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Student Spotlight: Shawn Goyal
Julie Beckwith

This summer Shawn Goyal, a junior at The Altamont School, summited Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet), the 4th highest point in the world. He will tell you that this rare feat wasn't the most important part of his time in Tanzania. Shawn's highlight was immersing himself in the culture of the Masai people and working with students at the Yakini School.

Shawn explored Tanzania as part of a three-week field studies trip with Overland Summers. The first week Shawn and his group went on safari with a Masai guide who led them through Ngorongoro Crater wildlife preserve, where they came in close contact with giraffes, zebra, gazelle, and other diverse wildlife and plants. This was a foundational part of the trip for Shawn, not because of the exotic wildlife, but because of the people he met. "A highlight of the trip for me was the time we spent with the Masai people. I learned about an entirely new culture and had once-in-a-lifetime experiences," said Shawn.

To prepare for week two, the service component of the trip, Shawn and his group had a crash course in Swahili. Again, Shawn's passion for learning served him well. "Shawn was very attentive during our Swahili lessons and could soon hold brief conversations to the surprise and delight of our safari guides," said trip leaders Galen Hammitt and Marie McGrath.

Shawn and his group completed 25 hours of service at Yakini School, which is part of Living Waters Children's Centre. The Centre was founded by a Tanzanian family in 2003, and is home to more than 50 children, many of whom were abandoned or lost their parents to HIV/AIDS or malaria. Language classes, sports and games, culture classes, and basic chores were an important part of this experience.

His third week, Shawn's group arrived in the town of Kilimanjaro to begin preparation for reaching Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Climbing one of the world's tallest mountains is daunting under the best circumstances. Shawn's group faced the additional challenge of illness. Many of them picked up a virus during their stay at the Living Waters Children's Centre.

It takes six days total to safely hike up and down Mt. Kilimanjaro. Base camp, to which Shawn's group was driven, sits at 6,000 ft. Shawn's first four days were a slow hike, ascending about 2,000 ft/day so that his body could acclimate to the altitude. By the fourth day, Shawn reached the Kibo Hut campsite at 14,400 ft. At this point in the journey, some of the other students experienced shortness of breath. Eight guides accompanied the 12 climbers, so that they could assess health and take people not physically capable of the final assent down off the mountain.

The day before the final climb, Shawn had to wake up every few hours to carb load. "You have to be forced to eat," said Shawn, "because you don't feel like it. But the guides know how many calories you need to consume before you start the climb to Uhuru." And they had to start their journey very early in the morning. "We started hiking in the pitch black, using headlights, stumbling around."

The base of the crater rim is at 15,000 ft. "Ascending the crater rim to Gilman's Point is the steepest part, the hardest part. That is where most people turn back," said Shawn. Many people in his group battled altitude sickness, and the frigid weather was punishing. "The first six hours you are cold, tired, fighting to keep your eyes open, you get a headache and nausea," he said. Gilman's Point is just over 18,000 ft. Many in Shawn's group turned back at this point because they were mentally exhausted. They couldn't push through. Only five, including Shawn, made it to the top.

"From Gilman's Point it took another 2.5 hours to reach the top. There were some steep points, but none as bad as the crater rim. My mentality was 'I have flown out to Tanzania. I have waited for this day. I am not going to turn back.' I never allowed the thought of turning back enter my mind. That is what got me up there." His can-do attitude mattered to the rest of the group. "On Kilimanjaro, Shawn's steady optimism propelled him onwards and supported other members of our group as we persevered through the strenuous climb to the summit at Uhuru Peak," said Hammitt and McGrath.

Asked what he remembered of his moments on top of the world, Shawn says, "I can remember how it felt—hot! I remember seeing the sign and taking pictures. But I was also pretty disoriented. We could only stay at the top a very short time, 5-10 minutes, because of the altitude. After ascending to 19,500 ft, we had to go all the way back down to 12,000 ft for our bodies' sake. It was a 15-hour day. Everything else was easy compared to that. I am so glad that I climbed the mountain. It was such a feeling of accomplishment," he said.

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