• Comment

Teacher summits Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for cancer

Posted: October 11, 2017 - 2:20am  |  Updated: October 12, 2017 - 10:05am
Back | Next
Shirley Tharp spreads ashes of six people who lost their battle to cancer at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Shirley Tharp spreads ashes of six people who lost their battle to cancer at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

One more step, you can always take one more step.

It's one of the lessons Shirley Tharp learned when the air got thin and the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro seemed out of reach.

Tharp, a special education teacher at Grovetown High School, said her motivation to take those steps was motivated by a deeper mission, to bring hope and prayer to those battling cancer and survivors.

Tharp prepared for months to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to deliver different colors of prayer ribbons representing a variety of cancers family and friends survived or are still battling.

"Each color represented whatever type of cancer they were affected by. I had red, and yellow, blue and green, especially for liver cancer, I had several of those and lung cancer as well," Tharp said of the ribbons. "Each person was represented by a ribbon and I did a moment of silence and a little prayer and took pictures up there as well."

Tharp said she took 20 prayer ribbons, representing hope for 19 people and one dog. She also carried the ashes of six people who sadly lost their battles to cancer, and spread them at the summit.

One of the six was Tharp's brother-in-law who passed away just six months prior to her hike. The other five were family and friends of a friend Tharp met during her training for the hike at the Wilson Family YMCA.

"She asked me to take those folks, those adventurous folks to the summit with me," Tharp said.

The journey to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and the challenges that came with the hike is a struggle that Tharp said changed her life, motivated by the prayer and hope she was delivering to the summit.

Tharp traveled by herself to Tanzania in July, where she was paired up with a group of six other hikers and a group of 18 guides and porters who helped get the group up the mountain.

"When I arrived in Africa, I found out that I had a couple from Sweden and I had a family from Idaho and a single woman, a teacher from New York, in our group," Tharp said. "So we all got together and talked about our experiences hiking and the family from Idaho had just decided to come four days prior, so it was like spur of the moment for them. It was a dad and his two children, a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old on our hike. The rest of us were more experienced hikers."

Tharp said the entire hike to the summit was only 35 miles, but the altitude, low oxygen levels and freezing temperatures, created slow and grueling conditions.

"The challenges were not knowing what to expect, because the iconic pictures that you see of this huge flat top mountain with a giraffe in front of it. You don't see that in Tanzania, you see that from the Kenya side," Tharp said.

After a day's hike through the rainforest, Tharp said it hit her and the group how large the mountain was.

"You come around this corner and then the foliage opens up and you see this massive mountain in front of you," Tharp recalled, adding that the most difficult day of the trip was summit day.

"On summit night, we started at midnight, we had three guides for the seven of us, who told us what to wear. Of course, they're the experts, so we put six layers on top, four layers on the bottom. For me that ended up being too much. After about half an hour, I was dripping sweat," Tharp said, adding that with temperatures were below five degrees and wind gusts off of a nearby glacier at 30 mph, it was unsafe.

As the rest of the group carried on up the mountain, Tharp and one of the guides, John, stayed behind for her to remove several layers of clothing.

Tharp said it took eight hours for her and John to catch back up with her group at the center rim, which was still an hour from the summit.

"People were passing us going back down wearing oxygen masks, they were being hustled off the mountain," Tharp said, recalling the point when she began to question continuing on.

"The mental aspect, you have to overcome. At that altitude, you can't breathe because there is only 53 percent of the oxygen that you're used to. So you're body is like ‘no, don't do this.' It's mental, it's one foot in front of the other, just do it again and again."

From the center rim, Tharp said the summit was in sight and only 700 yards away, but due to the slow steps, it took another hour to travel the short distance.

"It was very emotional," Tharp recalled through tears, of the ribbons ceremony and spreading the ashes at the summit. "I was just glad that I could do it and be there for them. They were adventurous people, but were unable to make the climb."

In addition to her brother-in-law, Tharp said others included in the prayer ribbons was a 1-year-old who underwent a liver transplant after being born with cancer.

"I took a prayer ribbon for him because he was born with liver cancer, so he had a liver transplant, initially it's successful, so we are hoping," Tharp said.

Another woman, whose father is battling liver cancer, received the ribbon in the mail that Tharp carried to the summit in his name. When she returned Tharp mailed the ribbon to the man, who was unaware of her mission.

"(His daughter) took a video of him opening up the envelope because he did not know that I was doing this," Tharp said. "So that when the mail came, she gave him the mail and I had written a note. They took a video and he was reading the note and he started crying. And today his treatments are working."

Tharp found more than healing and hope for those she carried ribbons for to the summit, she also learned her own lessons.

Tharp recalled the support from her guides who affectionately dubbed her Bibi, which was Swahili for "grandmother."

"On summit night, many times, I thought I was done, and I talked to my guide, and I said ‘you know John, this is really hard.' The entire trip the guides and the porters would call me Bibi and he'd say ‘Bibi, you strong like Simba, so do this,'" Tharp recalled. "So I learned about never giving up no matter what happens."

And never giving up is a lesson that Tharp was able to put into practice, after years of teaching the same lesson to her special education students.

And now she can add to that lesson, to always take one more step.

"You can always take one more step," Tharp said.

 

  • Comment