Over the hill and up the mountain

February 4, 2020


On January 5, Doug Stewart turned 40. To celebrate being over the hill, he and his partner, Montfort emergency room physician Dr. Joanna Bostwick, decided to climb to the top of Africa’s largest mountain—Mount Kilimanjaro.

Their adventure began on January 10, when they left Ottawa on their way to Tanzania.

Joanna and Doug at the Ottawa train station

After 30 hours of travel, they got started on what most people would consider to be ‘the trek of a lifetime’.

“You hike through many different climate zones going up Kilimanjaro,” says Doug. “The first one was the rainforest and it turned out to be quite a challenge because it rained so much.”

“We had torrential downpours and even hail,” adds Joanna. “So much rain that my boots got wet on the first day and never fully dried for the rest of the climb. I had to wear Ziplock bags over my socks the entire time.”

“Once the trees and greenery thin out, the mountain is pretty much barren,” explains Doug. “There is absolutely nothing, except for rocks. It’s like a desert. There is no vegetation and we didn’t see any animals either. It looks a lot like Mars!”

Each time the couple reached a new camp site, the guides would show them how far they were on the mountain. “We are both in great physical shape and although we were climbing vertically a lot of the time, we didn’t find it hard cardio-wise or because our legs were getting sore. It was the elements that were tough to bear at times,” says Joanna. Her and Doug both agree the rapidly changing weather and temperatures made their last ascent day a lot more difficult—both physically and mentally.

Another challenging element was the altitude. “On one of the acclimatization days, we had gone up to Lava Tower, which took us from 13,000 to 15,000 feet. This is when I realized I was in trouble because of the altitude,” claims Doug. “It was terrifying. It’s like I had brain fog. I had a bit of a headache and wasn’t nauseous, but I would start talking and would forget what I was talking about. When I got back down to the camp site, I took Diamox (a common medication used to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness). The next day, I felt fantastic, but I really don’t think I would have been able to reach the summit without taking the medication.”

“Lack of sleep is also a challenge,” adds Doug with Joanna nodding agreeably. “Each time you get to a camp site, they tell you to get some sleep, but it’s very hard because you’re in a tent and one minute it’s hot, the next minute it’s freezing, then it starts pouring rain.”

“On the day we summitted, we left around 11 p.m. and got to Uhuru Peak—the highest point on the mountain—around 6 a.m., just as the sun was coming up. It was a very clear night and its funny, but I felt so much closer to the stars. Once the sun comes up though, you find yourself above the clouds, so you can’t really see anything below.”

Joanna and Doug at the summit, near the highest point of the mountain

Although reaching the summit is what officially marks the triumph, Joanna feels a bit differently about it. “There were many people at the summit when we finally reached it. Because it’s freezing cold up there and because you can’t stay there long due to altitude, you kind of become more focused on waiting in line to get the perfect souvenir photo rather than on what you have just accomplished. And once the photo is taken, you start going back down again. Although reaching the summit was an amazing achievement, it’s the journey up there that meant the most to me.”

“Unlike Doug, I didn’t take the medication at 15,000 feet and ended up suffering the worst nausea on the summit night. I kept telling myself that I only had to endure it for eight hours in order to reach my goal. Then, as soon as I started going down again, the nausea disappeared.”

Though most of us would think that climbing up is the most difficult part, the couple confirms that going down is in fact a lot more demanding. “I did a lot of research on YouTube before we left, and no one ever shows the descent. So, I took videos to show it,” says Doug. “You go down the same trail you’ve climbed on the way up, but you have no recollection of it because you climbed it in the middle of the night. By this point, it’s even more mentally and physically challenging because you’re just so exhausted and sore.”

“It’s not a gentle descent,” confirms Joanna. “It’s not a winding trail—it’s vertical and very treacherous, especially with the rain. It makes the rocks slippery and you have to constantly watch your footing. It’s not at all enjoyable.”

Doug and Joanna’s last trek lasted 36 hours.

Joanna and Doug at the highest point on Kilimanjaro

Once back at the lodge, they got to shower. After wearing the same clothes for days and cleaning themselves with baby wipes, they really longed for a shower and even admitted that it was something they completely take for granted at home.

The couple is deeply grateful for the wonderful tour guides, the porters and the cooks, who made them delicious hot meals three times a day using the portable gas stoves and tanks they carried on their backs. “The food was unbelievable,” says Doug. “I had dessert every night and was shocked by the amount and the quality of the foods they were serving us. The chefs specialized in creating dishes on the mountainside. It was quite amazing!”

For Joanna, her most precious memory is hiking in silence for hours. “It was so peaceful. It allowed me to connect much more deeply with myself. It was amazing to get up in the morning and know that my only job for the day was to put one foot in front of the other.”

Reflecting on their adventure, the couple feels blessed for having had the opportunity to make the trip. They are also immensely grateful for the strong bond they forged on Kilimanjaro, notably with a couple of newlyweds from France. “The time we shared during meals, the conversations we had and the connection we built with them is very special to us,” says Joanna. “And being completely away from cell phones, computer and being ‘one with nature’ made us realize that we really have to get out more!” added Doug.

The couple ended their adventure with a half-day African safari, where they saw lions, giraffes and elephants. Not a bad way to celebrate a 40th birthday!

Congratulations to you both on this extraordinary feat!

Watch Joanna and Doug’s video

Joanna and Doug’s excursion to Kilimanjaro was also a fundraiser for Montfort. The $10,000 raised will be used to purchase a state-of-the-art portable ultrasound machine for the emergency department. A very special thanks goes out to M. Peter Hyde, who’s generous donation toward this fundraiser, will allow Joanna and her emergency room colleagues to save even more lives at Montfort.