Reaching the summit: Chester man’s ascent for autism

The tallest free standing mountain on earth at 19,341 feet above sea level is Mt. Kilimanjaro. Traveling to the northeast region of Tanzania, Chester resident Campbell Stewart reached the summit last Wednesday.

Stewart says the climb is about strength, endurance, and mental preparedness and there is no actual cliff climbing as such. With the massive mountain laying ahead, the ascent begins in the rainforests of Lemosho Glades, the trek breaks through the clouds and the skies open up for beautiful star-studded nights.

“Kilimanjaro symbolizes a great challenge,” Stewart wrote in an email from the Arusha at the base of Kilimanjaro the night before the climb began. I wanted to do something inspiring that could engage folks about autism by doing something that not everyone can do.  In fact over half that try fail.”

Stewart’s daughter Sophie is autistic and he said she faces challenges every day. “Sophie has been given a challenge that she has to try to overcome. But when it comes down to it, it’s not the same. I am just climbing a mountain, Sophie has to conquer challenges every single day,” Stewart wrote.

“Being in average shape, I had to strenuously train for half a year to prepare to meet my challenge. The idea [of the climb] came to me after participating in the ‘Richmond Walk Now for Autism Speaks,’” Stewart wrote from Arusha. “I had just read an article about Jeff Fisher and other ex football players climbing Kilimanjaro for charity (Wounded Warriors). I decided… I would try to increase awareness of autism, an epidemic that impacts 1 in 88 kids; ergo I spoke with representatives of Autism Speaks and was able to create my own fundraising page. I was also afforded the opportunity to blog about my experiences both training and what it is like to be the father of child with autism.”

Stewart’s brother Colin made the climb with Campbell and with mutual support they made the summit after four days. But this is not the only notable mountain the two have climbed together. Until Kilimanjaro, the highest peak the Stewarts ever hiked was Mt Wheeler in New Mexico at 13,000 feet plus, and twenty years ago they climbed Mt Kinabulu in Malaysia.

“It was really cold and really hard,” Stewart wrote of the Kilimanjaro climb. “After hiking for four days; rising in elevation and sleeping in freezing cold temps, on summit night, we were awoken at 11 p.m. so that we would get to the top before sunset [the follow morning].”  

Stewart said that when he and his brother finally got to the top of Africa at Uhuru Peak, he was overcome with emotion, tears filled his eyes. “I had been working on this goal for months and it was finally here.”

On Facebook, Stewart posted pictures of the interior of one of the three craters at the summit. He also posted photos of a tour around the Serengeti; tigers coming only inches from his vehicle.  

Stewart and his brother took a hike outside of Arusha, where they stayed before their climb, and saw the countryside.” 

“Tanzania is a developing country and there is a lot of poverty,” Stewart wrote. “The people are very friendly and live life at a slower pace.”

The reason behind the climb, of course, was Sophie, and according to Stewart she has made tremendous progress. 

“A year ago she could speak few words. Now she sings and asks for things by name.  She now can really communicate her needs.  However, her social development is still taking place and she doesn’t appear to know what I am up to. We [Campbell and his wife Nicole] tell her but her communication skills regarding these areas are still wanting. I made a video telling her about why I was doing it for her and that I loved her.” 

Campbell and Nicole’s life has been changed by their daughter.

“Sophie is an amazingly smart, beautiful, and affectionate young girl.  She loves the Wiggles, the Pajanimals, trains, bouncing, and Barbies.  In many ways, she is indistinguishable from ‘typical’ developing young girls,” Stewart wrote. “Autism research is woefully underfunded and I was tired of the vague sympathy when I told people what Sophie had – thats why I am doing this.”

“I have been able to raise over $17,000 for autism research through Autism Speaks, and even cooler, through over 150 donors. I have been touched by the outpouring of support within the community and within my company, Enterprise Rent a Car. Through Enterprise’s charitable foundation, they have shown support for me.” Search for Campbell Stewart on Facebook for photos and more information about his trek.

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