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Mission: Possible

Mission: Possible

May 2016

Words Miriam Mannak

In September 2014, the 21-year-old social entrepreneur from Cape Town became the first female quadriplegic to summit Africa’s highest peak—reaching the Roof of Africa 10 minutes ahead of the rest of her team.

It was a crisp and clear September morning when Michaela and her crew reached Uhuru Peak. Six long and exhausting days had passed since their departure from Arusha, Tanzania’s gateway to Mt Kilimanjaro. The last eight-hour stretch from Kibo rest stop was excruciatingly difficult due to the high altitude, low levels of oxygen saturation, sheer exhaustion, and the fact most of it happened after dark, with very little sleep the previous night.

“That last leg is known as the most difficult part. That is why we left the hut at around 11 p.m. Psychologically, you need to walk toward the morning light. You need to have something to look forward too,” says Michaela, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was a baby. As a result, she has limited function of her arms, hands and legs. “It was a tough stretch, also because after reaching the summit after an eight-hour climb, you need to walk another six hours to the next hut.”

She recalls how she reached the summit 10 minutes ahead of the rest of her team. “It was really amazing to see them coming up and walking toward me. It was a very emotional moment. I was so relieved that we got there, and that everyone was fine,” she says. It’s difficult for her to express the excitement she felt at the time. “You are so exhausted and you can’t breathe properly. Even now, there is this sense of disbelief that we did it.”

The 21-year-old’s unthinkable endeavour started in 2013 after meeting with adventurer, Adam Schäfer. She recalls how he wanted to climb Kilimanjaro for a good cause and had contacted The Chaeli Campaign. Founded in 2004 by Michaela, her sister Erin and three school friends, the non-governmental organisation assists thousands of disabled youths across southern Africa with therapies, assistive devices and other forms of support. “We then started to discuss the possibility of joining forces with Adam, and basically to climb Kilimanjaro to raise funds for The Chaeli Campaign.”

This very first discussion kick-started a two-and-a-half-year journey of preparation: putting a team together, research, reading and physical training. “I spent a lot of time at the Sports Science Institute to work on my core and quads,” Michaela says, adding that this was for balance. “People sometimes think that I was just sitting in my chair while being carried—doing nothing while everyone else was doing all the hard work. The truth is that I had to make sure I could keep myself in that chair, by ensuring my body was always in the right place and position. Hence the core exercises. It was hard work.”

Then there was the design and development of a suitable wheelchair, one that had to be sturdy enough to survive the inhospitable terrain and light enough to be carried up a 5 895-metre mountain. This process was easier said than done, Michaela recalls. “There’s not really a market for those chairs, as nobody with my disability had climbed Kilimanjaro before. As a result, there was no one to ask about what type of chair we should use. A lot of it was trial and error.”

The basic structure was inspired by a basketball chair, which was altered as the crew’s training and preparation progressed. “Our training hikes, which included various overnight and day hikes, helped us figure out the little things that had to be changed to make the chair perfect for our expedition,” she explains. 

Finally, in the early morning hours of 29 August 2015, Michaela—accompanied by seven Chaeli Kili Climbers and a crew of 55 guides and porters—set off on their incredible journey. 

Waking up on the slopes of Africa’s tallest mountain for the first time was very special, she recalls, and not only for the most obvious reason. “It was my 21st birthday. While I started that day feeling sick, my body eventually got over itself. It was such a very special day,” Michaela says. “I have no idea how they did it, but the crew managed to bake me a cake—on top of the mountain. There were even candles!”

It took another three days before she and her team reached their final destination. While there had been various hairy moments, the last stretch to the summit from the Kibo Hut was the hardest part of her expedition. “I have never in my life experienced something like that. Altitude affects everyone, and you have a lot of fights with yourself,” she notes. “There were moments that I didn’t want to carry on. Fortunately, I didn’t have the energy to say that to anyone. People tell you the last day before reaching the summit is the hardest day of your life, but you won’t believe it until you get there.”

While reaching Uhuru Peak was a highlight and a relief, it was also very difficult—it would take another six hours to get to the next rest stop. “When you reach the summit, you also have to deal with the thought that you are not done yet and that you have to walk another day or so before you are down again,” Michaela says. “Mentally, that was very difficult. The mountain, in that sense, has taught me to really appreciate things. It really has brought things into perspective.”

Though the physical part of Michaela’s expedition may have come to an end, her Kili journey is far from over. “We wanted to raise R1 million, but so far we managed to raise R130 000. We really want to make our target. Maybe now that people have seen that we have done it, they will want to support us. Our work is not yet done.”

The Chaeli Campaign in a nutshell

Michaela Mycroft was just nine years old when she, her sister Erin and three school friends founded The Chaeli Campaign. The objective was to raise funds for a motorised wheelchair. “I needed such a wheelchair to be more independent,” Michaela says. “They didn’t make those for kids in South Africa back then, and importing one was too expensive.”

By selling cards and flowerpots, the girls raised R20 000—enough to import a chair—within seven weeks. The donations, however, kept streaming in. “People still wanted to buy our stuff, despite the fact we had the money we needed. That is why we formalised the campaign to help other disabled children in South Africa,” she explains. 

The Chaeli Campaign provides assistive devices and therapies, is very much involved with advocacy and outreach, and has set up various sports and vocational training programmes for disabled youth. 

Michaela has won various awards including the 2011 international youth peace prize—the Nobel Peace Prize for Children—and the 2012 Medal for Social Activism at the Nobel Laureate Peace Summit. 

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Fast facts

Apart from being Africa’s highest mountain, Kili is the world’s highest free-standing mountain.

Kili has three volcanic cones, of which the dormant Kibo is the highest. It could erupt again—the last time that happened was 200 years ago.

Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim.

Kili’s snow caps have shrunk by 80% since 1912. Scientists say the mountain could be ice-free by 2020. 

Each year, approximately 30 000 people attempt to summit Kili. Two-thirds are successful.

Kili’s foothills are the only place in the world where tanzanite is found.

Kili has six ecosystems: cultivated land, rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and arctic summit.

South African Bernard Goosen was the first person in a wheelchair to climb Kili. He did so in 2003 and 2007.

Last year, endurance athlete Karl Egloff ran up Kili in 6 hours, 56 minutes and 24 seconds.

The oldest person to hike up to Uhuru Peak is Swiss-Canadian Martin Kafer (85). His wife, Esther, is the oldest women to climb Kilimanjaro (84).

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer