Carpinterian and immunologist Amber Kaplan described her seven-day trek up Mount Kilimanjaro as a “transformational,” journey, which not only raised more than $1 million for cancer research, but also served as a way for her to honor her mother.

Kaplan has been living in Carpinteria for the past year with her three children, working as an executive at a biotech company. Kaplan’s decision to take the climb, as well as her decision to start researching cancer treatments, was due in part to the loss of her mother several years ago to cancer. 

Her loss pushed her to step back from academia and put her energy into research, which eventually led to her discovering Luke Timmerman, a biotech journalist at the Fred Hutch Cancer Center in Washington. Timmerman had made climbs in the past to benefit cancer research, but Kaplan wasn’t able to join the group until 2023. The first day of Kaplan’s trek, she said, would have been her mother’s 60th birthday. 

“I had never done this large of a climb before,” Kaplan told CVN. “The biology of the landscape was beautiful, and the people were wonderful.” The climb didn’t require technical gear, just seven days of climbing through different layers of jungle and snow. “You move through five ecological zones,” Kaplan said. 

Beyond the mountain is the country of Tanzania in East Africa, which is a bit warmer in February. Temperatures dropped gradually as they moved up the mountain, and eventually Kaplan was a bundle of coats, hoodies and scarves when she reached the top. 

Kaplan made the hike with Timmerman and about 20 other hikers, as well as about 100 locals who the crew hired as staff members, which the crew does to help the local economy. Locals helped the crew carry tents, bags, cooked food and worked as guides. Kaplan said she’s stayed in contact with friends she made in Tanzania.

Each hiker had a goal of $50,000 in fundraising, and Kaplan said these funds go towards cancer research that could not be funded traditionally because they are considered risky or innovative methods of research. Kaplan said she didn’t do much fundraising in Carpinteria, but mostly the organization was focused on finding a “good match for donors.”

To honor the hike’s donors, some hikers had small patches sent by the donors sewn onto their jackets by Sandra Santos from Sewing by Sandra in Carpinteria. Some donors sent patches with their faces, others sent drawings, photos of loved ones lost to cancer or just funny pictures, like one donor who sent a patch of Mr. Bean. Kaplan also wore a patch of her mother, Cari Anne Kaplan.

Making the more than 18,000 foot climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro requires some practice to prepare for the trek and help the body adapt to the elevation. For this, Kaplan utilized the Franklin Trail in the Los Padres National Forest, going on day trips up the hiking trail, or just spending a few hours hiking while gradually adding weight to her packs. Kaplan did this from October until January 2022, with the trip taking place in February this year. 

Kaplan was recently accepted to business school, and is currently pursuing her MBA. She said she hopes to create her own biotech startup after she graduates in 2024. 

Donations for Team Kilimanjaro are still open, and anyone interested may donate to the Fred Hutch Cancer Center to contribute to this research. 

Assistant Editor CVN

Jun Starkey is a Journalist from Santa Barbara, CA. Jun has been covering local news since 2018, when she began reporting for the SBCC student newspaper The Channels. She previously was a staff reporter at the Santa Barbara Independent.

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