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Kym Walther and Eric Gagnon

Photo of Kym and Eric near the peak

For six days in July 2002, Randolph, Mass. residents Kym Walther and Eric Gagnon endured 8 to 12 hour days with temperatures ranging from 25 degrees below zero to 100, ate rice for nearly every meal, and went without running water, electricity, and baths – all in the name of charity.

The pair met these challenges while climbing the highest freestanding mountain in the world – Mount Kilimanjaro – in an effort to raise $15,000 for the Jimmy Fund.

The trek was the result of Walther's quest for a unique and challenging way to raise money for research and treatment of women's cancers. Recalling her time spent in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, Walther decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. It didn't take much to persuade Gagnon, a friend she had met while working for the Red Cross, to join her. Gagnon's mother, Kay, was a 20-year breast cancer survivor who passed away from emphysema in 1998.

To reach their fundraising goal, Walther and Gagnon sent hundreds of e-mails and letters to every friend and family member, as well as to a number of businesses and corporations. They raised additional money at two fundraisers at a bar by charging admission at the door, and were able to cover most of the costs of the trip with support from touring and hiking companies. All proceeds from the climb benefitted the Women's Cancers Program at Dana-Farber through the Jimmy Fund. Proceeds were allocated for treatment and research of women's cancers, primarily breast, cervical, and ovarian cancer.

Once Walther and Gagnon reached Tanzania, they met the tour guide and porters who would be assisting them throughout their journey. Under Tanzanian law, those attempting to summit Kilimanjaro must have a guide to lead the climb and porters to help carry equipment, set up camp, and prepare food.

Over the next six days, the pair withstood every type of weather – heavy rains, bright sunshine, and bitter cold. While short sleeves and shorts were fine for some of the days, the temperature dropped significantly at night.

"Once the sun goes down, Kilimanjaro gets very cold," notes Walther. "However, it's well worth stepping outside of the tent to look at the stars. Because of the altitude and the mountain's position near the equator, the view of the stars and the night sky simply cannot be described with words."

'Climbing high and sleeping low' was a common practice on the trip. By climbing to a high point during the day, and sleeping at a lower point, the body adjusts more easily to changes in altitude.

"Sleeping at altitude is a bit of a misnomer," says Walther. "A night's sleep is more like a series of naps, separated by strange breathing patterns. You don't realize you're doing it — but your tent mates do and they aren't sure if it's normal or if you're in respiratory distress. You definitely just have to get used to it."

The climbing partners eventually reached Kilimanjaro's summit and then it was time to descend...slowly. They descended in two and a half hours, collected their certificates, and celebrated their successful climb by buying their porters and tour guide each a celebratory Kilimanjaro beer.

"We want to thank our many supporters, our family, and our friends," says Walther. "Without them, we would not have had the opportunity to meet the people of Tanzania and experience the splendor of Kilimanjaro. Not only was the Kili Climb for Cancer a unique event, but it is also symbolic – albeit paled in comparison – of the uphill battle that millions of women with cancer face each day."