20,000 Feet Closer to You


The significant challenges of life can sometimes serve as catalysts that lead to unforeseen personal journeys. Alain Champagne’s immediate response following the death of his daughter Amélie, who tragically took her own life after struggling with complications from Lyme disease, was to plunge headfirst into action. His climb up Kilimanjaro last February was part of this narrative… but what about his profound longing to be 20,000 feet closer to her?

Alain, do you think extreme endeavours like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro are necessary to cope with grief?

I can’t speak for everyone. No two people will grieve in the same way. Some might turn to other means to cope, while others, like myself, desperately throw themselves into action. The survival instinct drives us to find an outlet… something to help us endure so that the pain can lessen. That’s what led me to organize various projects, like commissioning a sculpture in honour of my daughter, establishing the Amélie Champagne Fund to support those with Lyme disease, organizing sport tournaments to raise funds, actively participating in the public inquiry and ultimately, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Now more than ever, I feel the need to make a difference in people’s lives so they don’t have to endure what we did; which was years of medical uncertainty and a lack of support for Amélie’s psychological distress.

Have these projects helped you thus far?

Yes, immensely. I can confidently say that I feel more alive today than I did a year ago. Feeling like I’m doing something meaningful gives me hope despite everything and helps me feel that this did not happen in vain. Amélie had a huge heart and was always eager to help others. Engaging in meaningful work allows me to feel like I’m carrying on her desire to contribute to a better world. And that brings me comfort.

So, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was another way for you to honour her memory while also supporting the Amélie Champagne Fund?

Yes… and no. I mainly did it to challenge myself and to bond with my son, Mathieu. It was an extremely challenging experience, both for him, for me… and the two of us together. In fact, I initially embarked on this project because climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was on my bucket list. Circumstances accelerated the realization of this dream. Mathieu immediately agreed to take on the challenge with me, and Nicolas, Amélie’s partner, naturally joined the project. Four of my close friends expressed a desire to accompany us with their sons. So, there were 10 of us in all, in addition to the 40 Tanzanian guides and porters.

Was your wish to bond with your son fulfilled?

Yes, absolutely. Our relationship deepened. I am profoundly happy about it… and relieved because you never know how you’ll emerge from such an experience; it’s quite emotionally charged. It wasn’t smooth sailing every day. Mount Kilimanjaro revealed my son to be a passionate, deeply sensitive individual who effortlessly connects with others. He had so much energy that the guides called him “the mountain goat’! (laughs) He photographed and filmed us throughout the journey (his other nickname was Paparazzi!), despite his own challenges. He became somewhat the group mascot, and it truly made me happy to see him thrive like that. He was in his element despite the hostile, uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous environment. He kept spirits high, and his energy was contagious. We really needed that because it’s a constant struggle out there. Every day we had to counteract the effects of altitude, fatigue, physical exhaustion, discouragement and so on.

What did you find most challenging?

Where do I begin? (laughs) It’s the kind of challenge where your limits are forever tested. And at every level. Physically, it was obviously tough: even with months of training, even if you’re in top shape, nothing prepares you for the adverse effects of altitude, combined with the lack of good sleep. We were all taking Diamox, a medication prescribed specifically to counteract changes in oxygen levels. That’s what allowed all 10 of us to reach within 400 meters of the summit, without anyone dropping out along the way.

There were numerous mental challenges as well. We went through different emotional states during the climb. Personally, I had to manage my fear of heights, which had intensified since Amélie’s death. There’s a particular passage known as the Barranco Wall, where we had about 1½ feet of space to walk, and we had to cling to the rock face to move forward. We couldn’t look down… but that’s what happened to my friend who was just ahead of me. Despite his hypnotherapy sessions to ease his fear of heights, he froze. I had to control myself to prevent my own fear from overwhelming me because he was unintentionally transferring his anxiety to me. We eventually managed to cross the wall, which was only about a dozen feet long but felt much further. Fortunately, on the way down, we took a different route! Then, there was the ordeal of the last night, which was the biggest challenge we faced in every respect.

What happened?

There were weather conditions that even the guides had never experienced before. They each had between 250 and 300 climbs under their belt, yet I still saw fear in their eyes.

The ultimate experience of climbing Kilimanjaro is leaving the last camp at night, with headlamps, to reach the summit just in time for sunrise. But as we progressed, the winds intensified, to the point where we had to desperately seek shelter in a crevasse to try to protect ourselves. The winds reached upwards of 130 km/h! The guides were barely able to assist us; everywhere, we felt hands reaching out of the darkness to grab us. We thought we were being pelted with hail, but it was actually rocks! One of my friends had to lie flat to avoid being blown away by the wind gusts. It became increasingly dangerous, and the temperature hovered around -15/-200C with the wind chill. We met other climbers who had decided to turn back early. Some members of the group began to experience hypothermia, another got hit in the eye by a rock… in short, a decision had to be made. And fast.

Whew… the intensity is palpable just from listening to you! So, what did you do?

When we talk about pushing our limits, the ordeal of the last night was exactly that. I’ll never forget it. As the organizer of the group and the one who had initiated the project, I naturally felt responsible. Plus, I had made a promise to bring everyone back home safe and sound. I conferred with the porters and guides, who then said to me, “This is very dangerous, sir.” The head guide was uncertain about what decision to take and asked for 30 minutes to assess the situation. We were at 5,500 meters… and the summit is at 5,900 meters. Could we take our chances and walk another 2 hours to cover the remaining 400 meters and experience the long-awaited moment? But the winds weren’t subsiding and the cold elevated the risks of hypothermia and frostbite; not to mention potentially dangerous falls caused by the wind gusts. It was surreal. In mutual agreement with the head guide, I made the difficult decision to descend.

This decision ultimately fuelled passions. The disappointment of not reaching the summit was immense for some of us, and understandably so. The discontent was palpable… conversations were heated… we could barely hear each other over the wind… there was a sense of urgency to act. Of course, I understood the disappointment; I was feeling it too. But safety had to come first. We had to make a decision and choose the best course of action given the circumstances and the information available. My son was determined to reach the summit regardless… I had to “remind him” that I had already lost two stillborn children in addition to Amélie, and that I wasn’t going to risk losing him too. I had never felt so much pressure in my life: on the one hand, I was going to deprive the entire group of experiencing one of the most profound moments of their lives… and on the other, I was going to be jeopardizing everyone’s safety. On top of that, time was against us, as the health of some group members was already deteriorating.

Did the group eventually come to terms with your decision?

Well, the 2-3 hours of descent certainly made a difference. It helped to ease tensions. We walked in silence… almost solemnly. We were all gradually coming to terms with the situation, each at our own pace. It became evident that reaching the summit, the ultimate goal of our climb, wasn’t destined for us. We had to resign ourselves to that fact. But what truly matters in the end? Is it the outcome or the journey itself? At that moment, I wasn’t sure anymore… I was exhausted. When we arrived at base camp around 6:30 am, tempers had eased. And as the pressure receded, the injuries emerged. In addition to the person who had lost sight in one eye, two other people had too much pain in their legs to continue. The descent is even more challenging than the ascent. What we climbed in 6 days, we had to descend in just two! It’s incredibly intense. So, they were evacuated by helicopter the next morning.

But there were still moments of pride and accomplishments along the way, right?

Absolutely! First of all, I’m very proud of each person’s maturity in turning back despite feeling a sense of failure. And we were still the team that got closest to the summit that night. That’s certainly something to underline.

I’m also proud that all ten of us managed to stick together until the end, and it would have been the case even if we had reached the summit. It’s rare in this type of challenge, as oftentimes people drop out along the way. We were also walking at a very good pace despite the weather conditions. On a personal level, I found solace in my physical condition, having undergone two surgeries in the year leading up to Kilimanjaro which delayed my training. But my body still kept up. After each successful day, we simply valued the fact that we were all doing well.

It was a remarkable team effort, fostering strong bonds among us and with the team of porters and guides. Our interactions evolved throughout the journey, leading to a profound attachment to one another. In the end, we became like a close-knit family. Such challenges inevitably bring participants closer together, and witnessing this camaraderie was truly heartening.

In one of your expedition photos, there’s a flag with For Amé and Pat written on it. Who is Pat?

Pat was the brother of my close friend Marc, who also passed away a few years ago, like Amélie. And so we embarked on the Kilimanjaro ascent to honour both his memory and Amélie’s. It was truly touching to witness my friend experience moments of reflection that allowed him to find peace regarding certain aspects of his brother’s passing.

Did you also manage to find some peace yourself?

I set out with the intention of drawing closer to my son, but also to feel Amélie’s presence more intensely and profoundly, being 20,000 feet closer to her. For Mathieu, Nicolas and myself, ascending Mount Kilimanjaro was akin to walking the Camino de Santiago—a journey of introspection aimed at being in complete communion with her.

There were moments of grace, like when we rose above the clouds for the first time. It was a deeply emotional experience because that’s when we realized that, in a way, we were physically drawing closer to Amélie. I turned to Nicolas, and I knew we were experiencing the same emotions. And then there was the first time we saw the summit of Kilimanjaro. The mountain unfolded before our eyes around a bend in the path. Witnessing its grandeur, its magnificent splendour unveil itself before you, it’s a profound lesson in humility. It takes your breath away.

During those moments, it felt like magic was unfolding… as if there was a perfect alignment among all the elements, allowing us to feel in tune with them. I felt transcendent, beyond time and the confines of the real world. One particular sunset stands out, at around 4,600 metres, a breath-taking display where the stars emerged as the sun descended, casting its glow over the distant village lights. It was the most emotionally charged 15 minutes of the journey for me, and I believe, for many of the other climbers as well. Sunsets held a special place in Amélie’s heart, so you can imagine the depth of emotions I felt. I actually got a tattoo of a sunset on the back of my right shoulder last year, along with a mountain and all the things she cherished.

As for the inner peace I sought at Kilimanjaro, it will require a bit more reflection. I still need to process the events before I can truly appreciate the experience. We encountered many unexpected, even traumatic situations, especially when I think of that last night; my personal and spiritual process was put on hold by circumstances beyond my control. Just like reaching the summit, in the end, there were too many events I couldn’t foresee because they were beyond my control. It was certainly different from what I expected.

But that’s kind of what a pilgrimage is, right? There are good days and not-so-good days.

Yes, that’s true. But eight days is short. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic as well. On the other hand, I don’t have many unanswered questions about Amélie; it wasn’t a quest for answers. I’m completely at peace with the relationship we had. It was an exceptional bond, and one that I miss every day. I just wanted… I simply wished to feel in touch with her, for a few minutes. Sometimes, perhaps due to the altitude and fatigue, I felt she was closer; that I was nearer to her than I could ever be until the day I leave this world myself.

But, you know, I’m quite grounded too. I know perfectly well that it’s somewhat romantic to think that way. In reality, it doesn’t actually change anything. Whether I’m 20 feet off the ground or 20,000 feet higher, deep inside I continue to feel the most beautiful and purest connection with my daughter.

Could it be that this is precisely what Kilimanjaro helped you realize?

During the entire ascent of Kili, I often felt a profound emptiness. Despite the fact that I was “getting closer” to Amélie in altitude, I also felt quite far from her at the same time. As a result, I no longer feel the need to overcome obstacles, whether natural or artificial, to feel closer to my daughter.

That’s why I’m not so disappointed about not reaching the summit. I’ve been reassured that my relationship with my daughter is stronger than any storm; than any challenge. Every day, I feel this closeness, this unconditional love for her… to the point where Kilimanjaro has become incidental. I will continue my initiatives to assist mental health and Lyme disease victims, but it won’t be a quest or to fill a void anymore. I no longer need to search for her: Amélie resides within me. Always. It took me 20,000 feet to come to this realization.

If there were more mindful, compassionate, and authentic individuals like yourself and Amélie, our society would be even better. Thank you for all these initiatives, serving the greater good. And thank you, Alain, for upholding what is sacred… the respect for life in its purest form. You are truly remarkable.

To catch the true essence of this extraordinary adventure, take a look at the video montage produced by Mathieu, Alain’s son, after the expedition!

***The ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro resulted in Alain Champagne and his team raising over $20,000 for the Amélie Champagne Fund.