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Montana State Billings Volleyball Coach Climbs Kilimanjaro
MSUB volleyball coach Lisa Axel reached the summit of Kilimanjaro during her holiday break.
MSUB volleyball coach Lisa Axel reached the summit of Kilimanjaro during her holiday break.

Friday, January 18, 2013

BY BARRETT HENDERSON
MSUB Sports Information

BILLINGS, Mont. - So what did you do on your holiday break? Watch plenty of football? Receive a nice pair of socks? Eat until you had to reach for the Pepto? Well, Montana State University Billings’ volleyball Head Coach Lisa Axel chose a different route from what you and I may have traditionally done around the holidays.

Axel spent her “break” traveling to Africa, spending time at an orphanage, going on a safari, and, oh yeah, climbing the highest free-standing mountain in the world. After leading the Yellowjackets to an 11-win season in her first season as the MSUB head coach, Axel was ready for some more adventure.

A tough start

The stress of a volleyball season was welcomed for Axel, who recently went through serious back surgeries. Close to two years ago, she had her L5-S1 vertebrae fused and had two more major back surgeries within a three-month span.

“I had wanted to climb Kilimanjaro for a while,” Axel said. “I love the mountains and enjoy climbing the tallest mountains in the Rockies. Unfortunately, the back surgery would not allow me to make the trip to Kilimanjaro.”

Not willing to give up on her dream of climbing the 19,341-foot behemoth, Axel went through a long recovery that kept her from work for six weeks. It was a full year before she was fully cleared to resume most of the outdoor activities she enjoys.

“During my first surgery I decided that Kilimanjaro would be my goal after I recovered, and I would start training for it as soon as I was cleared to do so,” Axel said. “I have come a long way since then. I had to climb one flight of stairs before I was released from the hospital and that was one of the toughest things I have ever had to do and less than two years later I have climbed the tallest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.”

The climb

The Kilimanjaro climb was longest part of her trip. Axel opened the first day at 5,400 feet, a little over 2,000 feet higher than the elevation of Billings. She would have to climb 14,000 feet to reach the summit. The first two days of the climb, Axel and company went through rainforest and heather zones, spanning 6,500 feet. Adding to the already difficult trek, she was climbing during the rainy season, which meant spending most of the time in the clouds with limited views and constant rain.

“It was not easy keeping all of my gear dry,” Axel said. “We did not even see the top of Kilimanjaro the first two days except short glimpses at night in the moonlight.”

On day three and four, the climbers set up camps around 12,500 to 13,200 feet, but would reach as high as 15,200 feet before traversing to try to acclimate to the higher elevations. Day four was almost a turning point for Axel and the rest. A storm that started with hail and rain, that eventually turned to snow, struck just as they were descending a rocky cliff into a narrow river valley. The thunderstorm presented plenty of issues for the group.

“The lightning was striking all around us and the thunder was simultaneous with the flashes of lightning,” Axel said. “We actually saw lightning below us. We found out the next day a climber was struck and killed by lightning not very far from us.”

The fifth day wasn’t any easier for Axel. The group reached their final camp before summit day at 15,100 feet, but as the rest of the climbers celebrated this feat, she took a turn for the worse.

“I got extremely sick and was not able to sleep or keep any food down,” Axel said. “It was the worst possible time to get sick as we would be leaving that night at midnight for the summit. My guide kept trying to get me to eat but nothing would stay down.” 

After spending the evening trying to rest and convince the guide that she would still be able to make it to the summit, Axel started the 16-hour sixth day at midnight with the rest of the group. The first two hours were tough on her, with no energy and fairly weak from no eating the previous night. She was sitting down every five or 10 minutes, just trying to regain some energy. After eating some applesauce and a couple of energy gels, Axel began to feel better, even gaining strength the higher she climbed. She was awarded for effort once the group made it to the lower rim of the crater.

“We saw an amazing sunrise over Kenya and Tanzania,” Axel said. “We were extremely lucky with the weather. It was the first day that it did not rain on us and the stars and moon were out with clear skies. The people who summited the day before had very limited views as the clouds and rain stayed all day.” 

After another hour of hiking, ascending 4,000 feet in 7.5 hours, the group reached the top of Kilimanjaro. After six days of hiking, Axel had accomplished the goal that seemed unattainable just two years ago after serious back surgeries and a long recovery.

“It was the most amazing feeling to be standing on top of Africa,” Axel said. “The views were spectacular in all directions with glaciers on all sides and the clouds were thousands of feet below us with sunny skies above. We spent about a half an hour on the summit taking pictures and celebrating before we started down.”

Before heading back down, Axel didn’t forget to show a little school spirit. She reached in her bag and pulled out a little something from home, an MSUB sign complete with the Yellowjacket logo. There on top of Uhuru Peak at 19,341 feet, Montana State University Billings had some presence.

“The company that I booked my trip with suggested once they knew I was a college coach that I bring an MSUB sign with me to the top to take a picture,” Axel said. “I had one made at home and laminated it so it would not get ruined by rain. I wanted to show my school spirit in a very unique place that not very many people get to visit.”

The group now had eight hours and 10,000 feet to descend still that day. The climbers reached basecamp in a little over three hours, but had less than an hour to pack and get a little rest before descending the final 6,000 feet to their new camp. 

“It was a long day but my favorite day on the mountain,” Axel said. “Day seven we descended another 4,000 feet and received our certificates that prove we made it to the top. We had lunch and waited for our bus for the two-hour drive back to Arusha, a hot shower, and a good meal. It was a hard seven days made a little harder by the relentless rains but I had trained pretty hard for the climb and was able to enjoy every minute of the experience.”

Seeing the Big Five

As if climbing the tallest mountain in Africa wasn’t a life-changing enough experience, Axel also took a four-day safari. During the quartet of days, it was constant animals from when they left lodges in the morning until they arrived at the next lodge at night.

Axel was lucky enough to witness the Big Five: a leopard, an elephant, a rhinoceros, a lion, and a cape buffalo. The leopard and the rhino are usually the hardest to see on a safari and she was able to see a couple of each. The rhino is now on the critically-endangered list and some predict they will be extinct in 20 years.

“The safari was amazing,” Axel said. “I saw more animals than I ever thought were possible. As far as the eye could see there were hundreds of thousands of animals. We were able to get very close to the animals. Lions would literally be lounging in the shade of our land rover, and at one point we were in the middle of a herd of over 100 elephants. They were so close you could reach out and touch them. Most nights you would fall asleep to the sounds of the animals.

Axel even visited a Masai village during the safari and was greeted with a welcome ceremony. She jumped with Masai warriors and was invited into the homes of the Masai people. Axel also visited the Serengeti National Park, Ngorogoro Crater National Park and Tarangire National Park.

Giving back

Another unique opportunity Axel had was visiting an orphanage. She was fortunate enough to pass out some new soccer balls, footballs and volleyballs that were donated by Universal Athletic, and also some jerseys, T-shirts, visors and hats from MSUB and her high school in Buffalo, Minn.

“The kids at the orphanage absolutely loved the sporting equipment,” Axel said. “The best memory from the orphanage would be the huge smiles on the faces of the kids when I unpacked my bag of sporting items. These kids have very little and yet they are so happy and energetic. They were very grateful and appreciative. I wish I could have spent more time with them.”

Looking back

“This trip turned out better than I could have ever imagined,” Axel said. “I was able to make some great friends, see a different part of the world, and really experience their culture. The first day I was there, my rest day, I walked around Arusha for about four hours and was able to see and experience the city. I think 99 percent of the tourists never leave their hotels and actually see the city. Since I traveled over there by myself and spent most of my time with the local guides and porters I was able to learn quite a bit of Swahili and interact with the locals.

“They really do live by the philosophy “Hakuna Matata” (no worries or no problems). They don’t have a lot of material possessions, but they are very happy. What I took away from this trip is that you cannot stress about the things in life that you have no control over. I am extremely grateful for what I have and the fact that I can travel to different parts of the world.”

What’s next

“I have not done a trip this big in the past because of how limited I was with my back and some other medical issues,” Axel said. “I do plan to take more trips abroad in the future. I haven’t decided what trip is next yet, but I would like to climb Aconcagua which is 22,837 feet in Argentina. Some other places on my bucket list are Machu Picchu in Peru, climbing Mt. McKinley in Alaska, and trekking to Mt. Everest’s basecamp. I welcome anything that is challenging, and in a different part of the world.”

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