Retha Charette wears many hats.
The 30-year-old works at the One World Conservation Center, an educational nature reserve in Bennington, Vermont. She’s a part-time program coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters and a nanny. She skates for Southshire Roller Derby and serves as their Sponsorship and Community Outreach Coordinator.
She has also added a new title to her expansive list: mountain climber.
After her plans to visit a friend in New Zealand fell through two years ago, Charette started looking for other destinations. A quick internet search brought her to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with Adventures in Good Company, a women’s travel company.
“I’m a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts, so I really enjoy the female empowerment aspect of being in a group of all women,” she said. “It was definitely a draw.”
One day on her way to work, she called to ask about the climbing trip and was told that there was only one spot left. She pulled over her car, pulled out her credit card, and put down a deposit.
“I didn’t know how high Mt. Kilimanjaro was when I put that deposit down,” she said. “To this day, [it’s] one of the most spontaneous things I’ve ever done.”
She didn’t exactly know what she was getting herself into.
Mt. Kilimanjaro, as it turns out, is Africa's highest point and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world at 19,341 feet high.
Charette had some hiking experience in the Rockies and the Appalachian trail, 'but nothing as intense as this,' she said. 'I grew up in New England and our mountains don't get that high.'
'When you get to altitude it's all aerobic exercise. Your heart just needs to be really strong,' she said.
'It was a little weird being mothered by a bunch of women that I didn't know, but it was cool,' she said.
She befriended another woman on the younger side named Laura, who has since become her travel buddy. They just returned from hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru for Charette's 30th birthday, and plan to go to Australia together next year.
'There were a couple days when I came into camp crying because I was exhausted and so worn down,' she said. 'It was a mental battle like I've never had before.'
One thing that kept her going were letters written by her family and friends, as well as the kids she nannies for and campers from past summers. (Rufio was her nickname from working at camp.)
'I was in the back of the group quite a bit,' she said. 'He hiked with me pretty much the whole trip. He would come up behind me and growl like a lion, and he would tell me 'Imara Kama Simba, mama!'' ('Strong like a lion' in Swahili)
On summit night, the group woke up at 11 PM and started climbing, hoping to reach the top of the mountain at sunrise. A marathon runner who had led the pack for most of the trip threw up after 20 minutes and went back down.
'I felt so bad for her,' Charette said. 'But in that moment I was like, 'I'm gonna do this! This mountain is not conquering me!''
'We got to the top and the sun was rising, and everyone was so excited,' she said. 'I couldn't believe that I made it, because half the night was just reminding myself that I could do this.'
When they got down from the mountain, the group returned to their base camp to freshen up, then received certificates amid a ceremonial Kilimanjaro song sung by the guides.
Charette asked her favourite guide, August, to write 'Imara Kama Simba,' then got it tattooed on her arm in his handwriting.
'I tell people all the time, it is the best and worst thing I've ever done,' she said, 'and you could not pay me to do it again.'
Even so, she's contemplating climbing Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe at 18,510 feet, next year.
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