Obstacles on Mt. Kilimanjaro climb bring local woman, family closer to God

Nancy Kumble Fenn’s first outdoor adventure was biking up the coast of Maine in 1976 at age 16. Now the mother of three grown children, Kumble Fenn has traveled all over the world with her husband, Richmond Fenn, a mining engineer. In July, with nine members of her family and two

Nancy Kumble Fenn (left) and her daughter Melissa, 22, pause about halfway on their ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

friends, she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, which at 19,340 ft. is the world’s highest free-standing mountain, 205 miles south of the equator, rising above Tanzania’s northern border with Kenya.

On a prior trip to Tanzania in 2001 with her now 24-year-old daughter Julie, “I was eyeing Kilimanjaro,” says Kumble Fenn, who has also traveled to Cuba, Tibet, Israel, Jordan, Ecuador, India and other exotic locales.

Kumble Fenn came to Tucson for a graduate school program in counseling at the University of Arizona in 1981, and has since worked at local agencies assisting victims of domestic abuse. Her husband grew up in Mexico; his profession took the family to Latin American countries such as Peru, Mexico and Costa Rica for extended periods.

“Living here, at school our children learned more about the differences between people, rather than the similarities,” says Kumble Fenn, adding that when her children lived in other countries, they learned to play with other children despite the lack of a common language.

Currently, Kumble Fenn, who minored in Spanish at Southern Connecticut State College, is a substitute teacher at the Spanish immersion program at the International School for Peace, located at St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church. But she’s always ready to travel globally — especially when it involves hiking — with her husband or other family members.

The Kilimanjaro trek began on July 13. Four days later, at midnight, the group began their final push from base camp to the summit. “The last 4,000 feet were really hard at that altitude,” says Kumble Fenn. “The stars were incredibly bright. It was extremely emotional, with so many obstacles, but you find it inside yourself to keep going.”

On the ascent, “looking down at a sea of clouds, looking down at the rest of the world,” she says, “you grasp how small you are. That’s very powerful.” They reached the summit on July 18 at 7:30 a.m.

Kumble Fenn’s son, Jeremy, now a freshman at the Colorado School of Mines, recently reminded her that Congregation Chaverim’s Rabbi Stephanie Aaron talks about how the Torah commands us to be out in nature. “How can you not be joyful out in nature with the people you love and are closest to?” asks Kumble Fenn.

Jeremy Fenn, 18, and his father, Richmond Fenn, admire the view at 14,500 feet while on their family trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro in July 2010.

“Climbing a mountain is analogous to improving yourself spiritually, with all the obstacles of altitude, cold, fatigue,” she says. “It’s cleansing, letting go. And all the lights in the sky bring us closer to God.” Another big part of the climb was the necessity of “focus, concentration, being so present in the moment. I have a hard time meditating for five minutes,” she says, but the sense of accomplishment in reaching the top with family members — including her three children — made it all worth it.

Interspersed with hiking, biking and teaching, Kumble Fenn recently finished training to become a hospice volunteer. During the four years she and her family lived in Peru, from 1996 to 2000, she volunteered for Habitat for Humanity weekly. “I like to feel strong, feel in control of myself,” she says, “and set an example for my children, and they’ve all followed suit.”

If most people contributed to helping society “just a little bit, the world would be a very different place,” says Kumble Fenn. “I’ve been very lucky in my life. The only way you get out of a bad place in your life is to give service to others.”