Reaching Great Heights

ANZA Nipper and Matildas Soccer player Sarah Gowdey recently made history when she became the youngest Australian to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, aged 11. Sarah and her mum Kate Gray talk about her remarkable feat and the personal reason behind it.

When Sarah’s grandmother Toni Planinsek passed away from ovarian cancer in August 2018, she and mum Kate found the perfect tribute. “Sarah and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro together with Hazleen Panayiotou, the founder of a trekking club in Singapore called Amazing Trekkers Club (ATC, trekkersworld.com), her daughter Zoe and eight other amazing women, to honour my mum’s life and raise money for ovarian cancer research,” says Kate. “Sarah and I watched mum deteriorate very quickly and we wanted to raise awareness and donations for research to help women fight this cancer.”

Pre-trek training
Kate is an ultra-trail runner, who has lived in Singapore with her family for 11 years – Sarah attends UWC and has two siblings James, 9 and Isabelle, 7. Sarah was already fit, but needed extra conditioning for the gruelling eight day trek. “Sarah is very active,” says Kate. “She plays soccer four times a week for UWC and ANZA. She also trains with the UWC gymnastics team five hours a week. To add to this, we did strength training together every Saturday for a couple of months leading up to our adventure. We also walked around the MacRitchie Reservoir as often as we could, so Sarah could get used to trails and her hiking boots. Closer to our trip Sarah and I joined the ATC girls on a training hike to Gunung Lambak, a mountain in Malaysia.”

Safety first
The mother-daughter team set off to climb Kilimanjaro late last year, with low expectations and tons of determination. “We had no preconceived expectations,” says Kate. “It was about the journey for us, not reaching the summit. One of my main concerns was the effects of altitude sickness, but we planned for this by taking a slightly longer route, so we could acclimatise to the lack of oxygen, and taking some medicine. My husband organised a satellite phone, so we could send daily updates and contact an SOS service in case anything happened.”
Sarah and Kate escaped altitude sickness and were supported and kept safe by their local guides and porters. “They were amazing. They sang every time we reached a new camp and helped keep our energy levels up. The ATC girls also boosted Sarah and Zoe with continuous songs, dance and games. The food was great, we had plenty of water and many comforts that we hadn’t expected. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Reaching the summit
The summit push proved extremely difficult. “It was minus 7 degrees, windy and snowing. We set off at midnight in the dark and walked for hours through challenging weather conditions. I was so worried about Sarah,” Kate admits. “But she was so focused and we all just kept moving forward. The sunrise gave us renewed energy, it was a very emotional moment.”

Standing atop the highest mountain in Africa – which soars 5,895 metres above sea level – Sarah and Kate were elated. “It was an incredible moment standing on the top of Uhuru Peak and looking down at the clouds and glaciers. I know my Grandma was with us every step of the way,” says Sarah. “Whenever we see a rainbow, we think of her and some of the girls saw a rainbow when we were on the trek, so I know she was there, looking out for us both. She would be so happy that we had a go and made it home safely.”
Kate was blown away by Sarah’s sense of fun and positive spirit throughout the journey. “I know how determined and strong Sarah is, so I never questioned her ability,” says Kate. “In the end it was an unforgettable and emotional adventure for us both; an eight-day trek ascending through farms, forest and giant heather, crossing moors and highland desert. Climbing miles through breathtaking clouds with below freezing arctic temperatures and bellowing winds, to be rewarded with a view we will never forget!”

Lasting legacy
As well as raising over $4,000 for Ovarian Cancer Australia, the young adventurer hopes her achievement will encourage other kids to have a go and take a risk. “If I could inspire one person to get off their iPad and do something extraordinary then that would be great,” says Sarah. “You don’t have to climb a mountain. Maybe you could just try something you haven’t done before. The key is setting a big goal and creating a plan to achieve it. It will take a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”

After the hike there was time for Sarah to meet some of Africa’s famous wildlife. “We went on a three-day safari in the Ngorongoro conservation area, which was amazing,” she says. “We were able to see lions, zebras, elephants, hyenas and so many other animals.”
The climb brought out the best in both Sarah and Kate. “We were already very close, but I developed a whole new appreciation for how much determination Sarah has,” says Kate. “It was a very hard climb, but she never complained. She just got on with it. She was always out front, so determined and focused, making sure we were drinking enough water. I was just so impressed and in awe of her strength.”

Did you know?
Each year in Australia around 1,600 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In most cases the cancer is diagnosed at an advanced stage, where it is very difficult to treat. Donate or find out more: ovariancancer.net.au