Bassett MD May Be Among First Women At Mountain’s Peak


Bassett MD May Be

Among First Women

At Mountain’s Peak

Dr. Whelan’s hiking group pause to confer with Masai on the way up Kilimanjaro.

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

Now a retired Bassett physician, Mary Anne Whelan reviews memorabilia from the 1961 trek. Most of the photos she was in were ruined in a photo lab back home. (Ian Austin/

COOPERSTOWN – When Mary Anne Whelan was spending a summer in Tanzania, Africa, her friends came up with a wild idea.

Why not scale Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest?

“There was a superstition that the Gods would be displeased if a woman climbed the mountain,” she said. “I guess they weren’t, because we did!”

Whelan, the retired Bassett physician, in 1961 was among the first women to climb the peak.

In recent weeks, Kilimanjaro has been in the news as, via Twitter, local people could follow the trek to the top by SUNY Oneonta’s new president, Barbara Jean Morris.  She reached the peak Friday, July 26.

Coincidentally, a CCS junior Will Weldon, son of Jeanette and Bill Weldon of Cooperstown, had reached the summit 10 days before with a Moondance Adventures group.

“The summer after I graduated college,” said Whelan, “I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I learned some Swahili and went to teach school in Tanzania.”

While there, she roomed with a woman named Sally Woodman and, with a group of friends, they decided to spend a weekend hiking the peaks. “It was there!” she said. “None of us really had any hiking experience except for Nile Albright; he was very athletic and had been an Olympic contender in barrel jumping on ice skates.”

The group hired guides and porters, and a cook for a shilling a day. “We didn’t have any equipment, just good walking shoes and jeans,” she said.

She kept a journal for the trip, which she then typed up and sent to her parents with photos. “We set up the mountain in petrol,” she wrote on Tuesday, Aug. 15. “The jeep burned out the transmission, and there was much pushing and digging trying to get it out.”

Trying to decide what to do on graduating from college, the future Dr. Whelan spent the summer teaching in Tanzania.

They first climbed Mawenzi, the companion peak to Kilimanjaro, at 16,893 feet, before heading up to the big mountain’s Uhuru Peak, 19,341 feet. “It was three days up and two down,” she said. “A very long, very uphill walk.”

Since then, she noted, climate change has shrunk the mountain peak from 19,341 to 19,318 feet when it was measured in 2014.

As they neared the summit of Kilimanjaro, altitude sickness set in. “We were staying in the Kobo Hut, and Sally got up in the middle of the night and gave everybody aspirin,” she said. “I had the worst headache.”

At 1 a.m. on Aug. 19, they got up to set out for the summit to see the sunrise. “It was so cold, we donned all possible clothing,” she said. “The last part is all shale, so we were sliding everywhere. It was miserable at 19,000 feet.”

Some in the group got altitude sickness and had to stop. Phyllis, another girl in the group, hurt her ankle and had to turn back. “I foolishly eat chocolate and feel disinclined to go on,” she wrote. “I doze in a sunny niche, waiting.”

But when the hikers finally made it to the top to watch the sunrise, it was all worth it. “We had a good time,” Mary Anne said. “I went to sign the book, but Sally had already put my name in it.”

She snapped a photo of Sally at the summit, and Sally took one of her, but when she went to get them developed, the negatives were accidentally destroyed in processing.

But while in Tanzania, the future doctor also went on safari. “It was great to see herds of zebras and giraffes,” she said. “We stayed in Mombasa one night, and though the rooms were 10 shillings” – roughly $1.25 – “we gave them a case of beer and they let us stay for free!”



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