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To the summit of Kilimanjaro, with Dad

Posted by on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 in April 2012, Features.

Beth Ann Sastre, M.D., would never describe herself as an “adventure seeker,” but New Year’s Day found her at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, as the first sunrise of 2012 painted a brilliant orange across the horizon and all of Tanzania spread out below.

Four days of grueling hiking through rain, wind and cold had brought the assistant professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt’s Primary Care Clinic to 19,341 feet, the highest peak in Africa. About 20,000 people attempt the summit each year and nearly a third fail to reach it.

Sastre counts herself doubly successful—she conquered her own physical challenge and helped her father reach his lifelong goal of climbing Kilimanjaro.

“This was certainly out of my comfort zone and something I thought would really physically challenge me. I was excited about the opportunity to help my dad reach his dream and to do something I wasn’t quite sure I was physically capable of doing. But I was also very nervous about training and preparing and doing something really hard,” Sastre said.

Sastre’s father, Richard Copeland, is a business professor at Stetson University in Florida and would absolutely describe himself as an adventure seeker.

“I’ve rafted the Grand Canyon and been skydiving. I like to do unique things. It makes me feel more alive,” Copeland said. “Kilimanjaro was something I wanted to do a long time ago but thought my time had come and gone.”

Over the last six years, Copeland and Sastre have hiked about 200 miles of the Appalachian Trail together, in three-day stretches at a time, and that inspired them to tackle Kilimanjaro together.

Copeland started training 11 months out and Sastre at six months, with a combination of stair climbing, biking and strength training.

“I work a lot of hours, so it was just what I could fit in my schedule, probably five-six hours per week,” Sastre said. “I have to put in a plug for the Vanderbilt Orthopaedic Institute because when I started training I developed some knee pain. I ended up working with some physical therapists and trainers there. They all knew my story and everybody was incredibly encouraging in helping me get ready for this.”

Climbing with “Babu”

On Christmas Day, the pair flew from Nashville to Tanzania and began hiking on Dec. 28. They were in the company of nine other hikers from all over the world plus 42 support staff of guides and porters. At 64, Copeland was the oldest in the group, and Sastre the third oldest at 37.

“They were all marathon runners and Iron Man people, and I was very nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the group. But everybody was great and really excited about being there and trying to accomplish this,” Sastre said.

The group was also very excited to help Copeland reach his goal, and the staff took to calling him “Babu,” Swahili for “grandfather.”

Copeland thinks his age gave his fellow hikers some extra inspiration. “They had to make it to the top because I did!” he laughed.

The first five minutes of the hike were a glorious combination of excitement and nervousness. Then it began to rain. And the rain continued for three straight days. The guides enforced a slow pace that allowed for acclimation to the altitude.

“Those days were really hard because it rained pretty much non-stop. Day three was especially hard because we hiked up to 12,500 feet and a lot of us were starting to get a little altitude sickness and we were tired, wet, cold. And with so much cloud cover, you don’t have the benefit of seeing the views,” Sastre said.

Above 10,000 feet, a lack of oxygen can bring altitude sickness, which causes dizziness, headache, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, trouble sleeping and disorientation. It’s more uncomfortable than dangerous, but can progress to life-threatening pulmonary or cerebral edema. It affected everyone in the group to some degree, and Sastre had a stash of anti-nausea and anti-diarrheal medications she was “handing out like candy.”

Hikers carried a daypack while the porters hurried ahead with their duffel bags and everything needed to make camp—tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, food and water. Copeland carried a big bag of trail mix and would give out handfuls as the porters rushed by, 50-pound bags balanced on their heads.

On day four, the rain stopped, the clouds cleared and the goal was finally in sight.

“We were all feeling sick, but the sun came out and it made all the difference in the world. We felt like we could actually do this,” Sastre said.

The group hiked to base camp, ate dinner, rested and were awoken at 11 p.m. to start the overnight summit.

“We put on every stitch of clothing we had. I had two layers of socks, three layers of pants, three layers on top plus a down jacket, two pairs of gloves, two hats plus the hood of the jacket. I have never had so much clothing on, but I was glad I did because it was really bitter cold,” Sastre said.

Euphoria at the summit

The group set out at midnight but began to separate based on pace. Sastre, with a self-described “turtle pace,” held up the rear.

“It takes about six and a half hours to go from base camp up to the summit. You’re cold, exhausted, you can’t breathe, your heart is just pounding in your chest because there is so little oxygen. All I could think about was just putting one foot in front of the other,” Sastre said.

She literally broke it down step by step, convincing herself she could indeed put her right foot in front of her left, and then her left foot in front of her right.

“If I broke it down to that, it was doable. It was physically more demanding than anything I’ve ever done. I’ve never felt that exhausted in my life. It really becomes mind over body with your mind telling yourself you can do one more step.”

About 25 yards before the top, Sastre heard her father’s voice up ahead. He had moved at a faster pace but had taken more breaks, so they arrived evenly and were able to summit together.

“Euphoria” is the only word Copeland has to describe it.

“It took everything I had to get to the top. After 11 months of preparation, you go, ‘This is it. This is what it’s all about.’ And to get to do it with your daughter is even better,” he said.

At over 19,000 feet, they really began to feel the effects of altitude and were startlingly disoriented. Sastre was so confused she tried to start back down the mountain almost immediately after making it to the top. A guide stopped her to ask if she wanted a picture, and then she couldn’t remember where her camera was, so the guide looked through all of her pockets. She and her father had also planned to take a picture with a sign thanking her mother for her love and support, but completely forgot about the sign. Another couple had carried a flask of rum and planned to toast the New Year at the summit and also forgot.

“I was so discombobulated when I got to the top. Thank goodness the guide asked me because I would have gotten there and never had a picture,” Sastre said.

“I did it”

Because Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano, hikers can actually make a circle around the top rim of the crater to different peaks and vantage points. Copeland looked so good at the summit, Sastre encouraged him to continue on. She was beginning to cough up a frothy mixture indicative of pulmonary edema and needed to get to a lower elevation.

She climbed back down to base camp, crawled in a tent and fell asleep. Copeland followed three hours later. After another day and a half, they were off the mountain.

“I don’t think it actually really hit me until we got back to the hotel. I’d had a good night’s sleep and woke up the next morning and I realized I don’t have to train for Kilimanjaro anymore because I did it,” Sastre said.

“I’m so glad I did this, but for me it was more about helping my dad reach that goal. We all think we’re either too busy or too old or not in good enough shape to do something. But he had this goal and didn’t care how old he was or how out of shape he was, he did what it took to reach the goal. It’s inspiring to see somebody not allow life’s circumstances to limit what they want to do.”

“We did it together and that is something nobody can ever take away,” Copeland said. “I’ll always have my daughter to share this with. It wouldn’t have happened without her.”

The duo doesn’t have their next adventure planned yet, and Sastre hopes they can keep it to lower elevations, but Copeland wants to hike the 220-mile length of the Thames River in England and eventually hike to Machu Picchu in Peru.

“I want people to know they can do more than they realize they can, whether it is climbing a mountain or walking around the block,” Copeland said. “If you try and give it 110 percent, even if you fail, you will eventually be satisfied because you gave it your all.”

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