CLIFTON PARK — After climbing 19,341 feet to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, pediatric physician’s assistant Joyce Bellin knows she can conquer anything life throws at her.
Bellin, 56, dreamed of tackling the mountain — the tallest free-standing peak in the world and the highest in Africa — for years. In 2015, she was on a safari when she first encountered the mountain. She did a day hike on its lower elevations, and by the time that hike was finished, she had promised herself she would return to climb the rest of the mountain someday.
To Bellin, it felt like a higher power was telling her to do it.
“I fell in love with it,” she said of the mountain. “I looked up at the summit and felt this drive and passion to come back to climb it.”
That chance came in early 2017, when friends of Bellin’s booked a trip to climb the mountain and asked her to come along.
Bellin wasn’t a complete stranger to hiking. She had previously done day hiking in the Adirondacks and in Europe. But she had never done an overnight hike. Mount Kilimanjaro was to be her first high peak.
She spent the next six months preparing for the trip, both physically and by purchasing all the gear she would need. To train, she `hiked around the Northeast and Colorado, and hired a personal trainer to get herself into top shape.
Bellin arrived in Tanzania on Christmas Day and started the hike on Dec. 29.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a hike, as opposed to to a technical climb like Mount Everest, for which ropes and ladders are needed to reach the top.
But Kilimanjaro is still subject to extreme weather fluctuations, such as rain turning into sleet and snow at higher altitudes.
There are six or seven routes up the mountain; Bellin and her fellow climbers used the western approach. She was on the mountain for a total of nine days: seven climbing and two for the descent.
Bellin said the climb was the most physically and mentally challenging thing she has ever done. Daily hikes lasted anywhere from five to 12 hours, and they had to hike slowly or risk of becoming ill from the lack of oxygen high on the mountain.
She carried 33 pounds of gear, containing nine day’s worth of clothing and 4 liters of water for each day on the trail. She took Ibuprofen to deal with headaches due to altitude sickness.
Bellin and her fellow climbers slept in tents throughout the trip. The group’s guides had satellite phones in case of emergencies, but other than that she was completely off the grid.
“We were unplugged and disconnected from the entire world,” Bellin said.
But as physically taxing as the trip was, Bellin said it was also the most spiritual journey she has ever made.
“As disconnected as I was from the world, you feel very connected on another level on the mountain,” she said. “It’s God getting you up that mountain.”
‘No turning back’
Bellin knew she had reached the point of no return when her party got to the Barranco Wall, a section of the mountain that consists mostly of smooth rock. Bellin said it took an hour and a half to scale that section of the trail.
“When we looked up and saw what we had to climb, we all got a little nervous,” she said. “There was no turning back.”
Ultimately, Bellin said, the Barranco Wall ended up being her favorite part of the trip.
On Jan. 4, Bellin and her group reached a sign that informs hikers they are nearing the summit. She had seen pictures of the sign online, but seeing it in person, she said, was so emotional for her that she started to cry.
At that point, she knew that she had made it.
“I was just ecstatic that I had made it,” she said.
The only real fear Bellin felt throughout the entire trip was that she wouldn’t reach the top. She wants to do more hiking, possibly on the Inca Trail in Peru, she said. But no matter what she decides to do next, she said she’s confident in her ability to succeed.
“I feel like I now can conquer anything in my life without fear,” Bellin said. “Right now, I am in charge of my own destiny.”