Forest Jones rang in the new year with monkeys and mud while hiking the first stage of Mount Kilimanjaro. Five days later, the 17-year-old Fredericton resident achieved her goal of climbing the mountain in Tanzania to raise money for Feed the Lions.
Feed the Lions is a Leo Hayes High School program that provides breakfasts and lunches to students in need. When Jones was deciding which charity to donate to, she first thought of climate change, but decided to do something more local.
“Sometimes parents say ‘there are people starving in Africa’ – but there are people starving in our hometown,” Jones said.
His goal was to raise $10,000, half of the program’s annual costs. On Sunday, Jones’ climb brought in just under $15,000.
But the success of his trip did not happen overnight.
Jones came up with the idea just before COVID-19 started. She planned to travel to Africa with her father, Brian Jones, who is an experienced mountaineer. The father-daughter duo canoe, kayak and hike in mountains near their home, like Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Jones began the research and training during her special interest class at school. For two periods a day, she trained, studied the mountain and worked on setting up the fundraiser.
The highest peak in Africa is 5,895 meters or just below 20,000 feet. By comparison, Mount Carleton in New Brunswick is 820 meters.
“It’s one of the tallest mountains in the world,” she said. “But it’s also a great starting mountain to get into mountaineering.”
Unlike peaks in the Maritimes, hikers on Kilimanjaro must take special measures to prevent altitude sickness. To acclimatize properly, there are days of hiking where Jones would climb 5,000 feet and descend another 4,000. It was a net gain of only 1000 feet for eight or 10 hours of hiking.
“So you can get a sense of altitude and then come back down,” Jones said. “That way your body can take in more oxygen again.”
Jones said hikers should be extremely careful at all cliffs. A difficult section is called the Barranco wall.
“If you stumble around a certain rock, which people like to call the kissing rock, it’s going to be a really steep fall.”
Hikers have to make their way around a protruding rock, on rocks a meter apart. To prepare for this type of hiking, Jones had to train in rough terrain and find the perfect pair of hiking shoes. With her father, she had the help of local porters who are well adapted to the altitude.
“They’re amazing,” Jones said. “They’ve been climbing this mountain every day for years and years and years.”
The climb begins in the rainforest, where there are sporadic showers. Jones said when the rain started, they only had a 30-second window to change into rain gear.
The second and third days are spent in the Heather zone. Due to the high altitude of 13,000 feet, very little can live there except for a few birds and insects.
Next comes the desert area, where the weather becomes unpredictable. Jones said it can go from 36C and sunny to snowing and freezing rain.
Closer to the top of the mountain is the alpine desert, where it is sunny but cold. In this area, hikers are higher than the clouds.
“From some camps you can see distant towns, I think you can see Arusha from a few other different places,” Jones said. “When you’re above the clouds, the stars are just amazing.”
Reach the top
They planned to reach the summit at sunrise. After four hours of sleep in the cold, Jones’ camp woke up at 11 p.m. to start the hike at midnight. Decked out in headlamps, ski goggles and other winter gear, they began their final ascent. This part of the hike is where the majority of injuries occur.
“It’s so dark and if you look up you’re so dizzy you feel like you’re going to fall,” she said.
Luckily, the worst injury Jones suffered was a sunburn, but she saw a man being carried in a stretcher and another with a twisted ankle.
Around 4 a.m. and at 17,000 feet, Jones said she felt the lack of oxygen in her body. She remembers taking five steps and then having to sit down again.
“Each step became a huge effort and I really had to work for the smaller steps.”
In the dark, when she couldn’t see where she was going, it became more of a mental challenge than a physical one.
Jones got his first glimpse of the summit as the sun rose. Relieved to see that she was only five minutes from the finish, she felt a rush of adrenaline.
“It was an amazing feeling to know that you were going to achieve something that you’ve been thinking about for years.”
Jones and his crew spent 20 minutes in -23 C at the top of the mountain looking at the view. From this height, they could see for miles around the glaciers she studied at school.
“When you’re used to seeing concrete buildings every day or staring at fluorescent lights…just being in nature is refreshing.”
During Jones’ ascent, she felt a motivating pressure to keep going. She knew that if she reached the top, more people would donate to the Feed the Lions fundraiser.
Tanya McBride is one of two educational consultants for Feed the Lions at Leo Hayes. The club started in 2013 when a guard noticed students lingering in the cafeteria after lunch rummaging through trash cans trying to find food to eat.
Since then, the program has evolved into a breakfast and lunch cart where any student can take from a cart filled with sandwiches and snacks in brown paper bags.
McBride wants to keep the program anonymous and easily accessible to all students.
“[It’s for] anyone walking past who missed breakfast for any reason or forgot one,” she said. “It’s for everyone.”
When schools closed due to COVID-19, the teachers who ran Feed the Lions realized that the same children who depended on school-provided lunches would still not have the food they needed at home. So they put the program on wheels.
During these 17 months, they delivered to 36 families each week. Now that school is back, the program has reverted to a backpacking program.
Jones’ Kilimanjaro climb for Feed the Lions helped raise awareness of the program and the influx of paid donations for a semester’s worth of food. McBride received messages of support, wire transfers and checks deposited at the school.
“When they heard this story about this girl who just took it upon herself to do something of this magnitude, they just want to be a part of it,” McBride said.