Woman Conquers Kilimanjaro in Her Wheelchair

Mount Kilimanjaro rests in the East African nation of Tanzania. It’s the tallest mountain in Africa, stretching 19,340 feet above sea level. An estimated 25,000 people attempt to climb the mountain annually.

About 10 people per year die in pursuit of the quest.

In 2010 , 28-year-old Erica Davis of Carlsbad flew from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to Amsterdam to Tanzania to chase Kilimanjaro.

On the sixth day of the eight-person expedition, with snow draping the mountain and the temperature hovering near zero, Davis reached the summit.

“Just being up there, the feeling is so incredible,” Davis said. “It’s beautiful. It’s sunset, we’re above the clouds, it’s a fairly clear day. It’s so awe-inspiring. You get that joyous, elation inside.”

Davis’ climb proved historic. Using a wheelchair, she’s believed to be the first paralyzed woman to climb Kilimanjaro. Tara Butcher, 27, a below-the-knee amputee who lives in Mission Hills, also completed the ascent.

 
 

Davis last walked on Dec. 31, 2005. She was 24. A clump of blood vessels near her spinal cord and a major artery leaked. In a matter of days she went from being a woman who once rode dirt bikes, played multiple sports in high school and taught high school P.E. to being paralyzed from the waist down.

“I just woke up,” she said, “and felt really different.”

Davis does not sugarcoat that her journey has sometimes been a struggle.

She once told her mother, “I don’t know why any guy would want to date me.”

And, “Mom, don’t leave the medications where I could get them.”

Those feelings passed long ago. An athlete when her body was not broken, she’s still athletic. Davis has pushed herself through two marathons. She raced seven triathlons.

“A lot of people congratulate me, saying, ‘You’re such an inspiration,’” Davis said. “With my life the last four years, I just tell people, ‘I’m living.’”

The Kilimanjaro expedition was Derek Gates’ brainchild. Gates is the marketing director for the Vista-based C.H.E.K Institute, which offers advanced education for personal trainers.

“We deal with training athletes every day,” Gates said. “We also deal with people in a mental and spiritual side, showing that you can overcome boundaries.”

Paul Chek, the institute’s founder, calls it tearing down “possibility walls.”

“Our goal,” said Gates, “was to prove that anything is possible.”

Davis typically trains about 18 hours a week, the bulk of it cycling and working with a personal trainer. For Kilimanjaro, she emphasized climbing. She climbed steep roads in Oceanside and into Torrey Pines. Using her everyday chair but modifying it with knobby tires and wheels that included gears to provide more torque, she moved to trails in Penasquitos Canyon, Elfin Forest, Poway and Big Bear.

Oceanside’s Matt Romero, who has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail twice, provided coaching.

“I wasn’t easy on her,” Romero said. “I took her on some real strenuous hikes and she kept up. I pushed her pretty hard, but she pushed right back.”

Kilimanjaro sits about 200 miles south of the equator. At the outset, when the expedition started at 6,000 feet, the temperature was in the 80s. Davis dressed in shorts and a tank top.

Two videographers and a photographer recorded the climb for a documentary. The title: “Through the Roof.”

There were sections of the climb that were so rugged, narrow and rocky that Davis could not fit her chair through passages. Porters carried her in those parts. Gates estimates that Davis pushed herself solo at least 60 percent of the climb.

“It was never because she wasn’t physically capable,” said Gates. “The chair just wouldn’t fit.”

Davis entertained the group by singing hymns like “Amazing Grace” or “Be Our Guest” from the movie “Beauty and the Beast.” She broke down and cried on the fourth day when she was unable to communicate with a porter, who spoke Swahili.

“Her attitude was the same as it always is,” said Butcher. “Always charging.”

Said Gates, “As much as it was about Erica, she never made it seem like it was. There was something bigger here that you can’t put into words.”

Sitting on a couch, wrapping a sweatshirt around her upper body on a cold, rainy morning, Davis said, “The trip was definitely something I believed in, spreading awareness that anything is possible.”

Written by: Don Norcross