WVSOM alumnae trek African mountain, bond during once-in-a-lifetime trip

Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, with its summit reaching more than 19,000 feet from its base. In March 2017, two former WVSOM classmates traded their white coats for hiking boots and decided to challenge themselves by climbing the dormant volcano located in Tanzania.

Jane Kelley-Tallman, D.O., and Barbara Baughman Cortez, D.O., who both graduated from WVSOM in 1997, decided they were ready for a personal challenge.

“I had just turned 50 and I realized that so much of our lives are tied up with education and getting established in your career that you wake up and suddenly feel old,” Tallman said. “It was truly a midlife crisis and I wanted to do something that told me I was still in the game. I started looking at different things to do, and this seemed doable by a normal person. It was something you had to prepare for and I thought the challenge was big enough.”

She offered an open invitation on Facebook for anyone willing to join this once-in-a-lifetime trip. Cortez, who had devoted 14 years of her life to her children and career as a physician, was also interested in a challenge.

“I lost who I was before. I started getting back into exercising and taking care of myself, but I was still looking for a challenge,” she said.

The two former classmates, who kept in touch but had grown distant because life got in the way, committed to preparing for the climb. They each trained for about a year, in different ways.

Cortez “trained like a madman,” taking CrossFit classes, running and hiking. She exercised seven to eight times a week. Tallman dove into research and read all the books and articles she could.

“I never was the athlete,” Tallman joked. “I did train to get to the level where Barbara started from. I ran and hiked.”

On the days following March 12, 2017 — their first day climbing one of the world’s largest and most daunting mountains — the women learned that Mount Kilimanjaro would require more physical and mental strength than either had prepared for.

After a 16-hour, layover-filled flight to Tanzania and a 45-minute drive to town, the WVSOM graduates spent two nights in town before beginning their journey. They received a detailed list of what they were allowed to pack, which was limited to the essentials. Hikers were responsible for carrying essentials such as snacks, wet gear and three to four liters of water during the eight hours of hiking each day; however, they were limited to 30 pounds.

With their backpacks in tow and their hiking shoes prepared to meet the rugged and varied terrain of a volcano, they began their ascent.

In the beginning, it was a beautiful, serene jungle, a rainforest inhabited by monkeys and birds. By Day 2, with a trail filled with dirt and narrow stairs as far as the eyes could see, both women had the same thought: “What have I gotten myself into?”

“The second day was my hardest,” Tallman admitted. “I hate stairs, and I realized I hadn’t done as much cardio as I should have.”

Cortez said that in the arid desert she pushed her body to its limits.

“Staring up at ‘The Wall’ at the beginning of Day 5 was the scariest time for me. I thought, ‘We are going to scramble up, without ropes, a daunting rock wall,’” she said.

Each night, the women were given a cup and a half of water and a basin. That water was used for everything from bathing to washing socks and other articles of clothing.

The women summited the mountain on their seventh day, when Kilimanjaro’s 19,841-foot elevation brought them among the clouds.

“The views were glorious. When you are above the clouds, with no communication, it’s indescribable. We were completely off the grid,” Cortez said.

Tallman shed 12 pounds in that week, while Cortez lost 7. Despite the weight and caloric intake they lost, the climb gave the women a new understanding of the world.

“Africa puts American life into perspective,” Cortez said. “The porters [people employed to carry luggage and loads] made $9 a day and they were the happiest people. After that trip, I came home and got rid of everything that was not vital. If I wasn’t using it or wearing it, I didn’t need it. There is more to life than money and things. My perspective now is that I want to see the world, see people and live a much simpler life.”

For Tallman, the trip was equally life-changing.

“You go to third-world countries and see that people are happy because they have what they need and they have each other,” she said.

She said she can’t imagine having done this experience with anyone but Cortez.

“You hear men talking about experiences at war or in boot camp. To go through something challenging really creates a bond. Barbara and I had already done that once in medical school, but we did it again. The trip brought us back together,” she said.

Medicine on the mountain

Tallman spent 19 years working as an emergency department/trauma physician at Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley. She now works for West Virginia University, covering several emergency departments in the state. She teaches medical students and residents when they complete rotations in the emergency room. Cortez practices dermatology and in September will begin work at Dermatologists of Southwest Ohio. She teaches medical students at Ohio University and Kettering College of Medical Arts. Two physicians taking a taxing trek up one of the largest mountains in the world meant learning to understand one’s body and being aware of potential medical issues. 

To prepare for the trip, Cortez had four vaccinations and Tallman had seven, including yellow fever vaccinations. They took a diuretic to prevent their brains from swelling and consumed drugs for malaria prevention. Along with their essential gear, the WVSOM alumnae packed pain pills and antibiotics, taking every precaution because an emergency would have meant going down the mountain in a three-wheeled metal cart. They took their vital signs each morning and each night, and their guides, who were also EMTs, watched over the group “like mother hens.”

“You become very aware of your body,” Cortez said. “There is no digital media to distract you, so you become more self-aware. You might notice a headache that you wouldn’t normally notice.”

The temperature ranged from 97 degrees at the base of the mountain to minus 15 degrees at the peak. The women’s emotions varied, too, with feelings of physical and mental exhaustion juxtaposed with a heightened sense of awareness. Still, both alumnae said they wouldn’t change anything about the enlightening experience.

They anticipate climbing Mount Elbrus in Russia in 2020.

Date Added: 
Monday, August 5, 2019