District communications director Michelle Karpinski fulfills dream of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

Michelle Karpinski, the Community Relations Manager for Portage Public Schools, is an adventurous person. Far more than that led her to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, fulfilling a dream that was, at the same time, two years and an entire lifetime in the making. 

Ever since she was a child, Michelle has had a love for hiking and outdoor activities. She carried this love into adulthood and parenthood, sharing it with her husband and two boys, both PN grads. They often went backpacking together, gaining experience that led to her being chosen by the Scout counsel to accompany a group of Eagle Scouts and Girl Scouts to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, the trip never happened: due to COVID-19, the trip was canceled. 

The students who were supposed to go on the trip graduated and went on to be adults, but Kilimanjaro stayed in Michelle’s heart. Hovering in the back of her mind, she never thought a second chance to climb the mountain would become reality. Then, in October 2021, Michelle and her husband attended a wedding where she and some other guests made small talk about some of the past adventures they had been on and shared aspirations about the ones they had yet to come. Her conversation partners shared that they were planning a charity climb on Kilimanjaro that December, but the fourth member of their team was injured. The trip was already thoroughly planned, and they needed another person to do the climb. They needed someone like Michelle.

Even though training time was short and the trip would take her around the world, it wasn’t hard for her to make her decision. “[It] was the opportunity to say yes and take advantage of that dream that I had never thought was going to happen,” she recalled. 

Preparations began right away, and she only had six weeks to be mountain-ready. Before finding out about the climb, she had already been training for a 100-mile bike ride, which proved to be an intense training well suited for her climbing venture. She amped up her training intensity, and because an ascent of Kilimanjaro requires arduous hiking, she started practicing that specifically. One day, she hiked from Gobles to South Haven along the Kal-Haven Trail – a distance of 22 miles – wearing heavy backpacks full of supplies that she might carry during the climb. Unlike the other Seven Summits, Mount Kilimanjaro isn’t a technical climb. However, there are still difficult parts that would prove challenging to a beginning backpacker. “You definitely want to have some experience, but it’s definitely doable for us mere mortals,” Michelle shared. 

Getting ready was not without its challenges. In addition to how tough the training was,  Michelle suffered from arthritis in her knees that she pushed through with hours upon hours of stair stepping and physical therapy. Keeping the goal in mind, she kept pushing through, and when the time came, she was ready. 

Before long, the 6 weeks were up and it was time to head to Moshie, the town by Kilimanjaro National Park. Michelle flew from Chicago to Doha (7121 miles) and then from Doha to Kilimanjaro (2212 miles). The flight took 20 hours in total. 

Once they were there, while they were driving through town, people on the street would come up and talk to them.Everybody was so welcoming and you never felt uncomfortable or like you were a strange person,” she said. 

The townspeople had a positive impact on her and her team’s Mount Kilimanjaro experience. They, in turn, had a positive impact on the local economy, as trips such as the Mount Kilimanjaro climb support it. The jobs trips like these provide meant that Michelle and the rest of the people climbing had a whole team of porters, guides, and a chef to support them and help make sure they were successful in their endeavor.

During the day when they climbed, all they had to carry was backpacks with rain gear, snacks, and water. Everything else, such as their tents, sleeping bags, and other equipment needed to make their food was carried by their porters and guides. “We were really excited to get to know the porters and guides as actual people,” Michelle shared. “It wasn’t just flying in, doing our thing, and then leaving.” 

Click the black circles above to see Michelle’s progress at each of the camps on her way to the summit. Illustration by Abby Hosler.

The entire climb, up and down, took 8 days. In order to acclimate to the altitude on Mount Kilimanjaro, they would climb up during the day, advancing about four or five miles, then go back down the mountain a little to sleep. This gave their bodies more time to adjust to the lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes, a process called acclimatization in mountaineering. The guides were always telling them to “polepole,” which in Swahili means slow. Ascending too fast would put climbers at risk for altitude sickness, which can lead to fatal conditions like cerebral edema. 

On day three of the climb, one of Michelle’s fellow climbers started showing symptoms of altitude sickness and needed more time to acclimate. The climb that day was extra slow. When they got to camp, he rolled right into his sleeping bag and went straight to sleep. “We were all very worried about him,” Michelle remembered. 

Although the guides carry oxygen with them, they were hesitant to administer it because it would undo all the previous acclimation that her teammate had made. If he didn’t start getting better, he would have to be taken back down the mountain. Fortunately, overnight he pulled through. “I don’t know how he did it,” Michelle said. “It was just sheer determination.”

Mid-journey, on December 9,  Michelle celebrated her 58th birthday. That day, they climbed the Barranco wall. The whole team was exhausted after dinner and just wanted to go to bed.  Little did they know that when the team’s guides and chef found out about her birthday, they sent someone back down the mountain to get a dutch oven and other ingredients to make her something special. 

After dinner, they surprised her with a birthday cake. “I was so happy I cried,” Michelle shared. “It just made me feel really loved by our crew, knowing they would go through all that trouble just for me.” They all sang happy birthday to her in both English and Swahili. 

The day they made it to the summit, the group had gone to sleep at 6:00 in the afternoon because they would have to wake up at 11:30 p.m. to be ready to leave by midnight. At 11:00 p.m, Michelle woke up early to start her summit day and was greeted by below-freezing temperatures and snow blowing sideways. It was a blizzard. 

When they started the climb at midnight, the weather had calmed down, but it was pitch black outside so they all had to wear headlamps for visibility along the steep, long ledge. They each had a guide carrying their backpacks, and during breaks, they would be given food and water by the guides. 

At 3:40 a.m, after over three hours of steep hiking, one of the guides told them they were over halfway there. That’s when Michelle made the mistake of looking up and seeing the headlamps of another group that was ahead of them. The other group’s headlamps were so far up that she became discouraged and wondered if she would be able to get to where they are. “I decided in my mind that my only job in the world at that moment was to just put one foot in front of the other and not think about anything else,” she shared. “I would just keep doing that until we got there.” 

Michelle made this video to document her summit adventure. Video courtesy of Michelle Karpinski.

And get there she did. Reaching the summit was great because that was truly the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,,” she said. After they came down from the climb, they had lunch with their team and all got a certificate saying that they had successfully climbed mount Kilimanjaro. “I learned that your dreams might not happen for you when you think they should, and that can be disappointing, but don’t give up on it,” she shared.