Pioneer Public: Kelly Wilding


Written By Kylie Thomas, Co-Features/A&E Editor

Much like getting a degree, climbing a mountain is no small feat, especially whenever that mountain is Mount Kilimanjaro. P.H.D doctoral candidate and professor Kelly Wilding, she has now dominated both.

Wilding got her masters in communications from Point Park and is a doctoral candidate in community engagement. She also teaches undergraduate classes at the university and has worked closely with many members of the Department of Community Engagement after working with the department as a graduate assistant. She actually received much of her support for her journey from those in community engagement, and they have helped to push her to always get to the next level, especially with Mount Kilimanjaro.

Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world above sea level and the highest point in Africa, with its highest peak Kibo at an elevation of 19,341 feet. It’s in Tanzania, Africa and quickly became a new goal for outdoorswoman and adventurer Wilding back in 2019.

Going to Africa had been a dream of Wilding’s since she was a child. One of the best memories from her childhood was watching a wildlife show with her dad that would influence her adventure decades later.

“There was a show called ‘Wild Kingdom’ where a guy named Marlin Perkins went looking for animals all over the world,” Wilding said. “Since I was a little kid, Africa has been number one on my bucket list of places to travel so that was a big trip for me.”

After reconnecting with people from her high school that also wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in 2019, Wilding started to plan out the trip. There were multiple delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it didn’t stop Wilding and her group from training in Pittsburgh.

“We did a lot of our training in the Laurel Highlands, nothing in altitude, but we did do things like overnight backpacking,” Wilding said. “So I’ve been out and about in all the parks in Pittsburgh. I climbed the stairs at the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh and just so much of the training we did right here in the city.”

Since Wilding’s group didn’t get to participate in any altitude training, they chose the northern circuit route since it’s the longest trip and it gives hikers more time to acclimate to the altitude. The trip takes nine days and eight nights, with a summit to the peak on day eight that’s a 15-hour hiking day. The group normally hiked around six hours per day, so, on summit day, Wilding had one of her greatest challenges.

“It’s just like when you run a marathon, you have to build yourself up for that, you don’t run those full 26 miles until you run the actual marathon,” Wilding said. “It’s a steady hike each day and then one day you really push yourself. It’s a very slow trudge, and there’s a phrase the guides use called ‘pole pole’ that means slowly and they say that constantly.”

Part of what got her through that challenge and inspired her to continue hiking were the guides and porters that led their group up the mountain. There were two guides, 19 porters to carry the group’s equipment and a chef for the four of them taking the trip.

“The guides and porters on the mountain were so empowering because you’re climbing over things with this big backpack on and scrambling over boulders and loose rubble, it’s kind of scary,” Wilding said. “But then these porters are carrying about 50 pounds at this high altitude and that’s just amazing. The porters and people I went with really left an impact on me.”

Another aspect that added Wilding’s eye-opening experience was the culture that surrounded her. One of the things that intrigued Wilding were the female porters due to the conditions that porters work in. The group’s 19 porters all slept in one tent together and would always be ahead of the group to prepare for the next camp spot.

“From a community engagement perspective, I thought about the women who were on the mountain and wondered if they got their own tents,” Wilding said. “There are very few women porters on the mountain and our assistant guide was a woman and she was very empowering. She had been a porter prior, has scaled over 120 times now, and now she’s working towards being a guide on her own.”

The culture in Tanzania is quite different from Pittsburgh as things like access to clean, running water and even proper clothing can be luxuries. Even with these circumstances, Wilding was moved by the community aspect within the area.

“So at night, you go into your tent, you’re exhausted and ready to sleep,” Wilding said. “But the porters go into their tent and they’re laughing, talking, and singing. It was amazing the sense of community they had in there and they were really genuinely interested in how we were doing and who we were, they really listened and cared. It actually inspired me to want to go back and do a research dissertation on women on the mountain and the community for women there.”

This community aspect actually inspired a lot of humility in Wilding’s mind. Wilding even donated her hiking boots to the porters as well as her winter hat since many of the porters were wearing tennis shoes or boots with holes all through them.

“It was such a humbling experience, we’d be outfitted in all this expensive gear and then you have these people in practically flip flops, no gloves, no poles, just flying past you on the mountain,” Wilding said. “But, the people seemed so happy still, and they’re just getting where more people have cell phones and it’s really taking away some of those community interactions. I talked to a young man who said his aunt on Sundays would get up and walk to visit her sister but now that she has a phone she just calls her and doesn’t see her in person much. It’s just losing this connection between people, this face-to-face connection.”

Even through all the cultural lessons she learned, the one that stands out the most is actually more personal to Wilding. It’s a lesson that she believes is important to learn and carry throughout life.

“I am 54 years old and I think for me, going back to school to finish my master’s, working on my P.H.D, and now climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, it really showed me that it’s never too late to achieve your goals and go after what you want,” Wilding said. “You have to never give up, focus on what it is, and do the work to get there. Africa has been something I wanted to do my whole life, and it really showed me that if you keep pursuing your goals, keep pushing, they can happen at any stage of life.”