Pushing through the mental and physical challenges of climbing the highest mountains in Europe and Africa, learning skills along the way, persevering through sickness, and the human connections made through teamwork were all part of the sense of adventure and accomplishment for St. Martin resident Daniel Kalakech and his close friend James Plumley as they successfully reached the summits of Mont Blanc and Mount Kilimanjaro – in back-to-back hiking trips. The athletic venture, dubbed the Vitiligo Summit2Summit Challenge, was a childhood dream come true for Daniel. He did it with an important cause in mind: breaking stigma around the noticeable and often misunderstood skin disease Vitiligo, raising awareness, and exemplifying that with enough preparation and a positive mindset, you can accomplish anything.
Oftentimes, diseases can be associated with weakness; and a visible disease in particular can be the cause of stares and bullying, affecting the person both mentally and physically. Vitiligo had spread over Daniel’s body after suddenly having a patch on his hand at age 14. It was extremely hard to accept. Sport has always been something more than plain fun, but also something that let him build strength and confidence. It’s something he’s always advocated for, and loves to share with others. After he returns to the island, he plans to visit schools to share his experience and speak to young people about hard work, mindset, acceptance and bullying; and to raise awareness about Vitiligo.
After days of traversing the terrains, pushing their bodies day and night, Daniel and James proudly held up two flags at each of the summits: the Unity flag to represent the whole island, and a custom made flag representing the Vitiligo Summit2Summit Challenge.
Daniel shared with The Weekender that each mountain was challenging in its own way, as the vastly different terrains needed different skill sets, approaches, and equipment. For Mont Blanc, the two needed to learn the skills and use of equipment for alpinism. You also never know how your body will react to altitude – it’s another thing that has to be dealt with, no matter what training or preparation was done in advance. Daniel experienced some symptoms on both climbs and took the necessary measures to curb them.
For Mount Kilimanjaro in particular, with the summit being almost 6,000 meters above sea level, it was important to ascend slowly, camping in tents on the way up, and tackling 400-500 meters at a time to counteract the dangerous effects of altitude sickness.
Besides getting to the base camps – a matter that in itself requires days on end – the last climbs to the summits both started around midnight, so that they could experience the magnificent peaks at sunrise: A once in a lifetime experience. Due to weather conditions atop Mount Kilimanjaro, the team could only stay at the summit for a couple of minutes. The last stints for the two summits took around five or six hours each, just a part of those two long days that took 12 and 15 hours of work to achieve.
The human connection that comes with teamwork, spending time and taking risks together, was also a nice part of the experience.
Reflecting on the experience, Daniel stressed the necessity of being trained physically as well as being mentally ready to push through. He likened it to life in general: “You need to work on yourself to be able to face life’s challenges. It’s just like facing a mountain. You can overcome. Work hard on yourself, and whatever is keeping you down; whatever the conditions are, you can overcome them.”
For impressions, find the Vitiligo Summit2Summit Challenge on Facebook and Instagram @vitiligosummits.