Towering at 19,341 feet above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro reigns over the continent of Africa.
By some estimates, about 20,000 people attempt the climb each year, and this past June a pastor from Nicholasville joined the ranks.
John Kelley, worship and executive minister at Catalyst Christian Church, was part of a team of 15 that completed a seven-day climb to raise money for Activewater, a part of Lifewater International, a non-profit Christian water development organization committed to ending the “global water and sanitation crisis.”
To date, Kelley has raised over $6,000 for Activewater, which goes toward building wells in Ethiopia.
Kelley was approached by his friend, and co-founder of Activewater, Daren Wendall in June of last year about attempting an adventure together.
780 million people do not have access to an improved water source
Wendall said he wasn’t sure if Kelley would agree to the climb and Kelley recalled he was unsure himself.
“I laughed at him and said, ‘Daren, fat people don’t climb mountains,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Then quit being fat,’ and I was like, ‘Fair enough’,” Kelley said.
Before deciding to hike up the tallest mountain in Africa, Kelley had to start physical training. When he was approached by Wendall last year he had only hiked two times. He also had to begin fund raising both for Activewater and to pay for the trip to get him there.
He began hiking and doing workouts such as P90X to prepare himself, but he mostly hiked because the muscles around his knees and ankles needed to be primed for the climb.
“It had gotten to where a short hike was like six miles, the good hikes were like 12 or 13 miles, so it was one of those deals where I kinda had to get myself ready because I knew nothing I did in Kentucky could prepare me for that mountain,” he said.
At the onset of training, Kelley weighed 270 pounds. By the time of his trip he was down to nearly 220 pounds.
“He lost over 50 pounds it was just pretty incredible, I’m so proud of John,” Wendall said.
By June 16, when the team begin its ascent, Kelley was prepared, he said. The climb was different each day and they found themselves literally going through different climates. The team journeyed along the Machame Route and on the first day went from 5,000 feet to 9,000 feet encountering a jungle-like landscape along the way.
“If you’ve ever seen the movie “Tarzan,” it looked like that,” Kelley said. “You had big vines hanging down, monkeys swinging all over the place and birds and all kinds of wildlife all around you, and it started off like that.”
On the second day, they traveled up to 12,500 feet. The air began to thin and temperatures began to drop even more. It was on the second day they learned about “Pole pole” a Swahili phrase which means “Slowly, slowly.”
“We had to walk really slow or you could pass out from lack of oxygen and they started working us that way the second day,” he said.
By the fifth day, they had risen to about 16,000 feet. At 12:30 a.m. on the sixth day they began their hike for the summit. That morning Kelley layered his clothing — five layers on his legs, six layers on his upper body and a hat and a hood.
They hiked seven hours to Stella Point, some 18,800 feet up the mountain. From Stella Point to the summit was another hour. It was on the sixth day “Pole pole” really kicked in.
Kelley had been told beforehand that people often get emotional once reaching the top, but he didn’t believe it until he was there.
Well I got where I saw the sign for the mountain...all of a sudden I felt tears coming down my face. I get to the top and just lost it.
John Kelley, worship and executive minister at Catalyst Christian Church
“Well I got where I saw the sign for the mountain...all of a sudden I felt tears coming down my face,” he said. “I get to the top and just lost it.”
Looking back, Kelley said he regretted not losing another 20 pounds before the climb and that he hadn’t been working out earlier instead of starting at 42.
With that in mind, Kelley is looking forward and is in the process of planning a 1,200 mile bike ride for Lifewater. He bought his first bike earlier this week and the first 11 miles left him sore, but excited.
“I kind of want to do all of the big stuff after I turn 40,” Kelley said. “Also, I want people who weigh 270 pounds, people who are that big to go, ‘I can do something, I can do this.’”