- Our Town
‘It’s about responsibility towards those who are weaker’
For Emily Erickson McCullum, the journey to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro began with a spontaneous “yes” in 2012, after overhearing a conversation about the idea of a mother-son climb being floated as a fundraiser to prevent violence against women. Emily McCullum says the idea of climbing this mountain had never crossed her mind, but the cause was right, and it presented an once in a lifetime opportunity to share with her 19 year-old son, Ben.
Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s most accessible high mountain summits, reaching its peak does not require mountaineering experience or oxygen tanks, but it does require guides, endurance, a tolerance for high altitudes and warm clothing for freezing cold temperatures at the top (nearly 6000 meters).
The nine person-group that Emily and Ben were a part of was assisted by a total of 28 porters, a cook, 4 assistant guides and one head guide. Of the group, there were four mothers in total, and five sons. One of the mothers in the group was Nneka MacGregor, the executive director of the Women’s Centre for Social Justice, an organization of women who have survived severe abuse, and who try to influence policy on matters pertaining to abuse such as Ontario’s Children’s Law Reform Act and Family Law Act.
Just prior to departing for Africa, MacGregor visited Bowen Island and had dinner with the Erickson-McCullum family. She told her personal story, of the Mother’s Day when her former husband, a high-powered lawyer, nearly killed her in front of their three children. The youngest of these, Alex, participated in the Kilimanjaro climb as well. MacGregor also discussed the statistics about violence, and the fact that in a majority of cases it is perpetrated by men against women.
“This conversation really set the tone for our trip,” says Emily. “It re-inforced the importance of bringing this subject forward, but doing it in a way that doesn’t alienate men. Because every man that hurts a woman is hurting himself, and he is acting out based on how he was raised and the fact that he has inadequate tools to cope with things.”
In the months prior to the climb, Emily raised more than $4000 for the Women’s Centre for Social Justice. The money will go towards a program called Mothers and Sons Against Violence Against Women which educates men and boys about violence.
The program stems from the belief that violence against women is not simply a women’s issue, and that engaging young men and boys as allies, as part of the solution, is critical for creating a fundamental shift in attitudes.
“Mothers,” says Emily, “Have a huge responsibility in how they raise their sons, for preventing future violence.”
Prior to proposing the idea of climbing Kilimanjaro for this cause, Emily says she had never explicitly spoken to Ben about violence against women. Violence in general, however, had long been a topic of conversation.
“We always knew Ben would be big,” says Emily, “So we put an extra amount of emphasis on teaching him to be gentle. I think we actually emphasized it so much that it made it hard for him when he was younger - he didn’t feel comfortable play-fighting and rough-housing, so his peers in the schoolyard accused him of being a wimp. Eventually, he got the hang of it and that stopped being a problem.”
Emily’s husband David, says being aware of violence was always a consistent parenting message for them.
“I can remember talking with Benjamin (probably grade 2-3) about the responsibility that comes with being bigger and stronger: the need to take care of friends while roughhousing, the need and opportunity to support your friends who may be facing intimidation and bullying. Never explicitly in the context of girls or women, though. I guess it was understood then and certainly is now.”
During the 6 day climb to Uhuru Peak (5895 meters), Emily says the mothers and sons were so busy concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, there was little conversation about anything at all.
“There were many times when I felt sick from the altitude and wasn’t sure I’d be able to go much further, but then my body would adapt and I kept going.”
While conditioning helps a climber, straight-out physiological factors contribute to whether a person can deal with altitude. For Alex, Nneka MacGregor’s son, determination got him to the top of the mountain but altitude sickness nearly killed him.
“He sank to the ground a half hour before Stella Point [300 meters below Uruhu Peak], but after resting a while he managed to keep going to the top,” says Emily. “Alex and Nneka made it there about a half hour after us. Alex seemed fine, but when we were on the way down, one of the guides raced past us practically carrying Alex. Afterwards we realized that he had no memory at all following his break before Stella Point.”
On the descent, Emily says, having Ben to lean-on made a huge difference to her ability to finish the journey.
“He’s stronger than me now. The experience of him helping me like this transformed our relationship from one of parent and child to two adults. I’ve always respected him but, seeing the way he helped not only me, but anyone else on that journey who needed help, that compounded my respect for him.”
Emily says the five boys in the group ran down the mountain for the final 3000 meter descent, and when the entire group came together again they celebrated their accomplishment. Emily and Ben toasted the fact that they had not had a single fight on the entire journey.
Emily Erickson McCullum will be giving a presentation on the climb of Kilimanjaro and the Women’s Centre for Social Justice at the Gallery@Artisan Square on Thursday, February 13th at 7:30pm.