From valley floor to sky high: B.C. dad and daughter duo hike Mt. Kilimanjaro with a twist

Exactly 50 years after Bill Toews climbed Kilimanjaro, his daughter Tawnya followed in his footsteps

Growing up, Chilliwack’s Tawnya Walsh was regaled with stories of her father’s time spent in Africa. However, it was his tales of conquering Mount Kilimanjaro—the world’s tallest free-standing mountain—that inspired something that followed her all the way into adulthood.

“It was something that wouldn’t die,” said Walsh. “It was always a dream of mine to (climb Kilimanjaro), so when all the pieces fell into place it was pretty amazing.”

A view from one of the tallest points in the world: Mount Kilimanjaro’s Peak.

Born and raised in the Fraser Valley, Bill Toews moved to Nairobi, Kenya, in his 20s for work. From there, Toews said it was only “144 miles as the crow flies” to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and a few times a year they could actually see the dormant volcano.

“When I was living there, a lot of times—well the vast majority of times—Kilimanjaro was clouded in, you couldn’t see the top at all,” said Toews. “So for me to (hike) up there and it (be) clear, that was a very big thing for me.”

With 11 friends, two guides, and 19 porters, Toews spent four days climbing to reach the highest point on the African continent, Mt. Kilimanjaro, which he succeeded in doing on Christmas Day, 1967.

“We didn’t have all these fancy-pants jackets that were windproof,” Toews said, going on to describe his group’s makeshift solution. Taking garbage bags, they’d cut holes for their heads, slide them over their coats, and pop their arms out the sides before putting on a second jacket. Similarly, they used smaller bags layered between pairs of socks because their shoes weren’t “like how they make them now-a-days.”

“It was very cold (at the top),” Toews said of his time atop Mt. Kilimanjaro. “I think anyone who goes up there talks about how cold it was. We summited at sunrise and we stayed up there long enough to fly the flags, get our pictures taken, and started down within 45 minutes.

“But the view up there is definitely worth it. You’re on top of the world and you can see a long ways!” he exclaimed.

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Standing a staggering 5,895 metres above sea level, Mt. Kilimanjaro is the fourth tallest mountain in the Seven Summits, a mountaineering list comprising the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents. Nearly three times as tall as Mount. Cheam, Mt. Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s most hiked mountains.

And although it isn’t as steep as some of the globe’s other high peaks, Mt. Kilimanjaro’s impressive size presents an array dangers and at least 30 people have died since 1996 trying to get to its top.

Because of its location and height, Mt. Kilimanjaro’s temperature and weather variations make the trek to the top more than a little challenging at times, however, it’s altitude sickness that presents the biggest risk to hikers. Once above 2,400 metres, low oxygen and air pressure begin playing havoc on the human body, which produces symptoms that can eventually lead to death.

“The locals have a saying,” said Walsh. “‘Pole, pole,’ which means ‘slowly, slowly.’ It’s very important to go slowly so you can acclimatize.”

To stave off the complications of high altitude, the majority of climbers take several days to summit Kilimanjaro: Toews’ expedition took a total of five days, and Walsh’s—which took a different route up—took eight, with each spending a single day climbing down.

“When I did it, we passed two men who had died. They were wrapped up and being taken down,” Toews said. “And there were a couple in my group who didn’t make it to the top.

“We had one fellow who played football for Purdue University but he worked at sea level and didn’t make it (to the top). We had another gal from Saskatchewan who was teaching there and she lived about 800 feet higher than Nairobi. She couldn’t have weighed 80 pounds wet and we tried our best to talk her out of it, but she was very insistent.

“Guess who was the first to the top? She was acclimatized for it and went up there like a mountain lion. You never know how your body’s going to react until you’re up there.”

“I ran into a couple of very rough-looking people getting dragged down the mountain,” added Walsh. “I think it’s a bit of a luck of the draw how your body acclimatizes to it.

“I always liked the story of how professional tennis player Martina Navratilova—you can’t get much more in shape than her—didn’t make it, but Martha Stewart did. It gave me hope.”

Armed with photos of her father’s journey up Kilimanjaro, Tawnya hiked the mountain herself exactly 50 years later.

And while Walsh always had the idea to follow her father’s footsteps up Mt. Kilimanjaro, she said for many years she felt as though it would always be just an idea she had.

“It was always in my heart … but then you get married young and have kids and you’re wrapped up in that and you think, ‘Oh, it’s never going to happen.’ And then five years ago, I was like, ‘I should do it on the 50th anniversary of Dad’s summit!”

Which is exactly what she did. After meeting up with a friend in Feb. 2017 who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro two years previous, Walsh solidified her plans and paid for her trip to Africa for that December.

“My husband knew 25 years ago when we got together that this was a dream of mine,” said Walsh. But when it came to her actually climbing Africa’s highest mountain on her own, her family did have some apprehension.

“They knew I could do it physically and they encouraged me,” Walsh said. “My parents and husband met me at the airport when I arrived home.”

To prepare for her journey, Walsh said she walked a lot and did some local climbs. “I climbed Mt. Cheam in the summer, that was my big hike. I’d do Teapot to get (my) muscles going and I’d do 10 k.m. walks most days.”

By contrast, Walsh’s dad explained his slightly different preparation. “Our servant had a young boy who was five years old or so, and I’d stick him on my back and I’d go for miles just trying to build up stamina.

“He thought that was pretty cool. Can you believe a white man carrying an African kid? That was a novel thing!” he added with a chuckle.

And while they prepared differently and took different routes to the top, both Toews and Walsh completed an incredible feat: they succeeded in climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and flying Canadian flags from its peak exactly 50 years apart.

“There was a lot of pride involved,” said Toews of he and his daughter’s matching achievements. “I never ever expected this in my wildest imagination, so this was a great thing.”

Which Walsh agrees with. “It was just a weird connection the whole way thinking, ‘Wow! Dad was doing this 50 years ago.’ It was surreal.

“I had the exact same experience (as him at the top). It was right at sunrise so all of a sudden these hidden glaciers and views come into view, and it’s such an amazing sight, but so cold. Got some photos taken, and once the adrenaline wore off it was back down.”

But regardless of the temperature, Walsh enjoyed the adventure of celebrating her father’s Mt. Kilimanjaro climb with her own.

“I was the one with the biggest smile on my face whether it was pouring rain or windy. I loved it—every moment. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”


@SarahGawdin
Sarah.Gawdin@theprogress.com

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