This month, Starla Hilliard-Barnes will be leading a group of 27 people with various disabilities up Mount Kilimanjaro.
Paralyzed twice in 10 years, in two separate automobile accidents, Starla Hilliard-Barnes has faced some major challenges and uphill climbs. The next one might be the hardest of them all.
Hilliard-Barnes, an extreme sports enthusiast and former wheelchair pageant queen plans to prove her resilience when she leads 26 other people with disabilities up 19,341 feet, to the top of Africa’s highest pinnacle.
Setting the scene for the journey is Mount Kilimanjaro, the fourth highest mountain in the world. The Tanzanian mountain contains five different climate zones ranging from the farmland at the bottom, going into the rainforest, through the heather/moorland, across the highland desert and finally at the peak is the arctic region. The range of terrain is rough for anyone in or out of a wheelchair.
Hilliard-Barnes has still been waiting her whole life for a once-in-a-lifetime chance like this, even with the knowledge of all the hazards that lie ahead. In fact, when she was in grade school, Hilliard-Barnes would draw pictures of the mountain and tell the teachers that is where she wanted to go. This stems from hearing stories about her grandparents, religious missionaries, who spent time in Africa during her childhood.
“Climbing Kilimanjaro has been a dream since I was a child. So, whether I make it to 19,341 feet or not, it is a blessing to be able to go,” Hilliard-Barnes says.
She never thought that she could ever accomplish such a feat given her history. At age 21, she was T-boned by a truck in a hit-and-run accident that threw her off her motorcycle.
“My whole life flashed before my eyes in those few seconds,” Hillard-Barnes says. “Then all of a sudden, my helmet hit the curb and split in half.”
First responders assured her things would be fine, but those words of comfort soon faded as they prepared Hilliard-Barnes for the ambulance.
“That’s the last time I felt my legs completely,” says Hilliard-Barnes.
Ten years later, after a series of rehabilitation visits that eventually allowed her to stand up and take small steps, she was in her pick up truck when the unthinkable occurred. A car hit the van going 70 mph. Her husband Shannon Barnes, 30, and their young daughter Elissiah, 7, were also in the truck.
The accident reinjured Hilliard-Barnes’ already fragile back, paralyzing her again and wiping away all the progress she had made in rehabilitation. It also left her with other health problems that she and her doctors monitor carefully. Shannon sustained some permanent brain damage. Luckily, Elissiah left the accident unscathed.
The accident also put things in perspective for Hilliard-Barnes and her family. Within a few months, Starla and Shannon started Moving Forward Adaptive Sports. The organization is a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities go on rehabilitative adventures. This includes, but is not limited to, skydiving, playing para ice hockey, whitewater rafting and more.
It was through their connections with Moving Forward Adaptive Sports that the couple decided to jointly work with Friends of Access Israel’s (FAISR) group of 25 other individuals from around the world, all with different ranges of disabilities.
Besides Hilliard-Barnes, the group contains people with different adaptive stories to tell. There are four total other individuals with paralysis, a 9/11 first responder with post-traumatic stress disorder, a marathon runner with a debilitating knee injury, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
According to mountain experts, February’s trip will be during the easiest time to climb the mountain, which is good news for the group. However, it is going to be no easy feat for Hilliard-Barnes, who wasn’t feeling her best in late January.
“To be honest, I have been really sick for the last few weeks,” Hilliard-Barnes says. “Recently, I have been training with doctors and my husband. We have been working out and building endurance. It’s steps for readiness.”
Believe it or not, being sick and having to build endurance are not the hardest hurdles for Hilliard-Barnes on the one-week trip to the summit.
“I think my biggest obstacle will honestly be learning to do my bathroom routines on a mountain in an 11-hour advance time zone,” She says.
Although they are taking the easiest of the trails called the Marangu Route (or what is sometimes referred to as the “Coca-Cola Trail”), the trip for Hilliard-Barnes and the three others who use wheelchairs will not come easy. To help, FAISR has enlisted three cooks, 11 guides and 70 porters to ease going up the trail with all the hikers’ baggage and equipment.
The equipment is new to Hilliard-Barnes, as this is her first major climb up this big of a mountain.
“I am most excited about breaking down new barriers with equipment that we have never seen or used,” Hilliard-Barnes says.
As for the trip itself, according to FAISR Executive Director Jamie Lassner, the group’s target traveling distance during the trek week will be 3.1 miles during the day for six days. On the final night, the adventurers will hike 1.4 miles to the top, under what will be a full moon. They will arrive at the summit that morning by sunrise.
“We are all looking forward to joining together to conquer Kilimanjaro as a team,” Lassner says. “Our goal is to unite as one, laugh together, cry together, trek together and celebrate together at 19,341 feet.”
It will be a celebration. The trip marks the 20th anniversary of when FAISR was founded in Israel.
“We feel humbled and blessed not only to be able to go on this journey as a couple but with some of our closest friends and new friends,” says Hilliard-Barnes.
You can learn more about the Mount Kilimanjaro trip by visiting Moving Forward Adaptive Sports on Facebook and Friends of Access Israel at faisr.org.