Philippa Paquette addressed the Club at their lunch meeting on September 2, 2014.  Mrs. Paquette discussed with the Club her recent trip to Tanzania, East Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro




By Ron P. Coderre

“This was the biggest physical challenge of my life.’

Those were the words used by 68-year-old Philippa Paquette to the Putnam Rotary Club on Sept. 2 in describing her recent conquest of Mount Kilimanjaro. 

Paquette is a retired school psychologist in the Putnam School system and resident of Woodstock.  For those unfamiliar with the facts on Mount Kilimanjaro, it’s the tallest free standing mountain in the world and the highest mountain on the African continent.  At the peak it stands 19,340 feet tall and is in Tanzania, East Africa.  It is classified as a stratovolcano and although it is dormant it is not extinct.

The trek to the top of Kilimanjaro took six days, while the decent was done in two days.  Paquette was part of an 11-person team of individuals from around the world, all with a different reason for taking up this challenge.  The group was accompanied by guides and porters, who toted the gear for the hikers and set up the camps along the way.  According to Paquette, they also provided entertainment for the weary hikes each night by performing native songs and dances.

“Each day up the mountain was an achievement.  Although we were well equipped the guides and porters were tremendous in maintaining our spirit and resilience,” said Paquette.

Paquette is a tall lanky, physically fit woman who looks much younger than her years.  In fact, when the guides learned of her age they were in awe although they jokingly called her “grandma” in their native tongue.

In preparing for the venture Paquette put in many miles walking around northeastern Connecticut.   In a discussion with her daughter she was encouraged to put in some rugged workout to condition her legs, knees, body and mind.

“Part of my training routine was to load 25 pounds in a backpack, strap it to my back and do at least an hour of workout each day prior to my departure.  The workout was at the St. Marie/Greenhalgh Athletic Complex where I did stadium stairs,” said Paquette.

For those unfamiliar with stadium stairs, it’s a torturous exercise that college football coaches employ in getting their players in shape.  It entails running up and down the stairs for periods of time without stopping.  Paquette, with the 25-pound backpack, did this exercise every day for more than a month for one hour every day.

“Being prepared helped as we ascended the mountain and the air got thinner and thinner.  In order to maintain an adequate oxygen level the guide would encourage us, saying ‘You just have to breathe,’ words that are imbedded in my mind,” she said.

As the climbers got closer to the top, most including Paquette experienced altitude sickness, nausea, vomiting and exhaustion.  The nearer to the peak the temperatures became excruciatingly cold, dropping to the freezing level or below.  Despite the hardships, every member of the climbing party reached the top of Kilimanjaro, although some but not Paquette, required almost total assistance and oxygen.

The climb was planned so that the team would arrive to witness the sun rising, which Paquette describes as a “magical moment.”  The team was also able to observe the two glaciers on the mountain, which are predicted to lose their plateau ice in the next 30 to 40 years, although the slope glaciers are predicted to last much longer.

After experiencing her “magical moment” and coming back down to earth so to speak, Paquette described her journey by saying, “I made it!”

When asked if she would ever entertain the idea of returning for another climb up Kilimanjaro her answer was an emphatic, “No.”  She did not discount the fact that she plans on continuing climbing mountains but nothing of the magnitude and reputation of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The next time you’re climbing the stairs and stop to catch your breath at the top, think of Philippa Paquette and try to imagine how many flights of stairs she climbed in conquering Mount Kilimanjaro.  Then you can truly appreciate the feat accomplished by this courageous 68-year old retired woman.