Norval Outdoor School director Bill Elgie ’82 is an Upper Canada College Old Boy, but the letters “OB” also mean a lot to him through the Outward Bound organization he used to work for — and which he joined in a fundraising expedition up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in January.
Elgie is taking a deferred pay leave this year, as is his wife Leslie Hoyle, a primary music teacher with the Halton District School Board. They both worked as instructors and program coordinators for Outward Bound in Canada, Australia, Wales and Scotland more than 20 years ago and the organization’s outdoor experience and education programs are still near and dear to them.
The couple is friends with Outward Bound Canada executive director Sarah Wylie and her husband Angus Murray, who works at Norval. A conversation during an open house at UCC’s outdoor education centre last fall led to an invitation from Wylie to join her on a climb of Kilimanjaro — Africa’s highest peak and the tallest in the world not to be part of a mountain range at 5,895 metres (19,341 feet).
“We were looking for something big and exciting to do for this year off and we jumped at it,” said Elgie a few weeks after his return to Canada. “Leslie and I are both avid outdoor people and have done lots of canoeing and hiking and rock climbing, but we’ve never done any high altitude stuff, so we thought it would be really different and challenging.”
They hit the gym to train and started soliciting donations for the fundraising expedition, which would direct its proceeds to support programs for youth at risk, aboriginal youth, military veterans and women in abusive situations.
“All of those programs are funded to give an opportunity for people from those groups to be able to have these kinds of life-changing educational outdoor experiences,” said Elgie.
The team of 10 climbers, two Outward Bound instructors and local guides and porters hoped to collectively raise $50,000 for the cause.
The first reported climb of Kilimanjaro took place in 1889 and about 30,000 people now do it annually. It’s a relatively safe climb and about three-quarters of those who attempt it reach the summit, with harsh weather near the peak or altitude-related health issues being the primary reasons why some don’t make it all the way up.
One member of Elgie’s group only made it to the last base camp before the summit because of altitude sickness but, while he and his wife experienced headaches, that wasn’t enough to hold them back.
“Going up to altitude is very unpredictable,” said Elgie. “Even people who are very fit don’t necessarily do well at altitude. It depends on your biology.”
Kilimanjaro is one of the few places on earth that encompasses almost every ecological life zone, including tropical jungle, savannah, desert, montane forests, sub-alpine plants and the alpine zone above the timberline.
“You go from tropical rain forest to more temperate forest to tall heather trees like in northern Scotland to almost like a desert where you’ve got these tall and skinny trees called groundsels that are almost like cacti, but they’re not, and then you go up a little higher and it’s scrub like in the tundra, and then finally you get above that and it’s just volcanic rock because it’s too high and too cold and maybe there’s not enough oxygen, and then there are glaciers,” said Elgie. “You’re literally at the equator and there are these humungous glaciers and snow on the ground.
“And then you come back down and you’re back to a tropical rain forest with monkeys. That’s all in the space of going up and down in seven days, which is just mind-blowing. It’s like doing a hike around the world in seven days.”
It was hard work making it to the top, but totally worth it, according to Elgie.
“We made it healthy and sound and it was amazing. It’s the kind of view you get from an airplane when you’re looking down at the clouds, except you’re standing on the ground.”
The climb up took five-and-a-half days, while the return trip was done in a day-and-a-half, and Elgie said the pounding on the knees going down took more of a physical toll.
Elgie and Hoyle spent a lot of time providing support after both of her parents passed away last summer and fall, and found peace by doing a lot of canoeing after that. There was also a trip to Ottawa for Remembrance Day when temperatures started dropping. Their next adventure will be a 750-kilometre canoe trip in the Yukon from Whitehorse to Dawson City next summer.
They still live in their house on the Norval campus and Elgie said he’s enjoyed seeing students and staff make use of the property. And sometimes he can’t resist taking part in a non-official capacity.
“We’ve been out cross-country skiing and I’ve joined the Norval staff for a few of their PD sessions, and I visit with some of the teachers when they’re here because I’ve made some good friendships after working here for 15 years,” said Elgie.
“I’m really excited about coming back in the fall. This is a good chance to recharge my batteries.”
Elgie said he and his wife have raised about $3,000 for Outward Bound Canada in support of their Kilimanjaro climb, and donations are being accepted until Feb. 28. Interested people can donate here.
Here are more photos from the expedition: