Despite eight days of treacherous climbing, marked by oxygen deprivation and fatigue, Emory volleyball player Maureen Schick (21N) and her family were in high spirits. They were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and the second highest peak in the world. Standing at 19,341 feet above sea level, the mountain demanded both mental determination and physical persistence.
The Schick family had long admired Mount Kilimanjaro from afar. In 2009, Schick and her family took a 10-day trip to Tanzania, where her parents served as medical workers.
Schick and her siblings realized the economic importance of this mountain for the community. Guiding tourists up the mountain is a major source of income, and the mountain also serves a spiritual purpose.
“We saw it as such an incredible thing for the people there,” Schick said. “I thought, ‘Wow, how cool would it be to accomplish something like that.’”
The idea to climb Mount Kilimanjaro — or, as Schick affectionately calls it, “Mount Killie” — arose in January 2019. Schick’s older sister, Katie Schick, who had recently moved to Seattle, asked her parents if they would visit her and join her to climb the active stratovolcano Mount Rainier.
“I said, ‘Katie, that’s kind of a big deal,’” said father Mark Schick. “Mount Rainier is a very technical climb.”
The Schick family had little rock climbing experience under their belts, although all were up for an outdoorsy adventure. Mark was adamant about steering clear of Mount Rainier, and suggested a different option — Mount Kilimanjaro.
The idea quickly took hold. The Schick siblings began texting back and forth, doing initial planning and looking for guide companies that could help them scale the summit.
“I thought that maybe a better mountain [to climb] would be Mount Kilimanjaro,” Mark explained. “You don’t have to learn any mountaineering skills. You just have to be tough and have a lot of stamina.”
Schick and her family spent months preparing for the physical and mental challenges that lay ahead.
To prepare for the climb, Schick and her siblings traveled to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado for hiking and altitude acclimation.
“[Mount Kilimanjaro] was going to be our first really big climb,” Schick said. “I did a lot of hiking, and I actually felt more altitude sickness in Colorado than on Mount Killie. My dad also ran a lot of hills and used the stair stepper to build up quad muscles.”
Schick is no stranger to physical challenges. As a defensive specialist for Emory’s women’s volleyball team, she helped them advance to the 2018 NCAA DIII Finals, in which they claimed their second national title. Her climb up one of the Seven Summits was just another volleyball game, and she was determined to win.
The Schicks journeyed through five different climate zones on their way up. The first night, the family pitched their tents in a hot and muggy rainforest among monkeys and other tropical animals. As the days passed and the elevation increased, temperatures slowly dropped and animals became sparse. The Schicks donned extra layers of clothing and emergency blankets when the sun departed behind the African plains.
The Schicks employed three guides to hike with them up the mountain who showed the way and measured their oxygen levels every morning. They also hired 15 porters, just enough hands to carry the group’s gear and equipment up the mountain.
Average costs for scaling Mount Kilimanjaro fall around $3,000. This includes park admission and covers gear, food, and professional guides. Despite the high price tag, climbers do not receive a luxury glamping experience. Instead, for the Schick family, the hike proved to be a welcome reprieve from a hectic modern lifestyle. Far from the reaches of technology and social media, the Schicks talked and laughed together for days.
Hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro required all hands on deck. According to Schick, the guides frequently reminded the family to climb slowly, repeating “polepole,” or “slow down” in their native Swahili.
“You need to acclimate to the thinner air. By going slowly, you learn to do that and your body acclimates much better,” Mark explained. “The success rate to [the] summit is much greater if you hike for six days, [rather] than three or four days.”
Fueling was especially important to maintain energy levels throughout the daily six-hour climbs. The Schicks packed snacks, and their guides prepared meals.
“It was fantastic food, really impressive,” Schick recounted. “There was a lot of pasta, local dishes, and local meats, with rice and potatoes and soup.”
“Signals were intermittent,” Mark said. “We had to come up with things to talk about. The best part of the trip was the chance I had to listen to the kids talking and reminiscing about things. We focused on each other.”
Although bonding with her family helped the time pass quicker, Schick relied on mental toughness to weather the journey.
“It was a hard 50 to 60 kilometers,” she said. “It seems daunting, but if you break it down into chunks, it helps you visualize it better.”
The Schicks made slow and steady progress for six days until they reached base camp at 17,598 feet above sea level, now five kilometers and seven hours away from their final destination. Although tempted to stop and rest for the night, they followed their guides’ instructions and rose at midnight. Strapping on their headlamps, they plowed through a six-hour trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
“The last bit of the hike was dark, freezing and up a huge incline,” Schick recalled. “You can’t really breathe since oxygen is so low. Your mind is doing all it can to make it to the top.”
On June 16, at 19,341 feet above sea level, Schick’s hiking boots touched level footing and turned a faint orange in the sunrise. A sign read, “Congratulations — you are now at Africa’s Highest Point.” As the sun climbed steadily over the “roof of Africa,” as the locals call it, Schick was overcome with euphoria.
“It was surreal,” she said. “This had been on our bucket list for 10 years. To see it come to fruition was so special.”
The day was Father’s Day, and the Schick family celebrated their accomplishment with their dad. The family posed for photos, lingering at the peak for almost 45 minutes (their guides usually only allowed 20-minutes due to the high altitude) before beginning their two-day descent.
After the family’s climb, Emory’s women’s volleyball Assistant Coach Brianna Jones said that she was not surprised Schick had excelled at such a challenge.
“[She] is relentless,” Jones said. “No matter what you put in front of her, she will work to tackle it.”
Schick reached the summit of the highest mountain in Africa after a strenuous six-day climb that many mountaineers talk about completing, but few achieve. Schick’s dedication and mental stamina had paid off. Emory women’s volleyball Assistant Coach Jona Braden described her as enthusiastic and focused.
“She’s driven and thrives on her work ethic,” Braden said. “It fuels her.”
A key to Schick’s training — both in volleyball and hiking — is visualization. Braden explained that this strategy is essential to both disciplines.
To preserve the memory of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the Schicks got matching tattoos once back in their hometown of Chicago. A profile of the mountain with the words “polepole” will serve as a lasting reminder of the family’s epic hike.
While Schick has transitioned back to volleyball training, more alpine adventures are in sight.
“I would love to climb the Swiss Alps,” she said. “Especially Mont Blanc.”
Mont Blanc happens to be Europe’s highest peak and given the Schicks’ enthusiasm and relentlessness, a new matching tattoo may lie in their future.