Two decades ago, Allen and Dana Berliner were confronted with a sight no parent should have to see.

Lying on a hospital bed – hooked up to tubes, oxygen mask at the ready – was their 11-year-old daughter, Cory, who was recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her lung.

Young Cory

A recovering Cory Berliner, then 11, receives a kiss from her mother, Dana.

Fortunately, the surgery was a success, and the Berliners had front-row seats as Cory recovered to the point where she not only was able to play softball, but excelled at it enough to earn a full scholarship from the University of Pittsburgh.

And of course, they were proud guests of honor when their daughter married Ben Huminsky.

Today, Allen, Dana and Cory own Anytime Fitness in Peters Township, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, giving family members plenty of opportunity to work on staying in top shape.

Cory became especially motivated two years ago, when she started planning to accompany a group organized through the CancerClimber Association with the goal of trekking skyward to the summit of the tallest mountain in Africa.

Cory Huminsky

Cory Huminsky is back in her Anytime Fitness office following her trip to Tanzania.

Unfortunately, the trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro had been scheduled for what turned out to be the pandemic-riddled summer of 2020.

“I was determined to go, regardless,” Cory recalled. “Then all the flights got canceled and everything shut down, and there was nothing you could do. So we took a break and reprogrammed for the following year. The leader of the group said, ‘Don’t worry. The mountain’s not going anywhere.’”

That would be CancerClimber Association co-founder Sean Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor who was first diagnosed at age 13, who promptly went to work on organizing an excursion for 2021.

And on July 23, Cory and Ben Huminsky embarked on what turned out to be 24 hours of travel to the city of Moshi, capital of the Kilimanjaro administrative region of the East African nation of Tanzania.

Mt. Kilimanjaro also happens to be the highest single free-standing mountain in the world, meaning it has a sharp rise of more than three miles above its plateau base, rather than being part of a range. As such, first-time visitors often are in for a surprise.

“You had to look up, way up above the cloud line. You could see the peak up there, and it was just so much higher than we even imagined,” Cory said after she and Ben returned home to North Strabane Township. “We’re on video. We’re all gasping. Our jaws are dropping, because we didn’t really, truly realize how high it was.”

They soon would gain an even greater appreciation.

‘We did it!’

“I’m not a crier,” Cory said. “I really only cry at something super-sad.”

Reaching the apex of Mt. Kiliminjaro, 19,341 feet above sea level, proved to be an exception.

Following five-and-a-half days of hiking ever upward, she was exhausted. The relative lack of oxygen at that height was causing her to have trouble breathing.

Uhuru Peak

Cory Huminsky and a fellow cancer survivor, Todd, are the first of their group to arrive at Uhuru Peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro's summit. They carry a flag bearing the names of cancer survivors and patients, and those who have lost their battles.

And members of her group insisted that she and a gentleman named Todd, a survivor of esophageal cancer, be the first ones to Uhuru Peak, the literal top of the mountain.

“The two of us walked to the summit together. And as we’re walking, I’m getting really emotional, and normally I don’t. And that doesn’t help with breathing, when you’re starting to cry,” she recalled. “Todd said a few words, and I couldn’t even muster up anything to say. ‘We did it!’ was all I could say, really.”

Back to the normalcy in her Anytime Fitness office, Cory had a lot to say about what, for the great majority of people, is a not-in-this-lifetime experience.

The up-the-mountain odyssey started amid the 652 square miles of Kilimanjaro National Park, a heavily forested area just south of Tanzania’s border with Kenya.

“Once you started the climb, the first days through the jungle there are some monkeys in the trees,” Cory said. “And then you keep going up, and the environment just changes completely.

“There are these weird cactus-type trees that are interesting, different flowers, all sorts of stuff that is just unique,” she continued. “And then it got into almost like a desert. It was just like rocks and barren, and birds would be flying around. That’s pretty much the only life form around there.”

Hiking

Members of the group make their way ever upward.

Well, there also are the seemingly ubiquitous insects and arachnids, about which Cory was none too thrilled.

“Then finally, you get high enough that you’re above the clouds. So when you’re looking around, all you see is the mountain and the peak that you’re going to, and just like a sea of clouds,” she said. “And that just went on forever. It kind of was like the ocean, where it never ends.”

One day, the sky was clear enough for a mostly cloudless view.

“You could look down and see the lights of the city, but it kind of was like being in an airplane, where you look down and just see little dots,” Cory said. “You could see everything, because there’s no light pollution and you’re above the clouds. It was so bright and so pretty. I felt like it was the closest you could ever get to the stars.”

‘You’ve got this!’

Scaling a continent’s tallest mountain does come with its issues.

“You take a lot of breaks. You have to drink a lot of water. Altitude sickness happens easily,” Cory said. “You don’t sleep super great, because you’re in a tent in a sleeping bag on the ground, and it’s very cold.”

Cold

Cory Huminsky: “I was told it would be cold. I was prepared for it to be cold. But once you’re actually there, it’s colder than you would think.”

Although Mt. Kilimanjaro is only 212 miles south of the equator, the proximity becomes irrelevant as climbers ascend to higher and higher altitudes. At Uhuru Peak, nighttime temperatures can rage between 20 and minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Climbing Kilimanjaro website.

Way up there, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere drops right along with the temperature. To compensate, Cory and her companions practiced pressure breathing, inhaling as fully as possible and then exhaling with force.

“You know when you sprint and you’re breathing super heavily to catch your breath? You’re doing that, but for four or five hours straight, because you’re just trying to get enough oxygen,” she said about the final push to the peak.

Because of that, the group’s Uhuru stay was relatively brief, and then came the day-and-a-half trip downward, followed by calls back home to report everyone had returned off the mountain safely.

Cory complimented Sean Swarner – “He puts together such a great program” – for his leadership and, of course, husband Ben for basically being himself.

“The whole time, he was like Mr. Fun, pushing everybody,” she said. “He was very, very motivating for everybody.”

That came in particularly handy as Cory embarked on the final few hundred yards, with Ben telling her: “Keep going! You’ve got this!”

Snack break

Cory Huminsky takes a snack break.

Essential for everyone’s completing the journey – in fact, no one is permitted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro without them – were their professional guides.

“They came up and were giving us all individual hugs and congratulating us for making it,” Cory said. Here, they’ve probably done it 200 times, but they were super-excited for us. They were wonderful.”

Other professionals also helped the cause.

“The porters and cooks bring food up the mountain, and that was probably the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen,” Cory said. “Here we are struggling to get up there, and these people are carrying their backpacks. They’re carrying these heavy things on their heads, filled with food and gear and chairs and tents and everything.

“They’re bringing it all up the mountain like it’s nothing, and they fly past you,” she added. “I know they’ve been doing it for years, but it’s incredible.”

‘Giraffe eating from a tree’

When you think of Africa, you probably envision the sights of Serengeti National Park, also in Tanzania.

The 5,700-square-mile expanse is home to many of the continent’s best-known animals, and it’s where the CancerClimber group headed for a safari after their Mt. Kilimanjaro success.

Giraffe on road

The safari vehicle makes a necessary stop.

“My first experience is that I looked out the window and saw a giraffe eating from a tree, and I was like, what?!? I’ve never seen those animals besides in a zoo, so it was amazing,” Cory recalled. “And then we had to pause on the runway because they needed to move a zebra from the runway.”

That’s not all.

“The coolest thing we saw was a cheetah go and catch a gazelle,” she said. “I felt like I was on National Geographic.”

Part of the trip was to the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera, where rhinoceros live but seldom can be viewed by fear-inspiring humans.

Africa map

Map of Africa

“But we did see three rhino, not close up, in my binoculars, far away, but totally there,” Cory reported, noting the relative abundance of another, larger mammal. “You have to stop on the road because the elephants are crossing.”

The whole experience has the Huminskys, both 31 at the time of their African sojourn – Cory since has turned 32 – looking forward to further visits to other parts of the world. And maybe they’ll return to Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“My husband is nuts. He wants to do it again,” Cory said, but if they do go back to Tanzania, she’d prefer to help at Moshi-area orphanages – as Swarner’s wife, Julissa, does – rather than make another multi-mile climb.

In the meantime, Cory and Ben thank everyone who made the trip possible financially through a GoFundMe effort. Of particular note, she said, is a $2,000 donation by North Strabane Township Fire Department.

Whatever the future holds, the Huminskys have a veritable wealth of photos and videos to help them relive their adventures in Tanzania.

And for Allen and Dana Berliner, viewing such images makes for an infinitely more enjoyable experience than seeing those 20-year-old pictures of Cory.

Cory and Ben

Cory, Ben and a rocky friend

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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