(Above) Sarah Christians, a teacher at Clear Creek Elementary successfully climbed to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro this year. - Submitted photo.
by Marianne Gasaway
When school starts and everyone starts telling their ‘how I spent my summer’ stories, it’s going to be hard to top Sarah Christian.
Christian, who teaches at Clear Creek Elementary, traveled to Tanzania, East Africa, to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest free standing mountain in the world. She’s back now, ready to share her experience and photos with local students.
“I’ve always felt called to Africa— probably going back to seeing The Lion King in 1994,” she said with a smile. “I wanted to go to Tanzania when I was in college and my parents said no.”
Christian began her teaching career in Clear Lake in 2016, but left to teach English at a school in Nigeria. “I told my parents about it after I was hired, knowing it was a done deal. I was ready to jump into the unknown,” she said. That unknown included a trek to Kilimanjaro, but as she was making plans COVID began to erupt and she was sent back to the United States.
After spending two years abroad, Christian returned to Iowa and Clear Creek, but the thought that she would climb Kilimanjaro never left her. She dedicated herself to cross-fit training and after much research settled upon Kiliwarrior Expeditions and planned a 2021 excursion. In addition to her own personal preparation, Christian involved her students in the adventure, sharing photos of the mountain, stories of the region and inviting them to send her off with questions they would like to have answered.
“It was cool seeing their minds open about new places and the world beyond. One of the questions was ‘has anyone ever gotten lost?’ I expected the answer was no, but it was yes! A group had gone ahead and when weather rolled in they couldn’t see and became lost. I learned something too,” she said.
Thankfully, Christians never became lost on her climb up the mountain, or experienced any serious difficulty. She credits Kiliwarrior Expeditions with her safe and memorable trip.
Christians was one of five climbers in a group accompanied by 35 support staff, known as porters. Porters help with everything from setting up camps, complete with showers and restrooms, to cooking meals and assisting climbers with their packs. The group spent seven days climbing up and three traveling back down the mountain.
Christians said she felt prepared for the trip physically. She incorporated training into any situation she could, sometimes walking seven miles to her cross-fit session, or sleeping on her floor for a week in a sleeping bag. During one particularly cold North Iowa winter day she put on the parka, gloves and other cold weather equipment she purchased for the trip and set out walking. Conditions were so brutal a law enforcement officer even stopped her to be sure she was okay.
“The physical aspect was fine; it was the mental aspect that challenged me. Starting at 2 a.m. and keeping myself going to 18 or 19,000 feet where there is 50 percent less oxygen is difficult.”
Christians said porters carefully watched their climbers and were attune to how much they had eaten prior to the ascent to the summit.
“I was a bit nervous and had not eaten much prior as we headed to the peak. I was more exhausted than anything. I was huffing and puffing, moving slower than molasses up the breach. I was humbled by all the help I was getting. I needed it, and I had to put my ego aside in order to make it up. I could not do it along. Help was needed, and it was okay- most climbers need help.”
Climbers spend just 15 to 30-minutes at the summit due to the altitude, but it was time well spent.
“Seeing the shadow of Kibo from the rising sun was all worth it. It was truly the hardest thing I have ever done,” said Christians. “This trip was all about being out of what you were comfortable in, both physically and mentally. I learned so much about myself and from the people around me.”
When classes resume at Clear Creek in a few weeks Christian will be reunited with her class. Like her students, she will move up to fifth grade this year. In addition to sharing more about Tanzania and Kilimanjaro, she hopes her experience will provide lessons in perseverance.
“Just keep moving one foot in front of the other and you can accomplish anything,” she says.