An Aussie schoolgirl finds an unbeatable source of strength and motivation to tackle a record breaking mountain climb on Kilimanjaro – and support a cause.
On 8 December 2018, twelve-year-old Sarah Gowdey became the youngest Australian ever to summit Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro. Sarah is in Grade 6 at a school in Singapore, and we recently spoke with her mum, Kate, who completed the successful climb with Sarah, not only about the adventure, but also about the inspiration and important cause behind it.
How long have you been in Asia, and what brought you here?
We moved here in 2007, when Sarah was 12 months old. My husband David was working with Yahoo! at the time and the company asked him to relocate. We now have three wonderful children, Sarah (12), James (9) and Isabelle (7), and we love living in Singapore and exploring the region together as a family.
What kind of fitness background did you both have prior to the climb?
I’m an ultra-trail runner and have competed all over the world, from Australia to Greenland. I’ve also run several marathons and triathlons, and have recently been active in hiking adventures with Amazing Trekkers Club (ATC, trekkersworld.com), a group of strong, inspiring woman from around the world. Sarah is very active. She plays soccer four times a week, and trains with the school gymnastics team five hours weekly.
Sarah and I did a strength training session together every Saturday for a couple of months leading up to our adventure. We also walked around the jungle trails of Singapore as often as we could so Sarah could get used to trails and her hiking boots. Closer to our trip, we both joined the ATC girls on a training hike to Gunung Lambak, a mountain in Malaysia.
Why were you keen to raise awareness and money for ovarian cancer on the climb?
My mother – Sarah’s grandmother – Toni Planinsek passed away in August 2018 from ovarian cancer, just before her 71st birthday. She was the most amazing woman and I’m so proud of her accomplishments, strength and positivity.
Mum was a three-time breast cancer survivor. During her last breast cancer diagnosis in 2016, they also discovered ovarian cancer. She fought hard again and even managed to stop chemo long enough to take two of her grandchildren – Sarah and my niece Charlotte – to Paris for their tenth birthdays. Sarah had the most amazing week with her Grandmother and they had such a special relationship. We are heartbroken, as Mum sadly didn’t win this last battle.
Mum supported many charities, including for breast cancer research, and I’ve raised money for research with some of my running adventures. Sarah and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro together with Hazleen, the founder of ATC, her daughter Zoe and eight other amazing women to honour my mother’s life and raise money for ovarian cancer research. We had a wonderful team that supported Sarah and Zoe the entire journey with songs, encouragement and love.
We originally set a goal of A$2,000, but we were able to raise more than double that amount, which is great. I hope it will help Ovarian Cancer Australia to save more lives. It’s very difficult to detect this cancer early, so increasing the awareness of symptoms is important; ultimately, though, we need to find a cure so no one else needs to lose their mum or grandma to the disease.
Had you or Sarah been to Africa before?
This was our first time. We have both fallen in love with Tanzania and its people. Africa is now in our hearts and we can’t wait to visit again with the rest of our family.
We had so many lovely porters and guides. Happyson was Sarah and Zoe’s guide; he was amazing with the girls. The guides would sing every time we reached a new camp and help keep our energy levels up. The food was great, we had plenty of water and many comforts that we hadn’t anticipated. We couldn’t have done it without them.
Sarah and I are very close, but I’ve developed a whole new appreciation for how much determination she has. It was a very hard climb, but she never complained. She was very focused – making sure we were all drinking enough water, for example – but also a lot of fun; I was just so impressed.
What does climbing Kilimanjaro involve?
Determination, strength and a strong team. Plenty of patience and laugher were also essential to successfully get through the daily hiking challenges and some awful weather conditions.
I was surprised at the diversity of the terrain and how quickly you can go from being hot to freezing. We were constantly removing layers of clothing and then replacing them. One day we were hiking through the dense jungle, and the next it would open up to the windy plains of the desert.
The porters and guides were lovely and so helpful. Happyson was very professional and made sure Sarah was safe for the entire journey. I knew how determined and strong Sarah is, so I never really questioned her ability.
What are the biggest challenges of the climb?
If we could inspire one person to get off their iPad and do something extraordinary then that would be great. You don’t have to climb a mountain; maybe you could just try something you haven’t done before. The key is setting a big goal and then creating a plan to achieve it. If it’s a big goal, it will take a lot of work – but it’s worth it.
Sarah and I went on this adventure with no preconceived expectations. It was about the journey for us, not reaching the summit. One of my main concerns was altitude sickness but we planned well for this by taking a slightly longer route to acclimatise better. My husband also organised a satellite phone, so we could send daily updates and contact an SOS service in case anything happened. I was unsure how the altitude would affect us, but we were fortunate not to suffer symptoms.
The most difficult section was Barranco Wall. It’s a very technical climb – a steep part of the mountain face where you have to traverse a narrow path. It’s called the “kissing rock” because your face touches the mountain as you pull yourself up. Sarah and Zoe were the first to reach the top of this wall – amazing!
What would you say was your most memorable moment on the mountain?
I know it sounds cliché, but the most memorable moment was climbing to the summit with Sarah and our inspiring ATC team members. The summit push was difficult – it was minus 7 degrees Celsius, windy and snowing. We set off at midnight in the dark and walked for hours through difficult weather conditions; I was worried about Sarah, but she was so focused and we all just kept moving forward.
The sunrise gave us renewed energy. It was an emotional moment watching the sun come up out of the clouds – it really took my breath away. Walking with Sarah from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak, the highest point, was very challenging, with magnificent glaciers surrounding us on either side.
I know mum was with us every step of the way. Whenever we see a rainbow we think of her; some of the girls saw a rainbow when we were on the trek, so I know she was there, looking out for us both. She would be so proud and happy that we had a go and made it home safely.
Do you have plans for new adventures – or, indeed, new ways to bring attention to ovarian cancer?
Sarah and I now have the hiking “bug”! We’ve recently decided to climb Snow Mountain (Xueshan) in Taiwan. We will continue to raise money for ovarian cancer research with our adventures.
About ovarian cancer
Each year, more than 1,600 women in Australia will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In Hong Kong, it’s the six commonest cancer among females, and it accounted for just under four percent of all new cancer cases in females here in 2015.
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