Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain on the continent of Africa. Straddling the border between Kenya and Tanzania, it rises more than 19,000 feet above mean sea level at its highest point, Uhuru Peak. It's a difficult hike for anyone, but especially if you stand only four feet and five inches tall.
On Sept. 23, 29-year-old Birmingham attorney Anna Curry will embark on a nine-day expedition to climb Kilimanjaro. Her endeavor is complicated by the fact that she has a rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, or OI. That disorder is responsible for her short stature, and it causes Curry's bones to break with ease.
"OI is a weird disease," Curry says. "Anything can cause a break. You can trip over a crack in the sidewalk and just stumble and not fall, and still break a femur. Or you could fall out of a tree and be perfectly fine. I've done both," she says, laughing.
During our interview, I heard her cheery laugh quite often, always accompanied by a wide, warm smile. Curry speaks in a bright and clear voice that seems powerful in contradiction to her size. Those traits no doubt served her well as undergraduate at Vanderbilt; there she was a coxswain on the rowing team, a position in which it is advantageous to be loud, clear-spoken, lightweight and positive.
Her enthusiasm about this expedition is infectious - I left the coffee shop where we met considering how I might finance airfare to Africa. She's even visualized her goal, Uhuru Peak: "There's a sign up there that says 'Uhuru, Highest Point on Africa's Highest Mountain,'" Curry says. "That's sort of the image that I'm keeping in my mind."
Swapping crutches for a backpack
Curry's willpower and her upbeat demeanor have already taken her far in life. "I actually used crutches until I was 22 or 23," she says. At that point, shoulder injuries and the resulting surgeries forced her to give them up. With a lot of work, she taught herself to walk independently.
"The alternative was the wheelchair," Curry says. "I've always hated having to use the wheelchair."
Curry says a slow recovery from her surgeries prompted her to set her sights on Kilimanjaro.
"I kind of felt like I wasn't getting anywhere, and I felt like I needed to set some kind of goal for myself to achieve," she says. "I started thinking about a mountain climb then."
Kilimanjaro poses potential threats to any climber. Altitude sickness can strike anyone, at any level of fitness, and cause fluid accumulation in the brain and lungs. But even a simple fall could send Curry to the hospital. As a result, a significant part of her costs and planning has been dedicated to arranging for medical evacuation in the event of an emergency.
"This is a bit crazy of an idea for somebody with this particular disease," she says. "Some might say it's a bad idea. I think it's brilliant.
"I think a lot of people would say, 'Now that you're able to walk, why would you do something like this, that could mess you up and keep you from doing it again?' The way I see it, I have a limited window of independent mobility. I don't know how long it will last, so I'd like to do something extraordinary while I can."
"It's really fortunate that my family is behind it"
Curry will be part of a 10- to 12-person expedition, including guides. Her father, Ashley, will be part of the expedition as well.
"I was planning to go by myself," Curry says. "I didn't invite my dad to come but when I told him about it, he said, 'OK,' and I think he kind of waited a while to see if I changed my mind." When she brought up the trip again, her father - a former FBI agent who will turn 60 the day after they summit Uhuru Peak - said he was coming along.
"It is actually really good that he's going," Curry says. "There are certain parts of the climb that will be very difficult. The moral support, certainly, will be helpful. But I think he's prepared to carry me if he has to. I hope he doesn't have to."
She'll also have the support of her workplace, Birmingham law firm Littler Mendelson, although she admits she "sort of sprung it on them" during her interview. "I think they might have thought I was not serious," Curry says. "To ask for two weeks off when you're a young associate, that's asking a lot, so they have graciously allowed me to do that."
Aside from the personal journey, Curry's other motivation is raising money for the OI Foundation, a national non-profit that raises and distributes funding for OI research, education, awareness and support. Curry serves on the board of directors for OIF, but she was worried that the board would think her expedition too dangerous to support.
"I think the real point is to find something that you can do, that you want to do, and push yourself to get there," she says. "Fortunately, the OI Foundation, I think they get that."
Curry hopes to raise a substantial sum for OIF - $19,438. That number is based on one estimation of the elevation of Uhuru Peak in feet (estimates differ-a 2008 measurement expedition put the height at 19,330 feet). Curry plans to reach out to her colleagues, fellow attorneys, friends and strangers for donations. She has set up a website and blog at www.climbkilimanjarofor-oif.com, which links to a secured donation page on OIF's website. All donations go directly to OIF - Curry and her father are covering the cost of their trip with their own money.
With five months left until her departure, Curry is confident but realistic. She jokes about struggling with the treadmill in the morning, the fact that she's not "a very outdoorsy person" and the loathing she feels about the idea of not showering for nine days.
But those are the easy things. The truth is that if ordinary life for a person with OI is filled with random dangers, that mountain is a minefield. The difficult part is facing the fact that one misstep in the scree slopes might end her trip, or worse.
Curry acknowledges those risks with characteristic warmth.
"I mean, obviously, I would like to reach the summit. That's my personal goal," she says. "To my knowledge, I'll be the first person with OI that's ever tried something like this. I mean, if I'm in better shape at 29 than I was at 21, and spend a year training with my dad - which is more time than a lot of folks my age get to spend with their dad - if I make it two steps I'll still consider it a success.
"Setting out and feeling like I can climb it is an accomplishment in itself, given where I've come from," Curry says.
"That said, I'd still like to reach the top. I just want my picture with that sign."
For updates on Anna Curry's Kilimanjaro climb, visit www.climbkilimanjarofor-oif.com, or go directly to the donation page at the OI Foundation's website.