By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Because it’s there. You don’t necessarily need to see it to know it’s there—the highest mountain in Africa —Mount Kilimanjaro.
In early September, Washington’s Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib summited the 19,341 feet Uhuru Peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. The climb was a fundraiser launch for Boundless Washington, a new outdoor leadership program for youth with disabilities. Habib’s office and the Association of Washington Generals (AWG), a service organization comprised of distinguished Washingtonians, partnered to create the program, offering students six outdoor expeditions throughout the state each year.
“It was an amazing experience,” Habib said of his climb. “It was really difficult…but an amazing experience.”
Every year, over 50,000 trekkers attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. Only 65 percent of them ever reach the top.
Habib prepared himself physically by doing more day hikes and walking on the treadmill on maximum incline. He said the route to Uhuru Peak wasn’t technical, but it did get quite cold. He didn’t need to learn to use an ice axe or crampons. There were sections of scrambling, but it’s not icy; trekkers needn’t be roped-up.
Habib traveled to Africa with Kristina Brown, executive director of his office. Several others from the AWG also joined the six-day trek. Both Habib and Brown used personal funds for the trip.
“I ended up getting bronchitis. It started with a cold the second day on the mountain,” Habib said. “I tried antibiotics. I tried cold medicine, but it wasn’t getting better.”
Up until reaching 17,000 feet, Habib had no trouble with the high altitude. It was a different story beyond that. The combination of bronchitis, low-oxygen, and the lack of sleep made the last few hours of the summit “absolutely miserable” for Habib.
“My heart was just racing so fast.”
“It started out like every 10 minutes, I would need to stop to catch my breath. Then it was every 5 minutes…then every two minutes,” Habib recalled. “When it got very close to the summit, it was like…every 15 steps I would need to stop.”
“I just became concerned. You know, like am I going to have a heart attack? What’s going to happen here…”
“In my mind, I sensed that I’ve told everybody that I was doing this. I would be so humiliated if I don’t make it,” Habib said. Pride and vanity got to him.
“I just kept pushing.”
And he didn’t want pity.
What Habib wanted was to share experiences of people challenging and pushing themselves to overcome obstacles as motivation for youth with disabilities.
“It excites me to be able to use these experiences to get them to see their full potential, not just in the outdoors, but in academics or in their professional and personal lives,” Habib said.
He downplayed his own climb, his job as Lieutenant Governor, or any of his achievements. Instead, Habib turned the attention to Erik Weihenmayer, an author, a world-class athlete, and the first blind person to summit Mount Everest. Weihenmayer was also the first blind mountaineer to complete the Seven Summits—the seven highest mountains in the seven continents.
Habib credited Weihenmayer, co-founder of Colorado-based No Barriers, for inspiring him. No Barriers, with a motto “What’s Within You is Stronger than What’s in Your Way,” is another partner of Boundless Washington.
Prior to Habib’s climb, Weihenmayer spent a day with Habib while visiting Washington state. The two hiked Mount Si together, with Weihenmayer giving Habib pointers in using the trekking poles and tips on scaling the mountain.
“Here’s this guy who didn’t just climb ‘Tiger Mountain,’ which might seem challenging enough to others because he’s blind. He climbed Everest!” Habib said of Weihenmayer. “It sent a message to me.”
He continued, “Never let other people or society’s assumption dictate what you think you can do. Always have to have those dreams. And there’ll be obstacles in life. You have to respect the challenge!”
Boundless Washington will be announcing its participant-selection process in the coming weeks. The outreach is of utmost importance since the disability community is diverse and scattered throughout the state. Habib hopes to use the schools as a channel to promote this program. Parental fear will need to be alleviated, freeing the students to take risks and have fun in a safe environment.
“We are creating future leaders and strong advocates for the disability community. We are also showing all communities what is possible,” Habib said.
Habib inspires others to climb their mountains, not because he’s the Lieutenant Governor, nor because he’s blind. It’s because he is a boundless, passionate human being.
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.