Residents to scale Mount Kilimanjaro for cancer


Husband and wife Al Cockrell and Nancy Shepard train for their upcoming trip to Tanzania, Africa, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. As part of their training they walk the steps at Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park in Gainesville.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.

For some, the closest they've been to mountain climbing has been ascending the stairs at Devil's Millhopper or Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

That changes on Wednesday as six Gainesville people begin a five-day trek from the base to the summit of Africa's tallest mountain, the 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

More lofty is the reason they're making the ascent: Raising money to fight cancer.

"This will be nothing compared to the discomfort cancer patients have to go through," said Nancy Shepard, 42, a pharmaceutical representative who is dedicating her climb to her brother-in-law who died of cancer 11 years ago.

She, her husband, Al Cockrell, and four others leave Saturday for Tanzania as they embark on the "Kilimanjaro Climb for Cancer." After a couple of days visiting the sites near the mountain, they begin climbing on Wednesday with a group from California.

Led by guides from Alpine Ascents International, they're scheduled to reach the summit at sunrise on Jan. 30. After spending the morning on the mountain top, they'll begin the descent that will take almost two days.

Most have been training and raising money for the Gainesville-based Climb for Cancer Foundation since last summer. Each of the climbers has raised at least $4,000 for cancer research and treatment. That's over and above the $4,000-per-person cost of the ascent - not counting air fare.

The idea began with Cockrell last April after he watched his friend, former St. Francis House director Jim Boggs, die of melanoma. Cockrell, 55, a financial adviser, was inspired by Boggs' valiant struggle against cancer, and by the exploits of mountaineer Ron Farb, a fellow member of Gainesville's Sunrise Rotary Club.

Farb and his wife, Dianne, founded the not-for-profit Climb for Cancer Foundation. Last May, Farb, who has climbed four of the world's seven tallest peaks, attempted an ascent of Mount Everest in the Himalayas. But bad weather prevented him and his team from reaching the 29,035-foot summit of Everest, the highest mountain on Earth.

Farb dedicated his attempt to the fight against cancer, and Cockrell decided to do something similar to honor Boggs. He recruited five others to join him on the climb to the top of Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

Unlike Farb's attempt, theirs is a "non-technical" climb in which no special training or equipment is necessary. Still, said Shepard - for whom just camping is "outside my comfort zone" - it's the world's highest nontechnical climb and is not without its challenges.

"It's more of an endurance issue," she said. "The danger is the breathing issue at that altitude."

To get in shape for the grueling hike up Kilimanjaro, some members of the group have been climbing the steps from the bottom of the sinkhole at Devil's Millhopper State Geological Site - about 120 feet. Others have climbed the steps of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium - which rise to an altitude of 100 feet above the field.

Team member Bill Richards said he's been training for months on a StairMaster machine at the Downtown Athletic Club.

"I do a lot of camping and kayaking, a lot of outdoor things," said Richards, 50, a consultant who has done event management and political consulting. "But climbing a mountain is something I've never done."

With a laugh he added, "I did climb Mount Dora," referring to the community in Central Florida that is a modest rise in the road.

Of the six Kilimanjaro adventurers, Sharron Carr may have the most true mountain experience. Twice she has climbed the 14,500-foot Pikes Peak in the Colorado Rockies, a nontechnical ascent that takes about two days.

"This will be more of a challenge," said Carr, 45, a nurse practitioner with Gainesville Family Physicians and owner of You're So Vein, a cosmetic firm specializing in varicose veins.

Being in the medical field, she said, she has had "the privilege" of working with cancer patients, survivors and their families.

"So many have touched my life and I want to do what I can to help support cancer research," Carr said.

She said she is dedicating her climb to her father, who beat prostate cancer, "as well as all the other people I have worked with who have dealt with cancer."

Jay Cochran, 53, a marathon runner who has hiked the Smoky Mountains, said "the cause" more than the athletic challenge compelled her to join the Kilimanjaro group.

As a medical technologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, she said she has seen many people touched by cancer and other debilitating diseases. She has been involved with a group called Joints in Motion - which raises awareness of arthritis issues - Cochran said, and the Climb for Cancer complements that interest.

"It becomes a journey when you do it for something bigger than yourself," she said. "It makes you aware of other people's journey in dealing with cancer or arthritis. It's so rewarding."

Rounding out the team is Jack Mecholsky, who is out of town and will join his fellow cancer climbers in Amsterdam.

Carr, whose training included climbing the stadium and "any other stairs I could find," said she plans to take a digital camera with lots of spare batteries and memory.

"I think this trip will change our lives and add lots of meaning," she said.

People can track the Gainesville group's progress online by going to alpineascents.com and clicking on the "Kilimanjaro" link under "cybercasts."

Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or arndorb@ gvillesun.com.

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