In Lieu of Gifts
Traverse City family bucks holiday tradition to scale a mountain in Africa
By Ross Boissoneau | Jan. 26, 2019
For Gerald and Shenandoah and their daughter, Sophia, the holidays have become a time for family, though in a different way than the norm. They now eschew buying presents for one another or indulging in a huge meal, and instead take the family time to see sights far distant from northern Michigan.
“We decided six years ago instead of trees and stress, we’d travel,” says Shenandoah. “We said we have everything we need — and why eat leftovers for a week?”
Past excursions have seen them in London, Paris, Rome, and various cities across the U.S. “This year we amped it up a bit,” says Shenandoah. Perhaps “a bit” is an understatement; they ventured to Tanzania to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. Hardly your traditional holiday excursion.
They decided on the mountain-climbing expedition as an outgrowth of their enjoyment of hiking. “We carried around a hiking bucket list, and my daughter said, ‘Mt. Kilimanjaro?’ Yes, Mt. Kilimanjaro. The highest mountain in Africa, some 16,000 feet from its base and more than 19,000 feet above sea level.
At that altitude, the thin air makes every step more of a challenge. “The first several days were no problem,” Shenandoah says. The pace those first days was deliberately slow, to conserve energy and get the hikers into a rhythm. “It’s like a tortoise and hare. Slow down to win. If you go too quick, you’ll get sick.”
That hit home the higher they went. “At 12,000, 15,000 feet, it was slower. Everything is exhausting. There were times on summit day I didn’t think I could make it,” she says.
But she did. They all did. “We started climbing on Christmas and reached the summit on New Year’s,” says Chefalo. Traditionally hikers start the last day of the hike in the middle of the night so they can reach the peak at sunrise. “We started at 11pm, and there was extra anticipation for the eight-hour hike. Some brought champagne, and at midnight we all put our headlights on” to celebrate the New Year.
The Chefalos were part of a group of eight American hikers, which included two couples and a U.S. Air Force pilot stationed in Germany. Also on hand was their crew, numbering 45 in all. “It takes that many to get eight people up the mountain,” Chefalo says. The crew includes guides, those to carry the gear, and still more to set up the camp, “so all you have to do is fall into a bed and take a nap. We really needed them all.”
While it took a week to scale the mountain, they took only two days to descend. Then they returned to their hotel, where they slept almost around the clock for two days. “We didn’t eat. We were physically exhausted.”
The Chefalos also decided to include a charitable component to their trip. Shenandoah is a former foster child who aged out of the system, and they decided to raise funds for and awareness of Crossnore, three group residential foster care homes and boarding schools in North Carolina. “The idea was some sort of advocacy. It’s super close to my heart. I said if a lazy Midwesterner like me can get to the top of a mountain, we can change the child welfare system,” Chefalo says with a laugh. The Chefalos managed to raise over $3,000, as well as greater awareness, through the use of the hashtag #ChefaloforCrossnore.
The trip is the culmination (so far) of the family’s first decision to see the world during the holiday season in 2012. “We had a conversation about Christmas,” Chefalo recounted. “We said, ‘Let’s do the week of Christmas in London and New Year’s in Paris.’ There was some trepidation, but we did it anyway.”
They were glad they had. “It’s really surprising how many things are open on Christmas. We had a wonderful time. We were one of 100 in the Louvre — we didn’t have to fight crowds.” While they were abroad, they decided to make plans for the next year. “We said we should see some of the United States.” Trips to Key West, New York, New Orleans followed, as well as one across the country following Route 66, as well as time in Rome and Florence.
So, where to next? What could possibly top a mountaintop? “We usually plan the next year while on our trip,” Chefalo says. But with each step being so physically draining, they didn’t take the time or energy to consider where to head during the 2019–20 holiday season. So that remains an open question.
Till then, they’re reveling and recalling the trip up and down one of the planet’s tallest and most majestic mountains. Chefalo said they have remained in touch with the other climbers, and have made tentative plans to get together again someday.