Photo by Dave Warner – Sarah Null Gillette works out at the Little Falls Youth and Family Center, preparing for her next challenge.
by Dave Warner
Sarah Null Gillette knows the hills of Little Falls, but she set her sights on climbing something much higher – something called Mount Kilimanjaro, which is a dormant volcano in the United Republic of Tanzania. It has three volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. It is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest single free-standing mountain above sea level in the world at 19,341′.
Gillette is a nurse practitioner from the area and has lived in Little Falls for ten years and worked at Little Falls Hospital for the last six.
She says that when she was growing up, “Sports were my favorite part about high school. I didn’t get into my education much until after I graduated. I was big into soccer and played basketball and loved running, but going to Saint Johnsville, we had limited sports opportunities.”
After high school, she played college soccer for two years, and after school, she wondered what to do next. “I’d had this structure and a team and a group to be part of, but after that, I got into running, doing the full Boilermaker four or five times, and things like that.”
Gillette then got into hiking and said, “The goals gradually increased as time went on. I started with the Fire Tower Challenge, thirty in total. Five in the Catskills and then the rest in the Adirondacks.”
She said that she met her husband on the Fire Tower Challenge, and that was one of their first dates. They then ran the Lake Placid marathon together, and gradually their goals increased.
“I really got into these hiking challenges where you get patches. There are a ton of them to encourage people to get outside.”
She’s also a 46er, which means she’s climbed all the peaks in the Adirondack Park, finishing that personal challenge last September. “I did 45 of them in one year. It was a lot of six-hour round-trip drives on weekends. It was really challenging and fun.”
Gillette is also into ultra-hiking, where she went after eight ultra hikes in the northeast region that are the hardest hikes to do in under 24 hours. “I’ve completed six of eight of those now. It was a step up from regular hiking one mountain and then going down. In this case, you’re doing like six peaks in a day.”
The toughest one is 53 miles around Cranberry Lake in the Northeast part of the Adirondack Park. “It’s just like more and more endurance.”
Somewhere in that period, she said that she got into the idea of the 50 highest peaks in the U.S., and the highest that she’s climbed is Mount Whitney in California. “That’s 14,500′, and so I thought, what’s the next thing to do?”
She said that she’d always thought about Kilimanjaro and that it was ‘only’ 5,000′ higher. “That’s only a Mount Marcy on top of Mount Whitney.”
So, she started planning the trip more than 2 and 1/2 years ago. “I didn’t know if my husband was going to want to go or not, but I figured I’d find someone if he didn’t want to. Luckily, he did, or I convinced him to maybe.”
The Covid regulations on travel caused her to postpone the trip for a year.
Gillette said the most important preparation she did for the climb was to hike, practicing with weight on her back going uphill. “I’d do training sessions at the Youth and Family Center and put the treadmill on 15% and carry 20-25lbs on my back for an hour to an hour and a half.”
“Everything kinds of builds up to the bigger mountain. All of that experience, even if it’s not physically equivalent, is nicely preparing you,” she said.
Her trek up and down the mountain was June 13-18, 2022, after a 15-hour flight to Tanzania and a day of rest when they got there.
Then, there was an extensive gear check to make sure they had all that they needed and safety briefings to let the climbers know what to expect.
The first day was a 2 1/2 hour ride into the park and then hiking through the jungle. “We hiked about six miles that day, and that’s the easiest day because you’re starting at about 6,000′ elevation, and you go up to about 9,000′.”
She said that the first part of the hike was probably her favorite because they were able to see monkeys, waterfalls, and lots of interesting things. “It felt like luxury. They’re giving you hot meals on the trail, and you have a hut to sleep in.”
At that point, they were already above the clouds, and Gillette got up early to watch the sunrise. “That was beautiful. On day two, you are going through the second climate zone, so you start to lose trees, and we got to walk through a crater field.”
That day was much longer but still an easy hike for her. The guides were going slower than normal so that everyone could climatize to the altitude.
They got to that second hut, and that night, her husband got extremely sick. “This was like the toughest night for us because he got a GI illness. The nurse in me was, oh oh, we’re on a mountain way away from any medical care. There was also a windstorm that night with 50mph winds.”
“I was doing abdominal exams on him and making sure that there were no red flags. He’s not a guy who asks for help often – he’s a pretty tough dude, and at first, he didn’t want help. But then, he said you’d better.”
She ended up looking for the guides (it was dark by then), and she had to look for the Ranger Station. “I was knocking on his window, and he finally came out. He saw him, and the first thing he said was, ‘he needs to go to the hospital.’ I was thinking 2 and 1/2 years of planning and all of this time already invested, like no.”
However, she had him search for their guides, each of which had gone through two years of medical training before they could work the mountain. They gave him some medicine for nausea, and they gave her a radio, checking in with her throughout the night.
“I was thinking through every scenario in my head, planning out the worst-case situation. We had agreed before we started that if one of us got sick, the other would go on, but we both admitted later that neither of us planned to continue if that happened.”
The really hard days were ahead, but luckily, John felt better in the morning, and he was able to rehydrate. Day three was only a climatization hike, and they were just up 2,000 feet higher to level off at about 14,000′.
“I thought, we’re still in it, and the second hurdle happened that night. You’re fatigued up there because of the lack of oxygen, and I got lazy and did not tie my sneaker, walked off a step, and twisted my ankle. I thought, if this takes me out, I’ll be so upset,” she stated.
She got an ace bandage on it, and with the hiking boots that they had to wear, she was able to walk and continue the climb.
“Other than that, everything was going smoothly. Just a couple of hiccups,” she stated.
They got to camp three, which was over 15,000′, and it really started to get to them. “I was nauseous, didn’t want to eat, and just wanted to sleep, so they checked my oxygen, and it was 81%. The thing I really loved about the company that was taking us up was that they really stressed your health and gave us two health checks a day and checked oxygen twice a day. A lot of other companies didn’t do that.”
They gave her oxygen for half an hour to help deal with the symptoms. After that, she felt amazing and was ready to continue.
That night, they went to bed at 6:30, and they were awakened at 11:30 pm to start the hike to the top. “We started at 12:30 am, which I thought was a little later than planned. It’s cold out, and you’re wearing winter gear.”
To this point, they had only been climbing about 3,000′ per day, but now it was steep, and they were crawling. “In less than a mile, it hits you. It was really a struggle. The thoughts of quitting are in your mind almost the whole way. It’s dark, it’s cold. Mentally, we were in a really tough spot just from the lack of oxygen.”
Gillette said that even taking a sip of water caused you to be out of breath. “They poured powdered sugar down John’s throat just to get some calories in him.”
But then she said, “You get to a point where you see the sun starting to crest. It’s just like this horizontal orange line. It’s like you’re on Mars. It’s the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen. It’s unreal, and it gives you energy and relief. The sun is going to rise, and I’m going to get warmer,” she stated.
“If you get to this one point, you’re good, even though you have an hour and a half left to climb. It’s not as steep, it’s much easier. I was feeling so much better when we got to that point.”
You go along the rim of the volcano until you get to the highest peak. “At that point, I’m just overwhelmed with emotion. Tears are in my eyes, and I don’t want to cry because it’s so cold out, and I don’t want them to freeze. I was just so grateful for the guides. We would not have gotten there without them.”
She said that you couldn’t stay long at the top, but they took a lot of pictures. “There’s a glacier on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, and they talk about how much it has receded over the years because of global warming, so you get an idea of that and get a good look at it.”
Gillette said there were a lot of thoughts coming down the mountain in regards to the lessons that she’d learned, especially since summit day was her 34th birthday. “The cool thing was, there were nine crew members just to help the two of us, and they don’t all hike up with us.”
“The chef baked me a birthday cake at over 12,000′ at camp two, after the summit hike. I didn’t know that and was going to skip dinner and sleep.”
“I was just lying on the porch of our hut because the door was locked, trying to close my eyes because I was so tired. But Pascal (one of the company members) came sprinting up to me and told me that Richard had to do my health check. I was like, OK, I’ll come down.”
Once in the mess, they all came up behind her, singing happy birthday, carrying a cake. “The smiles on their faces – they were so happy to do that. It was really special. I’ll never forget that birthday,” she said.
“I did this epic bucket list thing, and what do I want to take with me from that? One of the things was that it’s more important who you summit with than summiting. When John was sick and we kind of confessed to each other that if you got sick, I really didn’t plan to go on. That really stuck with me.”
The other thing she said was, “Discomfort is temporary. No matter how uncomfortable we were going up to the summit, the second you took a rest break, you felt so much better. You were like, alright, I can do this. It’s always darkest and coldest before the dawn.”
She also said that she really gained context on the little things like a hot shower or oxygen or a bed, even though they were sleeping in huts.
“Then there was the culture shock of seeing that poverty. We have it really good here.”
“Altitude levels the playing field. They would tell stories of ultra runners who would go up there, and you’d think they’re really good, but altitude doesn’t discriminate. Even though they could run 100 miles, the altitude really got to them.”
“Lastly, when you’re tired, you have way more reserves than you think. All these thoughts in your mind about how it would be so easy to quit, turn around and go back down and find comfort? You can really push past that, and those are the things that have really stuck with me from the trip.”
Gillette also said, “I feel like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro gave me a lot of perspective – like maybe you want to find a little bit more balance? But I think the group of people that I’ve met through hiking and the ones I have surrounded myself with are people who are just super inspiring – who make you want to try harder and harder,” she said.