A day into her African odyssey, before even stepping foot onto the trail leading up to Mt. Kilimanjaro, breast cancer survivor Kerri Brenner wanted nothing more than to go home. She sobbed in her hotel room, pacing with panic, wondering what the hell she was doing here. Yes, the land sure was foreign and the people in a different way than anything she’d seen before, but that wasn’t why Kerri wanted to go.

She wanted out because she wasn’t a mountain climber. She was a 33-year-old small-town Midwestern gal, mother to an adorable three-year-old daughter, wife to a loving husband, someone who found plenty of contentment in life without the need to travel to faraway continents.

This last year with cancer was unlike anything she’d been through before, but it hadn’t changed her aside from the obvious physical effects. Had it? What can explain, then, why she voluntarily signed up for the opportunity to embark on a journey halfway around the globe in attempt to climb Africa’s tallest mountain with a group of cancer survivors? Because she couldn’t not do it? Because maybe, just maybe, she could?

Thirty miles down the road from Kerri Brenner’s hometown of Colfax lies the farm that Connie Duinink has lived on with her husband for many years. It’s where she bakes her famous birthday cakes for her grandchildren, which she did even throughout chemotherapy, having to lean against the counter for support when no one was watching.

Connie would be the first to tell you she’s a proud farmer’s wife. Her demeanor couldn’t be more serene or sincere. Everything about her suggests wholesome Iowan, meant to live amongst the charming fields she calls home, steering clear of anything too flashy or fanciful. The 63-year-old is quick and bright and knows there’s a whole big world out there in which people attempt to explore all corners of it in search of something else, something new. But she’s simpler than that, and by choice. The breast cancer survivor surely has many more years to live in her, but at the same time doesn’t seem to want anything more than what she’s already got.

So why Mt. Kilimanjaro? What was it?

If you’ve never climbed a mountain in your life, is it possible you are a mountain climber? How would you know?

On New Year’s Day 2012, a group of 19 cancer survivors and 21 caregivers, many who had not left North America before, most who had never gone seeking a peak of any kind in their lives, went to find out.

The first few days they looked like rookies, but only because they were. After figuring out the best system for drying out their socks and stuffing their sleeping bags and balancing the weight of their daypacks, they could focus solely on the mountain itself.

The middle of the excursion wore them down, leaving some ill with fevers, nausea and more, and the rest at a minimum cold, dirty and weathered. Many saw their breaking point, stared it in the eye and forged on.

It’s fairly certain they wouldn’t have done so had they been alone, even though the mountain and its magic is able to capture your spirit for days on end. They didn’t just have each other, they needed each other. And one man, Dr. Richard Deming, was there to harness their last bits of energy and take them all the way to the top.

A long day’s walk from reaching the crater camp at the top of the volcano known as Kilimanjaro, the survivors and caregivers woke to the morning knowing the goal ahead of them could not just be accomplished under any mindset.

Dr. Deming began with an inspirational reading from a favorite author followed by a pair of stories represented on colorful prayer flags that would be included among the 700 that would float atop the mountain the next morning for something the American Cancer Society calls Relay For Life, which would symbolize celebrating survivorship, honoring those lost to the disease, and finding ways to fight back. One was a story of a very ambitious, talented young patient of his who had died from cancer at the age of 22. The other was a tale of an elementary school girl back in Iowa who had been diagnosed with cancer and is currently undergoing treatment. Neither, for obvious reasons, could physically make the journey. But as Dr. Deming so eloquently explained it that morning, there were many more than 40 people going up the mountain that day.

With hardened faces, more determination than excuses, more will than weakness, the group left Barafu camp in search of the crater camp, well aware it lay hours and miles and infinite steps away with nothing in between but the harsh nature that had remained there for more years than we can fathom. They fully knew they’d stumble over uneven ground, step foot on all types of terrain, feel pain much like they had during cancer treatment. Yet they continued to climb upward, occasionally looking behind them not to contemplate turning around, but to absorb, just for a moment or two, how far they’d come.

They were not mountain climbers. And that makes them the most incredible kind.

22 Responses to “Once Upon a Climb”

  1. Travis Brenner

    I knew she could do it! I am SO proud of her, and love her SO much!

    Reply
  2. Rhonda Spain

    Oh, Kerri, we are so proud of you. As I tell little Lily each day, Love you to pieces and pieces! Mom

    Reply
  3. Bert Burns

    Way to go, Kerri!! You are my Hero!!!

    Reply
  4. Cindy Ahn

    Wow, You’ve done that, now anything is possible. Proud of you small town girl.

    Reply
  5. Steve TerLouw

    Oh!!!….Connie Duinink is my sister!!!…and I couldn’t be more proud of her! She is one of the most amazing women I know, and has been my, and so many others’ inspiration for years. She is one of the smartest people I know, but chooses to be a humble leader who brings out the best in everyone she encounters. I love you, Connie!! I’m SO very proud of you!!!

    Reply
  6. yasmina madden

    Fantastic effort from all of you. Way to go, Kerri and the rest of the climbers.

    Reply
  7. yasmina madden

    ps: the photograph of Dr. D with the flags flying behind him and the other climber in the background is pretty unbelievable. kudos to the photographer!

    Reply
  8. Kathy Meyer

    Congratulations Kerri and Connie! You are incredible women. You have just proved that you can conquer anything! I am so glad you are on the trip with my husband, Tim. Thanks!

    Reply
  9. Shelly Veldhuizen

    Kerri you are simply amazing!

    Reply
  10. Tina M Craig

    Kerri,
    I am so friggin’ proud of you! I am just sitting here with tears of joy running down my face when I see the pics of you and reading the stories. I always knew you were a fighter and now you’ve proved to yourself that you are. You are an incredible and an amazing woman and I am honored and proud to call you my friend. Lily, one day, will realize what her mama went through and what she accomplished and what she continues to accomplish and she is going to be so proud of you! You are awesome my friend.
    Love always,
    Tina M Craig

    Reply
  11. Nancy Lickiss

    What a wonderful article! This is so inspirational. I knew and loved the “22 year old” Dr Deming was talking about, know and admire hiker and neighbor Corey McMordie, have lost many loved ones, including my twin, to breast cancer and am a breast cancer survivor myself. Cancer is definitely a mountain to climb, one of the toughest fights anyone can face in life. All that fight it are winners whether we reach the top or not. Bravo to all of you on this journey. Those of us at “home” are rooting for you. :-)

    Reply
  12. Heather Hyatt

    My sweet daughter is the one Dr. Deming spoke about. Niavh, as well as the rest of us, have followed you all in spirit and hope that one day she can make the journey as well. We are so proud of all of you!!

    Reply
  13. Karen Parman

    Thanks again Brian for so wonderfully capturing the integrity of these two beautiful and strong ladies. We love you all and are SO PROUD of your accomplishment. We can’t wait to welcome you home.

    Reply
  14. Nichole Warrick

    So proud of Kerri!! Can’t wait for her to come home and tell all of us her story!!! <3

    Reply
  15. sara

    Congrats Kerri on your awesome accomplishments! We are all blessed to know you and call you friend! You can now say you have climbed two of the tallest mountains to climb and succeeded! :) Congrats to you and the other brave women in the world to defeat breast cancer!

    Reply
  16. Leslie Shollenbarger

    I am indescribably blessed to call Connie Duinink my mom!! Mom, I can not begin to tell you how very proud I am of you! There are no words, I love you so very much!

    Reply
    • tom synhorst

      hi leslie,
      i’ve enjoyed reading through this blog and learning about your courageous mom and my courageous cousin — what an amazing accomplishment.
      would you be willing to share her email address with me?
      i hope this note finds you and your family well.
      tom synhorst.

      Reply
  17. Matt Van Heukelom

    This message is for Mary Van Heukelom. Luke, Anna and myself are very proud of you and your ability to motivate and care for the survivors so they can meet their goals. We miss you and travel safe back home. Love You….Matt

    Reply
  18. Theresa Britt

    I am reliving every single step and every single moment we shared on our mountain last April…and yes, tears rolling down my cheeks. I am so proud of all of you and your determination. You really can do anything you know? From this point forward, the only limitations we have are those we place on ourselves. Love you all…hugs!

    Reply
  19. Cindy Loomans

    Way to go, Connie!! We are so proud of you and admire all who made the climb. What a great accomplishment!! Thanks for letting us share your experience through this blog.

    Reply
  20. Nancy Gardner

    I know the little elementary school girl Dr. Deming referred to. Thank you, climbers, for honoring her and so many others. Your climb is truly an inspiration and celebration of hope.

    Reply
  21. Kellee Hollyman

    Brian,

    The way with which you tell each of these heroes stories is inspiring. As I read, your words paint the pictures in my mind of this incredible experience. Go team go! And special love to nephew, Brandon.

    Onward and forward,
    Kellee Hollyman

    Reply

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