“The reason I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro was for my nephew Tim Conners,” said Dr. Robert J. McGowen, a primary care physician who lives in Falmouth.
Dr. McGowen returned last Tuesday, June 6, from Africa, having climbed the mountain with his nephew and a team of four others, which included Tim Conners’s father, Michael Conners.
The team had the same goal—to help Tim Conners, who is blind, reach the top.
“It was about the journey, not the destination,” Dr. McGowen said. “If I didn’t make it to the top, it didn’t matter. I was there to help the young man achieve what he wanted to achieve.”
Mr. Conners, who is 21 and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, is also a cancer survivor. Diagnosed with a rare leukemia at age 15, the cancer later relapsed, attacking his optic nerve and costing him his sight. Also, the chemotherapy treatment left permanent nerve damage to his feet and resulted in renal, cardiac and adrenal gland damage.
About a year ago Mr. Conners decided he wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the organizations that had helped him during his sickness, Dr. McGowen said. Mr. Conners joined with K2 Adventures Foundation, which helps people with disabilities meet their adventure goals.
Dr. McGowen, who is 60, was not an avid hiker before the climb and trained to prepare for the trip locally and in the Rocky Mountains.
The team also included Kevin Cherilla with K2 Adventures Foundation; Alex Lerma, a videographer; and Robert Brace, a climbing and wilderness response expert.
Mr. Conners was inspired to make the climb after he met Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Dr. McGowen said.
When Mr. Conners called his uncle with the idea, Dr. McGowen was circumspect.
“I called him back,” Dr. McGowen said. “This is crazy.”
But Dr. McGowen said he was moved by his nephew’s courage and determination and told Mr. Conners that if he was going, he would support him in any way.
The team flew into Kilimanjaro International Airport and stayed in the hotel the first night, heading to the mountain base about 45 minutes away the next morning.
For the ascent, which took seven days, the team enlisted three local guides. Dr. McGowen said that most people take about five or six days to make it to the top. The descent took about two days but required more motivation at times because everyone was tired.
The main challenge was directing Mr. Conners up the mountain, Dr. McGowen said. Each team member took turns guiding Mr. Conners’s hands and feet as he climbed.
Dr. McGowen was there to manage Mr. Conners’s medical needs. Mr. Conners takes about 20 pills a day. More importantly Dr. McGowen administered the stress hormones that Mr. Conners’s damaged adrenal gland could not make. The levels needed changed depending on the weather and the exertion required that day.
There were tough moments.
“His dad and Kevin gave him emotional support,” Dr. McGowen said. “Often I was the naysayer. More than a couple of times I was saying, ‘We’ve got to get off this mountain.’”
An especially tricky part was the Barranco Wall, a steep climb up a rock surface.
“It was kind of frightening at times,” Dr. McGowen said. “Tim couldn’t see. He didn’t have the same fear.”
Mr. Conners had his hand on a team member in front of him and another behind him was holding onto his backpack.
The cold and trying to consume enough calories were other challenges, Dr. McGowen said.
The climb starts in a rainforest at the base and at 13,000 feet it was snowing. The elevation of the mountain is 19,341 feet. At night the temperature dropped to the teens.
Dr. McGowen, who had not done endurance athletics before, was surprised how much he needed to eat to sustain himself. They also needed to drink about two to four liters a day.
“If I didn’t shove in every calorie I could get, I would be fatigued,” Dr. McGowen said.
Staff at the camps cooked and prepared food that was high in carbohydrates and a little meat. Dr. McGowen said he learned to like potatoes a little more.
The group was not alone on the mountain. On any given night there would be about 70 to 100 people staying at the camp, Dr. McGowen said.
Dr. McGowen described being short of breath as they approached the summit. Every step took effort. He did not stay at the top for long as he suffered from mild altitude sickness.
“I was barely remembering what I was saying,” Dr. McGowen said.
However, the trip was all about Mr. Conners’s success at reaching the summit, which he did. Dr. McGowen saw his nephew exhibit the same strength to conquer the mountain as he did with his cancer.
“His ability to reach into himself [for strength],” Dr. McGowen said. “This is what I remember most about him on the journey.”
Despite the success of the trip Dr. McGowen is not ready to tackle another mountain anytime soon.
“I don’t see any more mountains in my future,” Dr. McGowen said.