A punishing four-day trek to the top of an iconic mountain didn’t deter Kumar Punithavel in his quest to honour his late wife’s memory.
Kumar Punithavel’s quest to hike Mount Kilimanjaro last June began ominously. His checked baggage arrived in Tanzania days after he did, and the day before he set out on the climb his horoscope was discouraging.
“You may have to tell someone that you cannot deliver on what you promised. Chances are they won’t mind in the slightest. It seems like they didn’t want you to do it,” the horoscope read.
“I thought, ‘OK, now what should I do? Should I give up?’” recalls Mr. Punithavel, a 68-year-old Scarborough, Ont., resident.
But, in this case, giving up wasn’t really an option, and chances were that people would be disappointed if he didn’t deliver. Mr. Punithavel was not only hiking for pleasure, but also to raise money for the innovative care and research at Sunnybrook’s Louise Temerty Breast Cancer Centre, the largest and most advanced in Canada.
He was hiking in memory of his wife, Chandra, who had succumbed to cancer in 2007, two years after diagnosis. Despite surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, the aggressive breast cancer spread to Chandra’s brain. Mr. Punithavel’s older sister, Nageswary, who lived in New Zealand, had also lost her life to breast cancer.
Mr. Punithavel’s aim was to “climb over cancer” by raising funds to support the discovery of new and better breast cancer treatments. It was also to show his gratitude for the skilled care that Chandra, an early childhood educator, received at Sunnybrook.
Mount Kilimanjaro was Mr. Punithavel’s second big adventure to benefit Sunnybrook’s breast cancer program. In 2011, he skydived for the first time in his life. As of early 2014, he had raised $42,000 for Sunnybrook through both events.
Mr. Punithavel’s full set of gear finally reached him on the third day of his four-and-a-half day climb up the nearly six-kilometre-tall mountain, the highest peak in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. The first three days of hiking were gentle.
That changed on day four. Starting out in the middle of the night, Mr. Punithavel and his guides began the final push to the top, which quickly became very steep. The trail turned into a series of short switchbacks – 10 steps this way, 10 the other way.
As he grew more tired from the decreasing oxygen, he became less discerning about his choice of resting spots. Rather than searching out a nice boulder to sit on, he would simply drop to the ground and sprawl out. During one of these breaks another team passed him and, concerned about the risk of altitude sickness, suggested he should head back down the mountain.
His lead guide, Simon, encouraged him to continue, pointing out how close they were to the top. About 30 minutes later Mr. Punithavel was again on the ground, flat on his back. His thoughts turned to what his daughter told him before he began the adventure: “Do whatever you like, but don’t make me come to Africa to claim your body,” she said. “I’m laughing now, but I know how scared I was at the time,” Mr. Punithavel says.
He told Simon it was probably best that he give up, but Simon wouldn’t have it and remained encouraging. “That made a big difference. I thought, ‘OK, let me give anything and everything I have in me.’”
It was characteristic of the tenacity Mr. Punithavel and Chandra had shown throughout their lives. Born in Sri Lanka, they emigrated with their son and daughter to Nigeria, then to Toronto in 1986. They operated a Sri Lankan grocery story in the gritty neighbourhood of Parliament and Wellesley streets before moving to Scarborough, where he began an insurance agency and Chandra worked as an educator.
With Simon’s steady support, Mr. Punithavel pushed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in time to see the sunrise. He says words cannot describe the sense of accomplishment. Standing at the top, he thought about the loved ones he had lost, but also about how fortunate he was to have his health.
“Life is a journey. Despite the challenges, we must keep striving forward,” he says.
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Sunnybrook’s Louise Temerty Breast Cancer Centre
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