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On Top of the World

Reprinted from SNS September 2012

Is it possible for a wheelchair user to get to the top of famed Mount Kilimanjaro?

Sports are my life,” says Erica Davis. The 29-year-old, who was born and raised in Lodi, Calif., grew up in the middle of two brothers who taught her how to be tough, competitive and positive. “I have always been a tomboy,” she says. 

Starting as early as the fourth grade with her first 5k running race, Davis not only took part in, but also excelled in, sports of all kinds — flag football, volleyball, basketball, and softball (to name a few) and was often named MVP. 

After earning her degree in physical education from Pacific Union College (Angwin, Calif.), Davis went on to teach high school physical education in Hawaii. That’s where she got the itch for triathlons. She started training and competed in her first event in October 2005 where she took sixth place in her division. Being the thrill-seeker that she is, Davis had her sights set on competing in the Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) one day. During that time Davis was accepted into the Sacramento State University master’s program in kinesiology for strength and conditioning. There was no way for her to know all that training would prepare her for an unforeseen journey.

Later that year Davis woke up with the worst backache she ever had. Being tough-minded she brushed it off as soreness from the previous day’s workout. Three days later the pain turned into tingling that spread throughout her legs. That is when she knew something was wrong. After six hours in the ER, she left with a prescription for muscle spasms. That evening, she got up to find she was unable to support weight on her legs and had to crawl to get to the bathroom.

Davis was diagnosed with a cavernous hemangioma, an abnormal cluster of blood vessels, a condition not that uncommon or that usually has such devastating results. However, in this case (only one in 5 million), this cluster of vessels ruptured and a small droplet of blood made its way into her spinal column, causing inflammation to her spinal cord. The pressure on her spine from the swelling damaged the nerves, paralyzing her from below her chest down.

It would be understandable if Davis were resentful about the initial misdiagnosis or that she was one of the rare statistics this happened to. But that just isn’t in her character. Certainly this could have put her in a spin of depression. But that’s not how she chose to react.

“I didn’t want any negativity present in my hospital room,” Davis says. “I grew up learning to be tough and positive — I don’t like the word can’t! This is a new chapter in my life, and I need to focus on what’s next!” 

A few weeks after returning home from the hospital, Davis met an avid handcyclist who helped rekindle her passion for exercise and athletics. Handcycling became the first of about 20 adapted sports she explored, some of which she pursued in the competitive arena. In January 2007, she and her mom moved into a senior citizen’s mobile home park in Carlsbad, Calif., (where her dad would commute to and often visit) to be closer to the rehab facility so Davis could continue with a more intensive therapy and exercise regimen.

Davis was back heavy into training for handcycling and triathlons. She became a member of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), a program developed in 1993 to help support disabled athletes with the cost of equipment and other expenses related to athletic goals. She trained six days a week — swimming, biking, pushing a racing wheelchair, and other forms of exercise. When she started competitive racing, CAF became one of her sponsors. She had found new purpose in her life. 

“I have two jobs now, training and recovery,” Davis says. “And it’s my job to be out there showing both able-bodied and the newly injured that anything you want to do, you can do!” 

Moving Mountains

In summer 2009, Derek Gates went to CAF with an idea to document the first paraplegic woman summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. As crazy as the idea sounded, the intent was to send a message to the world that there are no limits to the power of the human spirit. When thinking of who could possibly accept the challenge for such an enormous task, one name came up: Erica Davis.

When approached by CAF, Davis didn’t hesitate to accept the challenge.

“I had to think about what I had gotten into, though,” Davis says. “There were only three and a half months to train (before the scheduled climb at the end of January 2010).” 

She wasn’t concerned about her physical fitness, but many things could go wrong with a climb of this magnitude — exhaustion, altitude sickness, dehydration, and hypothermia, for example.

Having grown up as a competitive tomboy, Erica Davis trained extensively for the Mount Kilimanjaro adventure. She spent time swimming, biking, and pushing.

 “You never quite know what to expect. Things can happen to anyone (on a climb),” she says. “I was especially concerned about altitude sickness and getting too cold. I never thought of not making it. It was going to be fun, but I had to prepare myself for how hard it was going to be.” 

And she had a message to deliver: “I wanted all people to know they can accomplish anything they set their minds to! Something like this brings out more in you than what you thought you had inside.” 

Soon after she finished with the cycling season in fall 2009, Davis put her bike away and focused her entire existence on making history by doing the unimaginable — climbing Kilimanjaro. 

Although there are good hiking trails near Carlsbad, no mountains are available to practice on. So Davis’s weekly schedule consisted of pushing her chair up and down hilly streets, hiking with her new climb team on dirt trails, stretching, core strength training in the gym, getting educated on nutrition and learning the science of the mind’s performance during an ascent. (That last piece of her training proved to be probably the most valuable to the team.)

Colours Wheelchair designed a chair specifically for Davis and her team. It came equipped with Magic Wheels, which allowed her to use the 2:1 geared hub to propel up inclines by exerting half the effort. The team would use tether ropes and push bars on terrain she was unable to maneuver on her own. When the mountain trails became impassable, modified bars that slide through the arm rests allowed porters to carry her in the chair over rocky paths and boulders. To keep her secure in the chair, she used a seatbelt around her waist and a strap that went around her ankles. She also had her regular manual chair along for use while in camp.

At Last

Davis and her team arrived in Tanzania, Africa, in January 2010. Excitement was in the air, and they could hardly wait until daybreak to get their first real glimpses of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

The team consisted of Gates, executive producer and mastermind of the project; Chris Theibert and Matt Peters from Captured Life Productions, who were in charge of filming the documentary; Philip Chester, the photographer; Zach Ralphs, a rep from; Penny Crozier, CEO of the C.H.E.K. Institute; and Tara Butcher, a below-the-knee amputee.

Accompanying them was the Thompson Safari Team, which featured three guides and an entourage of 33 porters who were a vital component to the climb. Not only were they responsible for carrying all the equipment (tents, supplies, food, wheelchair, tires, etc.) and setting up and taking down camp each day but they were also there to assist Davis with the climb when the terrain got really tough. The whole project would’ve been impossible without them.

After spending a day in Tanzania, the next morning they headed out for the mountain.

“We’re going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro,” Davis said under her breath. It finally felt real to her. This was actually happening!

The Climb

Throughout the climb they covered five different terrains while experiencing some of the rare beauty of Africa. Day one started out in the rain forests of northeastern Tanzania. The sun shined brightly through the canopy of trees and monkeys hustled around overhead. Temperatures rose above 80° when they started. The trails that wound through the thick forest were meant for hiking, not wheeling, but it was passable with some assistance from the team. This is what they all trained for. This is what they expected in the days to come. They hiked seven to nine hours a day for the first two days.

 “I was up between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. every day — an hour before the others so I could do my personal care to get ready for the day,” Davis says. “We would get to bed between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. at night. We were completely exhausted!” 

As they approached the end of day two, Davis took notice of the view — “I can see the floor of Africa” — appreciating how far she’d already come.

On day two Davis and her team were already feeling the effects of the altitude on their systems. Breathing was noticeably harder and nausea was creeping in. She remembers the first signs of sickness in her stomach on day four around 13,000 feet.

 “It was important to bring along snacks we liked to make it easier to force ourselves to keep eating. ‘Erica’s bag of Halloween candy’ is what the team called my stash of goodies,” Davis says. “It was also crucial to drink much more water than you normally would, and you know how much people with SCI like to drink water,” she says sarcastically. “Fortunately, we were the only travel company on the mountain to bring a portable bathroom, which the porters would set up and take down every day.”

The camps provided the bare necessities for the team while on the mountain. There was no electricity, heat or running water so they used wet wipes to get off as much of the grime and dirt as possible. The porters brought warm water in the evenings.

 “The first and fourth nights we were all in the same room on bunk beds,” Davis says. “But on nights two and three we stayed three to four people in a hut, which also housed our clothes, my wheelchairs, the video and camera equipment, and supplies. And on the fifth and sixth nights we were two to a tent. The food, though, was quite surprising for up that high on the mountain. There was fresh fruit every day.”

The third day was a day of rest — a time to acclimate to the elevation before going farther. As they ascended the scenery changed from lush foliage and wildlife to drier tundra and alpine desert-like conditions. It got colder, with more rocks and boulders showing up in their path. Eventually, they faced snow and glaciers as they neared the summit. 

“We started out in tanks and shorts and ended up with every layer of clothing we brought,” Davis says. “That made the going really tough.”

The next couple of days put Davis, her chair, and the team through a true test of strength. The desert-like terrain gave way to the steepest and narrowest trails they had yet to contend with, and the team was at a point where they were no longer able to assist Davis. The porters had to take over.

“I had to put a lot of trust in people I didn’t know,” she says. “It was draining emotionally because I didn’t have the team around me, and I only knew 20 to 30 words of Swahili, so it was very hard for me.” 

Headaches, nausea, and complete exhaustion began to take hold of the team. Everyone moved slower, each step being thought out before being carefully placed. 

“They say about 60% of the people who attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro actually make it to the summit, and by this point we had already seen four people being carried down on stretchers,” says Davis. “That was an intimidating feeling. I had to keep going. You’re up there on the side of a mountain — when you are that far, there is only one direction to go, and that is up.”

Push to the Summit…

The dawn of day six was spectacular. It also shed light on the most challenging day of hiking. The camp stirred at 6:30 a.m., with temperatures plunging into the single digits.

“At this point I was cold all the time,” Davis says. “I had on almost every piece of clothing I brought, and I still felt the cold ache in my bones. Every time we stopped, one of my team members had to sit on my lap to help keep me warm.”

After 11 hours of arduous climbing, they finally reached the camp that would be their last stop before attempting to summit the next morning. It was still an hour before sunset, and the team debated whether they could continue on that day or not.

“We’re doing it!” Erica said with a rush of excitement.  And with a renewed surge of adrenaline, the team pressed on. 

Sometime around 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 31, Davis and the team made it to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

“The team carried me out of my chair to the point of the summit to take pictures near the celebrated summit sign,” Davis says. “Warmth filled us as the realization of what we accomplished surged through our tired and freezing bodies.”

There was only one small problem now. The climb wasn’t over. The sun had just set, and they had to get back down to camp, in the dark, with temperatures falling well below zero.

“I cried from the intense pain of being so cold,” Davis says. “When we reached camp, I went straight to my sleeping bag without dinner. It was the sickest I had felt yet.”

The next morning Davis woke up with a terrible headache.

“The first couple of hours of the climb down I was not quite with it because of the pain in my head,” she says.

The way down was on a different trail than the one they came up. And when they reached the bottom, a day and a half later, the native porters bade farewell with a celebration song and dance for the team.

“The porters were what made this climb possible,” says Davis. “We couldn’t have done it without them!”


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