Dexter Pair Push Beyond Themselves to Summit Mt. Kilimanjaro

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Amy (L) and Amanda on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, elevation 19,341.

By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter

Mountains have always been places for people to test their strength, pushing beyond their limits to reach the summit. Those who climbed their heights have often spoken of the transformational change they have experienced. Such is the case for a mother-daughter duo who recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“I saw an ad on social media for an expedition to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, and it was one of those moments where something catches your attention as a good idea,” recalls Amy Ramsey.

Amy and her daughter, Amanda Lesser, signed up for the climb led by Swarner Expeditions & Adventures. The adventure company was founded by cancer survivor and inspirational speaker Sean Swarner. I caught up with Amy and Amanda at Joe & Rosie’s in Dexter to hear more about their recent adventure.

“We always had it in the back of our thinking that it would be nice to climb Kilimanjaro,” says Amy. “Amanda missed most of her junior year, all of her senior year, and didn’t get a traditional graduation. I thought this adventure would make a great mother-daughter trip that could give her the strong send-off into the world that she missed with high school.”

At 19,341 feet elevation in Tanzania, Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa. The duo's climb began at 7,000 feet and took a week to reach the top. While no technical equipment is required on the trek up the peak, the tremendous effort it takes for a successful summit can be daunting, even for experienced climbers. But as climbers quickly learn, the reward is directly proportional to the pain and effort exerted into the ascent.

Mt. Kilimanjaro’s solitary rise above the African plain has inspired stories from the oral traditions of ancient tribes to Hemmingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“People thought that if we’re climbing Kilimanjaro that we must be avid hikers,” says Amanda. “We do occasionally walk a trail. Most of the people in our Kilimanjaro group had climbed multiple mountains, but not us.”

Amanda and her mother were about to discover what others on their team already knew and kept them coming back to the mountains. As adventurist Dora Keen said in 1913 of her second attempt on Mr. Blackburn in Alaska, the mountain’s first ascent, “I was going again because I had need of courage and inspiration and because on the high mountains, I find them as nowhere else.”

The pair prepared for their trip with long hikes, carrying a 20-pound pack. Amanda had foundational conditioning from playing sports in high school. Amy lifted weights to strengthen her legs.

The climatic day of their three-week trip arrived after days of tedious hiking, fighting off fatigue, and the effects of high altitude. To reach the top on summit day, they would have to hike a grueling 11 hours up and four hours back down to their camp for the night.

Tree line on Kilimanjaro is 10,200-feet elevation leaving over 9,000 feet of rocky terrain to ascend.

“There were times I felt dead,” recalls Amanda. “I had nothing more to give physically. But in those moments, I gave myself no choice but to keep going. I’ve made it this far, and I’m not going to stop. I had to push myself like never before.”

“It was harder than childbirth,” says Amy. “The most challenging part is the mental talk you have within yourself while doing it. Everything inside of you is screaming to stop. Let one of the guides take you back down. You find a way to overcome that.”

Amy and Amanda reached the summit. It was a relatively brief visit, about 25 minutes, compared to the time to get there. “We were so cold and tired out up there,” says Amanda. “We were ready to come down.”

“It just blows my mind how we are all capable of so much more than we believe ourselves to be,” says Amy. “When we think we’re at the very end and done, we’re just beginning. The body and the mind are capable of so much more, and that gives me chills.”

Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to summit Mt. Everest, is credited with saying, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

Amy Ramsey holding the flag with the names of those who helped sponsor cancer survivors for the climb as well as the names of climbers’ loved ones lost to cancer.

“And you’re working on that inward change while you’re climbing, but you don’t realize it,” says Amy. “It’s not a conscious thing until you get down.”

The adventure had an even deeper significance for the mother and daughter. A portion of the proceeds from the trip are used to support cancer survivors and elevate cancer awareness. For Amy, this had a deep, personal meaning.

“My dad and my sister both passed away at young ages from pancreatic cancer,” she explains. “It was a double motivator for me to get up to the top with their names on our flag.”

Amy also used the trip to assist the University of Michigan’s ongoing East Africa Rift Isotope Study. She took high-altitude water samples, which UM will use in studying climate change.

In listening to Amy and Amanda describe their trip, it is impossible to miss the profound effect the climb has had on their lives. Kilimanjaro was not simply a singular adventure for the mother and daughter but a metaphor for life itself. As Maurice Herzog, the French alpinist who first broke the 26,000-foot barrier by summiting Annapurna, famously stated, “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.”

The three-week trip included a three-day safari.

It is this self-discovery, this realization of one’s own ability to take on challenges greater than themselves, that makes the experience so intense. In many ways, it becomes a new understanding of oneself, a new birth.

“It’s possible to take anything uncomfortable or fearful and instead of avoiding it, surpass it,” Amy explains. “You then find yourself in new territory. You’ve just transcended what you were. It opens up everything.”

Amanda concurs with her mother, adding, “The trip helps me put things into perspective, what I worry about and get stressed over.”

Amy has taken this idea to heart. Every day has its summits. “Do the hard thing first,” she says. “Every day when you get up, do the hard thing first. Before you know it, there’s nothing to fear because you’re getting it out of the way first.”

In the early 1920s, George Mallory led three unsuccessful attempts to be the first to climb Mt. Everest, the world’s highest peak. In preparing for a fourth expedition, in which he would disappear high up on Everest, Mallory was asked by a reporter why he was returning yet again to attempt the mountain. Mallory replied,

If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go.

Echoing Mallory, Amy asks, “What do we want to come away with when it’s all said and done? Do we want to be wasting every single day bickering about insignificant opinions? Or, do we want to do something great?”

Amanda (L) and Amy are already plotting their next adventure. Photo: Doug Marrin

Photos: Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Amanda Lesser

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