Photograph courtesy of Kurt Kannemeyer
To say Kurt Kannemeyer is a determined man would be an understatement.
WAG has been following Kannemeyer’s story, introducing him in June’s travel-themed issue and checking in again in August, when we looked at those who go above and beyond for wellness in all its forms.
It was then that the director of development for St. Christopher’s in Dobbs Ferry attempted to reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He made the climb to raise funds for and awareness of the work of the residential treatment center, which serves special education students.
Catching up with Kannemeyer on a recent morning, he talked about the challenges – and the success – of his trip.
Oh, he didn’t make it to the summit.
In fact, altitude sickness caused him to stop at 17,000 feet, just 2,341 shy of the peak. But as those who know Kannemeyer might guess, he does not consider the trek a failure.
“I think sometimes people lose the importance of trying, because we are so fixated on getting to the goal,” he said.
Attempting something monumental – preparing, then getting out there and giving it your best – is what should be recognized.
After all, Kannemeyer said, “That in itself is victory. That in itself is success.”
Kannemeyer, who was dealing with a previously undisclosed irregular heartbeat, took the outcome in stride from the moment he realized he would not top Kilimanjaro.
“I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t sad at all. Every time I would look back, and I would see her, I was like ‘I’ll be back.’ I will see her next year.”
He got more out of it than he ever imagined, especially as he talked to the team of porters and guides who would accompany his party of four climbers on the eight-day odyssey.
“I saw Tanzania through the eyes of its people,” he said. “That’s what I experienced.”
And it made him think of his own life, which saw him journey from South Africa to a role helping American students through the work of St. Christopher’s.
“In America, we have so much to be grateful for.” Kannemeyer has been receiving support from his friends, colleagues and even the students since his return.
One student’s reaction, he said, was particularly heartwarming: “Mr. Kurt, you made it so high for us.”
And he said he was quick to reply that “Yeah, but I’m not stopping now. I’m going back.”
Many memories, including moments of sheer awe, will keep the dream alive.
“I stepped out of the tent at 13,000 feet. The picture I will never forget, never, never forget. I saw the earth covered in a blanket of white.”
Above the clouds, Kannemeyer would continue the journey. It had been a steady-if-difficult trek that would suddenly take a turn for the worse.
“It’s amazing how the body reacts to altitude,” he says. But it wasn’t his heart condition that came into play. “It’s strange because I didn’t come down because of that.”
Instead, he would battle the altitude sickness that affects so many.
“Something strange happened when I got to the 17,000-foot mark,” he said.
He began vomiting, had a massive headache and started to get dizzy. The guide was more than concerned.
“He said, ‘I think it’s time for you to maybe consider turning around,’ and I said, ‘No. It’s for the kids.’”
He proceeded a bit, but each step became tougher.
“I knew it was altitude. What went through my head was like, ‘Why now?’”
Finally, the guide stepped in.
“He said, ‘I know you’re a very determined guy.’”
And then he offered words that would make all the difference.
“‘The mountain will always be here, but sometimes we won’t,’ he said. ‘Let’s go down.’ At that point, I looked at him, and I said, ‘OK.’”
But that was not the end of the story.
“I said to him, ‘I am going to go down, and I’m going to come back next year, and I’m going to do this, and you’re coming with me,’ and he said, ‘OK.”
Then Kannemeyer said he felt a sense of achievement that only grew as that day ended.
“I’m standing on the side of Kili, and it looked like somebody had taken a paintbrush… It looked like someone had painted a plethora of stars. The full moon ricocheted off the side of Kili.”
At that moment, Kannemeyer said he looked out over the scene and realized one thing: “I said ‘Wow. I made it.’”
He shares a quote that hangs on his office wall: “Never give up on something you can’t go a day without thinking about.”
And he is taking that to heart, already beginning to work toward next year’s return.
“I’m going to prepare myself even harder,” he said, noting he’s going to seek equipment and training sponsorship.
The trip’s fundraising side was also a success. To date, Kannemeyer reports the effort has netted close to $10,000. Next year, he hopes to raise $25,000.
All proceeds will be used to fund an endowment for St. Christopher’s.
Though now back home on the other side of the world, Kannemeyer is already visualizing his reaching the peak next year.
“One thing I do know, without a shadow of a doubt, is I’m going to reach Uhuru, and I’m going to hang our banner proudly,” he said.
And when he does? “I’m going to push my hands up like Rocky Balboa, and do it for St. Christopher’s.”