Courage among the clouds of Kilimanjaro

By Leslie Kostal
April 12, 2012

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STAFF profile bourdeauContributed photo
Cara Bourdeau, Western’s pension and benefits consultant, stands with her husband, Tobias, at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest solitary peak in the world, at 19,340 feet.

On the fifth day of a seven day route, at 11 p.m., a line of hikers’ headlamps zig-zag slowly up the trail. Later, at sunrise, with nauseous laborious breath and tough arduous steps, darkness cedes to scattered new-day colours on the horizon. At the highest solitary peak in the world, at 19,340 feet, Cara Bourdeau, Western’s pension and benefits consultant, stood with her husband at the top of Africa.

“I think I was awestruck. I didn’t know what to expect to see,” Bourdeau said.

At the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the view was cloud, horizon and glaciers. Because the air is so thin, and altitude sickness is literally at its peak, climbers don’t linger.

“The funny thing with altitude is the faster you come back down the better you feel step by step,” Bourdeau said. “And so depending on how poorly you’re feeling, you really just want to get off.”

As a previous Outward Bound Canada graduate – an organization built on developing skills and strengths using natural environments – Bourdeau received an email about a fundraising opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro for the organization’s Women of Courage (WOC) program.  The more she learned about WOC, the more passionate she and her husband, Tobias, became about supporting such a unique approach to helping survivors of abuse.

In addition, the recent passing of a dear friend made them become more contemplative about making the most of each day. “It wasn’t just a personal experience, but a chance to give back,” she added. “I had tremendous support from my department, from the Western community, from colleagues and friends across campus.”

They also had a large local support network from Tanzania who climbed with the group.  “Tourism is huge,” she said, “and the support they provide climbers helps their community economically.”

The trail commences in a rain forest where monkeys jump through trees and incredible tropical plants grow alongside a well-marked path. Then, as terrain changes, hikers climb through different climate zones.

“The higher you go, the poorer the air quality,” Bourdeau explained. “Each day we were hiking for six to eight hours, but not always with the goal of achieving higher altitude. The biggest gains would have been the first day and then the stretch to summit.”

The climbers mostly nibbled throughout the day on fruit, eggs and snacks – rarely stopping for a proper lunch – with soup, pasta and rice for dinner.

“The poop jokes started almost immediately,” she laughed. Because of the effects of altitude sickness, it’s a really good sign of how one’s body is coping. “You truly do leave all modesty at the door.”

Drinking lots of water was essential and during cold nights, it was difficult to get out of a warm sleeping bag to go to the bathroom. But on Bourdeau’s second tent exit on her first night, she looked up at the sky.

“It was just clear, littered with glitter and the mountain was right there. The glacier was lit up by the moon. I really wanted to wake someone up and share this,” she said.

One part of the trek is the hazardous Barranco Wall – three hours of hands and feet. “That was probably the most dangerous section. But Kilimanjaro is called ‘Every Man’s Mountain’ because it’s a hike,” Bourdeau said. “If you can go slow and steady, handle some discomfort and manage the altitude sickness, then it is doable.”

Before the climb, she received a suggested fitness plan. With day packs on their backs, she and her husband practiced around London, as she says, “looking goofy with hiking poles and backpacks.”

Luckily, the only accident by a fellow climber was mistaking a malaria pill for a water treatment tablet. “I think that was the extent of our drama,” she said.

Everyone on the team was on a personal journey and supported one another in different ways, especially for those on the team who were abuse survivors. It was uncomfortable on the mountain and most would rather have had a warm bath and bed to climb into.

“But these are small discomforts compared to the people who are going to go through the Women of Courage program,” she said. The team raised more than $121,000 for their cause.

According to Bourdeau, you really start to change your focus.  She set out by striving to make it to summit. That changed on the mountain by hoping to make it through a day.

“Let me enjoy making it through this day,” she remembered thinking, “because I don’t know what tomorrow brings.

“Which I think, in so many aspects of our life, we lose sight of.”

Leslie Kostal, web administrative assistant, Department of Economics, writes periodic pieces profiling Western staff members. If you, or someone you know, has an interesting story to tell, email her at


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