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  • Kim Piekos

Lake Forester Honors Agreement with Friend with Mount Kilimanjaro Climb

By Kim Piekos

The scene from 1998 was memorable: standing at a national park overlook in Zimbabwe, Lake Forester Kim Pfahl’s close college friend, Leanne Coppen -- days before her wedding -- suggests they agree to climb 19,342-foot-high Mount Kilimanjaro when they both turn 50.


Deal made.


Fast forward to 2010. After fighting Stage 4 breast cancer for two years, Coppen tragically passes away at age 38, leaving behind a four-year-old daughter.

"I felt like I needed to climb for her,” said Kim Pfahl about a friend who passed away from cancer.


Fiercely loyal to her friend and a year past her 50th birthday, Pfahl didn’t forget their agreement. She climbed the peak in Coppen’s honor this summer and, with matching contributions by her employer, Salesforce, she raised $16,000 for cancer research and prevention education in the process.


“I’ve been holding this responsibility for a long time, and I felt like I needed to climb for her,” Pfahl said.


She climbed the mountain in eight days in July, accompanied by two other college friends from the University of Waterloo in Canada she refers to as “my adventurers.” One just completed the Kona Ironman, has run 18 triathalons and has climbed Denali, and the other is an ultramarathoner.


Pfahl chose the eight-day hike because of its high success rate – 89 percent.


“I was only going to do this hike one time, and I wanted to make sure I was successful and got to the top,” she said.


An avid tennis player and runner, Pfahl trained for the climb by walking from her home in West Lake Forest to Forest Park, often climbing the stairs by the beach for an hour at a time.


“That’s the only vertical space in Lake Forest!” Pfahl said with a laugh.


Despite being in shape, she found the impact of the altitude changes taxing on her body, especially at the beginning of the climb.


“The guides try to help you acclimate to the altitude gradually by setting elevation hurdles every day – they take you higher for a bit and then bring you back down some, over and over again as you work your way up,” she explains. “I’d experienced 10,000 feet before while skiing, but sleeping at that altitude is something else. You feel tipsy.”


She credits the team of 15 people who are each paid only $6 a day – two guides, a cook, a server who brings the meals and others – with the success of the venture.


“I firmly believe that mentors, coaches and guides are paramount in something like this,” she said emphatically. “You can always try to do it yourself, but an expert is always going to take you further. They were amazing.”


She loved a guide’s response to her question about how many times he had made the climb – 148, to be exact.


“He asked me, ‘Do you count how many times you go to the office?’ Point taken,” she said.


Pfahl appreciated the opportunity to traverse all five geographical climate zones on the planet during the hike up Kilimanjaro.


“You start at the lush jungle and experience rain, mist, monkeys and bugs and move to moorland, which is like a savannah with grass and flowers,” she explained. “Then you move to alpine, which is more rocky with waterways, followed by desert with no vegetation. Finally, you summit in arctic, which has a lot of shale, some snow and cold.”


Pfahl reached the summit in time for the sunrise after a six plus-hour hike at night.


“When the sun came up, it was really Leanne because she was very effervescent and very kind,” Pfahl says wistfully. “I felt she was there.”


After 15 minutes at the summit, Pfahl found the worst was coming down.


“It’s crushing on your body,” she said. “Gravity is pulling you down the mountain, and you have to navigate that as you walk. We slid and fell every day on the way down.”


This trek resulted in impactful life lessons for Pfahl.

First, it’s about the journey, not the destination,” she said. “Second, it’s more mental than physical, and you’ve got to focus and put one foot in front of the other. Third, to do something like this take specialized preparation, skill and equipment, but the most important thing is the people. And lastly, anything you put your mind to you can do if you really want to, so dream big!”


Pfahl says she talked to Leanne the whole way up, often murmuring under her breath, “What did you get us into?” That said, she finds herself thinking about reaching the highest point in South America, Mount Aconcagua.


“Once you do something like this, you’re like, ‘What’s next?” she said. “I wasn’t planning on more climbing, but you never know.”


Pfahl is very grateful to the Lake Forest community for all of its support.


“The donations and encouragement meant a lot,” she says.


And about that deal that Leanne and Kim made?


“When I called Leanne’s mom to tell her I was climbing Kilimanjaro, she laughed and told me, ‘You know, Leanne wouldn’t have done it!” Pfahl recounted.


It didn’t matter. Pfahl will always treasure this accomplishment and her time on the mountain with Leanne.


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