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Up to the Challenge
Leah Hickman is headed to Africa. No, it's not a safari. She's going over to climb three of the highest peaks on the continent, and raise some money for charity in the process.

By Leah Duran

Prescott If it were up to Leah Hickman, she'd spend every day doing what she loves most: hiking. For the Prescott native, there's nowhere she'd rather be. This month, she'll be doing her thing overseas, when she joins an international team of 13 other women — one of whom is an Arizona native — attempting to climb three of Africa's highest mountains in three weeks. They're not just peak-bagging, though. They're climbing for charity.

As part of the 3 Peaks 3 Weeks Challenge, Hickman, 23, will try to summit Mount Kilimanjaro (19,333 feet), the tallest freestanding mountain in the world; Mount Kenya (17,058 feet), Africa's second-highest peak; and Mount Meru, which rises nearly 15,000 feet. The goal is to heighten awareness about three key issues affecting the African continent: environment, education and health.

"The climbs are sort of the cherry on the top," says Hickman, whose first backpacking trip was to the Havasupai Reservation in the Grand Canyon at age 8. "Anybody can climb mountains, but with this, you're spending an entire year getting funds together."

In all, she pledged to raise a minimum of $10,000, but says she hopes to at least double that amount. In 2007, the inaugural team, which also included a member from Arizona, raised more than $350,000.

"I'm pretty uncomfortable asking people for money," she says. "Having grown up in Arizona, with the backcountry literally being my back door, the climbing is much less challenging."

Hickman, who spent her childhood exploring Arizona's mountains and canyons, including the Mogollon Rim and the Chiricahua Mountains, studied environmental science at Mesa State College in Colorado. During summer breaks, she'd return to Arizona to fight wildfires as part of Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots trainee crew.

Last summer, in addition to fundraising, she spent some time training in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff. "It's the closest thing to climbing the peaks in Africa," Hickman says. "The Grand Canyon is also a fantastic way to prepare, because there's so much elevation change."

Her new home state of Colorado offers some great training options as well. "I imagine I'll be ready when I can hike up several 14,000-footers in a weekend and come down and not be sick," Hickman says.

None of this is considered a hardship. "I'm happiest when I'm out doing things like hiking," she says. "It's not only training, it's a kind of soul food."

When Hickman travels to Africa this month, she'll spend some time between the hikes visiting the nonprofit organizations in Kenya and Tanzania to which she donated.

"It's really important to the team, because we get to see firsthand where the money is going," she says. "It's certainly a challenge, but it's fantastic. I'm so grateful to be a part of it."

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