October 1st, 2017 by Mark Pace in Local Regional News
Bob Kowalski may have been destined to do something extreme. He grew up on Shades of Death Road near Ghost Lake, after all.
The 26-year-old New Jersey native and Ooltewah resident is taking on his first major climb, and he’s starting big. Kowalski will travel to Africa and climb the continent’s highest summit, Mount Kilimanjaro, starting Tuesday.
The 19,000-foot peak is more than three times as tall as the highest point of the Great Smoky Mountains and will take two weeks to summit.
“Whenever I’m hiking up on mountains, it just feels different,” Kowalski said. “I’m looking for answers to some questions in life, and hiking has allowed me to find some answers I didn’t know I was looking for.”
Kowalski grew up an outdoorsman. He was a Boy Scout, and his father took Kowalski and his two brothers into the woods often to enjoy nature.
Three years ago, he moved to Chattanooga for work as a mechanical engineer and project manager. He fell in love with the mountains of East Tennessee, spending most of his free time exploring and hiking. Weekends were soon filled with hiking adventures across the region and even some cross-country trips to hike out West.
When he recently was laid off, he found himself with spare time and searching for more answers.
“I wasn’t necessarily happy with the line of work I was in,” he said. “What do I really want to do in life? This might sound cheesy, but what life is all about?”
“I’m looking for answers to some questions in life, and hiking has allowed me to find some answers I didn’t know I was looking for.”
The climb wasn’t originally his idea. He hadn’t seriously considered the possibility.
A friend, Madison Silvers, bought him “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction account of a 1996 disaster on Mount Everest. The book sparked his interest.
“I don’t know, maybe things would have been different if she didn’t buy me that book,” he said.
Another friend, AJ Tatarka, wanted to try climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Kowalski was interested. An acquaintance from high school soon learned of the trip and asked to join.
It set Kowalski on a new path, he said.
While the group continued to talk about the trip, it was soon apparent the busyness of life would keep it from happening. Tatarka and the former classmate, Bill Solecki, wouldn’t be able to take the needed time off work.
Kowalski’s uncle died unexpectedly and his aunt was diagnosed with leukemia. Other personal events transpired and each time, Kowalski went into the wilderness to find peace and answers.
“Those events played a part in it, and [hiking] has helped,” he said.
Kowalski will now take on the trip with a guide group made up of strangers. The groups are required for anyone trying to climb the mountain. He paid about $2,800 to hire Peak Planet for the ascent.
The mountain is the easiest to climb of the Seven Summits — the highest summits on the seven continents.
“Some people are outdoorsy people, so this is on their bucket list since it is the easiest of the seven to summit,” Peak Planet Executive Director Dana Wentzel “It’s obtainable by anyone who’s reasonably fit, so a lot of people tackle it for that reason. For some people, they’ll climb for a charity or in memory of a loved one.”
For Kowalski, it’s just a start.
“This is usually the first step that people take on their journey to complete the seven summits, which is a huge undertaking,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to completing all seven but we’ll see.”
Contact staff writer Mark Pace at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.