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At age 59, Beverly Atkinson got out from behind her desk and hiked up Mount Kilimanjaro. Photo by Marie Foss.
 Go to www.womenspress.com to view some photos from her trip. Click on this story and follow the link to our online photo gallery.
At age 59, Beverly Atkinson got out from behind her desk and hiked up Mount Kilimanjaro. Photo by Marie Foss.

Go to www.womenspress.com to view some photos from her trip. Click on this story and follow the link to our online photo gallery.
From behind her cluttered desk at the University of Minnesota, Beverly Atkinson reaches down and pulls up an old hiking boot. It looks well worn, but comfortable. It’s one of the pair of boots she wore while ascending Mount Kilimanjaro and she hoists it in the air with pride. Her pride comes from climbing a mountain at age 59, quite a feat especially if most of your time is devoted to advising English undergraduates. Hiking and camping only occasionally, Atkinson literally stepped out of her comfort zone to go to Tanzania with her husband, Steve Atkinson, in September 2005.

“We are your casual hikers, so this was totally out of character for us,” Atkinson said. Even the idea of the trip was unexpected. Atkinson said she was surprised last winter when her husband told her he was thinking about going to Africa, and that he had done research about climbing Kilimanjaro. Located in northeastern Tanzania, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, and one of the largest free-standing mountains in the world. Atkinson didn’t know if she was up to the trek. The idea of scaling steep heights was scary, but after watching the Omni Theater movie Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa, Atkinson warmed to the suggestion. She and her husband began training for the trip in February 2005.

Atkinson consulted a trainer to help her safely develop a fitness program—a combination of weight training and cardiovascular workouts—to prepare for the climb. After advising students all day, she’d head to the health club and work out on elliptical and cross trainers. “I never developed a fondness for the StairMaster,” she admitted.

Not so surprising, given her role in the English department, Atkinson also prepared for the trip by reading books like Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and Beryl Markham’s memoir West with the Night. She had studied literature as an undergraduate student at Maryville College in Tennessee and then earned her master’s degree in English literature at the University of Minnesota. After graduate school, Atkinson decided not to pursue a doctorate. Teaching wasn’t one of her strengths, she admitted. A colleague told her she needed to act more and step outside of herself. The soft-spoken Atkinson wasn’t comfortable with that.

“Classroom teaching was not for me,” she said. That conclusion lead to her true calling: academic advising. “I realized that was my niche,” she said. “Talking with students is what I really love.”

As an academic advisor, Atkinson helps students plan their educational goals, study abroad trips and future careers. She enjoys getting to know students as individuals and hearing about their dreams and experiences, she said. It is role she has played for more than 30 years. Last year, the University recognized Atkinson’s work with the 2005 President’s Award for Outstanding Service.

“She is very dedicated to her work. She always has the student’s best interest in mind,” said Rebecca Aylesworth, Atkinson’s colleague in the English department. “I think she is a very good listener. I think that’s a great quality for an advisor.”

Atkinson tried to apply those same skills on the climb. Her group consisted of 13 people from the United States and Canada. The youngest person was 25. Atkinson and her husband were among the oldest. Two members of the group worked as emergency room doctors; there was also a computer programmer and an elementary school teacher. Along the route, Atkinson also talked with the guides and porters about Tanzanian culture, their faith and their education systems. One of the guides, a man named Onest from the Chagga tribe, explained his tribe’s agrarian lifestyle and showed her plants they cultivate, teaching her both their Latin and Chagga names. Another porter tried to teach her three Swahili phrases each day, she recalled, a task she found difficult.

The climb was also more challenging than Atkinson expected. Although she had trained for the physical climb, there was no way for her to prepare for the high altitude. Over the course of seven days the group hiked from 8,100 feet above sea level to 19,340 feet. Even though they hiked slowly to acclimate to the thinning air, altitude sickness was an ever-present threat. Every day the head guide checked in with each climber to see how they were feeling. The porters, who doubled as cooks, monitored how much the climbers ate to make sure they kept up their strength. The climbers also had to consume four to five liters of water a day to stay hydrated.

The closer her group got to the summit the harder the hike became, and soon Atkinson and her husband found themselves lagging behind. “I would get discouraged because a lot of my energy came from the group,” she said. “I thought I had trained well enough to keep pace.”

As the summit neared, Atkinson saw the porters grow more anxious. Even the Tanzanians were having trouble with the packs and the high altitude. “Because of the thin air, I found that I had to practice moving pole pole sana [Swahili for very slowly], so that at times I would take several half steps and then stop to rest,” Atkinson said.

On the eighth morning the group reached Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the mountain, but they couldn’t bask in their success for long. They began their descent almost immediately.

“I was elated and enjoyed every minute of the approximately 20 minutes we were on Uhuru Peak,” Atkinson said. “I also felt relieved to know that any other trekking would take us down into air with a higher concentration of oxygen.” Still, coming down was often more difficult then going up. The Atkinsons were the last to complete the two-day descent to the base of the mountain.

Upon reflection, Atkinson knows how important her fellow climbers were to her success. “I made it to the top, but I couldn’t have done it by myself,” she said. Her favorite part of the trip was the interactions she shared with those in her group as well as the guides and the porters. They helped and encouraged one another. They also shared food, stories and experiences.

The trip to Tanzania was Atkinson’s first visit to an African country, and it changed her perspective on her own way of life in relation to the people she met there. “I realize every day how many things we have and how many things we don’t need,” she said.

Atkinson also realized how important exercise is for a total sense of self. “Physically, I showed I could be trained and how good I felt.”

But perhaps the biggest insight Atkinson said she gained came from her conversations with the guides and porters about education. The Tanzanians recognized that getting an education will help their children succeed. They also understood that living longer and having an education means stability for their nation. For Atkinson, their views cemented her role at the University. It only took one mountain and a good pair of boots to get there.

The profile appears in every issue of the Minnesota Women’s Press. It reflects our founding principle and guiding philosophy that every woman has a story. Readers are welcome to submit suggestions for profile subjects.
• Kilimanjaro means “shining mountain” in Swahili.

• The mountain is made of three extinct volcanoes: Kibo 19,340 feet, Mawenzi 16,896 feet, Shira 13,000 feet.

• On January 1, 2000 more than 1000 people ascended the summit of Kilimanjaro to see millenial legends of the sunrise.

• The Wachagga tribe, which lives at the base of Kilimanjaro, say demons and evil spirits guard an immense treasure on the mountain.

• Kilimanjaro is the highest point in the world to be covered by a cellular phone network.