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Local doctor hits new heights with Mount Kilimanjaro climb

Published: Monday, March 24, 2014 11:00 a.m. CST • Updated: Monday, March 24, 2014 11:06 a.m. CST

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When asked to describe his recent arduous climb to the infamous summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, local physician Dr. Pat Edwards uses words like “freezing cold” and “relentless” and “pitch black.”

Yet, when given the follow-up inquiry of whether or not he would endure the punishing experience again, his response is immediate: “Oh yeah.”

Best known as a beloved local doctor who has provided family practice care at Newton Clinic since 1987 and delivered hundreds of babies at Skiff Medical Center, Dr. Edwards also has a reputation for tackling challenges. He’s an avid athlete who has completed a number of marathons, but more recently his sights have been set on bigger obstacles. Namely, mountains.

“Two years ago, a group of us climbed Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental U.S.,” he said. “Last year, we nearly made it to the top of Mount Rainier, but got turned back right at the end because of weather. Right away, we asked ourselves, ‘What are we going to do next?’”

He admits it was his idea to take on Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, which is the highest walkable peak in the world. Adventurers who wish to go higher (think Andes or Himalayas) must be trained and equipped for technical climbing. However, just because he wasn’t weighed down with ropes, carabiners and anchors, it doesn’t mean Dr. Edwards’ ascent of Kilimanjaro was any Sunday walk in the park.

Day one of the trip was the flight to Africa, and day two was spent in Arusha, a city of about half a million in the country of Tanzania, giving the travelers time to recover from jet lag. Day three was when the true excursion began.

“We took a four- to five-hour drive, followed by a three-hour hike up to our first camp,” Dr. Edwards said. “There are seven official routes you can take to reach the summit. We picked one that gave us an extra day of acclimatization to combat altitude sickness.”

The affect of high altitude on the human body is a significant one, because the available amount of oxygen to maintain proper mental and physical functions begins to drop the higher someone climbs — for some people, this can start at 6,500 feet above sea level. Considering the summit of Kilimanjaro has an altitude of more than 19,000 feet, Dr. Edwards and his group — which consisted of five friends, three guides and 20 porters hired to carry supplies — had to proceed with care.

Those who take additional days for the climb have a better time with altitude sickness, as their bodies are given more time to adjust to the oxygen deprivation. For this group, that meant some days would be marked by a morning climb, stopping to camp at noon for lunch, an afternoon acclimatization climb and then coming back down for dinner and sleep. While this two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach meant a lengthier journey, it afforded greater adaptation. That helped to lessen, but not prevent, unpleasant symptoms.

“We were still mountain sick,” Dr. Edwards said. “I was nauseated. I had a poor appetite. Some of the others had headaches.”

The discomfort didn’t end there.

“The higher you got, the colder you got, especially at night,” he said. “It rained or snowed most days. As soon as it got dark, there was nothing to do, because it was so cold. You weren’t going to sit around and play cards, not when it was in the single digits. You got into your sleeping bag in your tent. And some nights, you were still really cold.”

One of the most notable nights was on Friday, which was day six of the trip and their fourth day on the mountain. “That night, it snowed two feet during a windstorm and there were hours of lightning. I asked the guide about the danger posed by the lightning and he just told me, ‘Don’t think about it,’” Dr. Edwards said.

That reply was indicative of the no-quit mindset of the whole journey. “Right at the beginning, our guides said, ‘You’ve got to have a positive mindset. You’ve got to.’ So then when we were four or five days in, all tired, all hurting, they’d remind us, ‘Positive mindset.’ They weren’t holding anyone’s hands.”

Day eight, Sunday, was a relatively short day, with a morning hike and then an afternoon and evening dedicated to rest. That was important, because their final climb to the summit started at midnight.

“You couldn’t see,” Dr. Edwards said. “It was pitch black. Your only scenery is the footsteps of the person in front of you. It was relentless, but we kept going. We were not given an option to stop.”

The group actually made quite good time. The schedule was to get to the summit around 7 a.m., in time for sunrise, but they reached their destination 90 minutes early.

“We were at the summit at 5:30 a.m.,” Dr. Edwards said. “Not only was it still fully dark, but a blizzard had set in. The winds were so strong that the snow, which was already blinding, was falling sideways.”

Despite the darkness, Dr. Edwards and company were lucky they had gone at an accelerated pace. Due to the extreme conditions, other climbers only a brief distance behind had to turn away, falling short of the summit achievement.

With the elements so severe and no shelter, Dr. Edwards’ time at the top was limited. “We spent about 10 minutes and then started back down,” he said.

Although the descent was significantly shorter — about two days, compared to the near-week it took to climb up — the downward trail was tough, with snow and slick rocks, and made particularly uncomfortable due to a nagging knee injury Dr. Edwards had sustained last fall.

Relieved to finally make it off the mountain, the group next enjoyed a couple of comparatively peaceful days on safari, seeing everything from lions and elephants to giraffes and hippos. Flipping through a collection of digital photos of the trip, Dr. Edwards pauses at one that shows a cheetah literally inches away from the open-sided vehicle in which they rode. “They could have attacked us if they wanted to,” he said. “But they had no interest. They didn’t see us as prey.”

The group members, whom Dr. Edwards described as being “more than ready to come home,” wrapped up their trip with a six-hour drive to the airport and finally a lengthy transatlantic flight back to their loved ones.

So given the many discomforts of the trip, why was it worth it? “I like to go places, see new things and take new challenges,” he said. “It’s fun.”

And while he wouldn’t refuse a return trip, he already has some different and equally exotic destinations in mind.

“I’m not ready to commit aloud to anything just yet,” he said, a twinkle in his eye, “but I’ll just say that there’s lots of other things to do.”

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