Two area women climb Kilimanjaro for a cause
Kemmerer, Babcock joined people with multiple sclerosis in ascent of Africa’s highest peak.
Connie Kemmerer, left and Mickey Babcock, right, both of Jackson, hold a poster with Ines Grav, of Spain, after summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro last month. Kemmerer and Babcock helped those suffering from multiple scerlosis, such as Grav, summit the 19,341-foot mountain in Africa. JEFF RENNICKE / COURTESY PHOTOView our entire photo gallery >>
By Brandon Zimmerman, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
August 10, 2011
Nine months ago, Connie Kemmerer was in a wheelchair following her second back surgery. Two weeks ago, she climbed to the summit of the highest freestanding mountain in the world, 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
That’s not the most impressive feat in this story, however. Not even close, in fact.
Because this isn’t about what Kemmerer, 68, accomplished. It’s about what she helped others accomplish. More specifically, those suffering from multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
Kemmerer is founder and chairwoman of the Teton Wellness Institute and part owner of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. She joined friend and fellow Jacksonite Mickey Babcock, founder of the Equopoise Fund, which helps young women in Wyoming.
The two joined up with Lori Schneider, of Michigan, who created Empowerment Through Adventure, a foundation through which people with MS and Parkinson’s disease were to climb Kilimanjaro with the help of partners not afflicted with the diseases.
Kemmerer and Babcock learned of the trip in May 2010, when Schneider came to speak in Jackson about MS. Schneider is the first known person with the disease to climb to the summit of the seven highest peaks in the world.
Listening to Schneider explain how she wanted to take a group of women with MS to the top of Kilimanjaro, Babcock immediately became interested, so much so she was tugging on Kemmerer’s sleeve during the talk.
“Looking back, I’m kind of ashamed of my behavior,” Babcock said. “I was just so excited.”
MS hits close to home for Babcock and Kemmerer. Their friend Lisa Richardson, of Jackson, has it.
MS is a neurological disease in which the immune system sees the body’s nerves as invasive and attacks them. Symptoms include fatigue, chronic pain, muscle weakness, numbness and vision problems. Parkinson’s disease, meanwhile, is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that results from the death of dopamine-containing cells in the brain.
This is the first time a group of people with both these neurodegenerative diseases have united as a team to reach a summit this high.
However, this wasn’t about getting to the summit. It was about showing that neurodegenerative diseases do not represent the end of normal life.
“I think about the athletic pursuits of this community,” Babcock said. “But what happens when life deals you a bad hand? What happens when life says no? Well, these climbers were dealt a bad hand, and life said no. However, they said yes.”
The climb was arduous even for the healthiest, most hardened athlete. The hike to the summit was four days long, and some days it didn’t end until the sun had disappeared and the stars were out. Along the way, Kemmerer and Babcock got a living, breathing look into life with multiple sclerosis.
“You were with your companion every day,” Kemmerer said. “You got to see what it was like to live with injections. We had doctors and full medical reviews every day where they checked oxygen levels and heart rates.”
The medical team that accompanied the group included an MS researcher and biochemist, a neurologist, a physician assistant, physical therapists, sports trainers and medically trained staff from the climbing company Alpine Ascents International.
The climb had its challenges. Some participants suffered from altitude sickness, occasionally worsened by the symptoms of their disease.
Kemmerer’s companion was one of three with MS who were unable to complete the climb. She had to turn around near the summit.
Kemmerer made sure the woman was in good hands to return to camp, then continued onward. She teamed up with another MS climber, Ines Grav, of Spain, and reached the top with her.
“These young women got to meet others with MS,” Kemmerer said. “They shared information and, as the adventure went on, the image of this disease being a bad prognosis changed.”
As the group ascended, Kemmerer and Babcock noticed they couldn’t tell the healthy from the afflicated. Babcock said many MS patients learn to cover up the disease, fearing retribution from friends, neighbors or potential employers.
“Part of this adventure, I think, was the OK-ness of the disease,” she said. “You couldn’t tell who had what.”
Babcock, it turned out, made it to near 18,000 feet before having to turn back. In all, seven of 10 MS patients and nine of the 14 companions got to the top of Kilimanjaro. But the climb was mainly about members of the group supporting and assisting one another.
Schneider, who named the excursion “The Leap of Faith,” was empowered by the spirit of those on the climb.
“There were some really tough parts of the trek, especially altitude sickness, for which there is nothing you can do,” Schneider said. “Imagine that on top of our neurodegenerative diseases.
“But, we made it, and that’s a credit to all of us who believe that we can go beyond the limitations of our disease and still achieve incredible results, both physically and mentally. We have remembered all those with neurodegenerative disease who climb personal mountains each day, as we have taken the steps to this summit.”
Babcock and Kemmerer got another reward when they showed pictures and told tales to Richardson back home. Richardson, who received an MS diagnosis 10 years ago, did not attempt the climb due to injuries, including three knee surgeries, unrelated to her disease.
“I was tearful [when they returned],” Richardson said.