By: Sheryl Wilde
It was like living in a barbeque pit for 9 days – a barbeque pit measuring more than 24 miles across. Ash filled the air – burned the nostrils, the lungs. And the dust. A storm cloud of dust and ash rose on the 50-mile-an-hour winds, relentlessly whipping everything in its path.
It was 20 degrees below zero on that first day – and the air on Kilimanjaro was already getting thin.
“We had a long list of reasons why climbing Kilimanjaro didn’t make sense at all,” says Don King. “We were too old. It was too dangerous. It was too scary. There were many who didn’t think it was possible.”
At 19,341 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit stands in austere grandeur against the Tanzanian sky, claiming its birthright as the highest mountain in Africa. Some 35,000 people attempt to climb the mountain, also known as “The House of God”, each year. Roughly 45% are successful.*
“We started at 7,000 feet. It took us 6 days of hiking very slowly – very, very slowly– to get to base camp at 15,500 feet. If we would have hiked too fast, our bodies would have shut down due to the changes in altitude. Each night at dinner, we passed around the oxygen meter to track how well our bodies were acclimating to the changes in elevation.
“Altitude is the great equalizer. Being able to walk, to talk, to think clearly, to breathe – these are things we take for granted. At 15,000 feet, it takes twice as long to do anything. At 19,000 feet, you struggle just to put two coherent thoughts together. It’s ‘take one step, stop, take a breath … take one step, stop, take a breath.’
“When we reached the top – WOW! None of us could believe we’d made it. We felt so blessed to be there.
“Then, as we stood at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, we looked down and realized we had 15,000 feet of downhill to do in two days.
“As we started back down the mountain, one of my friends started to move too quickly. He walked 25 feet too quickly. He lost all coherency. He didn’t know up from down. He couldn’t move his legs. His body and mind shut down. The guides scooped him up and did a power slide downhill from 19,000 feet to 15,000. Thankfully, he recovered fully.
“It’s amazing what you can do when you just take one slow step after another. We all feel blessed to have done this.”
Pushing himself, and others, beyond perceived limits is nothing new to Don. Known as Pastor Don to our Mountain Shadows community, he is the leader of the Beyond Limits ministry, an adaptive worship service for persons with special needs.
“Our residents had been attending Mission Hills Church for several years,” says Fred Lindahl, Development Director. “Now they hold the Beyond Limits service in the Mary Triplett Park on the Mountain Shadows campus – and it’s a HUGE success!”
“I was at Gateway Church before Mission Hills,” says Don. “The Mountain Shadows folks went there. I was drawn to the group. I sat amongst them as part of the gang. Little did I know I was destined to be a part of their lives so many years down the road.
“Now, each Sunday, we meet in the park at Mountain Shadows and have our own church service for everyone. Everyone gets involved, especially the residents: Heidi sings, “I Can Only Imagine.” Brian sings, “Give Me Jesus.” And Debbie sings and signs both songs. Chris recites The Lord’s Prayer. John is in charge of counting how many people are there. He’s so excited to have a job.
“We sing, we dance, we pray. It’s a Sunday Love Fest! Our motto is: Love God, serve people and bring hope. We do this on whatever level is needed. We give them their own space to do their thing, to shine in their own light.
“I don’t like to use the term Pastor because it’s such a team effort. There are 8 of us from Mission Hills that are blessed to do this. I play a leadership role. I guide, direct, teach, pray, hug, listen, and hug some more. But we all share in the teaching. We all share in the hugs. We all spend time with everyone there. We all do what needs to be done. We all share a passion to be a part of this group. It’s family.
“Every once in a while, someone will ask me, ‘Don’t you feel sorry for the people at Mountain Shadows?’ Heavens no!!! I refer to the residents as having Ph.D.’s in Humanity. Every time they leave campus, they are instructing everyone about what it means to be human. When they approach the world it’s amazing to see their impact on others around them. We learn more from them than they from us.
“They teach us about grace, about spirit. They teach us everybody matters. The wrapping paper may be different, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone is important in God’s plan. We all have hearts and that is all that God is concerned with.
“We can’t out-dream God. Sometimes I get up in the morning and wonder, ‘What’s going to happen today?’ I have no clue. But I’m an optimist. I know something amazing is going to happen. Then God shows up and it always does.
“I stutter, and when I was a child, my mom and dad encouraged me to keep talking. There are plenty of people who stutter and too often they are told to shut up. My parents told me, ‘The world needs to hear what you have to say. The world needs to hear what’s in your heart.’ I believe everyone should have that type of encouragement.”
“Don has also been our Spiritual Leader during resident memorials,” adds Fred. “He and all of the folks at Mission Hills Church have done so much for us. They recently put on a family BBQ at Mountain Shadows. They provided food for all our residents and staff members. They even brought an orchestra!”
“I play the trombone in North County Winds orchestra. We’re a 40-piece concert band and we play all types of music from Chicago, to Santana, to Stevie Wonder, to Eric Clapton. When I mentioned playing at Mountain Shadows, everyone in the band said, ‘Great! When and where?”
Don has climbed Mount Fuji, Mount Whitney, and now Mount Kilimanjaro. He’s also walked the John Muir Trail. What’s next for him?
“At the top of Kilimanjaro, and all the days since, I’ve realized my friends at Mountain Shadows climb that mountain, that path, every day.
“It’s amazing what we can do when we take one slow step at a time. In climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, we did what we didn’t think we could do.
“I want to help others, especially my Mountain Shadows friends, do what they don’t think they can do.”
*Figures published by the Kilimanjaro National Park.
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