Conquering Kilimanjaro for Dad

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“Because it’s there,” was what mountaineer George Mallory said in 1923 in response to a question about why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. Mallory never made it all to way to the top, but both the question and his answer get to the basic truth that climbing a mountain is not an easy thing to do. So for those who choose to take on the challenge, there’s likely a reason why.

Climbing a mountain wasn’t always in Sydney Gelhorn’s plans. Not that she isn’t usually up for a good adventure, because she is. She got that from her father, Greg. “Growing up my dad was my absolute best friend,” she says. “He was the stay-at-home parent in my house, so especially when I was a kid, I did just about everything with him until I got into school.”

Throughout my childhood I just had a much closer relationship with him than almost anybody in my life. We really bonded over being active and having a really high sense of adventure. We always loved to hike together and try new things. The adventure side of life.”

Sydney’s father was diagnosed with ALS in April of 2017, but it did not stop him from living the rest of his life to the fullest and encouraging others to do the same. He lived by the motto "Spread the Love" and encouraged everyone to keep in close touch with their friends, family, and other loved ones. Sydney knew ALS could not take away her dad’s love of adventure, and she wanted to find a way to continue that love even when he no longer could.

“He just wanted to do everything, well not everything, but try all these new things. See these amazing places,” Sydney says. “So a couple of months before my dad passed away, I sat down with him and asked him 'What's on your bucket list?' Because in my head I'm like, ‘someday I'd love to complete my dad's bucket list,’ and try to do all the things he wanted to do and see all the things he wanted to see.”

Her father passed away in September 2018, and Sydney is determined to honor his memory and his love of adventure in how she lives her life. She had her dad’s bucket list and managed to knock off a couple of items when she could; she took a hot air balloon ride and went skydiving. But there was one big item on his list, both literally and figuratively: climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. So when she was following one of her own dreams by studying abroad in Tanzania, she decided she had to climb the mountain, not because it was there, but for her dad.

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Sydney quickly found out climbing a mountain is not easy, or cheap. She brought equal parts of determination to both challenges and turned her adventure into a fundraising opportunity in support of The ALS Association to honor the support they provided to her dad and her family. As her climb approached in December 2022, she got one more dose of inspiration.

“A day or two before I climbed, I reached my (fundraising goal), and that was a really great reminder of the entire reason why I decided to do the climb for ALS,” she says. “Honestly, climbing a mountain wasn't really on my radar, but it was more the inspiration of my dad and what he loved to do. Of having these adventures and doing things that seem crazy to most. And it was really inspiration from him and knowing how he loved to live that made me want to do it.”

Kilimanjaro is a large mountain that takes multiple days to climb. While Sydney was climbing as part of a larger group with the support of guides and porters, no one can get you up the mountain but yourself.

Even as an active 21-year-old, Sydney discovered that the mountain would test her physical and mental resolve.

“Every day was significantly different,” she recalls. “The first day was through a rainforest and it was stunning and gorgeous and not super difficult. Then the second day was entirely straight up climbing rocks all day. Every time I looked up, I disappointed myself and I kept asking myself ‘Why do you keep looking up? What's the point?’ It's going to be uphill. Straight up, more rocks to climb.”

As with many climbers, Sydney faced challenges with altitude. She had barely any appetite and had trouble keeping food down when she did eat. But the climbing team worked hard to keep everyone’s spirits up, and she made it to the summit. “It was really surreal making it to the top. But it kind of didn't hit until after I climbed all the way down the mountain,” Sydney says. “I was really excited, really happy, proud of myself.”

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The following day when they got back to the hotel, the realization of her amazing accomplishment really set in. “I looked back at my Facebook page of what I posted before I left and then started crafting something for after and I just started sobbing. I called my mom, and I was like 'Mom, I did that.'”

There are more items on Greg’s bucket list, and it will take some time to try and tick them off, but Sydney would like to try. “His list is definitely combined with mine. I have absorbed it into my own," she says. “I know my dad would be super proud that I keep traveling as much as I possibly can, and I keep trying to go live my life and do things that make me happy and things that would remind me of him. I'm sure he's really, really proud and just ecstatic that I'm still going out there and living life with even more vigor, probably now more than ever, because life is short.”

To continue to follow stories about people living with ALS in the community and learn more about the disease, subscribe to receive our weekly blogs in your inbox HERE or follow us at als.org/blog.

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