WEST LIBERTY - When many people plan their dream vacation it often includes laying on a sun-drenched beach while sipping a fruity tropical drink.
But not for Michael Marshall. He decided to put his mind and body through a grueling test by climbing a mountain. This past December, Marshall, a West Liberty psychology professor, and his wife, Mary Kay, and adult son Jared scaled Mount Kilimanjaro - Africa's highest peak.
"It's been a dream of mine ever since high school when I read 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro,' by Ernest Hemingway. I wanted to make it a family trip and invited everyone in our family to go. Only my wife and son were game," he said. "Slogging through 46 miles of wet, cold, oxygen-deprived mountain trail was very hard, demanding work - the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, although the greatest experience I have ever had in my life, too. Everyone fell multiple times. The trail was slippery. We slipped on mud, algae, gravel, shale and ice."
Michael Marshall, a West Liberty University psychology professor, stands at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro with his son Jared and wife Mary Kay.
The eight-day trek also involved the use of 21 porters, guides, cooks and other support staff from Africa.
"My wife fell, dislocated and fractured her thumb within the first hour of climbing. She chose to soldier on and complete the climb even though she was in pain the whole time. She went into surgery when we returned and had her fractured thumb reset with pins and a bone graft. Her hand will have to heal for eight weeks before the pins can be removed. However, the transformative experience of climbing, eating, helping, laughing, and summiting together as a family made all the suffering pale in comparison," he said.
Marshall said he decided at 64 years old that he should seize the day and conduct the climb. But he trained for five months first, which included lifting weights, running and sprinting up a hill near their Woodsdale home.
"The appeal of Mount Kilimanjaro is that it is the highest mountain in the world that can be climbed without technical climbing skills - but you must be fit and healthy. Its location on the equator keeps the peak relatively balmy at around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. At 19,341 feet, it is the fourth highest of the seven summits, the highest mountain on the continent of Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. It is rated as an extreme altitude climb. Anyone who attempts to climb it without proper preparation or acclimatization will lose consciousness and can die of high altitude pulmonary edema or high altitude cerebral edema."
Marshall, a native of Los Angeles, has taught at WLU since 1992. He spent about a year researching and preparing for the trip.
"I booked the airfare and the mountain climbing company we hired. It's not as easy as it sounds. The first climbing company I contacted sent me an email message in broken English instructing me to wire $8,000 cash directly into their account in Africa and they would be sure to greet me at the airport when we arrived - I passed on that one. The only airline that fit our schedule was Turkish Airlines. All flights passed through Istanbul. We didn't arrive in Tanzania until two days after our plane flew out of Washington, D.C. I also researched and planned our high altitude medicine, acclimatization and nutrition regimen," Marshall said. "My wife bought all our clothes and equipment. Acclimatization is a science in itself. There were 12 components of our acclimatization plan.
For instance, the first step was to rent a hypoxic tent that we slept in for the month before departure. We also had to buy trip insurance with an emergency medical mountain evacuation rider in case of a catastrophic health problem.
Lastly, the three of us had to get $1,000 worth of tropical medicine immunizations before we left."
He noted the most difficult part of the trip was living out of a tent while the weather was cold and wet.
"It's not a leisure vacation - it's a personal challenge. Test yourself with Mount Kilamanjaro and if you succeed you get a huge sense of pride and reward," he said.
After the mountain climb, the family went on a three-day safari on the Serengeti plain. In the future, Marshall would like to climb to Everest Base Camp (in Nepal), hike the Machu Picchu Inca Trail (Peru), and walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, through the Pyrenees mountains to the Atlantic coast at Santiago de Compostela, Spain.