Up, up and away

Mary MacKay
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Avid mountain-climber Virginia Arsenault of Charlottetown, 21, is set to tackle three summits in the Himalayas in Nepal this fall to raise funds and awareness for the Kidney Foundation of Canada, Atlantic Branch

After dealing with severe kidney problems as a child and having the malfunctioning one removed at the age of 13, Virginia Arsenault has fulfilled her dream of becoming a mountaineer. Now she’s preparing to climb three mountains in the Himalayas to raise funds and awareness for the Kidney Foundation of Canada, Atlantic Branch.

Virginia Arsenault of Charlottetown definitely has no fear when it comes to heights.

In fact, she climbs straight for them in her quest to summit some of the world’s tallest peaks.

“I love heights. I thrive on heights. In fact I think deep down inside it pushes me forward to the adrenaline rush that I love getting when I’m climbing. I love every part of it,” says the 21-year-old daughter of Martin and Angèle Arsenault, who is presently preparing for a month-long trekking and multi-mountain-climbing adventure in Nepal in support of the Kidney Foundation of Canada, Atlantic Branch, which was extremely helpful to her and her family when she dealt with kidney disease as a child.

The pie in sky — the Himalayas — have been the apple of Arsenault’s mountaineering eye since she was a little girl and was diagnosed with an underdeveloped right kidney that was prone to painful infections.

“I have no idea where that came from,” she says of her mountaineering aspirations.

“When I was five I told my mom I was going to climb Everest and K-2 and she hoped I think that it was going to go away, like one of the dreams of a child. But it just got stronger.”

Not only Arsenault did watch every mountaineering movie she could get her hands on, she also drew her friends into her mountain climbing fantasies by enlisting them to bury her in the snow so she could practice getting out of avalanches.

“It was a daily occurrence (in winter),” she laughs.

“I thought it was great training when I was 10. I was determined to be a climber.”

Arsenault’s kidney problems waned for a while but they resurfaced with a vengeance when she 13 — she was a competitive swimmer at the time — to the point that she was in excruciating pain.

“I was really relieved when it was taken out because that meant that I could live life the way I wanted to and I could climb mountains and continue swimming,” she remembers.

“It felt amazing. It did feel like the entire world was open again. I felt freedom and I was really excited about my life and achieving my dreams.”

After running a half marathon when Arsenault wrapped up her first year of university she set her sights higher.

“I could barely run down the block before my surgery and I think that’s when I realized Everest was possible. If I can run half marathons I can climb Everest, although the effort is a lot different. I realize if I put my mind to it I can achieve it,” she says.

In 2009 Arsenault also became a volunteer for the Kidney Foundation of Canada in P.E.I. and has been with the organization ever since.

“I felt like I had to help other kidney patients. The truth is that there is an epidemic of kidney disease on P.E.I. There has been a 75 per cent increase in kidney patients on the Island in the past three years!” she says.

In May 2010 Arsenault finally got her mountain climbing dream off the ground when she joined a three-week expedition to Nepal to climb Island Peak, a 6.189-metre high mountain that is great for beginner mountaineers in the Himalayas.

“A lot of it is just trekking through the Himalayas. You have to take a lot of breaks and rests in the villages in the Himalayas or else you will get altitude sickness and get really, really ill,” she says.

During the preparation treks Arsenault got to hike up a peak called Gokyo Ri (5,357 m), which although is a small peak by Himalayan standards, it is higher than most mountains in Canada.

The team had set out on that day at 3 a.m. and arrived in time to see the sun rise over Mount Everest, Cho Oyu and Lhoste.

“It was amazing to see the mountains and amazing to see Everest in the sunrise. It literally took my breath away,” she says.

Unfortunately, a storm system moved into the region and drenched the foothills with torrential downpours and battered the mountains with massive blizzards so the team was not able to climb Island Peak.

“Although some might see that as a failed mountaineering expedition, I believe that it was a success as the experience affirmed my love for the mountains and my drive to climb the world’s tallest mountains,” Arsenault says.

And so she set out to  conquer Aconcagua (6,959m) — the tallest mountain in South America — during her Christmas break from university in 2010.

During the lengthy acclimatization period she summited a neighbouring peak called Cerro Bonete (5,100m) before attempting Aconcagua a few days later with not so successful results.

“We got to camp one (the first of three before the summit) and it was -20-something (Celsius). One of my teammates wasn’t used to those temperatures so her fingers got extremely cold very fast. She decided it wasn’t worth frostbite and she was scared so she had to go home, which is understandable,” Arsenault says.

Things turned from bad to very bad when the team arrived at the third camp to find that someone had died on the mountain the day before.

Then a massive blizzard swept through with bone-chilly -40 C winds before their 3 a.m. departure for the summit, cancelling that day’s attempt at Aconcagua.

“It was terrifying. The tent was lifting on the sides and there was lightnning outside because the Andes have lightning storms in their blizzards,” she says.

Their guide offered up the opportunity for people to descend if they wished when the weather broke, which Arsenault chose to do.

“Psychologically, I knew that I was a bit affected by what had happened,” she says.

“I had achieved a whole new height so I had done something really great. I had made friends on the team and that’s when I decided that the summit wasn’t worth my life — that I could always go back to the mountain. I had learned a lot of skills as I went up.”

Those skills will come in handy when Arsenault, at her own expense, returns to the Himalayas from Sept. 15 to Oct. 14 for a trek that will take her to the summit of three mountains: Chukung (5,565 m), Lobuche (6,119 m) and Island Peak (6,183 m), all in support of the Kidney Foundation of Canada, Atlantic branch.

“I think it will be different (this time) in the sense that I know what to expect. I think I’m going to enjoy it a bit better. I enjoyed it immensely last time but I think this time I might worry less about things on the trek like specific foods or where we’re going to sleep and I think I will be able to enjoy it on a whole other level than the last time,” she says.

“(Now that) I know what I’m expecting, for everything else I can just focus on being completely psychologically and physically able to achieve it.”


Fundraising facts

This fall Virginia Arsenault of Charlottetown, who had a malfunctioning kidney as a child, will set out to tackle three major Himalayan mountains in Nepal as a fund- and awareness raiser for the Kidney Foundation of Canada, Atlantic Branch.

Arsenault has been a volunteer for the Kidney Foundation since May 2009 and recently joined the Atlantic branch board.

On Sept. 15. she will begin a trek that will take her up the summits of Island Peak (6183 m), Chukung Ri (5565 m) and Lobuche (6119 m).

Arsenault is paying all of her expenses for this expedition so all proceeds raised will go towards the advocacy of kidney patients and public education in Atlantic Canada.

For more information, visit http://kidney.akaraisin. com/virginia.

You can also watch her YouTube video: Search for Virginia’s Climb for Kidney.



Organizations: Kidney Foundation, Atlantic Branch

Geographic location: Himalayas, Nepal, Charlottetown P.E.I. Mount Everest Cho Oyu South America Atlantic Canada

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Recent comments

  • C. Ingersoll
    August 06, 2012 - 09:03

    I am so very proud of Virginia and her efforts to combine her passion to help kidney patients with her pleasure of mountain climbing. She may only have one kidney, but she has a golden heart. Please support her efforts by visiting her website and posting a comment on her YouTube video. She is worth the time it takes.