Back from mountaintop, lighter on his feet

The Rev. Matt Bahnfleth at American Lutheran Church in Rantoul.

RANTOUL — As recently as three years ago, The Rev. Matt Bahnfleth wouldn’t have dared do something as strenuous as mountain climbing.

After all, the Lutheran minister and former college football player weighed 410 pounds at the time.

But a year ago this week, after shedding 180 pounds and training tirelessly, the senior pastor at Rantoul’s 275-member American Lutheran Church accomplished the unthinkable — ascending to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Tim Mitchell sat down with the slimmed-down 57-year-old pastor to talk about his journey to Africa’s highest peak.

Tell us about the ministry you’re a part of that led to you scaling Mount Kilimanjaro.

We have a partnership with a congregation in Tanzania. My relationship with this congregation began when I was working at a church in Nebraska. When I became pastor here in Rantoul, we began to work with the same congregation.

Last year, I took two people from the American Lutheran Church to Tanzania. We built a center for children with disabilities there.

So how did your attempt to climb one of the world’s most famous mountains come about?

Mount Kilimanjaro is on the northern end of Tanzania. The summit is 19,400 feet above sea level. People suggested that I climb the mountain and use it as a fundraiser.

From people here in Rantoul and from people from my previous church in Nebraska, we raised more than $22,000 in pledges for our center for children if I could complete the climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro.

Flat Rantoul, Illinois, is a far cry from Kilimanjaro. How did you get ready for your attempt?

My heaviest weight was 410 pounds. I had bariatric sleeve surgery and lost about 180 pounds. As I trained for the climb, I walked a 10K every day, about 6 miles.

In the worship space of our chapel, there is a set of stairs. I put a 25-pound pack of books on my back and spent an hour every day going up and down the stairs.

You had company on your climb, right?

Eight of us left, but only seven of us made it. One of my companions had to stop along the way.

You go through every kind of terrain there can be. At the start, I was in a rain forest. There was an arid spot. I experienced some winter desert, and I went through ice caps at the top.

A lot of the journey up Mount Kilimanjaro follows a path, but there is one point called the Baranko Wall that I encountered on the third day of my climb. I found myself on the edge of a rock around the mountain. The only way to get around it is to hold onto both sides. The ledge on which I stood was only about a foot wide.

I was literally on the edge of the mountain. A person could look down for thousands and thousands of feet, but I didn’t. That ledge area itself was probably about 15, 20 feet long, but it was scary.

At the top, I actually lost my vision a bit. The altitude put a kind of milkiness in my eyes. During the last night of my climb, I went from wearing shorts and a single shirt to three layers of coats with gloves.

What was it like at the summit?

The last night before the peak, we each started at 10 p.m. and then climbed for the next seven hours — in the dark. All I had to see with was a flashlight beam on my head.

We were at the top for about an hour. I was so glad to have gotten there. It was amazing. It really wasn’t me. God gave me the ability and took me there. To think, I actually was able to climb a mountain.

I carried pictures of the kids from the children’s center with me to the top, since helping them was what it was all about. I stood on that ice cap and prayed. It was rather amazing.

As we got up there, we saw the sun come up. It was amazing to see. It gives you perspective on what God has created. I suddenly understood crucifixion. Being willing to do something for people who have no idea you did it for them. But you do it anyway because you love them.

Tell us about the journey home.

It took us five days to climb up but only two days climbing back down. Down was much harder than up. You have such a steeper movement down.

I actually fell four times on the way down, but part of it was because I had lost my vision. I have short, little, stubby legs, and the steps I had to step down sometimes were hard on my hips. My legs were giving out on me.

Did climbing the mountain change your life?

I would say yes. It showed me that I could overcome things with God’s help. But this was my sixth trip to Tanzania as a whole, and Tanzania has changed my life.