re looking down with a clear view of Barafu camp and beyond. Millennium Camp, Mweka Camp, and then it hits me… We have 9000’ to descend…still today. Another 5000’ feet tomorrow. Wow. The agony. The exhaustion.
Suddenly you’re intensely hot as the sun has come up and you’re wearing all these layers which you can’t imagine taking off and carrying.
People all around are slowly descending with their guides steadying them. Some, of course, are zipping past like it’s nothing. It’s all I can do to keep descending. I’m repeatedly greeted on the trail like a hero, “Congrats, Papa!” We have a brief break at Barafu, to shed layers, have a bite, and get back on the trail. Between Millennium and Mweka, the trail is just brutal, with big, sloppy steps. It’s like coming down a dried-up cascade in places. At one point I literally fell over backwards, barely caught by our guys. Sometime just before sunset, I’m reunited with my rested, restored wife. The picture of me there…I look like I could just die, and that’s how I felt.
As you consider the challenges of your climb, how did you see God working in your heart?
The day we launched the fundraiser on Facebook, we rocketed to 60% of our goal. I was at work trying to focus, but every few minutes another donation rolled in. In stolen moments running for lunch or walking across campus between office and auditoriums, I called Jenya to ask if she was seeing all this. We were blown away. Unexpected donations coming from friends, family, colleagues - Wheaton alums were well represented, even some student employees from as far back as 27 years ago! At dinner, we just watched in awe as the fundraiser lit up. Oh, my. We’re doing it! God is providing in amazing ways! And the encouraging words with which the donations came! This was truly the beginning of our journey to seeing how far from alone we were in this.
As we hiked, Mark told me that his dream is to climb Everest. Outside of how expensive it is (I don’t dare even dream), there’s the risk of dying (and being just left there!). 10,000 more feet of elevation and that much less oxygen. But I told him about how I’ve always thought about Everest as interesting because it’s such a perfect height. A little taller and no one could do it. A little shorter and people would be standing at the top dreaming of a higher peak to better test them. I tend to think of it as no coincidence. Everest seems like a perfect example of a goal to stretch for, to make us ask ourselves if we think we could make it. I tend to think of it as instruction that we’re meant to reach as high as we can. Things we do ‘not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ This is something I hoped to inspire in my own little circles, maybe even with the orphanage grads in Russia.
When it was all over (is it ever really over?), and I could begin thinking about lessons learned, I realized how we were never alone, we were always led and surrounded by the help that we needed every step of the way. Our community, very much including this Wheaton College community, had our backs, both in prayer and support.
Well, if that isn’t God, I don’t know what is.
Also, people who summit big mountains like Kili often talk about an experience on the peak that's something like seeing God closer.
I didn't see God, but I did catch a glimpse of how He sees me.
That kid, still in me, who never knew what he could amount to, what he was capable of—he was made stronger than he knows, able to surprise even himself.
What qualities of humanity came into focus for you?
When Jenya was suffering at Barafu camp, we were in the dining tent with Ernest, having (or at least trying to have) dinner. She was dizzy, nauseous, disoriented, and short of breath. Ernest brought Mark in to check on her. Up until this point I’d been telling them, as Jenya fought hard for every step, that in the end she’d surprise everyone and be the one who would outdo us all. Mark felt her forehead and cheek, leaned back and said, “Jenya, we love you, and we’re going to have to take you down to a lower camp now. You did amazing and should be proud. You’re going to feel much better as you go lower. Kerry’s going to make it to the top for both of you.”
I was most certainly worried about her, but I was walking a fine line between concern and not wanting to discourage her or let her give up when she might still rally. At that moment, with her urgently needing medical care on the side of Africa’s highest mountain, in a tent, mere feet away from a sheer cliff, at 15,000’… I don’t think there’s anywhere else on earth I would have rather been, for her sake. Mark spoke to her with the gentle care of a pastor, a brother, a father who could and would most certainly take care of her like his own daughter. And there was no question of who would go down with her. Mark went and left Ernest to lead me to the top. We were brothers and sisters who’d only just met but were behind each other 100% on this grand adventure.
Any final thoughts on this breathtaking experience?
I’ve been more and more realizing what I did, what we did, and there’s an element of this that feels just so huge. I was the unathletic kid who never got picked for things. I never played a sport. I’ve never been an exercise guy, in any way active or physical. But wow, I did this. God enabled me to do this. I’m so thankful to Him for getting us up there and back safely. He gave me the desire to do it, he gave me the ability to do it. I have to think a lot about that. Kili’s one of the seven summits, there’s only six to go!
But we didn't do it alone. No one does it, or anything, alone.
I've really thought a lot about this fact: I started with an idea of doing something for my 50th birthday, then it became the next step in Jenya's and my climbing adventures, then it became the fundraiser that would bring attention (and some very helpful finances) to Orphan's Tree. Finally, we realized it wasn't just about more than us, it was really about the community around us and behind us. We were just a small part of that. Were we out front or were we just riding a wave?
We experienced this outpouring of love, this community of support, and people holding out their hands to help. Some were ahead of us, sharing their previous experiences to help lead. Some were behind us in prayer. Some were under us, supporting. Some were beside us, all the way up the mountain. We were never alone and had nothing to fear.
We were only at the peak of a mountain of community, as close as one can get to God, or at least in a great position to see something of how He sees us.