Greg and Wendy Sander had never left the western hemisphere. Other than attending daughter, Morgan's wedding in Jamaica and traveling to Mexico, the Sanders had stayed mostly stateside.
Just as the year turned over to 2017, the Sanders boarded a plane from Des Moines with 37 other individuals as part of the group Above + Beyond Cancer. We reported on their efforts to prepare and raise funds last fall. Now that they've returned, we pick up after their 25-hour flight to Nairobi, Kenya.
The Sanders and the group from Above + Beyond Cancer included 15 cancer survivors. "Several were still going through treatments, and five traveled with incurable cancer," Wendy said. The others were caregivers, which included a medical team to ensure everyone was well taken care of.
"It was just amazing to see their culture," Greg said of the people in Nairobi, including people in the Kenyatta National Hospital. The group spent several days working at the hospital, painting a ward, putting murals in the pediatric oncology room, and spending time with patients.
"The most emotional time was when I gave a blanket to a woman who had incurable cancer and was on one of her last days," Wendy said.
Dr. Richard L. Deming of Des Moines, founder of Above + Beyond Cancer, wrote of the experience, "I hand the blanket to Wendy, a 54-year-old breast cancer survivor from Estherville, Iowa, and I ask her to give it to one of the ladies who is laying on her bed, clearly experiencing the effects of her cancer and the treatment. Wendy unfolds the warm, pink blanket and spreads it out over the patient's withering body. They exchange a hug and a smile."
Wendy also had a surprise after their return:?the documentary producers who accompanied their group chose Wendy to be the voice of their film. "It was such an honor,"?Wendy said.
Greg said, "What I hope people understand is we didn't conquer Kilimanjaro. She [Tanzanians affectionately call the mountain "Kili"] allowed us to climb her."
Wendy said, "It wasn't the climb that will stay with us the rest of our lives. At least not as much as the people we were with."
Greg said the couple has dreamed of the journey up and down Mount Kilimanjaro since they returned.
Wendy said, "We made lifetime friends. When you walk with someone for nine hours in a day, you learn a lot about them."
Greg said, "What I think of every day is the energy in our group. There was emotional energy in the hospital, and the energy built each day."
The days on the mountain started early with a morning message from the leader, Dr. Deming. Then the group would do yoga together, and start on the way.
One day, the group had a relay for life. There were over 800 colored flags representing those who had died of cancer.
Wendy said, "Everyone helped everyone else when things got tough."
Conditions were tough as the elevation grew on the mountain. The temperature would drop to about 10 degrees and wind gusts reached 40 miles per hour.
Day 4 brought the greatest challenge to Wendy, who is afraid of heights. The group scaled the Great Baranco Wall, a 1,000 foot, nearly vertical wall of rock that would take them to the ridge line that eventually got us to the summit.
"When we climbed the Baranco Wall, we used our hands and our feet," Wendy said.
Dr. Deming said in his travel journal, "Mount Kilimanjaro is not for the faint of heart. It stands 19,342 feet above sea levelit is the highest free-standing mountain in the world."
A quick Google search reveals that only one in two climbers who take on the challenge of Kilimanjaro will actually make it to the top.
"I'll say this: crap was happening," Wendy said. Some climbers were freezing, disoriented from the altitude, and at some points guides, medical professionals or others would hold a struggling climber, one under each arm and ask, "Can you make it one more step?" Wendy said.
"Everyone made sure everyone else could make it," Wendy said.
That made the difference. All 39 made it to the summit. The guides who accompanied the group said they did not think another group of that size had ever seen all of its members summit the mountain.
They began the final pitch at 11 p.m. with the light of the full moon and headlamps, they climbed the slope for eight hours. On Jan. 12, they reached the top.
It was not without risk. Five climbers, including Wendy, temporarily lost sight due to the altitude.
"People were disoriented, sick. We didn't spend much time at the summit. We took pictures and got the heck down," Wendy said.
"We just didn't quit," Greg Sander said.